Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"You Don't Wanna Know About How Frank She Was:" A Conversation with Marylyn Roh About Her Mother, Mary Astor

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.)


rudyfan1926 said...

Wow, fantastic! A devoted Mary Astor fan here. This is a thrill your being able to share this.

My favorites, Dodsworth, The Great Lie, Maltese Falcon and Across the Pacific. She's beautiful in Beau Brummell, Don Q and Don Juan.

Thank you for sharing this interview and to Marilyn for sharing her memories of her still fabulous mother.

Tom Russell said...

Thanks for sharing this. Twas informative, and it was neat to get a glimpse of Astor through her daughter's eyes.

Hazel said...

This was a wonderful treat.

Thank you both for sharing.

The Siren said...

Donna, Tom & Hazel, thanks so much. I know Marylyn is eager to hear what people have to say. I loved doing this post so much; she is so much fun to correspond with, you have no idea.

Dan Leo said...

On the occasions when I've seen someone "famous" in person I always think, Hmm, a human being just like anyone else...

Very nice to get this daughter's-eye look at the living woman that was Mary Astor.

Vanwall said...

Wonderful interview! Marylyn Roh was very kind to pass on all this to Siren's devoted Mary Astor fans, thanks very much!

P.S. The gearhead in me sez it's a '34 or '35 Auburn 851, not a Caddy/La Salle - and a classier ride, too!

NicksFlickPicks said...

Wow, what an interview! I adore Mary Astor's work. Thanks so much for posting this, and to Marylyn for proving that you can be forthcoming without being tactless. Other Men's Women is a favorite of mine that is well-known to "film people" but still doesn't have a high public profile.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, the Siren does not drive and does not know from cars, and you may well be right. But that is one gorgeous automobile, whatever it is. Her pride shines out of the photo.

Dan & Nick, thanks very much. Marylyn has a deep appreciation of what her mother means to classic film fans, and I think it shows.

Trish said...

One of my earliest memories is reading a chapter from one of her books as published in Reader's Digest condensed books. At that time my only knowledge of her was from Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte on Friday fright night in the sixties. Nowadays, my favourites are Dodsworth and Red Dust. Thank you, Siren, and Marilyn.

eva said...

What a joy that must have been! It feel so different hearing about stars from people who knew them rather than biographers or whatever. It feels like the stories are more genuine. (Whether that's true or not is obviously debatable!) Anyway it's also interesting to see how other people who actually knew them perceived them. Thanks for sharing!

I haven't seen all of them but my favourite Astor movie that i've seen by far is 'The Maltese Falcon.' I love duplicitous characters like that, and I think Mary Astor gives a great performance. I also think the cinematography in that movie is really beautiful.

I have been lurking on your blog for years by the way! Since i'm pretty young and only a a novice classics lover, You've inspired me and influenced the movies I watch quite a bit.

steve simels said...

That was a real treat, and thank you for posting it.

Nice to know Astor thought her work in "Dodsworth" was her best, BTW, as its long been one of my favorites. Of course, there's "The Palm Beach Story," too...

"Neets, Snoodles!!!"

The Siren said...

Steve, Marylyn and I didn't discuss Palm Beach Story OR Midnight, which I also find hilarious. Astor had great comic timing.

Eva, I am always so happy when someone de-lurks. From my stats I can see all these people hanging out and I always wonder what they're thinking. I mean, for all I know they come here to get mad at me and leave. (Not really, but how would I know?) The Maltese Falcon is one of those unassailable classics that gives pleasure over and over and doesn't disappoint when you see it the first time. And I think Astor is fantastic in it.

Trish, My Story is good and very brave in a lot of ways, but I really love A Life on Film for all the filmmaking detail it gives. It's unusual in that regard. Also, she was very funny, as Marylyn points out. Astor was the one who originated the joke about the five stages of an actress's career: "Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?"

Fiona said...

That was a fascinating interview, Farran! They both sound like characters (which is a great thing, in my estimation).

Karen said...

Oh my heavens, what riches! Warmest regards to Marylyn, who may suffer from anxiety but surely has no visible traces of it.

You know well, Siren, that I'm often happiest not knowing that much about my Hollywood heroes' lives, preferring to revel in their roles (my eternal exception, of course, being Cagney, whose autobiography I devoured, despite it revealing so much less than I'd expected). It saddens me to learn of Astor's unhappiness, her alcoholism, her emotional scars.

It is heartening, though, to see that it seems not to have taken too dire a toll on her daughter, at least, and somehow it is easier to me hearing these stories from actors' children.

At any rate, as has already been made abundantly clear, this blog is Astor-Love Central and Marylyn, her memories, and her photos are welcome. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a single favorite Astor film, since her career contains so many different phases, but The Palm Beach Story has got to rank pretty high.

Thanks again, to you and to Marylyn, for a terrific post!

Meredith said...

this is absolutely fantastic! i love mary astor as a performer but was even more impressed by her writings, especially a life on film which is one of my favorites. She really tells it like it is with her own special flair and there's something incredibly refreshing about it. It's wonderful that Marylyn was willing to share some of her own thoughts and that you have passed it along to all of us!

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Just saw Mary Astor in an episode of "Burke's Law", an early 60s detective show famous for the oddball casting (Joan Blondell and Don Rickles were in the same ep). She played an older woman, the discarded first wife, and just blew everyone else away.

Not my favorite actress, but you could sure see the quality there.

Greg said...

Simply wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing that with all of us.

sobrien31 said...

Your interview with Marylyn is not only very informative, but highly entertaining … and, important. This is exactly how I felt about what Marylyn had to share with me when I was researching Ann Harding. What Marylyn had to say provided a wonderful counterpoint to Ann’s story—especially those final years.
You posted some great photos. The one of Marylyn could easily pass as Mary's twin sister. Stunning-looking women. Scott O'Brien

hamletta said...

This was a treat!

Marylyn sounds like a lovely woman. I'm grateful to her for sharing her memories.

I agree that Dodsworth is awesome, but everybody in that movie is awesome, so Miss Astor doesn't stand out that much.

But she walks away with The Palm Beach Story. It's like watching Jimi Hendrix play guitar or something. Everybody else is strumming away quite capably, then Mary Astor shows up and blows your mind.

Yojimboen said...

In gratitude to Marylyn Roh, and in a special Hommage to her mother Mary Astor…

The Lux Radio Theater ran from 1934 to 1952 – the broadcasts were one-hour radio adaptations of current hit films - in other words, the movies we all love - usually with the same cast but not always.
(e.g. The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland .)

There were 92 broadcasts in all – available for streaming (or downloading) free of charge here.

Mary Astor appeared in six of the shows; titles and dates below.
(The site is user-friendly and easy to navigate.)

"THESE THREE" 12-06-37
Mary Astor, Barbara Stanwyck, Errol Flynn,

Mary Astor, Miriam Hopkins, Henry Fonda

Mary Astor, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart

"TRADE WINDS" 03-04-40
Mary Astor, Errol Flynn, Joan Bennett

"THE GREAT LIE" 03-02-42
Mary Astor, Loretta Young, George Brent

"CYNTHIA" 06-23-47
Mary Astor, Elizabeth Taylor, George Murphy.

A complete index of the shows can be found here.

A treasure trove for all us old movie nuts.


Eddie Selover said...

Wow, that was so great! Thank you Siren. Like someone said on Facebook, you're a public service.

Like you I watched Meet Me in St. Louis the other night on TCM, and I noticed that same moment with the cake. Also the scene where she plays the piano and sings with Leon Ames, and there's this palpable marital thing between them, a mixture of complicated emotions. As so often, she seems to be acting in a much darker and more adult movie than the other actors.

When her vibe matched up with a movie's, though, watch out... she's riveting and terrifying in three in particular: Act of Violence, Desert Fury, and A Kiss Before Dying (with no real lines, she supplies a whole messy backstory in the last one). Fascinating to read about what she drew on for these performances, and what she was like offscreen. Man I'd love to have known her; your piece brought her tantalizingly close.

Her daughter mentioned Red Dust... have to mention my favorite moment of Astor's whole career. She returns to her tiny room after her first tryst with Clark Gable. Slowly she lies fully clothed on the unmade bed and runs her hand up and down, staring up, stunned... You can see their whole encounter on her face, and it's just about the hottest thing ever put on film. The censors must have noticed, because that little scene is scissored out of most prints now, but I'll never, never forget it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks to both of you, great interview. So nice when somebody who knows comes and fills in the blanks.

The Siren said...

Fi, you're becoming a regular here, and that too is a great thing. :)

Karen, The Palm Beach Story really does rank high, and it was one of Astor's last full-out glamor parts.

Meredith, after doing this interview I definitely came to share Marylyn's admiration for her mother's sheer guts.

DavidEhrenstein said...

This is superb, Siren!

I always say my chief role model is Mary Astor in The Palm Beach Story. What a movie! You don't thenk anything can top "The Ale and Quail Club" and then she comes along.

I recall when she was staying at the Motion Picture Home because Bill and I used to go out to see Fayard Nicholas there (he eventually left when he got married again. She was always in her room, and I',s not suprised as there was a lot of squabbling among some of the residents. Mae Clark was particularly disliked for some reason. Still there was great fun to be had. One afternoon Little Richard came by and sang and played piano for everyone. He's such a delight.

Marilyn Roh sounds really sharp -- which is what I'd suspect from Mary Astor's daughter, and anyone who grew up in that world at that time and knew the score.

What you say about the cake in Meet Me in St. Louis is quite true. But Mary Astor can be speelbinding when she's just standing still in medium long-shoturrounded by other actors, as she does in several key scenes in The Maltese Falcon

The Siren said...

Greg, thanks--I am always happy to post something that draws you out.

Bev, Blondell, Astor AND Rickles? Oddball casting indeed! Sounds worth catching.

Scott, thank you so much for dropping by! I fully intend to get your Harding bio; she's an actress I discovered only recently, and it is good to see her getting more attention as she deserves. I still need to catch Holiday, as a matter of fact. Your Kay Francis bio also helped bring that actress to a wider public, and we're all very grateful for that as well.

I'd like to draw everyone's attention to another comment that Scott O'Brien just left on my Myrna Loy post of some time ago. He relayed a lovely anecdote about both Myrna, and our beloved Kay. Right here.

The Siren said...

Hamletta, it's so true about Palm Beach Story. I happen to think the cast there is pretty great too, but Astor walks off with every scene she's in, and does it with fairly simple lines delivered with cut-glass timing: "Of course, I'm crazy. I'll marry anybody." "Nothing's eternal in this life, dear, except Roosevelt." "I grow on people. Like moss."

Yojimboen, looking at those casts makes me wonder how things went during the recording sessions. How did Astor get along with the notoriously difficult Miriam Hopkings, for example? Of course it was probably not a long day's work, but Hopkins could make a single hour an ordeal, from what I've read. (Not meant as an insult. I love my Miriam.)

The Siren said...

Edward, I think anyone who reads this blog knows Dan Callahan is just about my favorite writer on old-time actors, but I don't agree with him 100% on everything and I don't agree with him about Astor playing mothers. He says she never seems entirely maternal; my take is that she does, it's just that as you say, she "seems to be acting in a darker and more adult movie than the other actors." There's subtext to her mothers and a knowledge there that, pace MGM and its eternal focus on the Happy Family, motherhood is not all tucking into people into bed and being the angel of the house. There's such a thing as mother anger, and it's there in Astor, whether the script has it or not.

Jacqueline, I was pretty sure you'd like this one!

The Siren said...

David, I remember you talking about the MPCH when Astor came up before, and so Marylyn's comment about her mother's dislike of "organ recitals" was particularly funny to me. What an incredible thing that must have been, visiting there when there were so many legends about. You and Marylyn would like each other a lot, and I can't help thinking it's a pity your paths didn't cross there!

Operator_99 said...

Isn't it great when what you do every day leads to an opportunity like this. So glad Marilyn found you, the perfect person to share her memories with. Wonderful questions, and great open responses from Marilyn (Thanks Marilyn).

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Fayard with his last wife.

The Siren said...

The Nicholas brothers were walking gods. Fayard's last wife is gorgeous.

Operator_99, I still can't believe she wrote to me, but I am so glad she did!

StyleSpy said...

Wow. That was just... wow.

X. Trapnel said...

No surprise to see that our hostess is a wonderful interviewer both for asking the most interesting questions and bringing out the personality of her subject. Marilyn Roh sounds like a terrific lady. Like Karen, I prefer not to read about the chaos/unhappiness attendent upon the lives of movie stars. This is not so much from a desire to preserve some idealized image, but rather a naive wish that they could have had some personal happiness in proportion to all the pleasure and inspiration they've given.

Very pleased that Ms. Roh remembers Bogie as a nice chap.

Another great Mary Astor performance to be noted is her prostitute in Act of Violence.

Clipper said...

It wasn't until I saw Act of Violence (which my wife and I refer to as "the angry man movie") that I appreciated Mary Astor fully. I felt that anyone who had been a leading lady, with all that that means, and could then appear in front of the camera as an older, tobacco-stained, alcohol-soaked prostitute, was a true giant in her art.

Thank you so much for the personal insight from her daughter.

Vanwall said...

I have to say this about "The Maltese Falcon" - it was pretty much acted as writ, and they chose the parts very well; that said Mary Astor created a deeper character than Brigid in the book, a more human one, too. Now when I read the book, I see Mary Astor instead of the original incarnation in my head, which ain't a bad thing.

M Yo - thanks for the link to the radio shows. As an aside, try catching Cary Grant in the Screen Directors Playhouse version of "Shadow of a Doubt". His version of the “Silly Women” monologue is chilling.

Dan Callahan said...

So happy to read this and hear from Marylyn; the physical resemblance to her mother is startling in that photograph.

On TCM, I just caught a Gregory La Cava movie with Astor called "Smart Woman," from 1931, a play adaptation where she is very much center stage at all times and has to carry it as a vehicle, and she holds the whole film together beautifully.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

Siren, thank you so very much for this! A wonderful treat for all of us!

Ladybug said...
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Gabby said...

Well done on getting Mom to open up! She thinks no one could possibly be interested in her memories...and there are many interesting ones. As an aside, the MPCH did a rotten job of taking care of granmommie's possessions when she went into the hospital there. They "misplaced" two lovely charcoals of her dog Jasper drawn by Picasso for her with a lovely mushy note from him (he had a little crush on her)and, a wonderful large Hirschfeld (New Yorker covers) watercolor painting which was a gift from the entire Maltese Falcon cast hunched over "the bird" with every cast member's signature, i.e., "no one can hold the liquor like you Mary, Bogie". MPCH's response to the loss? "oops!" Not my favorite people.

Eurappeal said...

That was a wonderful interview. Thank you and Marylyn so much.

I've been a classic movie fan since I was a child, and my love and admiration for Mary Astor has skyrocketed in the past several years due to TCM. I adore her in The Maltese Falcon, The Great Lie, Dodsworth, and Meet Me in St Louis. I must watch The Palm Beach Story again -- it's been years.

Now that I understand The Maltese Falcon (when I was a child I couldn't figure out what the heck was going on), I love her in it. She and Bogart are great together, and my favorite scene is when she can't believe Sam won't play the sap for her.

Being a huge William Powell fan, I am deeply disappointed that she and Powell weren't romantically attached in The Kennel Murder Case. I know it can't happen in a Philo Vance movie, but drat, those two were so gorgeous in 1933!

I recorded Beau Brummell off TCM recently just to see Astor and Barrymore together, having read so much over the years about them. My goodness, they were beautiful together.

Again, thank you and Marylyn for the interview. It was very generous of her.

panavia999 said...

Wonderful read. Many thanks.
Mary Astor is one of my favorite actress and favorite beauties.

Artman2112 said...

what a great post!! i think there are few performances by an actress as good or as memorable as Mary Astor in the Falcon but she was always worth seeing in a picture and the picture was always the better for having her in it.

Ty Siren and TY Marylyn!

Robert Avrech said...

Riveting interview. It's wonderful to come across a Hollywood child who escaped the dysfunction and established a normal life. Marilyn sounds like a wonderful level-headed lady.

Mary Astor's detailed technical description of kissing Clark Gable on the set of "Red Dust" might be the best film writing from a working actress I have ever read.

I'll never forget the first time I saw Mary Astor opposite Barrymore in "Beau Brummel," 1924. She was 18 years old and the most beautiful creature I had ever seen in my life. From that film and Astor's performance I understood what Hollywood stardom was all about.

Amber Volle said...

My name is Amber (Roh) Volle, a great-granddaughter to Mary Astor. My grandmother Marylyn just emailed the link to read this. What a treat to get to know Mary a little bit more, she's always been a bit of a mystery to me. This has given me the motivation to do a little reasearching myself. Thanks so much for sharing.

Clara Fercovic said...

Wow, thank u and thanks to Marylyn, great interview.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Beautiful piece, Siren. Thank you.

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned "Desert Fury," at least that I've seen. Not even David E. An awfully good Astor performance, and what brings it to mind is the vague memory of having read where Astor's daughter spoke of the dangers of MA bringing her Fritzi character, a sharp-tongued mother, home with her.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Delightful! I always loved Astor's voice, and now I know I have Barrymore to thank.

Eddie Selover said...

Hey, MrsHenryWindleVale:

What am I, chopped liver? I may not be David E., but I did mention Desert Fury -- see above. If it weren't buried in MCA/Universal limbo, it would be acclaimed as the classic it is.

p.s. it makes a great double bill with Elvis Presley's wonderful second film, Loving You.

The Siren said...

StyleSpy, it is nice to see you. Great shoes. As I'd expect.

Avalon76, thanks so much!

Carl & XT, Astor's performance in Act of Violence is fearless, which is just about the best adjective I can apply to an actor.

Dan C., how very funny - I just caught the same La Cava movie, and had the same impression. Her reaction to her husband's betrayal is just note-perfect.

The Siren said...

Gabrielle & Amber, Marylyn is an altogether splendid woman and corresponding with her has been one of my best experiences as a blogger. I'm so happy you both liked the interview. Marylyn's spirit was all over her every answer.

The Siren said...

Panavia, Artman, Buttermilk Sky and Clara -- thanks so much for reading.

Robert, I also love Astor with Barrymore in Don Juan, a less happy filming experience for her but a remarkably sexy movie, with a seduction scene in Astor's bedroom that still plays very steamy to the Siren.

Eurappeal, I agree that Powell and AStor would have made a great screen couple. She could certainly play comedy and he had amazing chemistry with just about all his leading ladies.

The Siren said...

Mrs HWV and Edward -- the Siren hasn't seen Desert Fury and clearly she needs to remedy that.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Beat me to it. I was about to mention Desert Fury.

You can find my nearly-book-length essya "Desert Fury Mon Amour" in Film Quarterly: Forty Years -- A Selection (University of California Press, 1999)

It can also be downloaded for a nominal fee.

Krystin said...

Siren, I'm Mary's granddaughter... Marylyn is my "Auntie M". Her brother is my father. This was a wonderful treat to read! Like Gabby said, it's hard to get Auntie M to open up and I'm glad you did! It's wonderful to see that Mary still has so many fans. PS- Dad was never "booked"... just questioned about the incident because he found her (she called folks & he drove over), but it was obvious to police what happened...
Thanks again for this post!

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

My apologies, Edward. You are clearly steak (as the old ad used to say). It's just my own memory that's in question.

This is where I should say that David E's "Desert Fury" essay is really, really good. I read it and loved it before I got to know him. When I learned that he and the author of that piece were the same person, my response was "Hurray!"

DavidEhrenstein said...


Tom Block said...

That's a terrific essay, David.

DavidEhrenstein said...


jonerik said...

Love this post! I wonder about whether actors like Mary Astor are really "just like the rest of us." Obviously she was very talented and very disciplined and determined to stay in a cutthroat business despite handicaps like addictions and children. Thanks to Marylyn and granddaughter Krystin for sharing with us all.

gmoke said...

What a strong woman Mary Astor must have been. When I googled to refresh what little memory I have of the diary scandal, I quickly stopped because it felt like such a shameful invasion of her privacy. For her to have gone through that in the 1930s and remained in the business and successful and to raise a family all at the same time is amazing to me.

Her performances were always distinctive and of high quality. Lots of intelligence even when she was playing scatter-brained in something like "Palm Beach Story."

"Neetz, Toto" indeed.

PS: Glad to see her family has been reading too. Talk to the older folk around you, they have a lot of great stories that shouldn't be lost.

Mary said...

I believe the house is still there beside the Lake in Toluca Lake on Toluca Lake Ave. It's only a few blocks from Warner Bros.

Arthur, King of the Britains said...

Hi, My name is Arthur I think It's really cool to see someone be so devoted to my Great Grandmothers work, Marylyn is my Grandma, my mothers mother. Mary Astor passed away just before I turned 5 so I have no recollection of her as a person just a couple photos of her holding me as a baby. I really do wish I knew her as a person I think we would have gotten along well. I appreciate your blog and the kind words you have to say about such a wonderful woman and actress. My favorite movie of hers is Listen Darling with Judy Garland I still have an old VHS copy of it at home.

This post made me happy to read and learn small tidbits I didn't know about her already.

My younger brother Andrew is the one that blogs about her here and there and definately knows a lot more about her than I do. I forgot about the photos of her with James Dean until you resposted a link to them on your post.

Andrew finds all sorts of odds and ends and small memorabila in NY where he resides, that he shares with the family. I have a beautiful 24X36 photo poster of her up in my house that I'd love to share with you and a lot of old articles, pictures and newsclippings that were given to me in a box.

Im sure I've rambled enough though.
I'd love to correspond with you.

Thank You


Eddie Selover said...

Desert Fury is on youtube, in a faded print that doesn't come anywhere near doing it justice:


DavidEhrenstein said...

You know it's funny about the diary scandal. Time was when that sort of thing proceeded only so far in the media. It was too much to deal with. Today it would be splashed all over the place 24/7.

bitter69uk said...

What a wonderful, fascinating post. It sounds like Marylyn Roh may have had a bumpy childhood but she's very wry and ultimately affectionate when writing about her mother. Am dying to see Desert Fury: I know it's available on Youtube but I hate watching films on Youtube and am sitting it out for a bit longer in case it turns up on DVD! Lizabeth Scott is so ill-served on DVD (at least in the UK), it's a crime.

The Siren said...

Krystin and Arthur, thank you both so much for stopping by. I am really happy that this is being read by Mary Astor's vast array of descendants; wonderful to know those genes for intelligence, talent and looks aren't going anywhere.

Krystin, thanks for clarifying the aftermath of that suicide attempt; it must have been awful, and I'm glad the police had enough sense to recognize what it was.

Arthur, I haven't seen Listen Darling! There's another one for the list. I would also love to correspond, so please do feel free to drop me a line via email (many others do!); it's campaspe101@yahoo.com.

The Siren said...

Jonerik, welcome! I think that the troubles of stars like Astor are very like the rest of us; the talent is not.

Gmoke, I don't really want to read the whole diary, either, and lord knows I have a thirst for more star knowledge.

Bitteruk, I am reluctant to watch things on youtube as well but I've certainly done it, for Temple Drake and Letty Lynton, among others. If anyone wants to see Desert Fury (thanks Edward) they had better pounce because things get pulled after they are posted here. Not that there's a connection. I think. *narrows eyes*

la peregrina said...

Just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed this post. I found you via Larry Harnisch's blog.

The first movies on television I ever saw with Mary Astor were The Maltese Falcon and Meet Me In St. Louis. At the time I did not realize that Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Anna Smith were the same person. That alone is prove that Mary Astor was a good actor.

As a child I did not like Mary Astor since I was too young to separated actor from performance and thought of her as "that mean lady in The Maltese Falcon." When I was older I watched Return To Payton Place and there on the television screen was that mean lady Mary Astor being her mean old self. I had no respect for her acting ability because, well, how hard could it be to play a mean person when you are one already?

Then came the scene where Mary Astor's character, Mrs. Roberta Carter, who wheeled a lot of influence in the small town of Payton Place, does not get her way and is dressed down for her narrow-minded prejudices in front of most of the town.

At first Mrs. Roberta Carter sits in stunned silence as emotions play across her face- disbelief, confusion, embarrassment, even fear. A frozen smile is the only thing keeping her from breaking down and she slowly gathers her things together and rises, smile in place. She politely nods to the people who have, as she sees it, turned against her and, head held high, walks out of the room.

That is the moment when I realize that Mary Astor wasn't a "mean lady" she was just a hell of an actor. After that I started looking for movies with Mary Astor in them instead of avoiding them. It was one of the best decisions I every made. :)

A.Smith said...

After following you quite silently for a while now, I must come out and say thank you. You fill a void that it should be required reading for those who are curious about the past in its many facets. This Mary Astor fan is deeply grateful for the opportunity to know more about a remarkable woman, and a great artist.
Back to the quiet for me now. Well done and thank you.

Caftan Woman said...

Enthralling read for this fan. I can imagine your thrill at receiving the e-mail.

Every time I watch "The Maltese Falcon" I wish I could give Mary Astor a hug. She nailed it!

I particularly enjoyed your deconstruction of one of my favourite scenes from "Meet Me in St. Louis".

VP81955 said...

Phenomenal interview about one of the more skilled (and relatively unheralded) actresses of the Golden Age. It's wonderful to hear from someone who was there firsthand through family ties, and without any ax to grind. Great job.

undine said...

Thank you for sharing the interview and to Marylyn Roh for sharing the memories. Mary Astor has long been one of my favorite actresses (in Dodsworth and The Great Lie especially.)

The Siren said...

To new commenters Allegra Smith (always loved name Allegra), Caftan Woman (thanks for the Twitter follow!) and Undine (always loved that name too), thanks so much for de-lurking and for the warm praise. It means a lot to me, and I know to Marylyn too. Thanks also to my old pal VP81955, whose good opinion means a great deal.

This is from Marylyn to commenter La Peregrina:

Your description of Mom in Return to Peyton Place was pretty true to life. Do not totally give up the idea of M being a 'mean ol' lady' - she could be that too! Here's what you wrote about her in a scene that changed your mind. At first Mrs. Roberta Carter sits in stunned silence as emotions play across her face- disbelief, confusion, embarrassment, even fear. A frozen smile is the only thing keeping her from breaking down and she slowly gathers her things together and rises, smile in place. She politely nods to the people who have, as she sees it, turned against her and, head held high, walks out of the room. She definitely 'holds' her audience - nothing is an insignificant move - She called them little pieces of business.

I wanted to tell you and the fans of a particular scene(not the one above) where Mary was in a courtroom scene in RTPP - (I don't remember the story) - When it was her turn to speak, she stood up nobly before a circle of at least 100 people in the scene, and gave a 10-minute speech with cameras rolling, and people with dropped jaws, so to speak. - flawlessly - afterward, all the people on the set gave her a standing ovation for her performance. She was known as "One-take Mary"- meaning with her in the scene, there was a strong chance for no retakes of the scene. She was always on time, and dependable to a fault - not keeping others waiting for the 'star' to show up.

Kind of an interesting piece of trivia, huh.

(end Marylyn's comment)

la peregrina said...

Marylyn, that is an interesting piece of trivia. Your mother was definitely a pro. It has been so long since I have seen RTPP that I can only vaguely remember that court room scene. Reading what you have written makes me want to watch it the movie again.

la peregrina said...

How did that "it" get between the words watch and the in my last sentence?

Marylyn said...

I just saw "Act of Violence" last night - You have to wait half the picture before Mary shows up as a prostitute in a bar. She played it to the nines - even speaking with contractions like goin', bein' watchin', etc. So strange for her perfect diction. The movie is typical B picture in the 40's, but a thriller, nevertheless. Mom did a great job, I think. Thanks so much for your kind comments about our interview and Mary Astor. From Marylyn Roh

panavia999 said...

"Act of Violence": I saw this a while back on TCM and even though I knew Astor was in it, I did not recognize her. I thought "who is that actress - her voice is so familiar". It's so unlike her usual roles and she was brilliant.
Besides, with Robert Ryan and Van Heflin, it's got to be interesting.
Highly recommended!

panavia999 said...

ACT OF VIOLENCE will be on TCM again, all times Eastern.
Friday, August 13,2010 2:30 PM
Thursday, September 9,2010 10:00 PM

August 13 is Robert Ryan day!

Unknown said...

How marvelous and generous of the lady to share her memories with you, and thus with us. I read My Story and found it very interesting, and loved Marylyn's reminiscences in the Ann Harding book - hearing her own voice here is icing on the cake. We are truly blessed that she is willing to discuss her mum, and that she is so clear-eyed and witty about everyone's very human foibles. Thanks, Siren, and Thanks, Marylyn!

Graceann Macleod

Miss Monday said...

Thank you so much for that and thank Ms. Roh. I've been a Mary Astor fan since I was a little girl and my mom took me to arts theaters to see her favorite classic films, like The Maltese Falcon.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your time Marylyn. There is a comment that "still interest in Mom". Well,i am just a lowly film buff who enjoys movies and notwithstanding that i have no 'credentials" there is no doubt that your mom Mary Astor was a sterling pioneer who "wrote the script" on acting along with all the other greats like Bogie, Davis, Cagney, Colbert, Hepburn,Robinson, and so many others. In the 20's ,30's and 40's,those in Hollywood,while driven by so many dyanmics, were "making it up" off the cuff and setting the standards and heights that today every actor and director dream about.Yes your Mom Mary Astor along with others of that era "just went to work" but achieved heights that will forever be considered the gold standard of cinema. You Marlyn Roh are blessed with such genes and "quality" (welcome or not) as will be your children. All the best to you.

dzman14 said...

A free PDF of Mary Astor's My Life, An Autobiography is available at the Internet Archive:


Anonymous said...

Wow, just stumbled across this. Great interview, that was a definite find! :)

HarlowFan said...

I am just finishing up Mary Astor's first autobiography. I read A Life On Film several years ago. Having been a classic movie fan all my life, I have always been aware of Mary, as she is in so many of them! The output is enormous. I have never seen her give a bad performance. Her family must feel wonderful knowing the number of fans Mary still has. I recently showed a friend Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Mary's last film. She has 4 minutes in a 2 hour,15 minute film. When it was over, my friend turned to me and said "Hands down, the best performance in the film was Mary Astor. THAT kind of says it all doesn't it? I hope that wherever she is, Mary Astor knows how much joy she is STILL giving people. God bless her.

Anonymous said...

The Maltese Falcon is my favorite all time movie ever.!!!

Preta said...

Ms. Thorpe, I LOVED reading these posts about your mom (I'm a 53 year old black woman who LOVES the movies from 'yesteryear' by the way), and think she was one of the BEST actresses I've ever seen on the screen.
I really enjoyed her performance in Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Impossible Dream', her 'ending' not so much (but she played that part to the hilt though). Thanks for writing to us.
Jeanne M., a Mary Astor fan.

laurelle said...

Hi. Is there any way I can get in contact with Marylyn Roh. My father was Jack Simms and her husband was my father's uncle. When I was a small child, I went to their house in the Pacific Palisades. Thank you!

The Siren said...

CadaDia, drop me a line at the email on the sidebar.

ACare said...

This was great to read! I always wondered what Mary Astor's children thought so this is just phenomenal!

I've loved Mary Astor as an actress ever since I was a teenager - I just can't tell you enough how great it is to read her daughter's comments.

Sarah Jessica Snarker said...

My first introduction to Mary Astor was in 6th grade. Our teacher had a collection of Reader's Digests and I recall reading with great interest "What It Was Like to Kiss Clark Gable" which was excerpted from her autobio. It was very humorous. One part that sticks in my memory is Miss Astor relating how the director, Victor Fleming, kept yelling at her to take off her girdle, because the scene "needed the bounce!" I think I re-read that article about 10 times! Beautiful and intelligent woman...a true original.

Unknown said...

In always found it interesting that a lot of the stars from the 30's and 40's never had there own kids, but adopted instead. So what wonderful legacy, a birth daughter who is willing to share her life with her mom, with the rest of the world and her own kids. Every Wednesday for the month of March, Turner Classic Movies is featuring Mary Astor. I am glued to the TV

Unknown said...

It's so exciting to read all of these informative comments! Just watched Red Dust for the first time and yes, Mary Astor was hot (when she needed to be.)

ClassicMovieFanatic said...

Thank you SO much for this. What a real treat. I actually used to live in Toluca Lake, and one day I went to see Mary Astor's house. It was yellow, I wonder if it was this color when she lived there. But anyway, it is a very nice house. Thanks so much to Marilyn for sharing all this with us. Fascinating!


Thank you SO much for this! I used to live in Toluca Lake, and I went to see Mary's house one day a few years ago. It was very yellow, but a nice house. I wonder if it was that color when Mary lived there. Anyway, what a real treat this was, thanks again and thank you so much to Marilyn!

lanielovesoldmovies said...

The Great Lie ....my absolute fave. It has my 2 favorite actresses and one of my favorite actors, George Brent. Throw in Hattie McDaniels , they just don't make movies like that anymore. Love, love , love Mary Astor.

Glitter said...

I love Mary Astor in anything, but my favorite movie of all time is The Maltese Falcon.

Leslie Fox said...

A pity about the loss of personal items belonging to your grandmother. Thank you, however for the posting. So good to hear from another member of Mary Astor's family.

pen doherty said...

Did you attend Westlake School for Girls? I was a day student there first grade through high school. I graduated with the class of '54 although I completed high school classes in 1953. I remember you or so I imagine. Virginia Holden would have been my senior, had I continued and not become a mother at seventeen. I admired you, but don't think I ever spoke to you. Yesterday I cut a book review out the New York Times book review. section What a wild and beautiful woman she was. Like you my dad was in movies and took me to many movie sets. My mom was also a drinker. I was an only child. And again like you - I was a wild one! pendoherty@yahoo.com Do not use pendoherty@gmailcom as I don't know how to use it!