Note—You can count on your fingers all of the time Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout has hosted a guest blogger over the years. But when my friend, Woodstock writer and researcher Kathleen Spaltro published her new biography of screen legend and writer Mary Astor, I had to ask her for a contribution. Astor was one of the most interesting actresses of Hollywood’s Golden age with a career that spanned being the 17 year old love interest of John Barrymore on and off screen, through the women’s pictures and film noirs of the 30’s and 40’s, to memorable mother roles in films like Meet Me In Saint Louis and Little Women. But she was also a complicated woman with a tempestuous path who considered herself first and foremost a writer. Let Kathleen tell you about it.Mary Astor was an astonishingly beautiful teenager when she was cast opposite the handsome but much older John Barrymore in 1924's Beau Brummel. She became his off screen lover and secret fiancé.
Many lies have been told about Mary Astor. She never abandoned her parents to poverty. Her face was their fortune rather than her own. Nor did she rate on a private scorecard the sexual prowess of Hollywood leading men.
But two more dangerous and persistent lies have distorted the understanding of her life. One lie defines Astor as the survivor of sex scandals and suicide attempts who ended up living on charity in a retirement home for film folk. There is much more to her story than that miserable scenario. In fact, with grit and determination, she rebounded from middle-aged decline to invest her energies in a new career as an excellent memoirist and novelist.
The other most important lie—indeed, the great lie—robbed her of her core identity as Lucile Langhanke and imposed on her a movie stardom that she never wanted. This book tells how “Mary Astor” recovered who she really was and really wanted to be.
“Falsehood flies,” Jonathan Swift noted, “and the Truth comes limping after it.” However halting its pace, the truth about this gifted and highly intelligent person is much more interesting than any of the lies.In her most iconic role Astor played the conniving temptress Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon opposite Humphry Bogart.
The details of her life story substantiate how Lucile Langhanke accepted and survived her forced rebirth as “Mary Astor” but then rejected this imposed identity and resurrected her former self as “Rusty.” Even though silenced and driven underground, her true self remained intact. She knew all along that she was “Lucile/Rusty,” not “Mary,” and she was never confused about that. This sharpness of perception reveals her high intelligence but also a hidden core of strength.
She discovered and drew upon that strength in later life when she reclaimed her identity as “Rusty.” Earlier, her many self-destructive behaviors, although unhealthy and unwise, displayed the will to resist the imposition of a false and unwanted self. This resistance was in itself healthy and strong although manifested by weak and unhealthy choices.
Her upbringing, as well as her becoming, at others’ insistence, a commodity, created what she bitterly called “the product called Mary Astor.” The betrayal of her “true self” is at the core of both her personal troubles and her ambivalent relationship with stardom. The imposition upon her of her identity and her acting vocation was her tragedy. For others, like Cary Grant, creating a “false self” was a deliberate and welcome escape from a troubled past. The identity “Mary Astor” instead trapped her in a gilded cage of unhappiness and self-loathing. Some of her self-destructiveness came out of having to disavow who she really was to placate others. Eventually, she rescued herself from this predicament and became the person whom others needed to placate.
A commonly believed but false public image remembers Mary Astor mostly as the sexually voracious actress at the center of a notorious sex scandal. However, diary entries forged by an enemy and released to the press were the actual source of this persistent mischaracterization. My biography sets the episode in its place, recounts the story accurately and thoroughly, but seeks to leave it in its place—justly, as a non-defining episode in Astor’s life. Instead of fulfilling salacious and deeply sexist expectations, I deliberately change the narrative. Instead of yet again focusing on a libel, I present Astor as a highly intelligent, creative, and gifted person who overcame longstanding abuse and exploitation and turned away from self-destruction. Grasping a new self-concept in later life, she then pursued a career that reflected her true self. This biography thus undermines readers’ probable expectations.Astor's frank memoir My Story published in 1959 was just the beginning of her career as a writer which included a second memoir focused on her film career and several well-regarded novels.
Out of respect for Mary Astor’s reclamation of her true self and of her desired vocation as a writer, I discuss her movie stardom and film career in the larger context of her entire life. A writer by both nature and fate who had worked as an actress, rather than an actress whose late-life hobby was writing, Astor left her papers to an university archive but preserved in that archive nothing of her film career that did not relate to her primary interest, writing memoirs and novels. Hence, while I depict her acting career in films, radio, television, and the theatre in great detail, I highlight only her best movie roles before I describe her achievements as an author as well.
Writing to her agent about her first memoir, Astor shared her hope that My Story would prove to be “an honest document of a woman who happened to be an actress.” This account in full of Astor’s life tries to portray a woman who happened to be an actress.
Adapted from the Author’s Foreword to The Great Lie: The Creation of Mary Astor by Kathleen Spaltro © Copyright 2021. All Rights Reserved.
The book is available on Amazon.com in Kindle, hardback, and paperback editions. It will come out as an audiobook as well. McHenry County readers can pick a copy up at Between the Lynes, the great independent bookstore on Woodstock Square.