Mary Astor (1906-1987)

Mary Astor
Mary Astor
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Mary Astor was a skilful and graceful actress who started her career as a teenager in the silent movies of the early 1920s and appeared in over one hundred and twenty films in her 44 year movie career. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Sandra Kovak in 'The Great Lie' in 1941 and later that year she appeared in the role for which she is best remembered, as the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in 'The Maltese Falcon'.

Her personal life was punctuated by scandal and tragedy but she left memories of a gracious, warm-voiced beauty who was always a lady, no matter what role she was playing.


Mary Astor was born Lucile de Vasconcellos Langhanke, in Illinois in May, 1906, the daughter of German immigrant Otto Ludwig Wilhelm Langhanke and his wife, Helen, who was American, of Portuguese and Irish ancestry who taught drama and elocution. Lucile's father was a humorless tyrant who demanded absolute obedience from his daughter who grew up to be a loner, rarely allowed to go out to play with other children for fear she would pick up common habits. She was forbidden to leave the house alone and she couldn’t even close her own bedroom door.

Her father was very ambitious for his daughter and he decreed that she would become a concert pianist forcing her to practice for countless hours. When she was fourteen, after her mother sent in her photograph, she was chosen as a finalist in a Motion Picture Magazine beauty contest. Her father immediately began to pursue an acting career for her and in 1920 moved the family to New York to follow his dream.

Early Movie Career

Her natural beauty caught the eye of New York photographer, Charles Albin, who posed her in a series of photographs titled "The Madonna Child". The prints were seen by a Hollywood talent scout and she was given a six month contract with Paramount.

In 1921 she made her first screen appearance in a two-reeler silent called 'The Beggar Maid' under the stage name of Mary Astor given to her by her new employers. For the next three years she appeared as the demure love interest in numerous movies such as 'The Young Painter' in 1922 and 'Puritan Passions' and 'The Marriage Maker' the following year. She had to put up with her mother accompanying her to the film set every day. Well trained by her father, she was used to doing as she was told, and she took movie direction well, but it was life in a strait-jacket.

John Barrymore 1924

Her life changed dramatically when she was requested by the movie superstar of the day, John Barrymore, to appear with him in his next film, 'Beau Brummel' in 1924. Barrymore had a reputation as a philanderer and he and Mary quickly began an affair. He also educated her in the art of acting. He coached and rehearsed her, and introduced her to a wider world of the arts, books and music. They made another movie together, 'Don Juan' in 1926 but by that time the affair was over. Meeting Barrymore was a major turning point in her career and her life. She was offered better roles, although still of the "sweet girl" variety, and she began to stand up for herself, defying her parents, throwing off her shyness and becoming a party girl.


Her career in silent movies continued with starring roles in movies such as 'Two Arabian Knights' and 'Rose of the Golden West' in 1927 and 'Dry Martini' and 'Romance of the Underworld' in 1928. When Talkies came in, her initial sound test was a disappointment with her voice described as "masculine". However she eventually made an easy transition to sound movies and for two decades she was one of the top stars in Hollywood with starring roles in successful films such as 'Red Dust' in 1932, 'Man of Iron' in 1935, 'Dodsworth ' in 1936 and 'The Prisoner of Zenda' in 1937.

1941 was an important year for Mary. First of all she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Sandra Kovak in 'The Great Lie' and then in a career-defining turn, she was cast against type as a femme fatale in the classic 'The Maltese Falcon' co-starring Humphrey Bogart. With her upswept hair and classy mendacity, she appeared almost matronly beside the sexpots who would come to dominate film noir, but she gave a masterclass in acting technique.

Three years later she actually became the matriarch in 'Meet Me in St. Louis' in 1944, which led to Marmee March in 'Little Women' in 1949.


Mary was scarred by the oppressive control exerted by her parents. When her relationship with John Barrymore ended in 1926, she began to stand up to them, even running away from the family home on at least two occasions. The studios finally refused to deal with her grasping father but her full salary was still paid to her parents. They paid Mary a small allowance and used her earnings to maintain a lavish lifestyle for themselves. When Mary eventually cut off their income stream they took her to court, unsuccessfully and caused lasting bitterness.

Mary was a very private person who sought affection from the men in her life. She had numerous affairs and was married four times. Her first husband was Kenneth Hawks, the brother of director, Howard Hawks. The marriage ended tragically in 1930 when he was killed in a plane crash.

Second Marriage and the Diary Scandal
Her second marriage, in 1931, was to Franklyn Thorpe, the doctor who had looked after her after the tragedy. The couple had a daughter, Marylyn, and divorced in 1935. The divorce was bitter and very public. Thorpe produced Mary’s diary, which he claimed would show her to be an unfit mother. The diary allegedly included detailed descriptions of Mary's extramarital affairs including erotic descriptions of encounters with playwright George S. Kaufman. Mary maintained that the diary passages were forgeries and the judge eventually ordered the pages to be destroyed.

Mary's third marriage was in 1936 to Manuel De Campo, a Mexican film editor, by whom she had a son, Anthony. At the outbreak of World War II Manuel enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the couple drifted apart, divorcing in 1941.

Mary's fourth husband was Thomas Gordon Wheelock, a wealthy stockbroker. They married in 1945, by which time Mary's dependence on alcohol was becoming serious. The couple separated in the early 1950s and divorced in 1955.

Later Years

Mary had admitted to alcoholism when her star began to rise in the early 1930's, but she had succeeded in controlling the disease, not allowing it to interfere with her career. With the failure of her fourth marriage her drinking increased and she was off screen for the first half of the 1950's, suffering a long physical and nervous breakdown.

In 1951 it was reported that she had made a suicide attempt although Mary claimed that an overdose of sleeping tablets had been accidental. She converted to Roman Catholicism and was encouraged by her priest to write about her life as part of her therapy. In 1959, her autobiography, entitled 'My Story: An Autobiography' was published and became a best-seller. It was followed by five novels during the 1960's and in 1971 her second autobiography came out entitled 'A Life on Film'.

Her recovery was helped also by a return to stage and in television work. Her first TV appearance was in 1954 in 'The Missing Years' for Kraft Television Theater, and she went on to act frequently on TV during the ensuing years appearing on such shows as 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', 'Rawhide', 'Robert Montgomery Presents', 'Dr. Kildare', and 'Ben Casey'.

During this more tranquil period of her life she also appeared successfully in strong supporting roles in several movies including 'This Happy Feeling' in 1958, 'A Stranger in My Arms' in 1959 and 'Return to Peyton Place' in 1961. Her last screen role was in 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte' in 1964 with her old friend Bette Davis, after which she retired from the screen.

Mary Astor lived her final years in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, where she died of respiratory failure on September 25, 1987 at the age of 81.

Mary Astor Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Supporting Actress ... The Great Lie (1941)

No Further Nominations:

Mary Astor Filmography

Bullets or Ballots (uncredited)
The Bashful Suitor (uncredited)
Brother of the Bear (uncredited)
Sentimental Tommy
My Lady o' the Pines (uncredited)
The Beggar Maid (uncredited)
Wings of the Border
The Angelus (uncredited)
The Young Painter
John Smith
The Man Who Played God
The Rapids
Second Fiddle
The Bright Shawl
Puritan Passions
The Marriage Maker
To the Ladies
The Fighting Coward
Beau Brummel
The Fighting American
Unguarded Women
The Price of a Party
Inez from Hollywood
Oh, Doctor!
Playing with Souls
Don Q Son of Zorro
The Pace That Thrills
Scarlet Saint
High Steppers
The Wise Guy
Don Juan
Forever After
The Sea Tiger
The Sunset Derby
Two Arabian Knights
Rose of the Golden West
The Rough Riders
No Place to Go
Sailors' Wives
Dressed to Kill
Three-Ring Marriage
Heart to Heart
Dry Martini
Romance of the Underworld
New Year's Eve
The Woman from Hell
The Runaway Bride
Ladies Love Brutes
The Lash
The Royal Bed
Other Men's Women
Behind Office Doors
The Sin Ship
White Shoulders
Smart Woman
Men of Chance
The Lost Squadron
Those We Love
A Successful Calamity
Red Dust
The Little Giant
Jennie Gerhardt
The Kennel Murder Case
The World Changes
Convention City
Easy to Love
Return of the Terror
The Man with Two Faces
The Case of the Howling Dog
I Am a Thief
Red Hot Tires
Straight from the Heart
Page Miss Glory
Man of Iron
The Murder of Dr. Harrigan
And So They Were Married
Trapped by Television
Lady from Nowhere
The Prisoner of Zenda
The Hurricane
No Time to Marry
Paradise for Three
There's Always a Woman
Woman Against Woman
Listen, Darling