About two weeks ago, the Siren logged into her email and found a note from one Marylyn Roh of Utah. Subject heading: Mary Astor.
I just crossed your blog postings about my mother, Mary Astor. Yes, I am that child of custody you mentioned, Marylyn Hauoli Thorpe (Roh). (6/15/32)
That got the Siren’s attention, all right.
…Always I learn more things each time I read something about Mom, knowing that much must be taken with a grain of salt.It was fun reading. I don't blog or Facebook, but if you'd like to know stuff about her, that you don't already know, I'll be glad to add my two bits. I just received a bio book of Ann Harding by Scott O'Brien which I helped him with a bit in that way. Mom and Ann did Holiday together - she was expecting me during the making of that picture.
I'm always surprised that Mom still has so many fans all over the world - she died 9/1987.
The Siren wrote back immediately to say that in our corner of the Web, the name Mary Astor still means a great deal. Last week, for example, the Siren watched Meet Me in St. Louis with her daughter and was entranced all over again with one of Mary Astor's small moments. It's the scene where the father tells them they are moving to New York and then, in a quintessentially male gesture, tries to ameliorate this catastrophe by making them eat cake. He cuts a huge piece for Astor; she makes a weary face, takes her fork, cuts off one finger-size sliver and slides it onto her plate. There is so much in that little cake maneuver--her unhappiness over the move, her resignation that she isn't going to change her husband's mind, her still wanting him to know she's upset. Watching Mary Astor in even the least of her many movies always yields such a moment, and it's why so many cinephiles treasure her memory.
Well, Marylyn turned out to be a joy, and she was happy to give some sharp, forthcoming answers to the Siren’s questions about her mother and her own life as a child of Golden Age Hollywood.
Cobbled together from several different emails, here is what we talked about.
For background on my discussion with Marylyn, you can check my old post, as well as this beautiful Slant Magazine essay by the awesome Dan Callahan. One of Marylyn's grandchildren, Andrew Yang, has a blog where he writes of his famous great-grandmother from time to time, and if you click through you can see a wonderful, rare photo of Astor with James Dean. See also this great L.A. Times blog post, about the custody battle for Marylyn, by the ever-excellent writer (and Siren Facebook pal) Larry Harnisch.
Your mother is one of the few Golden Age actresses, aside from her friend Bette Davis, who talked extensively in her memoirs about technique and preparing for roles. Did you ever see any of these preparations, or did she talk to you about them?
No, the only prep I witnessed was how she memorized her scripts. She took ten matches and counted how many times she took to memorize a paragraph or scene. With her gone from 5:30 am to midnight or so, I didn't see any preparation, even when I was on set.
Did you ever spend time on her sets? Was it fun, or a chore?
Yes, many hours on the set when the nanny was off. I met many stars over the years. But if you knew me, you'd know I have never been hooked on celebrity. They were not the people they were on film. They were just doing their job. I had a crush at age nine on Bogie. Heh heh. On Meet Me in St. Louis, I met Judy and the rest of the cast. She was darling in those years. Little Women gave me the chance to have lunch at the commissary with Liz Taylor. Lavender-eyed beauty, always late on the set. Mom was ALWAYS on time--which she gave to me. Fun most of the time, but tedious when all you really do is sit around and wait for the cue to get up and "act." Even though I had acting talent, I am grateful to have stayed clear of that kind of life.
Have to tell you this "funny" before leaving this question. We were in the mountain location for Brigham Young, Frontiersman in Big Bear, Calif., (1939?) and it was hot and out in the fields with horses and equipment all around. There had been an unbearably long silence. This seven-year-old could stand it no longer. Apparently, the cast was doing their lines out of my hearing range, and M was a part of it. I yelled out, "IS SHE WORKING YET?” They had to do the whole scene entirely over again. Bux bux bux. $$
Are you laughing yet? M was really sore at me.
I am laughing, because I can hear one of my seven-year-olds doing the same thing. When I wrote about her before, I said it was evident to me that acting never engaged Astor's full intelligence. Do you agree? What sort of intellectual outlets did she rely on--books, current events, socializing with like-minded people?
She was a rabid reader of heavy-duty history books mostly. She was definitely multitalented. She did put her all into her roles, for sure. She was a legend. A very unique personality. You either loved her or couldn't stand her! Years ago during World War II she knitted socks for the service men. She enjoyed playing the piano, and was an avid classical music fan. Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Gershwin, et al. Read in her first book of how she stopped singing.
Brilliant mind; she was self-taught because she left school after 8th grade. Remember that her dad, Otto Langhanke, had $$ in his eyes once she entered the beauty contest. She didn't win, but he hauled her off to Jesse Lasky's office for an interview. She was deeply scarred by ol' Otto. What greed!
As for socializing--her 3rd husband, Mike Del Campo, was a playboy and they did some heavy-duty nightclubbing. But she hated it because she was the one who had to get up to get to the studio. Mike was gorgeous, and at age seven what does a little girl (me) know about playboys, nightlife, the hot-and-heavy and seedy side of the industry. My mother divorced him because of his not being dependable, not a “husband,” which she couldn't maintain anyway with her career--and he was in the RCAF in England. He was a lush and an opportunist. Nice enough, and I really liked him a lot, if and when I saw him. After their split, Mom and I lived in a huge Georgian mansion with my baby brother, and servants. She threw parties; Bogie and I chatted for a bit. He was nice.
Although she never says so explicitly in her two autobiographies, it seems that John Barrymore was the real love of your mother's life, and that he had a huge influence on her acting as well. By far the most heartbreaking passage in A Life on Film is her encounter with him shortly before he died; you can see how protective she was of his memory. Did you have the same impression? Did she ever speak of him to you?
Oh my yes. Again ol' Otto got in the way. [Note: Astor said Langhanke’s influence made Barrymore despair of the relationship with her, and Barrymore moved on to Dolores Costello.] Yet here was a non husband-type that might have been my father. She had to make a choice. Otto was a toughie. No thanks. JB taught her elocution for two years when sound came along and actors dropped away like flies because of their lousy speaking voices, and M, as you know, had a perfect speaking voice, without her Midwest twang. She told me a lot about "Jack" Barrymore, but probably not much more than you know from your sources. Yes, that was a sad encounter. They looked fabulous onscreen together, viz. Beau Brummel.
Astor was also very frank, in a way most actresses aren't, about the psychological difficulty of making the transition to “mother” roles when she was still under 40 and attractive. Did you see any impact from that at home?
You don't wanna know about how frank she was. I’m sometimes accused of the same behavior and I shrink with horror at the idea.
I didn’t see the difficulty especially. I think she felt the fall from more specialized roles. She was an active alcoholic, and the 40s were especially hard on her. Although the change to TV appearances took its toll on her, it encouraged her to finally begin writing as she always wanted to. She didn't feel glamorous any more. It was too much trouble to be dressed up, to go to the set. Both my brother and I were in boarding schools; she was married off and on. What kind of life is that?
I don’t want to pry too much…
Pry away girl!
All right then. When did you see her alcoholism come into full force? Did she quit drinking permanently, or take it up again later?
Let's put it this way. I imagine M had been drinking fairly heavily a long time before I noticed it. When I was a teen coming home on weekends from boarding school, my stepfather [fourth husband Thomas Gordon Wheelock] and she were heavy at it. They always had weekend drinking friends over and it would get louder and louder--one guy was a songwriter and another played whore-house piano. HA! My sainted mother gave me rum and cokes (deadly) to drink during my 14th summer. Eek! While I drank with my husband years later, I only remember one time I was actually out of it! Never came near being addicted. I haven't had anything heavy since 1972.
I know she at one time got so bad she did a job on her wrists in the bathtub, my sister-in-law found her, and my brother was booked for questioning. I know that in her young New York theatre years, she'd party with drug-lit people. I imagine she did her share of heavy everything. She had the reputation of never drinking on the set.
Did you want to know this much?! There was actually a two-year stretch when she was writing she was dry. But then she was back to square one when her Siamese kitty was killed by a German shepherd before her eyes. So yes, she took it up then--and until about 1985--because she had to stay in the Motion Picture Country Hospital. She was there until her death. Emphysema, heart disease. And, obviously, she HAD to quit smoking--at last!
There have been many instances of children of stars who grew up bitter and maladjusted. You, however, seem to have turned out secure and happy, with a genuine admiration for your mother--this after being the subject of one of Hollywood's most famous custody disputes. Do you have any observations about life as the child of a star?
Well, I'll tell you, I don't know about being all that secure, or "unmaladjusted!" I have chronic anxiety, for one thing. I was married for 57 years to Frank Roh. We had four children, then 33 grand and great-grand children. I think about schoolmate Shirley Temple and Margaret O’Brian, who were deadly doted on by their parents on the set. I'm glad I never got into the business.
I loved my mother, but was usually scared of her. I never won. She was always right. I was always “Mary Astor's daughter,” which in a way was a burden, being only recognized as such. I was her "shadow" for years--not good! (Boring! Are you asleep yet?)
My favorite Mary Astor performance (and that of many other film writers) is her superb work in Dodsworth, the movie she was making during the legal battle over you.
Of course! It was also her favorite of them all.
Which of her movies are your favorites? Are there any relatively obscure movies that you think people should seek out?
I think Red Dust is pretty sultry. I love The Maltese Falcon over and over, and Little Women and Meet Me in St. Louis. I'm a silents fan, so any of those are fun. (I'm also a Chaplin fan.)
There isn't a lot of material out there about your mother's waning years. Can you fill in any of the blanks?
She wanted it that way, just to kind of blend in with the scenery when she worked mostly in television; those years aren't covered in her two books. I can’t really fill things in. I didn't see her much in those years; I was married in 1950 and in my own world of a teen mother.
Was novel-writing a large source of contentment for her?
She loved it, but her subject matter was a bit too lurid for me. And boring. A Life on Film and Mary Astor: My Story were readable and were best sellers for a short time. My favorite chapter in ALOF: "What It’s Like to Kiss Clark Gable." Heh heh.
I read A Place Called Saturday, which I guess fulfills your adjective "lurid," as it's about a woman who is raped, conceives a child and refuses to have an abortion.
You know, Farran, frankly I had to force myself to read two of her novels, beside the bios. She definitely had a talent and a way with words, but to me, they were just boring. She probably took snippets of her life as an abused child and experiences. She had a great imagination as well. That's what made her good at her crafts of writing and acting. She couldn't speak in front of people without a script though. No teleprompters in those days!
She had talent, alright. She also was an avid reader of anything she could get her hands on, even the medicine bottles around her. (She told me that she always looked around for something to read. That's pretty desperate. Ha!) With me, it's crosswords. It infuriated her that I couldn't read like she could; I had astigmatism as a child and now. She also played the piano, (The Great Lie), painted and sculpted, and was an avid "birder." She loved nature. She didn't really like people very much. She was pretty much "on stage" at any one time, i.e., the center of attention.
How often did you visit her at the Motion Picture Country House? Was she happy there?
M lived about 10 years at the MPCH. She had her own little cottage with her personal belongings. She ate her meals in the common dining room, she had her own little table, so she wouldn’t have to listen to the "old folks" and their "organ recitals"--my kidney this, my bladder did that, my eyes this, my heart that. Organs! (Was she funny or not!) She was happy enough there where she could do her writing away from “people.” She couldn't “stand all those old people,” she told me. She also claimed it was hard for her to see her peers at the place leave the planet before her. “Why can't I go too,” she'd say. She made it to 81, in spite of how badly she treated her body.
Yes, I visited her as often as I could, but I had children, and she couldn't stand them for more than 15 minutes. I also lived at a distance--the final years, a three-hour drive from the mountains--ironically, back in Big Bear, Calif. We had a set-to my last visit, where she simply told me to GO! I went, and never saw her alive again. She died four months after.
What made her a unique actress?
I believe it's the various painful experiences she suffered throughout her life. Abuse, early widowhood, four husbands, her own temperament, alcoholism, and her own drive for perfection! She was scarred by a lot of it, yet she was indomitable, picked herself up and carried on, in spite of three tries at suicide.
You knew all that though, right?
Many thanks, Marylyn, for giving so generously of your time and memories.
Say hi to your readers and tell them I appreciate their support for Mary. She would have loved it, and would have written a few comments with her own special wit.
(Except for the stills from Beau Brummel, Dodsworth and Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte, all pictures are courtesy of Marylyn Roh. From top: Marylyn's favorite picture of her mother and herself. Next: "This is Mom and her green 1934 (?) Cadillac LaSalle in front of the house where I was a new baby. It was a wonderful Spanish home in the area of a lot of stars' homes in Toluca Lake, Calif. Bing and Bob were just down the street. Harold Arlen lived across the little manmade lake from us." Next, a publicity shot of a young and gorgeous Astor. Finally, Marylyn as a young mother, aged 20.)