|Birth name ||Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke |
|Born ||May 3, 1906 |
Quincy, Illinois, USA
|Died ||September 25, 1987 (aged 81) |
Woodland Hills, California, USA
|Years active ||1921-1964 |
|Spouse(s) ||Kenneth Hawks (1928-1930) |
Franklin Thorpe (1931-1936)
Manuel del Campo (1936-1941)
Thomas Gordon Wheelock (1945-1955)
|Notable roles ||Brigid O'Shaunessy in The Maltese Falcon |
|Academy Awards |
|Best Supporting Actress |
1941 The Great Lie
Mary Astor (May 3, 1906 – September 25, 1987) was an Academy Award-winning American actress. Most famous for her role as Brigid O'Shaunessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart, Astor began her long motion picture career as a teenager in the silent movies of the early 1920s.
She eventually made a successful transition to talkies, but almost saw her career destroyed due to public scandal in the mid-1930s. She was sued for support by her parents and was later branded an adulterous wife by her ex-husband during a custody fight over her daughter. Overcoming these stumbling blocks in her private life, Astor went on to even greater success on the screen, eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie (1941). Director Lindsay Anderson said of her: "...that when two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up, and everybody agrees that she was an actress of special attraction, whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played." She continued to act in movies, on television and on stage into the 1960s. She retired from the screen in 1964.
Astor was also the author of five novels. Her autobiography became a bestseller, as did her later book, A Life on Film, which was specifically about her career.
She was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois in May 3, 1906. Mary was the only child of Otto Ludwig Langhanke (October 2, 1871-February 3, 1943) and Helen Marie Vasconcellos (April 19, 1881-January 18, 1947).
Her father, who was born in Berlin, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1891 and became a naturalized citizen; her mother was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, of Portuguese and Irish extraction. They married August 3, 1904 in Lyons, Kansas. Otto was a teacher of German at Quincy High School until the U.S. entered World War I. He then began doing light farming. Helen, who had always wanted to be an actress, began teaching drama and elocution.
Lucile was homeschooled in academics and taught to play the piano by her father, who insisted she practice daily. In 1919, she sent a photograph of herself to a beauty contest in Motion Picture Magazine and became a finalist. Her father then moved the family to Chicago, where he took a position teaching German in public schools. Lucile took drama lessons and appeared in various amateur stage plays.
The following year, she sent another photograph to the magazine and again became a finalist, this time being named runner-up in the national contest. Her father then moved the family to New York, in order for his pretty daughter to become an actress in motion pictures. He managed all her affairs from September 1920 to June 1930.
A Manhattan photographer, Charles Albin, saw a photograph and asked the young girl with haunting eyes and long auburn hair, whose nickname was "Rusty," to pose for him. The Albin photographs were seen by Harry Durant of Famous Players-Lasky and Lucile was signed to a six-month contract with Paramount. Her name was changed to Mary Astor during a conference between studio chief Jesse Lasky, gossip columnist Louella Parsons and producer Walter Wanger.
Silent movie career
Mary in the movie Don Juan
At age fourteen, she debuted with her new stage name in the silent movie Sentimental Tommy (1921), but her small part in a dream sequence wound up on the cutting room floor. Paramount let her contract lapse. She then appeared in some movie shorts with sequences based on famous paintings. She received critical recognition for the two-reeler The Beggar Maid (1921).
Her first feature-length movie was John Smith (1922), which was followed that same year by The Man Who Played God starring George Arliss for United Artists. In 1923, she and her parents moved to Hollywood.
After appearing in several larger roles at various studios, she was signed by Paramount again, this time to a one-year contract at $500 a week. She appeared in several more movies, then John Barrymore saw a photograph of her in a magazine and wanted her cast in his upcoming movie. On loan-out to Warner Bros., she starred opposite "The Great Profile" in Beau Brummel (1924). The older actor wooed the young actress, but their engagement ended when he became involved with Dolores Costello.
In 1925, Astor's parents bought a Moorish style mansion with one acre of land known as "Moorcroft" in the hills above Hollywood. They lived lavishly on her earnings, had servants, a grand piano, a luxury car and a chauffeur. Moorcroft, which still stands at 6147 Temple Hill Drive north of Franklin Avenue and just west of Beachwood Drive, was, incidentally, rented by Charlie Chaplin before the Langhankes bought the place. It was from this garish looking mansion that Astor, fed up with her father's constant badgering to practice the piano, climbed from her second floor bedroom window and walked down to Hollywood Boulevard, as recounted in her memoirs.
Astor went on appearing in one movie after another at various studios. When her Paramount contract ended in 1925, she was signed at Warner Bros. Among her assignments was another role with John Barrymore, this time in Don Juan (1926).
She was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1926, along with Mary Brian, Dolores Costello, Joan Crawford, Dolores Del Rio, Janet Gaynor, and Fay Wray.
On loan-out to Fox, Astor starred in the role as Jeanne in Dressed To Kill (1928), which received good reviews. That same year, she starred as Elizabeth Quimby in the sophisticated comedy Dry Martini at Fox. She later said that, while working on the latter, she "absorbed and assumed something of the atmosphere and emotional climate of the picture." She said it offered "a new and exciting point of view; with its specious doctrine of self-indulgence, it rushed into the vacuum of my moral sense and captivated me completely." When her Warner Bros. contract ended, she was signed at Fox for $3,750 a week.
In 1928, she and director Kenneth Hawks were married at her family home, Moorcroft. He gave her a Packard automobile for a wedding gift and they moved into a home high up on Lookout Mountain in Los Angeles above Beverly Hills.
As the movie industry made the transition to talkies, Fox gave her a sound test, which she failed because the studio found her voice to be too deep. Though this was probably due to early sound equipment and the inexperience of technicians, the studio released her from her contract and she found herself out of work for eight months in 1929.
Astor took voice training and singing lessons during her time off, but no roles were offered. Her acting career was then given a boost by her friend, Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March), whom she confided in about her woes. Eldridge, who was to star in the stage play Among the Married at the Majestic Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, recommended Astor for the second female lead. The play was a success and her voice was deemed suitable, being described as low and vibrant.
She was happy to be back at work, but her happiness abruptly came to an end. On January 3, 1930, while filming sequences for the Fox movie Such Men Are Dangerous, Kenneth Hawks was killed in a mid-air plane crash over the Pacific off San Pedro. Astor had just finished a matinee performance at the Majestic and was lying down on a couch that was part of the set of the play when Florence Eldridge came to her on stage with the news. She was then rushed from the theatre and taken to Eldridge's apartment; a replacement, Doris Lloyd, stepped in for the next show.
Astor remained with her friend, Eldridge, at her apartment for some time. Seeming to be "bearing up well," she soon went back to work under the burden of her grief. Shortly after the death of her husband, she debuted in her first talkie, Ladies Love Brutes (1930) at Paramount, which co-starred friend Fredric March.
While her career picked up, her private life remained rocky. After working on several more movies, she suffered delayed shock over the death of Hawks and had a nervous breakdown. During the months of her illness, she was attended by Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, whom she later married.
Astor had four husbands, director Kenneth Hawks (married February 26, 1928-his death 1930); physician and surgeon Franklyn Thorpe (married June 29, 1931-divorced 1936); insurance salesman Manuel del Campo (married February 1936-divorced 1941); and stockbroker Thomas Wheelock (married December 25, 1945-divorced 1955).
She and Thorpe had one daughter, Marylyn Hauoli Thorpe (born June 16, 1932), who was married in 1950 to Frank Roh, Jr.; she and del Campo had one son, Anthony Paul "Tono" del Campo (born June 5, 1939), who was married in 1960 to Patricia Ellen Leuty.
In May 1932, the Thorpes purchased a yacht and sailed to Hawaii. Astor was pregnant, but the birth was scheduled for August. Her daughter was born in June in Honolulu, her name being a combination of the names of her parents. Her middle name, Hauoli, means "To sing with joy."
When they returned to Southern California, Astor began freelancing and accepted the pivotal role of Barbara Willis in Red Dust (1932) at MGM with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
In late 1932, Astor signed a featured player contract with Warner Bros. Besides spending lavishly, her parents invested in the stock market, which turned out in many instances to be unprofitable. They still lived in Moorcroft, which Astor dubbed a "white elephant" and refused to maintain. She had to turn to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in 1933 to pay her bills.
Unhappy in her marriage, she took a well deserved break from movie making in 1933 and went to New York by herself. While there, enjoying a whirlwind social life, she met the playwright George Kaufman and had an affair, which she documented in her diary.
In March 1934, Astor was sued by her parents, Otto and Helen Langhanke, for support and a public family feud burst out violently as they all went threshing into court hurling charges.
The Langhankes said they did not even have enough money for the necessities of life; the only money they had received from their daughter in the last six months was $60 in grocery coupons, and they had to sell some of their furniture to survive. They also cited a foreclosure notice on their home, saying their daughter would not help them pay the mortgage.
Despite the Depression, Otto had continued to improve their estate. He then took out an $18,000 loan and had a swimming pool installed, which Astor said neither of them ever used and was a waste of money, and he could not afford to pay on the remaining $15,000 incumbrance.
Astor said all her earnings went to her parents until 1930, being deposited by the studio directly into their bank account, and she received a small allowance. She then decided it was necessary for her to look out for her own future and wiped the slate clean. She gave them the house in June of that year, free and clear of all incumbrance, and for a year thereafter gave them $1,000 per month. In addition, in March 1931, she loaned them $2,515.19, which they did not repay and she never asked for.
She said that she told them in March 1933 that she could not afford to support them in their expensive home, which cost more than the one she and her husband and daughter were living in. She offered them an allowance of $100 per month if they moved from the mansion; she also offered to set them up in a suitable house in San Mateo County, together with food and utilities, but they did not accept either offer. Their lawyer responded that a daughter could not dictate to her parents where they could or could not live as if they were "Peter the hermit."
The judge ruled that she should give her parents $100 per month. Moorcroft, now valued at $200,000, went on the auction block and sold for only $21,500. Otto was outraged and did not want to accept the bid, but the auctioneer said they had a signed contract, the buyer had deposited the proper deposit, and the sale was final. The Langhankes then moved to San Fernando.
In the meantime, Astor's marriage to Franklyn Thorpe continued to deteriorate. She learned from Kaufman that Thorpe had talked to him about their affair. When the inevitable confrontation came, Thorpe told her he would name Kaufman in a divorce suit. He said that if she would let him take their daughter, Marylyn, she could have her back after six months to keep for six months. She believed that later on she could get custody of Marylyn and avoid bad publicity.
In April 1935, Thorpe divorced her in an uncontested suit and gained sole custody of their daughter. In July of 1936, while working on Dodsworth with Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, Astor sued to gain sole custody, after having Marylyn living with her for six months, as well as for the recovery of stocks and property paid for by her movie earnings, or the value, and a vicious battle broke out that was also well documented by the press.
Thorpe cited her adultery with Kaufman and introduced excerpts of her diary as evidence of the affair. Astor said he had stolen her diary and that most of the passages submitted were forgeries. She said she was intimidated into not contesting custody when he threatened to ruin her career. She said he assertedly threatened to deprive her of her daughter's companionship unless she transferred the securities to him, which she did shortly before the divorce. She further asserted that he was busy with his practice and unable to properly rear the child.
Excerpts of what she wrote about her marriage and affair with Kaufman were then released by Thorpe's lawyers to the press, who dubbed it the "purple diary," although it was actually penned in Aztec brown ink and not purple, and it became headline news. Although the excerpts in the papers were fairly harmless, with romantic and sentimental chatter and no intimate details, lurid tales of sexually explicit contents began to circulate. No one ever actually read the authentic diary, however, and such reports of its contents were purely speculative.
When Thorpe surrendered the diary to the court it was impounded and the full contents never revealed. The judge was only concerned with the welfare of the child. Astor wanted her diary back, while Thorpe asserted it should be returned to him.
The judge then ordered that the diary be stored in a safe deposit box at Security-First National Bank at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue in Hollywood, sealed against prying eyes. In April 1952, with no objection from Astor or Thorpe, the diary was destroyed, unread, by order of the court.
Astor received joint custody of her daughter. Marylyn lived with her mother during the long school months and with her father during summer vacation. She shared Christmas with both parents.
Fortunately, the scandal caused no harm to Astor's career, which was actually revitalized because of the custody fight and the huge amount of publicity it generated; Dodsworth was released to rave revues, and the public's acceptance assured the studios that she was still a viable commercial property.
In 1937, she returned to the stage in well received productions of Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30, The Astonished Heart, and Still Life, at the Biltmore Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles. She also began doing regular performances on radio. And some of her best movies were still to come, including The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) starring Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll; John Ford's The Hurricane (1937) starring Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall; and Brigham Young - Frontiersman (1940) starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell.
Astor is probably most famous for her role as Brigid O'Shaunessy, the scheming temptress who murders Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart, with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.
Astor's elevator ride down with police at the end of The Maltese Falcon
was seen by some as symbolic of a final trip to hell.
Although Spade is an amoral womanizer, something in Brigid causes him to let down his guard; he actually feels love for her. Despite his feelings, the climax of the movie is when he forces her to confess that she is the murderer. He loves her, but something in him is afraid that will weaken him.
Spade regrets sending her to jail, maybe to her death, but his fear about himself is stronger than his regret. As much as he cannot bear his loss, he "won't be played" and can bear that image of himself even less.
Another noteworthy performance was her role as Sandra Kovak, the selfish, self-centered concert pianist, who willingly gives up her child, in The Great Lie (1941) starring Bette Davis and George Brent.
Davis wanted Astor cast in the role after watching her screen test and seeing her play Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. She then recruited Astor to collaborate with her on rewriting the script, which Davis felt was mediocre and needed work to make it more interesting. Astor further followed Davis's advice and sported a brazen bobbed hairdo for the role. The soundtrack of the movie during the scenes where she plays the concerto, with violent hand movements on the piano keys, was actually recorded with Max Rabinovitch playing.
She let Davis be boss and run the show, with no objection, and they became good friends. Davis deliberately stepped back to allow Astor to shine in her key scenes. As a result of her performance, Astor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Great Lie.
Astor was not propelled into the upper echelon of movie stars by these successes, however. She always declined offers of starring in her own right. Not wanting the responsibility of top billing and having to "carry the picture," she preferred the security of being a featured player.
She was reunited with Bogie and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston's Across the Pacific (1942). She also played the Princess Centimillia in The Palm Beach Story (1942) starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea, with Rudy Vallee.
In February 1943, Otto Langhanke died in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital as a result of a heart attack complicated by influenza. His wife and daughter were both at his bedside.
That same year, Astor signed a seven-year contract with MGM, which turned out to be a regrettable mistake. She was kept busy playing what she considered mediocre mother roles. After Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), starring Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien, the studio allowed her to make her Broadway debut in Many Happy Returns (1945). The play was a miserable failure, but Astor received good reviews.
On loan-out to 20th Century Fox, she played a wealthy widow in Claudia and David (1946) starring Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young. She was also loaned to Paramount to play Fritzi Haller in Desert Fury (1947) starring John Hodiak, Lizabeth Scott, Burt Lancaster, and Wendell Corey. It was another mother role, but she played the tough owner of a saloon and casino in a small mining town.
Before Helen Langhanke died of a heart ailment in January 1947, Astor said she sat in the hospital room with her mother, who was delirious and did not know her, and listened quietly as Helen told her all about terrible, selfish Lucile. After her death, Astor said she spent countless hours copying her mother's diary so she could read it and was surprised to learn how much she was hated.
Back at MGM, Astor went on being cast in undistinguished, colorless mother roles. One exception was when she played a prostitute in the film noir Act of Violence (1948). The last straw came when she was cast as Marmee March in Little Women (1949), starring June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Margaret O'Brien, Elizabeth Taylor, and Janet Leigh. Astor found no redemption in playing what she considered another humdrum mother and became despondent. The studio wanted to renew her contract, promising to give her better roles, but she declined the offer.
At the same time, Astor's drinking was getting much worse. She admitted to having a problem with alcohol as far back as the 1930s, but it had never interfered with her work schedule or performance. She hit bottom in 1949 and went into a sanitarium for alcoholics.
In 1951, she made a frantic call to her doctor and told him she had taken too many sleeping pills. She was taken to a hospital and the police reported that she had attempted suicide, this being her third overdose in two years, and the story made headline news. She maintained it had been an accident.
That same year, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and converted to Roman Catholicism. She credited her recovery to a priest, Peter Ciklic, also a practicing psychologist, who encouraged her to write about her experiences as part of therapy. She also separated from her husband, Thomas Wheelock, but did not actually divorce him until 1955.
In 1952, she was cast in the leading role of the stage play Time of the Cuckoo (which was made into the movie Summertime (1955) starring Katharine Hepburn) and subsequently toured with the company. After the tour, Astor lived in New York for four years and worked in the theatre and on television.
Her TV debut was in The Missing Years (1954) for Kraft Television Theatre. She acted frequently in TV during the ensuing years and appeared on most of the big shows, including The United States Steel Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Rawhide, Dr. Kildare, Burke's Law, and Ben Casey. She also starred on Broadway in The Starcross Story (1954), which was another failure.
She returned to Southern California in 1956. She then went on a successful theatre tour of Don Juan in Hell directed by Agnes Moorehead and co-starring Ricardo Montalban.
Astor's memoir, My Story: An Autobiography, was published in 1959, becoming a sensation for its day and a bestseller. It was the result of Father Ciklic urging her to write. Though she spoke of her troubled personal life, her parents, her marriages, the scandals, her battle with alcoholism, and other things about her life, she did not mention the movie industry or her career in any detail. In 1971, another book was published, A Life on Film, where she discussed her career. It too became a bestseller. Astor also tried her hand at fiction, writing the novels The Incredible Charley Carewe (1960); The Image of Kate (1962); The O'Conners (1964); Jahre und Tage (1964) (a German translation of The Image of Kate); Goodbye, Darling, be Happy (1965); and A Place Called Saturday (1968).
She appeared in several movies during this time, including A Stranger in My Arms (1959). She made a comeback in Return to Peyton Place (1961) playing Roberta Carter, the domineering mother who insists the "shocking" novel written by Allison Mackenzie should be banned from the school library, and received good reviews for her performance.
After taking a trip around the world in 1964, Astor was lured away from her Malibu home, where she was spending time gardening and working on her third novel, to make what she decided would be her final movie appearance.
When she was offered the small role as a key figure in the murder mystery Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, starring her friend, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland, with Agnes Moorehead in a supporting role, Astor decided it would serve as her swan song in the movie business. After more than 100 movies during a career spanning 44 years, she turned in her SAG card and retired.
She later moved to Fountain Valley, California, where she lived near her son, Tono del Campo, and his family until 1976. Suffering from a chronic heart condition, she then moved to a small cottage on the grounds of the Motion Picture & Television Country House, the industry's retirement facility in Woodland Hills, where she had her own private table when she chose to eat in the resident dining room.
While living there, Astor had a heart attack, two strokes and developed emphysema. She died at age 81 of respiratory failure due to pulmonary emphysema while a patient in the hospital that is part of the Motion Picture House complex. She is interred in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.
Mary Astor has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6701 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.
One of her famous quotes detailed the 5 stages of her career: “Who’s Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who’s Mary Astor?"
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