Mary Astor’s Sex Life On Trial

In light of the following recent text exchange …


… between Mitchell and myself, I would like to announce the publication of two books, which will be sold as companion volumes:

I Miss Sluts, by Sheila O’Malley
Where’s Mary Fucking Astor When We Need Her?, by Mitchell Fain

Coming to your local bookstore soon.

This announcement could not be more timely, since Mary Astor has been all over the news (well, sort of) lately. Now Mary Astor is always “news” among my group of friends (witness that text exchange) because we adore her and are slightly obsessed with her.


BUT one of the books I am most excited to read in 2017 (I just bought it yesterday), is the totally sui generis:


Edward Sorel is an illustrator and has been so for decades. He started out with political satire stuff during the Vietnam War era, and has since worked all over the place, and you will definitely recognize his work if you read Vanity Fair. So turns out, he has had a 50-year obsession with Mary Astor – ignited by his discovery that she was the star of a gigantic sex scandal in 1936, through which she lost custody of her children, fought to get custody back, and all of this played out in courtrooms, on the front page, and in the court of public opinion. If you know about Mary Astor, then you know about this scandal. Most explosive, though, and what makes the scandal somewhat unique, is that Mary Astor (deflowered by John Barrymore) kept a diary, in which she wrote – in great great detail – about her sex trysts with George Kaufmann (a married man), describing their hours-long fucking sessions (she didn’t use euphemisms), and how many times she came, and how amazing it was, all in breathless “purple” prose. The press got a hold of the diary, she was raked over the coals for being a harlot. And it was sensational, in general, because she had such a pure virginal image. The press referred to it as her “lavender” or “purple” diary.


What’s even more extraordinary is that Mary Astor came back from all of this and had a whole second career playing warm-hearted matronly types. Good for her.

So anyway, Sorel was obsessed with this whole thing, which then led him into a more far-reaching obsession with Mary Astor. Who was she? What was her background? How did she FEEL about all of this?

The result of his obsession is Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, the story of that sex scandal, accompanied by funny and beautiful illustrations by Sorel.





Like, I can’t even believe this book exists now. It’s not just the story of Mary Astor. It’s the story of one man’s obsession with her. I cannot wait to read it.

So Where’s Mary Fucking Astor When You Need Her? She’s right here.

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13 Responses to Mary Astor’s Sex Life On Trial

  1. Kate says:

    Oh, this looks fabulous! I’m on it! Sheila, you might be interested in a book my very dear childhood friend Joe Williams wrote called Hollywood Myths. I loved it! If there was a way to share my kindle edition with you I would. I think I need your email. He also wrote a fabulous book about the Kennedy assassination.

  2. sheila says:

    Mary Astor’s autobiography is also excellent – really a high watermark of its kind. Hard to find for years – I found a second-hand (third/fourth hand) copy at The Strand a million years ago.

  3. Desirae says:

    Holy SHIT. I need this to live.

    Discovering Mary Astor was one of the single greatest things about getting into classic movies. She isn’t as well known as she deserves to be, but that also means she gets to be a lovely surprise.

    My fave Mary is Dodsworth. I know a lot of people would say the Maltese Falcon, but that one is mine.

    • sheila says:

      // Discovering Mary Astor was one of the single greatest things about getting into classic movies. //

      I love that!

      I love Dodsworth too – I have to say I am 99% positive that my first encounter with her was in Meet Me in St. Louis – where she’s so warm and motherly and funny – so then when I saw her in Maltese Falcon I was shocked that it was the same actress. Diametrically opposed characters!

      • sheila says:

        … and speaking of Mary Astor – have you seen Desert Fury?

        I just saw it a couple of months ago for the first time – it’s very hard to find, a friend of mine had recorded it. Mary Astor plays a savvy ruthless businesswoman – who wears gorgeous colored pant suits – and uses a cigarette holder – and her daughter is played by Lizbeth Scott. Mother and daughter refer to one another by their first names. Mary Astor says stuff like, “Listen, baby, this life is fulla hard knocks.” There’s a very VERY strange vibe between mother and daughter – which has to be seen to be really believed. They seem to not be able to stand each other – and yet also they can’t live apart.

        There’s also an openly gay relationship between two men (Wendell Corey is one of them) and Lizbeth Scott comes between it. It’s all right there in the open. Technicolor, melodrama, Freudian hothouse sexual frenzy – I think it was right before Mary Astor retired. It’s definitely worth seeking out.

        • sheila says:

          (and there’s nothing better than Mary Astor in technicolor!)

          • Desirae says:

            I haven’t seen Desert Fury, but it sounds really interesting. I haven’t seen Red Dust either, which is appalling. I should really correct that.

          • sheila says:

            Red Dust!!

            There’s a great story in the link I put up about Marilyn Monroe – this furrier in NYC went out with his little home movie camera when Monroe was filming the subway grate scene in 7 Year Itch, and got some incredible footage (which was just recently found).

            But the whole article I linked to is fascinating – about this guy’s background. He got out of Germany as the Nazis were rising – he sensed the way the wind was blowing. He moved to America. Eventually, he tried to get back into Germany to go get some family members – and there’s a Clark Gable anecdote involved.

  4. Maureen says:

    I freaking love Mary Astor, I think I might have shared that fact with you before! In fact one of my proudest moments, at the TCM film festival they usually have a fun, but hard quiz event (with video or pictures) at the beginning of the festival. You pick 4 people for a team, so it is a great way to meet other people. Anyway, the last year we were there, there was a bonus question, showing a woman wearing a scarf that covered everything but her eyes. I said “Mary Astor!”. My team was amazed I was right, and one woman said “how in the world did you know that?”. Simple answer-I adore her.

    I have a hard time picking my favorite movie of hers, because I love all the parts of her career. The Great Lie, with Bette Davis-is a huge favorite. I love Dodsworth, because I am crazy about the main character, and for him to hook up with Mary Astor? Dream come true. The Palm Beach Story-she is ABSOLUTELY hilarious in that. Perfect comic timing. So much so, I watched it several weeks ago, and kept replaying her parts.

    So, I have made a very strict budget for my amazon buys this year, but this is first on my wish list. I cannot wait to read it. I did read the Vanity Fair article, and that just whetted my appetite.

    Thanks so much for this post!

    • sheila says:

      Maureen –

      // I said “Mary Astor!”. My team was amazed I was right, and one woman said “how in the world did you know that?”. Simple answer-I adore her. //


      Palm Beach Story is a total favorite!

      If you look at her career, there are so many different phases of it – with a couple of different Personae – young ingenue, leading lady, femme fatale, matriarch – I’m probably missing a few.

  5. KC says:

    I love this book and the Joseph Egan book about Astor and her diaries that was published last year as well. The Sorel book is particularly fun because it is so sexy. Some of those pictures are really something!

    • sheila says:

      They really are! I love the one early on where she’s on the set with John Barrymore and he is a gigantic figure and she is like this teeny tiny little thing next to him – the perspective is all off. It’s so exactly what that dynamic was like. And THEN, later on, when she’s on the stand at the trial – SHE is the outsize huge one, everyone else is tiny.

      I love his writing, too – I learned a lot, but I love his attitude. The attitude of a FAN, not a scholar. There’s something so refreshing about it, and how he just puts it out there. “I love her. I have loved her for 50 years. Here’s a book about it.” hahaha It’s so great!

      I reviewed the book for Ebert – it’ll probably come out today.

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