Mary Astor (born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke; May 3, 1906 – September 25, 1987) was an American actress. Most remembered for her role as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart, Astor began her long motion picture career as a teenager in thesilent 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). She was an MGM contract player through most of the 1940s and continued to act in movies, on television and on stage until her retirement from the screen in 1964. Astor was the author of five novels. Herautobiography became a bestseller, as did her later book, A Life on Film, which was specifically about her career.
Director Lindsay Anderson wrote of her in 1990: "...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."
Mary Astor was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke on May 3, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois, the only child of Otto Ludwig Langhanke (October 2, 1871 – February 3, 1943) and Helen Marie de Vasconcellos (April 19, 1881 – January 18, 1947). Both of her parents were teachers.
Her Berlin-born father emigrated 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. Langhanke and de Vasconcellos married on August 3, 1904 in Lyons, Kansas. Astor's father was aGerman teacher at Quincy High School until the U.S. entered World War I. Later on, he began doing light farming. Astor's mother, who had always wanted to be an actress, taught drama and elocution.
Astor was home-schooled in academics and taught to play the piano by her father, who insisted she practice daily. Her piano talents came in handy when she played piano in her films The Great Lie and Meet Me in St. Louis. In 1919, Astor sent a photograph of herself to a beauty contest in Motion Picture Magazine, becoming a semifinalist. 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 productions.
The following year, she sent another photograph to Motion Picture Magazine, this time becoming a finalist and then 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 Pictures. Her name was changed to Mary Astor during a conference between Paramount chief Jesse Lasky, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and producer Walter Wanger.
Silent movie career
A 1924 publicity photo of Astor fromStars of the Photoplay
Astor made her debut in the 1920 film The Scarecrow. At age 14, she appeared in the 1921 film Sentimental Tommy, 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 1921 two-reeler The Beggar Maid. Her first feature-length movie was John Smith (1922), which was followed that same year by The Man Who Played God. 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 had appeared in several more movies when 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 with him in Beau Brummel (1924). The older actor wooed the young actress, but their relationship was severely constrained by Astor's parents' unwillingness to let the couple spend time alone together. Mary after all was only seventeen and legally underage. It was only because Barrymore convinced the Langhankes that his acting lessons required privacy that the couple managed to be alone at all. Their secret engagement ended largely because of the Langhankes' interference and Astor's inability to escape their heavy-handed authority, but also because Barrymore became involved with Astor's fellow WAMPAS Baby Star Dolores Costello, whom he later married.
In 1925, Astor's parents bought a Moorish style mansion with 1-acre (4,000 m2) of land known as "Moorcrest" in the hills above Hollywood. The Langhankes not only lived lavishly off of Astor's earnings, but kept her a virtual prisoner inside Moorcrest. Moorcrest is notable not only for its ornate style, but its place as the most lavish residence associated with the Krotona Colony, a utopian society founded by the Theosophical Society in 1912. Built by Marie Russak Hotchener, a Theosophist with no formal architectural training, the house combines Moorish and Mission Revival styles and contains such Arts and Crafts features as art glass windows (whose red lotus design Astor called "unfortunate"), and Batchelder tiles. Moorcrest, which recently has undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation, is still standing. Before the Langhankes bought it, it was rented by Charlie Chaplin, whose tenure is memorialized by an art glass window featuring the Little Tramp.
A 1931 publicity photo of Astor forArgentinean Magazine
Astor's parents were not Theosophists, though the family was friendly with both Marie Hotchener and her husband Harry, both prominent TS members. Marie Hotchener was the person who negotiated Astor's right to a $5 a week allowance (at a time when she was making $2500 a week) and the right to go to work unchaperoned by her mother. The following year when she was 19, Astor, fed up with her father's constant physical and psychological abuse as well as his control of her money, climbed from her second floor bedroom window and escaped to a hotel in Hollywood, as recounted in her memoirs. Hotchener facilitated her return by persuading Otto Langhanke to give Astor a savings account with $500 and the ability to come and go as she pleased. Nevertheless, she did not gain control of her salary until she was 26 years old, at which point her parents sued her for financial support. Astor settled the case by agreeing to pay her parents $100 a month. Otto Langhanke put Moorcrest up for auction in the early 1930s, hoping to get more than the $80,000 he had been offered for it; it went for $25,000.
Astor went on appearing in movies 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 withMary Brian, Dolores Costello, Joan Crawford, Dolores del Río, Janet Gaynor, and Fay Wray.
On loan to Fox Film Corporation, Astor starred in Dressed To Kill (1928), which received good reviews. That same year, she starred 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 signed a contract with Fox for $3,750 a week.
In 1928, she married director Kenneth Hawks at her family home, Moorcrest. He gave her a Packard automobile as a wedding present and the couple 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), in whom she confided. 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 soon ended. On January 2, 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. Astor had just finished a matinee performance at the Majestic when Florence Eldridge came to her with the news. She was 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, but she soon went back to work. Shortly after her husband's death, 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 difficult. After working on several more movies, she suffered delayed shock over her husband's death and had a nervous breakdown. During the months of her illness, she was attended to by Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, whom she married on June 29, 1931. That year, she starred in as Nancy Gibson in Smart Woman, a film in which she plays a woman determined to retrieve her husband from a gold-digging flirtation. The clever dialogue, played against the trappings of a well-endowed mansion, involves another man who is obviously in love with Astor's character. This wealthy lord, at the behest of Gibson, attracts the attention of the gold-digger during lazy days at the manor. The husband, initially set upon divorcing Nancy and marrying the intruder "Peggy Preston", is dismayed to find Peggy attracted to the newcomer because of his extraordinary wealth. All is done in a civil, but cunning, manner.
in Red Dust
In May 1932, the Thorpes purchased a yacht and sailed to Hawaii. Astor was expecting a baby in August, but gave birth in June in Honolulu. The child, a daughter, was named Marylyn Hauoli Thorpe: her first name combined her parents' names and her middle name is Hawaiian.
When they returned to Southern California, Astor freelanced and gained the pivotal role of Barbara Willis in MGM's Red Dust (1932) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. In late 1932 though, Astor signed a featured player contract with Warner Bros. Meanwhile, besides spending lavishly, her parents invested in the stock market, which turned out in many instances to be unprofitable. They still lived in Moorcrest, Astor had dubbed it a "white elephant", and she refused to maintain the house. She had to turn to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in 1933 to pay her bills.
In 1933, she appeared as the female lead, Hilda Lake, the niece of the murder victims, in The Kennel Murder Case, co-starring with William Powell playing detectivePhilo Vance. Film critic William K. Everson pronounced it a "masterpiece" in the August 1984 issue of Films in Review. Unhappy with her marriage, she took a 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 they had an affair, which she documented in her diary.
A legal battle drew press attention on Astor in 1936. Dr. Franklyn Thorpe divorced Astor in 1935 and a custody battle resulted over their four-year-old daughter, Marylyn. Thorpe threatened to use Astor's diary in the proceedings, which told of her affairs with many celebrities, including George S. Kaufman. The diary was never formally offered as evidence during the trial, but Thorpe and his lawyers constantly referred to it, and its notoriety grew. Astor admitted that the diary existed and that she had documented her affair with Kaufman, but maintained that many of the parts that had been referred to had been forgeries, following the theft of the diary from her desk. The diary was deemed inadmissible as a mutilated document, and a judge ordered it be sealed and impounded. Astor claimed it was then destroyed, with her permission.
Astor had just begun work as Edith Cortwright, opposite Walter Huston in the title role of Dodsworth as news of the diary became public. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was urged to fire her, as her contract had a morality clause, but Goldwyn refused and the movie went on to be a hit.
Ultimately, the scandals 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 (1936), with Walter Huston, was released to rave reviews, 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 Noël Coward's Tonight at 8:30, The Astonished Heart, and Still Life. She also began performing regularly on radio. Some of her best movies were still to come, including The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), John Ford's The Hurricane (1937),Midnight (1939) and Brigham Young (1940).
In John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), Astor was cast in her best known role as scheming temptress Brigid O'Shaughnessy. The film also starredHumphrey Bogart and featured Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.
Another noteworthy performance was her Oscar-winning role as Sandra Kovak, the selfish, self-centered concert pianist, who willingly gives up her child, in The Great Lie (1941). George Brent played her intermittent love interest, but the film's star was Bette Davis. 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 brazenly 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 keyboard, was actually dubbed by pianist Max Rabinovitch. 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, thanking Bette Davis andTchaikovsky in her acceptance speech. Astor and Davis became good friends.
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.
In 1942 she was reunited with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston's Across the Pacific. Though usually cast in dramatic or melodramatic roles, Astor showed a flair for comedy as The Princess Centimillia in the Preston Sturges film, The Palm Beach Story (1942) for Paramount.
In February 1943, Astor's father, 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 which she called "Mothers for Metro." After Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), the studio allowed her to make herBroadway 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). She was also loaned to Paramount to play Fritzi Haller inDesert Fury (1947) in which 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 noirAct of Violence (1948). The last straw came when she was cast as Marmee March in Little Women (1949). 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 fourth husband, Thomas Wheelock (a stockbroker she had married on Christmas Day 1945), but did not actually divorce him until 1955.
In 1952, she was cast in the leading role of the stage play The Time of the Cuckoo, which was later made into the movie Summertime (1955), and subsequently toured with it. 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 of the time, including The United States Steel Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Rawhide, Dr. Kildare, Burke's Law, and Ben Casey. In 1954, she appeared in the episode "Fearful Hour" of the Gary Merrill NBC seriesJustice in the role of a desperately poor and aging film star who attempts suicide to avoid being exposed as a thief. She also played an ex-film star on the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller, in an episode titled "Rose's Last Summer."
She starred on Broadway again in The Starcross Story (1954), 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. According to film scholar Gavin Lambert, Astor invented memorable bits of business in her last scene of that film, where Roberta's vindictive motives are exposed.
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.
She was offered the small role as a key figure, Jewel Mayhew, in the murder mystery Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, starring her friend Bette Davis. She filmed her final scene with Cecil Kellaway at Oak Alley Plantation in southern Louisiana. In A Life on Film, she described her character as "a little old lady, waiting to die." Astor decided it would serve as her swan song in the movie business. After 109 movies during a career spanning 45 years, she turned in her Screen Actors Guild card and retired.
She later moved to Fountain Valley, California, where she lived near her son, Tono del Campo (from her third marriage to Mexican-born film editor Manuel del Campo) and his family, until 1971. That same year, 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 inWoodland Hills, where she had her own private table when she chose to eat in the resident dining room. She was photographed by Life magazine riding an adult tricycle on the grounds.
In 1980, she appeared in the television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, produced by Kevin Brownlow, in which she discussed her roles during the silent film period. After years of retirement she had been urged to appear in Brownlow's documentary by a former sister-in-law Bessie Love who also appeared in the series
Astor died on September 25, 1987, at age 81, of respiratory failure due to pulmonary emphysema while a patient in the hospital in 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. She has been quoted as saying: "There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?"