Mary Astor, whose piercing eyes and finely honed features made her the quintessential star to one generation of Americans and whose portrayals of mature but flawed women kept her fame bright through yet another, died early Friday.
The longtime actress, who in her later years lamented the time she had spent before the camera, was 81 and died in the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills. She moved to the Motion Picture and Television Country Home in 1974, where she had led a self-chosen solitary existence for many years and was admitted to the hospital there last year.
Hospital spokeswoman Jean Ferris said she died of respiratory ailments.
Won Oscar in 1942
During a career that spanned 45 years, Miss Astor appeared in 109 films, among them such classics as “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphrey Bogart and “The Great Lie” with Bette Davis. For the latter, she won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1942.
But Miss Astor, born Lucile Langhanke, was a star whose real dream, she discovered, was to be a writer. When she retired from films in 1964, she reminisced: “During the first two months of hanging around the Famous Players-Lasky studio, I distinctly remember feeling, ‘Is that all?’ Glamour is in the eye of the movie fan.”
Late in life, after she won a measure of independence from not only the parents who had pushed her into movies but from four unhappy marriages and alcohol, she discovered her love of writing. She published five novels and two autobiographies and said of her 45-year acting career in “A Life on Film”:
“If only I could have put all that time and work and study into writing. I might have learned to write well—I mean really well.”
Some early writing, an infamous diary, became one of Hollywood’s juiciest scandals in 1936 when her second husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, a gynecologist, included it as evidence of “immoral conduct” in a custody battle over their daughter, Marylyn.
Tame excerpts, such as a romance with playwright George Kaufman, leaked to the press, but rumor had it that certain pages held pornographic descriptions of affairs with some of Hollywood’s biggest male stars, with box scores on their performances. Once an out-of-court agreement was reached and the case was dropped, the diary—which Miss Astor always denied contained anything lurid—was sealed in court records and then destroyed by court order in 1952.
Won Magazine Contest
Miss Astor was born May 3, 1906, in Quincy, Ill. Her path to Hollywood began when she entered a “Fame and Fortune” contest run by a movie magazine. After her picture was printed as a semifinalist, her German immigrant father, Otto Langhanke, a man ever in search of get-rich schemes, decided that his daughter would be a star.
On this quest, Langhanke moved the family first to Chicago and then, in 1920, to New York City. There, she later said, the difficulty of finding employment for a 14-year-old would-be actress reduced the threesome to eating “coffee, cereals and bread.”
Finally, she got a six-month contract with Famous Players-Lasky, later part of Paramount. During that six months, about all she got was her new name, Mary Astor, and a bit part as a double-exposed dream figure in “Sentimental Tommy.”
Soon after the contract was up, a New York photographer recommended her to a friend who was making two-reelers based on famous paintings. The result was “The Beggar Maid,” which proved her first success. She was to do six two-reelers before she got her first role in a feature film, “John Smith,” made by Lewis Selznick in 1922.
None of this was fun, she later wrote, because “every night I had to go back to my prison, to the constant watchfulness, the petty corrections and dictatorial advice, and listen to Daddy.”
In 1923, her Famous Players-Lasky contract was renewed, and with her parents leading the way, she moved to Hollywood. As the studios were divided between the two coasts, she commuted back and forth by train with a canary named Tweetums.
During the early part of her career in silent films, she played innocent heroines, as in “Beau Brummel” and “Don Juan” with John Barrymore (who was also one of the leading male stars she fell in love with), or “Don Q Son of Zorro” with Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
In that period what stood out were her large eyes and fabulous profile. Later, she would be noted more for characterizations of evil, such as her Academy Award-winning portrayal of the ambitious, selfish pianist in “The Great Lie,” or the treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon.”
Played Roles of Mothers
In later years she played innumerable mothers. She was Judy Garland’s in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Kathryn Grayson’s in “Thousands Cheer,” and Elizabeth Taylor’s in “Cynthia.” She also played the mother in 1949’s “Little Women.”
This later career was almost aborted during Hollywood’s transition to talking pictures. After making 39 films that were silent, in 1929 her voice tests were judged too “masculine.” By this time she was under contract to Fox, and the studio released her. She went 10 months without work.
She broke the logjam by acting in a local play and winning kudos from reviewers who said her voice was “low and vibrant.” (“Same girl. Same voice,” she later wrote.) Her first talkie, “Ladies Love Brutes,” with Fredric March, was released in 1930.
Her transition to a fully independent person proved a much harder struggle, and she was to write in her autobiographies that it took years to break free of her parents. She grew up angry and resentful of them, she said, but she was so insecure that her father took charge of her paychecks, using much of the money to support himself and his wife and to buy an ornate house in the Hollywood Hills. Even five years after she became a star, Miss Astor still turned quickly to her mother if someone asked a question.
Her work pace became, she said, “like the spinning of a top, set in motion by my father, whipped by financial necessity.” But she also later wrote: “I was afraid of starring, of being too successful. . . . I wanted to feel secure.”
Finally, she demanded that her paychecks be given directly to her and withdrew financial support of her parents. In response, the Langhankes sued her in 1934. They lost and moved to Lancaster, Calif. She later said she believed that her drinking started then.
She remained insecure. She wrote of one dubious attempt to bolster her ego that Humphrey Bogart had made during the filming of “Maltese Falcon”: “You’re OK, baby,” he said. “So you’re not very smart, but you know it and what the hell’s the matter with that? Be yourself.”
Married 4 Times
She married four times, first to film director Kenneth Hawks, brother of Howard, in 1928. In “A Life on Film,” she said this marriage “had rainbows around it,” though in her other autobiography, “My Story,” she said that during this 18-month union their sexual relations were unsatisfactory and that she had an abortion after an affair with someone else. Hawks died in a plane crash in 1930.
She married Thorpe, of her diary fame, in 1931. The alleged intimacies penned in lavender ink that became part of the 1936 custody case, she claimed, were “forgeries.” When she had to appear in court during this period, she later recalled, she would pretend she was Edith Cortright, the strong character she was playing in the film, “Dodsworth,” being made at the time.
“I had achieved the reputation of being the greatest nympho-courtesan since Pompadour,” she later wrote. “It just wasn’t true.”
After her divorce, she married Manuel Martinez del Campo, an aspiring Mexican actor six years her junior. They had one son, Anthony, before getting a divorce in 1942. In 1945, she married businessman Thomas G. Wheelock, a union that lasted until 1953.
During these years, she wrote, she increasingly felt lonely and suffered from numerous illnesses related to alcoholism. Newspapers reported a suicide attempt in 1951.
She worked in television, road company theaters, and retired after doing a cameo role in “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” released in 1965.
‘Someone Else’s Dream’
“I was never totally involved in movies,” she once said. “I was making someone else’s dream come true. Not mine. I hadn’t ever had time to discover what my dream might be.”
Her dream, it turned out, was writing, an avocation she found after conquering alcohol and converting to Roman Catholicism. Her first novel, “The Incredible Charlie Carewe,” was published in 1960, followed by “The Image of Kate,” “The O’Connors,” “Goodbye Darling, Be Happy” and “A Place Called Saturday.”
Writing, she told Hedda Hopper in 1961, was “harder by far” than acting.
“It’s lonely work even for a loner like myself,” she said. “Both jobs are creative; acting is easier but writing gives greater satisfaction.”
While at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital she kept to herself, rarely seeking conversation with others and taking her meals alone. She did consent to appear on the cover of Life a few years ago when the magazine did an issue on film stars of the past.
She is survived by her daughter and son. Funeral services will be private.