Electric Review

Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary

MARY ASTOR’S PURPLE DIARY: THE GREAT AMERICAN SEX SCANDAL OF 1936. Edward Sorel. Norton & Company.

mary-astors-purple-diary

Cover courtesy of Norton & Company.

By page eleven—which happens to be the first page of the text—the self evident cat has sauntered from the transparent bag, given the reader an inquiring look regarding matters of food, and wandered off.  In turn, the reader has realized that this is not a biography of Mary Astor. Rather, this is a hagiography. Those in search of hard-bitten investigative journalism are advised to go read Palast or Greenwald instead.

Mary Astor is of a type seen in Hollywood far too frequently: The kid in the throes of a horrific childhood with cold, domineering parents somehow goes on to become incandescent on screen. Despite her superior work, Astor was nonetheless pummeled for the mistakes and bad decisions she made. In this regard, she stands in the company of other stars like Marilyn Monroe, Carrie Fisher and Michael Jackson.

As a result of these sensational scandals, critical biographies on Astor are not hard to find. But readers will find Sorel’s treatise quite different: Rather than examine everything Astor did wrong in life, Sorel looks to offer love to a transcendental artist and person.

Yet, Sorel’s fond recounting of Mary’s life and times—complete with layers of self-deprecating humor—isn’t the main draw. Instead, the centerpiece of the book is found in his illustrations (Sorel is, of course, THAT Sorel: cartoonist familiar to readers of The NationVillage VoiceAtlantic, and many other magazines).

Mary Astor was a expressive actor with a striking heart-shaped face and large, luminous eyes –  the perfect subject for Sorel’s unique artistic style. Accordingly, Sorel’s depictions are wonderful to behold. Going beyond his acerbic and informed wit, Sorel’s most enduring element is the simple humanity he brings to his creations. The eyes in particular grab the reader’s attention. Even when sketched rather than carefully drawn, they never fail to convey genuine emotion.

Sadly, Astor’s youth, beauty and professional career had faded considerably by the 1950s (her last role of any sort was in 1964), thus it’s not surprising that Sorel’s text winds down quickly after 1942. But that’s hardly important, since this book isn’t about her life, it’s about Sorel’s love of her life. And it ends with Mary standing radiant and triumphant, ending the way a good love story should.

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson

© Bryan Zepp Jamieson. All rights reserved.


Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2017 by in 2017, February 2017, In the Spotlight, Rat On Fiction & Nonfiction and tagged , , .
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