In 1936, Mary Astor, star of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was at the center of a Hollywood scandal so big that it knocked Hitler’s news off the front page. Her ex-husband stole her diaries, called the Purple or Lavender Diary, to use them in a bitter custody battle. Astor has been reported to have written breathless accounts of his many love stories in his pages. As the press salivated for more details, Astor appeared in court to face a hostile lawyer determined to prove she was an unfit mother. People flooded the courthouse and vendors sold crowds of hot dogs and ice cream.
Astor’s diary was the first major sex scandal in Hollywood, “a sensation never seen before,” wrote Joseph Egan in Purple newspapers. Astor risked losing her career, her daughter and her reputation, but she wouldn’t be ashamed. Faced with these challenges, Astor fought back.
1. Franklyn Thorpe read Mary Astor’s affair with a famous playwright.
By 1936 Astor and Thorpe, a doctor, had been married for five years and shared a daughter, Marylyn. The two sides had had affairs. Astor wanted to get out of the marriage, writing in his diary: “I don’t like Franklyn anymore … I’m unhappy and bored with him.” But every time she tried to leave, they argued fiercely. “Our life has been a series of explosions, usually over minor things,” Astor wrote in his autobiography. “I started talking about divorce, and the discussions were extensive.”
The turning point came when Thorpe stole the blue ledgers Astor was using as journals. Not only did he read his true opinions on him (“I’m sorry for him because I made him marry me … I’m playing some kind of game with him”), but he discovered his strong feelings for him. playwright George Kaufman.
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Kaufman was in a open wedding with his 20-year-old wife, whom he had no plans to leave. Thorpe knew about the case, but not how much Astor liked Kaufman. “I’m still in a haze; a beautiful pink glow, ”she wrote. “It is beautiful, glorious and I hope this is my last love. I cannot surpass anything from my experience.”
2. In revenge, Franklyn Thorpe blackmailed Mary Astor.
Thorpe asked Astor to give him sole custody of Marylyn, half of Astor’s household, and control of his finances. If she disagreed, he said he would release the papers to the public. In the 1930s, adultery was a cause of outrage, especially if it was committed by a woman. Banking on this double standard, Thorpe threatened to “blacken his name and the names of his friends on the front pages of all American newspapers”, Egan wrote. When Astor caught the flu, Thorpe stood by her bed, berating and threatening her. Weak and ill, she signed a divorce agreement, giving Thorpe what he wanted.
3. Mary Astor put everything on the line for her child.
But Thorpe didn’t stop there. For the next 15 months, whenever he and Astor clashed, he threatened to take Marylyn away. Astor alleged that he also began to abuse the child. “He was shaking her so hard that his teeth were shaking and biting his lips,” Astor said the tribunal. “Then he spanked her and there would be bruises on her tiny body.”
Finally, Astor had had enough. His lawyer, Roland Rich Woolley, has filed for custody, accusing Thorpe of blackmail and bigamy. common-law wife that he continued to see after the wedding. Astor knew the scandal was going to happen, but she wanted to protect her daughter.
4. The press reported that Mary Astors’ diary was written in purple ink.
Newspapers were the focus of the custody trial. Thorpe’s lawyer ad that they would “widely divide the movie industry” because Astor “experienced love as a seasoned scientist with test tubes.” Journalists fought over every detail of the mysterious newspapers. When they saw a page in court, they said Astor had written in purple ink. This detail added a level of innuendopurple is a color often associated with passion but it was not true. Astor was writing in brown ink which, from a distance, took on a purplish tint. But the nickname, The Purple Diary, stuck.
5. George Kaufman fled California to avoid jail.
Kaufman, meanwhile, wanted nothing to do with the trial. When ordered to testify, he did not appear in court. Furious, Judge Goodwin Knight issued an arrest warrant against him. Before the police could find him, Kaufman jumped on a train to New York. The judge forbade him from Los Angeles. If Kaufman comes within the jurisdiction of this tribunal, I will see that he is put in jail and stays there long enough to calm his heels, “he told the hearing. (The warrant was rejected in 1937. and Kaufman got to work in Hollywood again.)
6. Franklyn Thorpes’ bad behavior manifested itself during the trial.
At the booth, Thorpe’s infidelities were revealed. In addition to the common-law partner, he had an affair with a showgirl named Norma Taylor, who once pursued Thorpe with a sculpted forkin in front of Marylyn.
Initially, Thorpe denied romance with Taylor. But Woolley produced a photo of them kissing, which prompted Thorpe to admit Taylor had come to his house drunk, wearing silk pajamas. She smashed a window with a candlestick and chased him with a large fork. “She tried to shut herself up [the bathroom], but I walked through the door and grabbed her, “Thorpe said.” We got into a fight. Marylyn later said the fight was one of her earliest memories.
7. Rumors spread that Mary Astor was keeping a Hollywood Lovers Dashboard.
In the absence of the real newspaper, the press published extracts from a fake pornography, which included the rumor that Astor had rated his lovers on a scoreboard. One newspaper said that Astor “was an unofficial scorer in Hollywood’s love tournaments. Four pages … contain his charming ratings of Screenland’s top ten male celebrities. Kaufman was definitely the top.”
In his autobiography, Astor wrote that the press “had a Roman festival” with the fake newspaper. Since she couldn’t sue every newspaper, she was powerless to stop the rumors. “I could only bang my fists on Woolley’s desk and cry needlessly, ‘There was no box score and I never called that damn thing Dear Diary.’ ‘
8. Studio managers ordered Mary Astor to drop the case.
The last day of filming Dodsworth (1936) at MGM, Astor was called into the office of producer Sam Goldwyn. When he arrived, all the heads of the major film studios were waiting for him, including Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Harry Cohn. They ambushed Astor, telling him to abandon the on-call audience, which they say could harm the film industry. Astor wouldn’t be intimidated. It said, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I will pursue the matter as my lawyer advised me,” and I left the room.
Stunned by her dismissal, someone suggested that Goldwyn enforce the morality clause of Astor’s contract and fire her. He shook his head. A woman fighting for her child? “He said.” It’s good. “
9. Mary Astor went through the trial in action.
In court, Astor appeared balanced and refined. Dressed in black, she has been described as “a thin, frail twig with dark eyes of a girl weighing barely a hundred pounds.”
She spoke in a deep, clear voice and was not moved by the aggressive cross-examination. It was agreed that she displayed “real emotions” of a “risking mother” for her child.
Astor later said that she was impersonating Edith Cortright, his character from Dodsworth. Edith “was a lot of things that I would have liked to be. She had complete confidence in herself and I had very little”, Astor wrote. Later she added, “I was completely noise proof, thanks to Edith Cortright. She was my shield.”
10. Ultimately, the audience sided with Mary Astor.
When the judge ruled that the newspapers could not be admitted as evidence, Thorpe’s lawyers released extracts to the press. Soon, Astor’s intimate reveries were on display across the country. Impatient with the media circus, the judge ordered Astor and Thorpe to strike a deal or something. Ultimately, Astor triumphed, securing custody of Marylyn for nine months out of the year.
Surprisingly, the scandal did not hurt Astor’s career. She was even more popular afterwards, playing in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Little woman(1949), and Meet me in Saint-Louis (1944). His career spanned seven decades and includes an enduring legacy as fatal Woman.
As for the newspapers, the judge ordered them to lock them up until Marylyn is 21. In 1952 they were removed and burnt. The only sections that have survived are the excerpts that were leaked to the press; you can read them here.
Joy Lanzendorfers’ novel Where we starteda multigenerational saga of greed and failure in America on May 4, 2021.
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