Mary Astor’s Purple Diary – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

9781631490248_p0_v4_s192x300Whenever 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. unknown-3 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

Burning the Evidence

Do you keep a diary?  Do you record your anger and anxieties, or keep notes reminding you of people, events, times to remember? In her article for the New York Times – Burning the Diaries  – Dominique Browning describes her cathartic experience – secure that her children will not discover her secrets.   In this year’s Man Booker Award winning The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes has his character, Victoria, burn a diary left by Adrian, who has committed suicide.  But a letter written by the main character survives to haunt him.

Although Jane Austen wrote over 3,000 letters, only 160 survive; her sister destroyed or edited most.  Lewis Carroll’s diaries from 1858 – 1862 mysteriously disappeared – effectively hiding his inspiration or notes for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written in 1862.

The second best advice a friend passed on to me – keep a journal, assigning emotions to paper as the vehicle for cleansing – sometimes better to quietly write it than say it.

The best advice:  destroy the pages so that no one could read them, and take offense at mutterings that were meant to be private.  Browning notes in her article that rereading her diaries only brought back miseries better either forgotten or retooled as Tony Webster tries in the Julian Barnes novel.

The shredder is just as effective as burning – and without the cleanup Browning dreads.

Related Review: The Sense of An Ending