Whenever I watch old movies, I cannot resist looking up the background of the players, wondering what their lives were really like. Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary was satisfyingly short and funny – with pictures – and Woody Allen’s review in the New York Times piqued my interest. Maybe he’ll turn the book into a movie?
Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary focuses on a long forgotten scandal involving the movie star well known to old movie fans for playing the deceiving foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and the wise mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis and Little Women. At a time when movie moguls used the casting couch for plum roles but concealed their movie stars’ indiscretions to gain approval from the “legion of decency,” Mary Astor’s love life was front page news when her diary was discovered. Her descriptions of her many lovers became fodder for a real-life courtroom drama that could have been right out of the movies.
Sorel is well known for his political caricatures and his “unauthorized portraits” of the famous. No modern president or president-elect has escaped his fervor to “attack hypocrisy in high places.” His style is easily recognized on covers for The New Yorker.
Sorel punctuates this book with a few hilarious scenes of Mary Astor as she negotiates her scandal. In a sideways tale of Astor’s life, Sorel includes facts about her family and background, but in his imaginary interview with the dead actress, he manages to include a funny perspective on her lovers – names old movie fans will recognize, including John Barrymore and George S. Kauffman. At times, Sorel’s irreverent style and his tangents into his own marriages reflect a Woody Allen style with wry observations and self-deprecating humor.
I cannot imagine why Mary Astor kept an incendiary diary about her lovers; somehow written secrets always find their way out. But thanks to Sorel, it made for fun reading – like flipping through that Entertainment Weekly or People magazine in the doctor’s office.
Related Article: Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet
When was the last time you laughed at a caricature of a politician? With political rhetoric in high gear on the eve of the Presidential election in the United States, I could not have found a better story to capture the power of the media than Columbian Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Reputations. Translated from the original Spanish, the language is clear and incisive as the life of political cartoonist Javier Mallarino unravels in this short but powerful novel.
When Javier receives an award for his forty years of creating caricatures by using “a stinger dipped in honey,” he is startled into a reexamination of the value of his observations. A thirty-five year old woman attending the ceremony asks for an interview but later challenges his memory of a party she attended years ago as a seven year old girl at his house. Unsupervised, Samanta and Javier’s daughter drank leftover whiskey from the adults’ half-empty glasses and passed out. A congressman who had come to plead for mercy in Javier’s portrayal of him discovered the sleeping girls. The day after the party Javier creates a damaging caricature of the local politician in the newspaper.
Vasquez frames the story like a mystery. The reader wants to know what horror happened on the night of the party, but the revelation leads to more serious questions. Did it really happen? Was the cartoonist correct to publish his perception and ruin lives? What if he were mistaken in his satire?
Interspersed with his retelling of the event, Javier describes his arrogance in his portrayals as he pursues truth over compromise, and wonders about the loss of his idyllic life with his former wife and daughter. Vasquez also echoes the political and social tumult of his home country Columbia as Javier recalls some of his political cartoons over the years.
As the story ends, Javier and Samanta find the wife of the accused congressman, who killed himself years earlier, and are about to find out the truth – or perhaps a version of the truth. The line I found most appropriate for the election eve was Vasquez’s dry note:
“…the important thing in our society is not what’s going on, but who tells us what’s going on.