If you are a fan of glamorous old Hollywood, then I have a book for you. It is a racy and juicy tale told by a masterful storyteller. I’ve always admired Edward Sorel‘s artwork with its caricatures that seem to pierce into his subject’s soul. Edward Sorel has written, and illustrated, a fresh look at Hollywood legend Mary Astor and interlaced her story with his own in “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. This is mainly a prose book but it is generously filled with Sorel’s illustrations, over sixty original paintings. The prose is as elegant, urbane, and idiosyncratic as his art.
As a writer and cartoonist, I am here to tell you that it is the idiosyncratic person who gets a project like this about the elusive Mary Astor off the ground. That is what sets Edward Sorel apart and makes his work so distinctive. Sorel confides in the reader every step of the way. It was 1965 that Sorel first embarked upon his quest. It all began with lifting old rotting kitchen linoleum from his railroad apartment. Buried at the bottom were newspapers from 1936. The big story was the custody trial of Hollywood star Mary Astor, which included her infamous “purple diary.”
Sorel runs out of old newspapers before he can find out the end of the story. But he’s hooked. He vows to investigate further. The end result is this book, which moves at a steady clip as it transports us from Mary’s humble origins on the outskirts of Quincy, Illinois, raised by domineering parents, to Hollywood in the 1920s, Mary a rising child star, still saddled with domineering parents. Poor Mary never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself when it comes to finding a mate either. At one point, Mary turns down a contract with RKO strictly for starring roles. Then she follows that up with a hasty marriage. Sorel shakes his head and raises his fists on the page and the reader can’t help but do the same. Mary’s choices will continue to be bad before they get better. Mary’s ultimate bad choice will entangle none other than the most celebrated man on Broadway, George S. Kaufman.
Life, in all its glorious absurdity and majesty, is on parade in Sorel’s book. With a combination of the whimsical and the world-weary, Sorel weaves a tale that includes a supernatural meeting between Sorel and Mary from beyond the grave. And, the high point for me, Sorel shares with us how he met Nancy, the love of his life. Throughout, what emerges is the story of the artist’s struggle, both of Edward Sorel and Mary Astor. Both could have used another pat on the back and moral support. Both certainly earned it.
While Mary Astor would be the last to claim to be anyone’s role model, she proved to be more than capable to rise to the occasion. That is clear to see for all time in her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Mr. Sorel’s book provides his unique and quirky take on Astor’s life and helps us to better appreciate how she blossomed at pivotal times in her life. If you are looking for a definitive tell-all, this is not that kind of book. This is more of an expanded essay, an intelligent conversation. You can be new to the facts discussed or you can be quite familiar with them already. I dare say, it is just the sort of book, with its dry wit and cosmopolitan flavor, that Mary Astor would approve of.
“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.
2 responses to “Book Review: ‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936’ by Edward Sorel”
I will definitely have to pick this up, thanks! Just curious, are you familiar with Astor’s autobiographies, My Story and A Life On Film? To this day those are two of the finest examinations I’ve ever read about Hollywood, moviemaking, silent films, the studio system, John Barrymore (!), Kaufman, etc. Astor was not only an indelible screen presence but quite a gifted and perceptive writer.
Mary Astor was quite remarkable. Yes, I am aware of her excellent writing. As you know, she and Bette Davis rewrote a good part of “The Great Lie,” and turned that into an Oscar-worthy film with Mary winning that year, 1942, for Best Supporting Actress.