Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Mary Astor's Purple Diary by Edward Sorel

Mary Astor's Purple Diary
The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936
by Edward Sorel
Liveright (W.W. Norton & Co)
October 2016
Hardcover ISBN: 9781631490231
165 pages

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It was the 1960s. Edward Sorel and his new bride had just moved into their apartment on the Upper East side of Manhattan. The hideous linoleum flooring in their new kitchen had to go. As Sorel dutifully ripped up the flooring he discovered something that would spark his imagination: newspapers from 1936 plastered with headlines about Mary Astor’s sex scandal. Sorel read the newspapers in utter fascination. His research would lead him to Astor’s autobiography, court documents and an interview Astor’s daughter Marylyn. Sorel had intended to create an illustrated book about Astor and the scandal but deadlines kept him from his goal. Five decades later and with fewer and fewer reasons to procrastinate, Sorel finally produced the book we have today.

“Mary [Astor] was a textbook example of what is taught in Psych 101: A child who has been denied love and affection from her parents is generally going to pursue love in all the wrong places.” – Edward Sorel

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 explores the life of actress Mary Astor with a focus on the courtroom scandal that rocked Hollywood in 1936. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, the actress later dubbed Mary Astor, was off to a rough start in the business. Her father Otto Langhanke had seen an opportunity to exploit his daughter’s good looks and the family packed up and moved to New York City. He immediately saw dollar signs and his greed would have an adverse affect on Astor's life and career. After he bungled up an opportunity for her to work with D.W. Griffith, Jesse L. Lasky saw a photo of Astor that immediately captivated him. He gave her a contract and his publicity department dubbed her Mary Astor to give her an air of sophistication. It was the same photo, captioned "On the Brink of Womanhood", that also captivated John Barrymore. Warner Bros. was eager to please Barrymore and upon his request got Lasky to loan out Astor for Beau Brummel (1924). The 17 year old Astor and 42 year old Barrymore had a wild affair.

“She was smart, witty, and self-denigrating.” - Edward Sorel on Mary Astor

Mary Astor, On the Brink of Womanhood

Through excellent written and visual storytelling, Sorel weaves the tale of Astor's romances. Her first marriage to Kenneth Hawks, brother of Howard Hawks, ended in tragedy when his plane crashed on the set of his movie Such Men Are Dangerous (1930). Astor then married gynecologist Franklyn Thorpe. This union produced a daughter, Marylyn, and much contention. Thorpe was as greedy with Astor's earnings as was her father and their relationship quickly soured. She fled to New York City and had a wild affair with Broadway playwright George S. Kaufman. Unfortunately for Astor, her enthusiastic chronicling of their tryst in her purple diary was discovered by Thorpe. When Astor finally decided to divorce Thorpe and seek custody of their daughter Marylyn, Thorpe took her to court using the purple diary as ammunition. The scandal that ensued threatened Astor's work on her new film Dodsworth. Would they replace her? Could her career survive such a public controversy?

Sorel goes into detail about the affair and the scandal using any details he could get his hands on. While Astor and Kaufman were secretive about their affair and the infamous purple diary was eventually destroyed, Sorel cleverly imagines a conversation with Mary Astor's ghost in which she tells the story that otherwise is lost forever.

“I bet you spend too much time indoors watching old movies.” - Mary Astor's ghost to Edward Sorel

This book is also in part the story of Edward Sorel. He describes growing up in the Bronx and being a kid who loved to "draw pictures and go to the movies." He weaves in stories of his two marriages and his work as an illustrator. When Sorel steps away from the Astor story to tell his own, they never feel like deviations because he parallels his story with hers so beautifully. I enjoyed learning about Sorel as much as I did about Astor.

This book is a collector's item. It's lusciously produced and contains numerous pieces of exquisite art by Edward Sorel. The pieces accompany the text but also stand out on their own. One of my favorites is the big two page spread found on the endpapers. Astor lounges seductively as elements of her life make up the foreground and background.

Art by Edward Sorel from Mary Astor's Purple Diary

Mary Astor's Purple Diary explores the actress' life and scandal in a richly produced volume containing renowned Edward Sorel's beautiful artwork.

Thank you to Liveright for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Portrait of an Artist: The Life and Work of Edward Sorel

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