Mary Astor. Image via Public Domain.
“Extortion turns a wise person into a fool, and a bribe corrupts the heart.”
My, my, my, Ms. Astor, your dirty diary is so infamous that there have been books written about it and you eight decades after they first caused scandal in the midst of a terrible child custody battle between you and your ex-hubby.
I just finished the Audible edition of “The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s” by Joseph Egan. Blackstone Audio, which published it last November, describes it as so:
1936 was a great year for the movie industry – the financial setbacks of the Great Depression were subsiding, so theater attendance was up. Americans everywhere were watching the stars, and few stars shined as brightly as one of America’s most enduring screen favorites, Mary Astor.
But Astor’s personal story wasn’t a happy one. Born poor and widowed at 24, Mary Astor had spent years looking for stability when she met and wed Dr. Franklyn Thorpe.
The marriage had been rocky from the start and both were unfaithful, but they did not divorce before Mary Astor gave birth to little Marylyn Thorpe.
What followed was a custody battle that pushed the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s 1936 Olympics off the front page all over America. Although Astor and Thorpe were both ruthless fighters, Thorpe held a trump card: the two diaries Mary Astor had been keeping for years. In these diaries, Astor detailed her own affairs as well as the myriad dalliances of some of Hollywood’s biggest names. The studio heads, longtime controllers of public perception, were desperate to keep such juicy details from leaking. At risk from the information in those diaries was an entire fledgling industry. With the support of the Astor family, including unlimited access to the photographs and memorabilia of Mary Astor’s estate, Joseph Egan presents a portrait of a great film actress in her most challenging role – a determined mother battling for her daughter, regardless of the harm that her affairs and her most intimate secrets could do to her career, the careers of her friends, or even Hollywood itself.
In October, writer Edward Sorel released his own tome on the scandal entitled, “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936”. Sorel’s fascination with the story began in the 1960s when he happened upon a stack of old, yellowed newspapers that had covered the trial. He wrote about it in a spread in an issue of Vanity Fair last fall; the story also includes some pretty cool illustrations by Sorel himself, who is an artist. Here’s one of Astor and famed playwright George Kaufman, one of her alleged extramarital paramours:
In the Vanity Fair piece, Sorel quickly regales readers of the breakdown of the Astor-Thorpe marriage, Astor’s adulterous romance with Kaufman, and the disaster that unfolded when Astor decided she wanted out:
When Thorpe refused to give Mary a divorce, she and four-year-old Marylyn moved out.
Thorpe had anticipated just such a maneuver. Months earlier he had searched for and found the diary he knew Mary kept. In it he read that his sexual performance was lame, his name-dropping and social climbing offensive, and his profligacy with her hard-earned money infuriating. She even ridiculed him for growing a mustache identical to Clark Gable’s. More important, he read that “G,” in New York, was her ideal match. It wasn’t hard to figure out who “G” was—she’d written about going to all the rehearsals and plays of George S. Kaufman.
Thorpe made it brutally clear that should Mary try to dissolve the marriage he would use the diary’s salacious passages to destroy her career and take custody of Marylyn. Mary knew her diary contained not only devastating material about her own life but also secrets about others. If it became public, many lives would be ruined, not just hers.
Faced with losing his cushy life of luxury with his Hollywood A-list wife, and enraged by her diary entries which made it clear Astor judged him subpar, Thorpe turned to blackmail. Thus, that verse from Ecclesiastes that opened this post.
Initially, the extortion worked. She didn’t contest the divorce when he filed; she paid handsomely to keep him in the finer things; she even signed over custody of their young daughter Marylyn to him. But it was his angry treatment of the little girl that caused her to strike back, risking her career and reputation in order to get the baby she loved dearly returned to her care.
It should be noted that Thorpe was a well-regarded doctor and surgeon. While on his own he wouldn’t have been living in mansions, he definitely would’ve been far better off than most Depression-era Americans. He had loyal patients, a solid practice and by all acounts, skilled hands (even after their cantankerous child custody fight, Thorpe remained Astor’s primary physician into the 1940s). And most importantly, why would he be so hellbent on ruining Astor- the mother of his only child? Despite his anger issues, Thorpe adored his daughter; Astor even recorded as much in those infamous diaries. Proverbs 27:4 says, “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” Thorpe seemed to be operating with all three.
Okay, so back to today, and to you, Dear Readers. Time to take stock of your own emotions, and how they may be influencing you to lash out. Do some soul-searching.
But, um, it’s up to you if you want to write it down. Purple is the color of Lent…