“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?” –Mary Astor
Mary Astor is an actress who overcame many personal and professional challenges. From a turbulent childhood to tumultuous relationships and scandal, Astor overcame these obstacles and remained a notable star throughout her career. Transitioning from the Silent Era into the hurdles that the introduction of sound brought on for the film industry, Astor was consistently poised to succeed and channel the stresses of her personal life into poignant portrayals on screen.
Astor was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois, to German immigrant father, Otto Langhanke, and Helen Marie de Vasconcellos from Illinois. Astor’s mother was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, but had Portuguese roots.
Both of her parents were teachers–with her father starting off as a German language teacher then working as a farmer–and determined to make Astor famous. Astor’s mother had dreamed of becoming an actress and had experience teaching drama and elocution. While Astor’s mother was training her daughter in dramatics, her father worked on teaching her piano. In addition to practicing the instrument daily, her entire academic career was handed at home. Her piano talents would later come in handy during her eventual film career, when she played the piano in films such as The Great Lie (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
In 1919, Astor decided to submit a photograph of herself to a beauty contest for Motion Picture Magazine. Soon after, she became a semifinalist, initiating the first of many submissions to various beauty contests.
When she was 15, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she continued to take drama lessons. In addition to this, she also began appearing in amateur stage productions.
In 1920, Astor sent over another photograph to Motion Picture Magazine for their beautify contest, becoming a finalist and then a runner-up in the national contest.
Eager to capitalize on Astor’s beauty and looking to put her before the camera, her father moved the family to New York City. His intent was for Astor to act in motion pictures and become a major star with a hefty paycheck. Moreover, he would be her manager for the next decade.
Not long after the move, Manhattan photographer, Charles Albin, had Astor pose for him. His photographs were eventually reviewed by Harry Durant of Famous Players-Lasky, resulting in Astor being signed to a six-month contract with Paramount Pictures. It was at this point that her name was changed to Mary Astor, thanks to a conference held among Paramount chief Jesse Lasky, film producer Walter Wanger, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons.
Interestingly, Astor’s initial screen test was directed by Lillian Gish. Astor impressed Gish immensely and Astor made her debut in an uncredited bit part in The Scarecrow (1920). Sadly, Paramount let her contract lapse. She finally received critical recognition after appearing in The Beggar Maid (1921). She then worked for other studios in more prominent roles but was again signed to Paramount.
When John Barrymore saw her photograph in a magazine, he insisted she appear in his next film. As a result, she was loaned to Warner Brothers for Beau Brummel (1924) and the two began a relationship and even became engaged in secret. Astor’s parents essentially ended the relationship because she was 17 at the time and underage.
In 1925, Astor’s parents bought a Hollywood mansion called Moorcrest and not only lived lavishly off Astor’s earnings, but kept her sequestered there. Built by Marie Russak Hotchener, a Theosophist who had no formal architectural training, the house combines Moorish and Mission Revival styles and contains such Arts and Crafts features as art-glass windows, the home was the most lavish residence associated with the Krotona Colony, a Utopian society founded by the Theosophical Society in 1912.
Her father allocated $5/week allowance to her at a time when Astor was making $2,500/week. Hotchener negotiated Astor’s right to a $5 a week allowance and the right to go to work unchaperoned by her mother. Unfortunately, physical and physiological abuse continued to be carried out by Astor’s father. At 19, Astor climbed from her second floor bedroom window and escaped to a hotel, as recounted in her memoirs. She returned home when her father formed a $500 savings account for her. Hotchener facilitated her return by persuading her father to give Astor a savings account and the freedom to come and go as she pleased.
Sadly, Astor did not gain control of her salary until she was 26 years old. At the same time, her parents sued her for financial support. Astor settled the case with an agreement to pay her parents $100/month.
While Astor continued to work for Paramount, her contract ended in 1925. She then moved to Warner Brothers, where she became one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926, along with Mary Brian, Dolores Costello, Dolores Del Rio, Janet Gaynor, and Fay Wray. Once her Warned Brothers contract ended, she signed on with Fox. She also married her first husband, director Kenneth Hawks, at Moorcrest.
Around this time, the film industry began its transition to sound. Astor’s career floundered because her voice was thought to be too deep and masculine. The studio released her from her contract and Astor was unemployed.
In the meantime, Astor took voice training and singing lessons but it was her friend Florence Eldredge (wife of Fredric March) who recommended her as second lead in the play Among the Married. The duo appeared in the show and the play was a success. As a result, her voice was no longer problematic and she found work again. Tragically, her husband was killed in a plane crash over the Pacific, with Eldredge delivering the news to her after their matinee performance.
Astor appeared in her first sound film, Ladies Love Brutes (1930) at Paramount alongside March but suffered from delayed shock over her husband’s passing. She had a nervous breakdown and took time off. While ill, she was placed under the care of Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, who she married. The couple had a daughter named Marylyn Hauli Thorpe–a combination of her parents’ names. The child had a Hawaiian middle name because she was delivered two months premature in Honolulu after the couple sailed to Hawaii.
During the time Astor was working, her parents continued to live at Moorcrest and continued to spend money with ease. They invested in stocks, which were another financial failure for them. Tired of their spending, Astor refused to pay to maintain the home and had to rely upon the Motion Picture Relief Fund to pay her bills.
Astor and Thorpe’s marriage was soon on the rocks, largely due to Thorpe’s temper. Astor wanted a divorce and visited New York alone, where she enjoyed a lively social life and an affair with playwright George S. Kaufman. She documented the relationship in explicit detail in her diary, which was eventually found by Thorpe. Thorpe would use the diary against her in divorce proceedings to argue that she was an unfit mother.
The legal battle extended to 1936 as a custody battle over their daughter Though the diary was never formally considered evidence, lawyers referred to int constantly and the trial gained publicity. However, Thorpe removed pages that referred to himself and also fabricated content. The judge ordered the diary sealed and impounded.
During this emotionally trying time, Astor was filming Dodsworth (1936). When she went to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to view the film, she disguised herself in a headscarf and a pair of glasses. When the audiences applauded her on-screen entrance, Astor knew that her public remained faithful to her despite revelations and allegations concerning her sex life. In 1952, the diary would be removed from the bank vault where it had been kept and destroyed.
Astor continued on with her career and eventually signed a contract with MGM, which she held as a mistake. There, she played out what she thought of as mediocre motherly roles. Around the same time, Astor’s own mother passed away due to a heart ailment. While Astor sat with her in the hospital, her mother was delirious and told her all about her terrible and selfish daughter. After her passing, Astor copied her mother’s diary and was surprised to learn just how hated she was. When Astor was offered a contract renewal from MGM, she declined.
By the 1950s, Astor’s struggles with alcoholism grew and began to interfere with her career. She also overdosed on sleeping pills three times, though maintained these occasions were accidental. After the third frantic call to the doctor about an overdose, Astor joined Alcoholics Anonymous and converted to Roman Catholicism. She sought out a priest named Peter Ciklic, who was also a psychologist, and credited him for her recovery. It was Ciklic who recommended that she write about her experiences as a means of therapy.
Over time, Astor continued to appear on stage and in films. She also transitioned to television and took on several guest appearances. Moreover, she became a prolific writer, publishing memoirs and a wide range of novels.
After working in 109 films, Astor turned in her Screen Actors Guild card and retired from the industry. She moved to Fountain Valley, California, to live near her son, Anthony del Campo–from her third marriage to Manuel del Campo–and his family. She suffered from a heart condition and moved to a cottage on the Motion Picture & Television Country House property. However, Astor would reemerge before audiences once again thanks to Kevin Brownlow’s television documentary series, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980), thanks to the urging of her former sister-in-law, Bessie Love, who also appeared in the documentary.
Astor passed away at age 81 on September 25, 1987, from respiratory failure. She was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Today, there are a few tributes to Astor in her hometown as well as in California.
Astor’s childhood home stands at 2435 12th St. in Quincy, Illinois, and is privately owned. Her time in Quincy is profiled in Quincy Off-Record, available for download here.
In Hollywood, California, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in honor of her contributions to motion pictures. The star is located at 6701 Hollywood Boulevard.
Finally, in California, Moorcrest remains standing at 6147 Temple Hill Dr. in Los Angeles, California. Moorcrest was once the home of actor Charlie Chaplin, the first international star of the Modern Era. His time there is memorialized by an art glass window featuring the Little Tramp. Later, the home came under the ownership of Astor’s family. Today, the home is owned by musician Joanna Newsom and her husband, actor Andy Samberg. The home has since undergone a multi million-dollar renovation
Far more impressive than the physical location in relation to Astor are her own words and story. Her ability to face troubling situations head-on while also executing a professional career is truly impressive. Futhermore, her filmography certainly continues to expose new generations to Astor’s fine talents as a dedicated actress.