Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhank to teacher parents on 3 May 1906 in Quincy, the Gem City of Illinois, Mary Astor’s stunning beauty and immense talent in acting could not hide her painful and messy private life. She did not have a happy home life in her early life and was forced to take part in teenage beauty contests and stringent piano lessons, as her parents wished to make her a star. While her mother, who had a burning desire to be an actress, taught her drama and elocution, she was taught to play the piano by her father, who forced her to practice her lessons every day.
Finally, they even moved to New York City, so the daughter could try her luck on the stage. During that time, her photograph published in Motion Picture Magazine as a contestant in the beauty contest was noticed by Charles Albin, a Manhattan photographer and he asked the hauntingly beautiful young girl with mesmerising eyes and long, silky auburn hair to pose for him. Albin’s photographs attracted the notice of Harry Durant of Famous Players-Lasky, an American motion picture and distribution company and she was signed to a six-month contract with Paramount Pictures, while her name was changed to Mary Astor. She made her first appearance at the age of 14 in Sentimental Tommy (1921) and after playing minor roles till 1923, got her first break in Beau Brummel (1924), in the role of Lady Margery Alvaney, opposite the charismatic actor John Barrymore.
That was the beginning of her career that lasted an incredible 44 years, appearing in a phenomenal 123 motion pictures, winning an Oscar in 1942 for her performance in The Great Lie and starring in such classic films as Don Juan (1926), Red Dust (1932), Man of Iron (1935) and Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Till the filming of Beau Brummel, her mother always accompanied her to the studio, while at home her father would open all of the letters she received. Even, she was not allowed to post her letters without being checked, let alone leave her house on her own. The parents had full control of her salary, buying an enormous mansion and keeping her as a virtual prisoner.
At first, Astor let her parents suffocate her without complaint, but finally, she rebelled and rebelled hard.
Astor’s first great love affair began with 40-year-old John Barrymore, during the filming of Beau Brummel, when she was 17. The stage icon, with a notorious reputation as a womanizer, wasted no time to woo his nubile co-star that she was so beautiful she made him feel faint and the naive teenager fell head over heels for the man. However, as her parents were still constantly meddled in her life, the lovebirds were reduced to setting up secret rendezvous months apart. Barrymore soon realised that Astor would never work up the courage to defy her parents and marry him. So he cruelly betrayed her and married Dolores Costello, the Goddess of the Silent Screen, in 1928.
The sad incident made Mary extremely infuriated, she squarely blamed her controlling parents for the breakup, started to ignore them, became a passionate partygoer, even escaped out of her bedroom window to attend Hollywood soirees. Ultimately, she kicked her parents right to the curb, took drastic measures to take control of her life and hired a maid to be her assistant on the set. But when she demanded full control of her salary, her parents sued their famous daughter for financial support. Mary was disgusted, but eventually agreed to settle the matter out of court and promised to pay her parents a paltry $100 per month, on condition of their non-interference in her life.
Mary Astor’s affair with John Barrymore ended before she starred opposite him again in the classic Don Juan (1926) and celebrated her free life by marrying film director Kenneth Hawks in 1928, whom she had only known for a year. Although he gave her a car as a wedding gift, he was a financial and emotional rock for Astor and soon she found her conjugal life uninteresting, boring and stilted. Later she confessed that she tried to be a good and faithful wife for a few months, but the wheels came off quickly and soon after the marriage, she struck up an affair. Within two years after tying the knot with Kenneth Hawks, she discovered herself pregnant and not with the child of her husband. She knew that, with very little bedroom activities with Hawks, it was not at all possible to pass off the baby as his. To come out of the situation, she therefore secretly had an abortion and never divulged the name of her lover who successfully managed to seduce her from her marriage bed.
However, her marriage with Kenneth Hawks ended suddenly on 2 January 1930, when two planes involved in an aerial scene for his upcoming film Such Men Are Dangerous, accidentally met in a mid-air collision. Both the aircraft plummeted into the Pacific Ocean, taking the lives of everyone on board, including Hawks, who was directing the scene. Astor was informed about the air crash, said to be the worst air accident in film history, by her friend, actress Florence Eldridge, when she just finished up a matinee performance on the stage. She was shell-shocked at the news and holed up in Eldridge’s apartment for days.
Although she was completely traumatized by the loss of her husband, she presented a frozen picture of normalcy and behaved coolly, as if nothing has been wrong. Probably, she thought that with the help of a busy work schedule, she would be able to outrun her pain and agony. So she completely made herself engaged in her work, appearing in stage shows one after another and starring in her first talkie, Ladies Love Brutes, in the same year. But the thought of the horrible end of Kenneth Hawks almost ruined her, leading her to a full-blown nervous breakdown and putting her out of film roles for months. During that critical time, she was attended by the dashing and handsome Doctor Franklyn Thorpe and as she was plagued by controlling men from the very start, the line between the doctor and the patient was soon crossed, as Astor became infatuated with the doctor and married him on 29 June 1931. Although their daughter was born the next year, their marriage did not last long.
Soon Mary became distraught about Thorpe’s short temper and his habit of listing her faults. Later, Astor also claimed that Thorpe had no fewer than four affairs throughout their marriage and never informed her that he had been married before. Astor wanted a divorce, which was refused by Thorpe as by that time he had grown fond of the lifestyle to which she had accustomed him. Thorpe also knew that Mary had illicit affairs and decided to accuse her of being an unfit mother, if she takes legal steps for divorce. Mary consulted an attorney, who advised patience, at least for the time the being, since a custody trial could ruin her career. At that time, one of her female friends suggested Mary a holiday in New York and also assured her that she would write to her good friends Bennett Cerf and George S. Kaufman, who would happily escort her.
In 1933, George Kaufman, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was the toast of Broadway, but known to be a consummate seducer and in a devoted but open marriage with his wife Beatrice with an arrangement that allowed both to be discreetly unfaithful. Mary immediately became his latest conquest and they began a torrid affair. Later, Astor mentioned in her diary that on a particular Tuesday night they had dinner at a certain restaurant and then watched a folk opera. During the first two acts of the show, they played kinesis and during the third act, her hand was not in her lap, when she felt a man in public after many years and shared their fourth climax at dawn at the Essex House.
Astor’s diary was stolen by Thorpe, to be used as his weapon against Astor. However, he tore a few pages of the diary where Astor ridiculed his sexual ability and his moustache like Clark Gable. The couple divorced in April 1935, but Thorpe made it clear that unless he was given the sole custody of Marylyn, half of Astor's house and control of her finances, he would release her diary to the public to destroy her career and image. Mary knew that if the diary became public, many lives would be badly affected, including her own, as it contained not only salacious material about her own private life, but also secrets about others. During the custody battle, Astor was filming Dodsworth (1936) at MGM Studio. One day, she was called into the producer’s office, where all the heads of the major movie studios were waiting for her. She was advised to give up the custody hearing, as it could damage the movie industry and tarnish her star image. However, it could not intimidate Astor, she refused to oblige them and left the room. Although everybody was stunned and someone suggested Goldwyn to fire her, Producer Sam Goldwyn appreciated the courage of the woman fighting for her child. However, despite Thorpe and his lawyers constantly mentioned about her diary referring to Astor’s polygamy, it was never formally produced in the court during the custody battle over their four-year-old daughter. Astor wrote her diary in brown ink, but later, when the reporters got a chance to have a glimpse of one of its pages in the court, the brown ink looked purplish from a distance and the diary became famous as the purple diary.
It was revealed in the court that Thorpe had an affair with a showgirl named Norma Taylor. On the flip side, since the diary was found to be tampered with, the court held that the diaries could not be admitted as evidence. In retaliation, Thorpe's lawyers released the excerpts from the diary to the press, exposing Astor's intimate musings nationwide. Finally, the judge ordered Astor and Thorpe to work out an agreement and in the end, Astor triumphed, gaining custody of Marylyn for nine months a year. In addition, the scandal did not harm Astor's career, she became even more popular afterwards. Much later, in 1952, Mary’s diary and its copy were removed from the bank vault where they were kept for 16 years and were burnt to ashes, in the presence of a judge.
In 1936, Mary Astor married Manuel Del Campo, an intending actor, in a secret ceremony and had a son with him. However, the otherwise happy couple drifted apart and ultimately divorced amicably in 1941, after Manuel joined the newly formed No. 415 Squadron RCAF and moved to Thorney Island as a Flight lieutenant. Later, she recalled him as a decent man, but irresponsible as he rarely contacted her or their son after the war. She married her fourth husband, Thomas Gordon Wheelock, a former sergeant in the United States Army, on 24 December 1945. However, over the years he had used Astor’s money for so many bad investments that three years after leaving MGM she found herself broke and seriously in debt. They separated in the early 50’s and finally divorced in 1955.
Mary Astor was not a reigning sex goddess, like Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe or Lana Turner, she was too aristocratic to be pinned up in a man’s secret locker and she was not even a huge star during her days. But she was a woman with delicate, serene beauty, heavenly grace and a compelling acting style. She was a woman in the quest for happiness, who died on 25 September 1987.