Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American
Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel
Liveright, 2016; 176 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
For half a century, author Edward Sorel has wrestled with the idea of telling the story of actress Mary Astor. He first discovered her in the 1960s when tearing up the floor in his railroad flat where he found newspapers from the 1930s laid out to make things level. The covers of the newspapers spoke at length about the then notorious divorce case/custody battle involving Astor and her husband. To sway the trial in his favor, Astor’s husband used his wife’s diary as leverage against her, claiming it contained a history of her sordid lifestyle that would destroy her in the eyes of the public. Riveted by this Hollywood scandal, Sorel has written Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, a page-turner that’s part biography, autobiography, and graphic novel.
Sorel begins in the early years of Astor’s life when she moved out to Hollywood with her parents after landing a contract. The still virginal Astor worked with some of the film industry’s biggest stars and contended with her parents, her father specifically, and the control they had over both her career and finances. As silent gave way to talkies, Astor’s star rose, but her struggling marriages and an affair with playwright George Kaufman nearly destroyed her career and reputation. Fans of Astor will know that her career highs like The Maltese Falcon and Meet Me in St. Louis still lay ahead of her, but Sorel still manages to create tremendous tension out of the outcome that made the front pages across the country.
Readers can tell just how much Sorel knows and respects Astor given that he does not dare waste time discussing the slanderous gossip that plagued Astor. He’s a protective author when it comes to his subject, always eager to lend tales from his own life story to draw parallels and interpret what he can never know. Given the potentially lurid nature Astor’s story, Sorel infuses Mary Astor’s Purple Diary with a surprising amount of care regarding Astor’s legacy specifically that she was still a human being despite her flaws and mistakes.