Sep 21, 2016

Book Review--Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936
Edward Sorel
Liveright Publishing Company, 2016

In 1936, actress Mary Astor swept Hitler and Franco off the front pages of newspapers when a diary detailing her extramarital sexual romps was made public. 

The star's ex-husband attempted to present the steamy tome as evidence of her unsuitability as a parent when she took him to court to win full custody of their four-year-old daughter. Before judgement could even be made on the admissibility of the document, passages from the diary, and a few made-up and misrepresented entries, were leaked to the press. The sensation they created didn't end Astor's career, but the incident was nevertheless a rocky ride for the actress and the men she named in her writings.

In a new book, Edward Sorel tells the story of Astor, her affairs and the trial, illustrating the drama with amusing, evocative and sometimes quite saucy drawings. While the focus is on the scandal, there is also significant biographical detail and a brief discussion of her films.

Sorel has made his career as a prolific illustrator and cartoonist, with his pictures and pictorial essays appearing in publications like The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair and Esquire

Here he proves he could have been a writer too. Sorel's style is light and humorous, drawing on years of satirical works. He writes with the tone of a man who has seen it all and who has nothing left to prove. This leads to a certain amount of narrative risk-taking which is occasionally odd, but mostly pays off.

The story of how Sorel came to be fascinated by Astor is an amusing tale in itself. While ripping up the old flooring in an apartment he owned with his wife in the sixties, the artist found stacks of newspapers that had been used to level the floor. A headline about Astor's trial caught his eye. Then he found more headlines and became obsessed with her story. You don't have to imagine him sitting there poring over these papers either, because he perfectly illustrates the moment in a full color drawing showing himself hunched on the floor, reading intently.

Sorel plugs himself into the story in other ways as well, a tactic that can be surprisingly effective, though sometimes he goes off a bit too far into his own world. These head scratching moments are fortunately brief and at least interesting to read if not always an essential part of the story. When he does effectively link his personal obsession with Astor and his own relationship experiences to the narrative, it gives the story a freshness that is rare in a biography.

I've seen Mary Astor's Purple Diary described as a graphic novel, but it's more accurate to call it a heavily-illustrated book. Sorel's pictures focus on the most dramatic aspects of Astor's story, creating images that are full of action, humor, sex and intrigue. The drawings look gorgeous. They are beautifully colored and bubbling with life.

I liked this breezy, unique and well-researched take on one of Hollywood's most salacious scandals. While it doesn't shy away from the sensational aspects of the story, it is ultimately a respectful tribute to Astor's strength, intelligence and passion.

Many thanks to Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton and Company, for providing a copy of the book for review.

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