Mary Astor isn’t that ‘remembered’ today. Most of the people who know who she was, how she sounded and acted, know her for one role only – Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, opposite Humphrey Bogart. She won an Academy award for best supporting actress in 1941, was really big in the early 1930s, but she just didn’t make the kind of quality films like Bette Davis to be well remembered today.
Of course, Davis and another contemporary, Joan Fontaine, were the subject of FX’s Duel earlier this year, reviving interest in their careers.
They could do the same for Mary, she has an amazing story – she was involved in probably the most scandalous child custody fight in Hollywood history.
It happened in the mid-1930’s, in the middle of the Depression and with Hollywood perhaps at its height with no other competition. On the surface, it seems to have nothing in common with divorce and custody hearings today. But here the surface is just that.
The simple facts are these: Mary Astor married Dr. Franklyn Thorpe in June, 1931. They had a child, Marilyn, in June 1932. In late 1933, Mary, unhappy in the marriage and in her career, went to New York to work on the stage. She had an affair (torrid was the mildest word used in the tabloids of the day) with the playwright and Broadway directer, George S. Kaufman, a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. Mary, an excellent writer (she would go on to write two bestselling memoirs and five novels), kept a well-written, fairly detailed diary of her time in New York.
Back in Hollywood in late 1935, Mary went back to work. In 1936 Dr. Thorpe obtained an uncontested divorce. Then he found the diary. Then he demanded custody. Then it went to trial. Then it got ugly.
The one thing to take from this in the age of litigation and the Internet is clear: you can hide a diary, most people probably better than Mary Astor, but you can’t hide your social media. Enough said, that’s not where we’re really going with this.
Dr. Thorpe claimed that Mary was an unfit mother because she had affairs. Well, probably not so much that as the fact she wrote about them and he did not do well in any of her comparisons – and she compared a lot.
Nevertheless, it didn’t look good for Mary – in civil court or the court of public opinion. Absent a good attorney Mary’s prognosis was bleak.
But, several things happened in short order. Mary retained an attorney almost as famous as her, George Simon Kaufman. He had the diary thrown out, made inadmissible. The fact that Thorpe had shared it with the gossip columnist for The New York Daily News and that they added their own entries and changed others probably had a lot to do with that decision.
Perhaps just as important, Kaufman laid out all the facts. Facts like these: Mary had the stage parents from hell. She made her screen debut at 14, was under contract to a studio for $500/wk (that’s $7,000 in today’s dollars) and was basically imprisoned at home. Her parents controlled her money and never let her out of their sight. She was alloted a $5/week allowance, although, of course, she had no place to spend it. Her father, meanwhile, was physically abusive and constantly demeaned her performances.
Mary managed to, literally, escape – she fled the mansion her parents bought with her money through a carelessly left-open third floor window. At the time, 1928, she was earning $3750/wk ($53,000 … a week). She married a director in 1929, but her parents still kept a tight reign on the money. By the time she gained control of her finances in 1932, via lawsuit, there was so little money left she had to ask for assistance from the Screen Actors guild. Her parents promptly sued her for support.
Mary’s husband, Kenneth Hawks – brother of the great director Howard Hawks – was killed in a plane crash in 1930. It was devastating. Mary had a nervous breakdown, took a leave of absence from her studio, and signed herself into inpatient treatment. By now you can guess who her doctor was – Thorpe.
No one will know if Thorpe ever loved his wife, but there are piles of evidence that he loved her money. Immediately after the wedding he bought a yacht and opened his own practice.
All this, obviously, filled in all the blanks in the case. It was enough for the judge – he awarded Mary full custody. Probably not coincidentally, her career took off. The diary disappeared sometime during the trial. It was like the Loch Ness monster of Hollywood for years, sightings were rare but hyped. In 1953, it was discovered in a safety deposit box and, by court order, it was burned.
There are, obviously, a lot of lessons here. Perhaps the most important one is this – facts are just facts until someone puts them into a narrative. That someone is a good attorney.