In 1936, Mary Astor, star of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was the center of a Hollywood scandal so big, it knocked news of Hitler off the front page. Her estranged husband stole her private diaries, called the Purple or Lavender Diary, to use in a bitter custody battle. It was reported that Astor wrote breathless accounts of her many love affairs in its pages. As the press salivated for details, Astor appeared in court to face a hostile lawyer hellbent on proving she was an unfit mother. People flooded the courthouse and vendors sold hot dogs and ice cream to the crowds.
Astor's diary was the first major Hollywood sex scandal, "a sensation the likes of which had never been seen before," writes Joseph Egan in The Purple Diaries. Astor faced losing her career, daughter, and reputation, but she wouldn't be shamed. When faced with these challenges, Astor fought back.
1. Franklyn Thorpe read about Mary Astor's affair with a famous playwright.
By 1936, Astor and Thorpe, a physician, had been married five years and shared a daughter, Marylyn. Both sides had had affairs. Astor wanted out of the marriage, writing in her diary, "I don’t love Franklyn any more... I am unhappy and bored with him." But whenever she tried to leave, they had violent arguments. "Our life was a series of explosions, usually over minor things," Astor wrote in her autobiography. "I began to talk divorce, and the talk was considerable."
The turning point came when Thorpe stole the blue ledgers Astor used as diaries. Not only did he read her real opinions of him ("I feel sorry for him because I made him marry me ... I play a kind of game with him"), he discovered her strong feelings for the playwright George Kaufman.
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Kaufman was in an open marriage with his wife of 20 years, who he had no intention of leaving. Thorpe knew about the affair, but not how much Astor enjoyed Kaufman. "I am still in a haze; a nice rosy glow," she wrote. "It’s beautiful, glorious and I hope it’s my last love. I can’t top it with anything in my experience."
2. For revenge, Franklyn Thorpe blackmailed Mary Astor.
Thorpe demanded Astor give him sole custody of Marylyn, half of Astor's house, and control of her finances. If she didn't agree, he said he'd release the diaries to the public. In the 1930s, adultery was cause for outrage—especially if committed by a woman. Banking on this double standard, Thorpe threatened to "blacken her name and the names of her friends on the front pages of every newspaper in America," Egan wrote. When Astor caught the flu, Thorpe stood by her bed, berating and threatening her. Weak and sick, she signed a divorce settlement, giving Thorpe what he wanted.
3. Mary Astor put everything on the line for her child.
But Thorpe didn't stop there. For the next 15 months, whenever he and Astor clashed, he threatened to take Marylyn away. Astor alleged he also started abusing the child. "He'd shake her so hard her teeth rattled and bit her lips," Astor told the court. "Then he’d spank her and there would be bruise marks on her little body."
Finally, Astor had enough. Her lawyer, Roland Rich Woolley, filed for custody, accusing Thorpe of blackmail and bigamy—he had a common-law wife who he continued to see after the marriage. Astor knew scandal was coming, but she wanted to protect her daughter.
4. The press reported that Mary Astor’s diary was written in purple ink.
The diaries were the focus of the custody trial. Thorpe's lawyer announced that they would "split the movie industry wide open" because Astor "experimented with love as a scientist experiments with test tubes." Reporters vied for every detail of the mysterious diaries. When they glimpsed a page in court, they said that Astor wrote in purple ink. This detail added a level of innuendo—purple is a color often associated with passion—but it wasn't true. Astor wrote in brown ink which, at a distance, took on a purplish hue. But the nickname, The Purple Diary, stuck.
5. George Kaufman fled California to avoid jail.
Kaufman, meanwhile, wanted nothing to do with the trial. When ordered to testify, he didn't show up to court. Furious, Judge Goodwin Knight put out a bench warrant for his arrest. Before the police could track him down, however, Kaufman jumped on a train to New York. The judge banned him from Los Angeles. “If Kaufman comes within the jurisdiction of this court I will see that he is put in jail and kept there long enough to cool his heels," he told the courtroom. (The warrant was dismissed in 1937, and Kaufman was able to work in Hollywood again.)
6. Franklyn Thorpe’s bad behavior came out during the trial.
On the stand, Thorpe's infidelities were revealed. In addition to the common-law wife, he had an affair with a showgirl named Norma Taylor, who once chased Thorpe with a carving fork—in front of Marylyn.
Initially, Thorpe denied the romance with Taylor. But Woolley produced a photograph of them kissing, prompting Thorpe to admit that Taylor came to his house, drunk, wearing silk lounging pajamas. She smashed a window with a candlestick and chased him around with a large fork. "She tried to lock herself in [the bathroom], but I got through the door and grabbed her," Thorpe said. "We fell down in a tussle." Marylyn later said the fight was one of her earliest memories.
7. Rumors spread that Mary Astor kept a scorecard of Hollywood lovers.
In absence of the real diary, the press published excerpts from a pornographic forgery, which included the rumor that Astor rated her lovers on a scorecard. One newspaper said Astor "was an unofficial scorekeeper in Hollywood’s tournaments of love. Four pages ... contain her charm ratings of the ‘first ten’ among the male celebrities of screenland. Kaufman was definitely the tops."
In her autobiography, Astor wrote that the press "had a Roman holiday" with the fake diary. Since she couldn't sue every newspaper, she was helpless to stop the rumors. "I could only beat my fists on Woolley's desk and cry futilely, 'There wasn't any box score and I never called the damned thing Dear Diary.'"
8. Studio bosses ordered Mary Astor to give up the case.
On the last day of filming the movie Dodsworth (1936) at MGM, Astor was called into producer Sam Goldwyn's office. When she arrived, all the heads of the major movie studios were waiting for her, including Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and Harry Cohn. They ambushed Astor, telling her to give up the custody hearing, which they thought could damage the movie industry. Astor wouldn't be intimidated. She said, "I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I will proceed with the case as my lawyer has advised me" and left the room.
Stunned by her dismissal, someone suggested Goldwyn enforce the morality clause in Astor's contract and fire her. He shook his head. “A woman fighting for her child?" he said. "This is good."
9. Mary Astor got through the trial by acting.
In court, Astor appeared poised and refined. Dressed in black, she was described as a "slender and frail dark-eyed wisp of a girl weighing barely a hundred pounds."
She spoke in a deep, clear voice and was unshaken by the aggressive cross-examination. It was agreed she displayed "real life emotions" of "a mother risking everything" for her child.
Astor later said she was pretending to be Edith Cortright, her character from Dodsworth. Edith "was a lot of things I would like to have been. She had complete confidence in herself and I had very little," Astor wrote. Later she added: "I was completely rattleproof, thanks to Edith Cortright. She was my shield."
10. In the end, the public sided with Mary Astor.
When the judge ruled the diaries couldn't be admitted as evidence, Thorpe's lawyers released excerpts to the press. Soon, Astor's intimate musings were exposed nationwide. Impatient with the media circus, the judge ordered Astor and Thorpe to work out an agreement—or else. In the end, Astor triumphed, gaining custody of Marylyn for nine months a year.
Surprisingly, the scandal didn't hurt Astor's career. She was even more popular afterward, starring in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Little Women(1949), and Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). Her career spanned seven decades and includes a lasting legacy as a femme fatale.
As for the diaries, the judge ordered them locked away until Marylyn turned 21. In 1952, they were removed and burned. The only surviving sections were the excerpts leaked to the press; you can read them here.
Joy Lanzendorfer’s novel Right Back Where We Started—a multi-generational saga about greed and failure in America—is out May 4, 2021.