Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The contents of a diary kept by Mary Astor, a popular film actor, were revealed to the press during a custody battle with her former husband, Franklyn Thorpe. Although the diary was not proven genuine, its description of her sexual activities, particularly with playwright George S. Kaufman, titillated the American public. The scandal did not hurt Astor’s public appeal.

Summary of Event

The lurid sections of actor Mary Astor’s diary that were made public during the summer of 1936 graphically described an adulterous love affair she had had in 1934 with playwright George S. Kaufman while she was married to physician Franklyn Thorpe. Astor never denied that she had kept a diary during this time, but she did claim that a forged version with Pornography;and Mary Astor[Astor] pornographic details was being circulated in newspapers and magazines. Thorpe, Franklyn Kaufman, George S. Astor, Mary Diaries;Mary Astor[Astor] [kw]Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation (Summer, 1936) [kw]Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation, Film Star Mary (Summer, 1936) Thorpe, Franklyn Kaufman, George S. Astor, Mary Diaries;Mary Astor[Astor] [g]United States;Summer, 1936: Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation[00610] [c]Forgery;Summer, 1936: Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation[00610] [c]Publishing and journalism;Summer, 1936: Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation[00610] [c]Sex;Summer, 1936: Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation[00610] [c]Public morals;Summer, 1936: Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation[00610] [c]Hollywood;Summer, 1936: Film Star Mary Astor’s Diary Becomes a Public Sensation[00610]

The diary came to light when Astor tried to regain legal custody of her daughter following an uncontested divorce from Thorpe in 1935. Astor’s career never suffered as a result of the scandal; if anything, critical acclaim for her performances increased, especially when she portrayed duplicitous women. She also regained custody (for nine months each year) of her daughter.

Astor and Thorpe had been married on June 29, 1931, more than one year after her first husband, film director Kenneth Hawks, was killed in a plane crash. As a result, Astor began to suffer depression and had nightmares about the plane crash. She had been referred to Thorpe for treatment. He diagnosed her problems as malnutrition and incipient tuberculosis and prescribed rest, relaxation, and a more nutritional diet. As Astor’s health improved, her relationship with Thorpe became less professional and more personal. They had a daughter, Marylyn Hauoli Thorpe, who was born on June 15, 1932.

Meanwhile, in films such as Red Dust (1932) and The Little Giant (1933), Astor’s career was just beginning to regain the prominence she experienced during the 1920’s, when she had appeared opposite John Barrymore in Beau Brummel (1924) and Don Juan (1926). While making those films, Astor and Barrymore had a romantic affair, even though Barrymore was married and was twenty-four years older than Astor.

Astor and Kaufman met in New York in January, 1934, shortly after she had finished acting in The Man with Two Faces (1934), which was based on Kaufman’s play The Dark Tower (1933). According to published excerpts from her diary, Astor “fell like a ton of bricks” for Kaufman and continued to see him frequently for more than a year. She wrote, “Once George lays down his glasses, he is quite a different man. His powers of recuperation are amazing.” In one of the more notorious and oft-quoted passages from the diary, Astor describes Kaufman’s visit to California in February, 1934, which included a stop in the desert resort of Palm Springs. “Ah, desert night with George’s body plunging into mine, naked under the stars.”

Astor had been keeping a diary since March, 1925, generally writing one line each day. When she acquired a larger ledger-type book in 1928, her entries became more extensive. She also started using a new ink, known as Aztec brown, which apparently looked purplish when viewed from a distance. This effect led the press to refer to the book as Astor’s Lavender Diary because it looked like it had been written with purple ink. Furthermore, the newspapers reported that the diary contained two hundred pages.

How the diary was discovered remains uncertain. Several sources claim that Thorpe accidentally came across it in a bedroom drawer where Astor kept her underwear. What is undisputed, however, is that Thorpe and his attorneys introduced the diary in July, 1936, as evidence of Astor’s alleged immoral behavior. Astor had filed suit in California Superior Court, seeking full custody of their daughter. Thorpe had been granted legal custody of Marylyn after Astor did not contest their divorce in April, 1935. Although the diary was never officially admitted as legal evidence, its contents were released to the press, presumably by Thorpe’s attorneys, in an attempt to discredit Astor. The court case concluded on August 13, 1936, when Judge Goodwin J. Knight bestowed nine months child custody to Astor each year, and the remaining three months to Thorpe. Knight further ordered that the diary be sealed and placed in a depository for safe keeping. The diary was burned in July, 1952, shortly after Marylyn reached the age of twenty. No copies of the diary are known to exist.

The court case and diary revelations provided sensational front-page news for several weeks, which meant that Astor became irrevocably associated with the scandal. Although some studio heads initially feared repercussions for the film industry as had been the case with some Hollywood scandals during the 1920’s they eventually realized that no serious harm was done. In fact, many movie fans admired Astor’s motherly instinct to fight for custody of her child, even though her reputation would be damaged in the process. There were reports of audiences applauding Astor when she appeared on screen as the “other woman” in Dodsworth, which was released just after the trial ended.

For the next several years, the studios shrewdly capitalized on Astor’s reputation. For instance, in The Great Lie (1941), Astor earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress by playing a woman who gives birth to a child out of wedlock. Even more memorable was The Maltese Falcon (1941), in which Astor was perfectly cast as the deceitful Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who would do anything to gain a jewel-encrusted falcon for herself. When O’Shaughnessy tells Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart), “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know,” audiences at the time could appreciate the self-referential line.

Astor’s personal life never attained the same success as her professional life. She was married and divorced two more times following the affair with Kaufman (to Manuel del Campo from 1937 to 1942 and Thomas G. Wheelock from 1945 to 1955). She suffered from alcoholism, and she attempted suicide several times, according to newspaper reports during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Impact

Hollywood stars are often regarded as larger than life more glamorous, more wealthy, and sometimes even more sinful than the average person. Their lives and their loves become public fodder, eagerly devoured by fans who never tire of learning more about the beautiful women and men on the screen. As a result, the Hollywood film industry has had a love-hate relationship with sensational scandals. On one hand, scandals can ruin lives and careers, bringing discredit to the industry as a whole (as occurred with the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Roscoe Arbuckle affair during the early 1920’s). On the other hand, the right kind of scandal can enhance a star’s reputation and marketability on the screen.

The case of Astor’s diary was a scandal of the latter kind. It did no harm to Astor’s film career, as Hollywood producers exploited and incorporated her sinful reputation in the roles they gave her. Likewise, it did no harm to Kaufman’s reputation, turning this bookish-looking playwright into “Public Lover No. 1,” as newspapers called him. Even Astor’s wronged husband, Thorpe, was able to maintain a successful career as a physician until his death.

The excerpts from Astor’s diary seem to reinforce the public belief about the sex lives enjoyed by Hollywood’s stars. That Astor was able to weather this particular scandal may even have helped prepare the public for subsequent sexual scandals during the 1940’s involving Charles Chaplin, Errol Flynn, and Ingrid Bergman. Thorpe, Franklyn Kaufman, George S. Astor, Mary Diaries;Mary Astor[Astor]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New ed. New York: Bell, 1981. Written by an avant-garde film director and former child actor, this now-classic tell-all book explores the seamier side of Hollywood stardom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Astor, Mary. My Story: An Autobiography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959. A well-written autobiography that provides much detail about Astor’s ups and downs, including her version of the diary scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. A Life on Film. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971. Although not as detailed as My Story, this second autobiographical memoir is useful for covering Astor’s career in television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Bare Excerpts of Mary Astor’s Lavender Diary.” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 11, 1936. Although not proven genuine, these excerpts provide a flavor of the diary’s scandalous content.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobson, Laurie. “Mary Astor’s Scandalous Diary.” Hollywood Studio Magazine 21 (1988): 14-17. A look into the diary scandal by a film-industry publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLean, Adrienne L., and David A. Cook, eds. Headline Hollywood: A Century of Film Scandal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. This collection of essays treats Astor’s diary only in passing but offers an excellent overview of the phenomenon of Hollywood scandals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Teichmann, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum, 1972. Describes the scandal from Kaufman’s point of view, and examines the scandal’s effect on his life.

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