How Mary Astor’s Purple Diary Sparked an Infamous Hollywood Sex Scandal
In the 1930s, Hollywood star Mary Astor recorded the details of her private life in a purple diary, which her husband found and then used in a scandalous custody court battle.
“If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.”
This maxim attributed to famous diarist David Sedaris should go without saying for anyone in need of its lesson. But it came over half a century too late for Dr. Franklyn Thorpe or, as he was better known in the 1930s, Mr. Mary Astor.
In 1935, with his marriage to one of Hollywood’s leading ladies on the rocks, Thorpe decided the best plan of action was to search his home for his wife’s diary. Allegedly acting on a tip from one of the family’s housekeepers, he found the book and was shocked by what he discovered inside—a detailed and risqué record of his wife’s extramarital sex life.
“Since girlhood, Mary’s best friend had been her diary. She told it everything and delighted in writing a sublime experience while the memory still glowed,” Kenneth Anger wrote in his notorious 1959 celebrity tell-all, Hollywood Babylon. What Astor had been confiding to her closest confidant at this time were the details of her affair with New York’s most famous playwright George Kaufman.
Thorpe used the diary as leverage to coerce his wife into the divorce agreement of his dreams, but when Astor decided to fight back for custody of the couple’s 4-year-old daughter Marylyn, the book in question, salaciously nicknamed “the Purple Diary” by the press, set off the scandal of the century, one that smeared reputations on both sides of the courtroom aisle.
In the end, the judge’s ruling on the fate of Mary Astor’s diary far overshadowed his decision concerning that of little Marylyn Thorpe.
“It’s been years since I’ve felt up a man in public, but I just got carried away”
Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke was plagued by controlling men from the very start. Her father was a bully, or as Edward Sorel describes him in Mary Astor’s Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, a “Teutonic fathead,” who was looking for a way to cash in on his pretty daughter from the very beginning.
His instincts if not his intentions were spot on. A 14-year-old Lucile caught the eye of big-time movie producer Jesse L. Lasky, who bestowed on her the more marquee-friendly name Mary Astor and began to cast her in the pictures beginning in 1921. Astor would go on to have a long and storied career, winning an Oscar in 1942 for her performance in The Great Lie and starring in such classic films as The Maltese Falcon, Don Juan, and Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte.
But “few of her films matched the turmoil of her private life,” as Astor’s 1987 New York Times obituary so succinctly put it. The scandal surrounding the Purple Diary would be one of the lasting legacies of the Golden Age star.
Astor’s first great love affair began when she was only 17 with the famous—and 40-year-old—actor John Barrymore. After that relationship came to an end, she married the film director Kenneth Hawks, who was killed in a plane crash two years later. Thorpe was the second of Astor’s four husbands, and they met after she was referred to him for medical care.
But who has time to worry about professionalism when a great Hollywood romance is within reach? The line between doctor and patient was soon crossed and the pair married in 1931. Their daughter was born the next year.
The honeymoon didn’t last long. By the end of 1932, Astor asked Thorpe for a divorce, which he denied her. Thorpe was already having an affair with the woman he had been dating when he met Astor; the actress decided that, if she was going to stay in the marriage, she would have some fun of her own on the side.
In 1933, Astor traveled on a holiday from Hollywood to New York City and was set up with the well-established playwright George Kaufman as a guide around town. Kaufman was in a marriage that was well-known as both a devoted one and one that was open. Soon after meeting, Kaufman and Astor began a torrid affair.
Astor allegedly documented their antics around town—and in the bedroom—in her diary. Although unverified, some papers reported that she wrote: “Tuesday night we had a dinner at ‘21’ and on the way to see Run, Little Chillun he did kiss me—and I don’t think either of us remember much what the show was about. We played kneesies during the first two acts, my hand wasn’t in my own lap during the third. It’s been years since I’ve felt up a man in public, but I just got carried away.”
Eventually, news of the affair got out and a game of relationship tag ensued. According to Karina Longworth in an episode of You Must Remember This, Thorpe seemed unperturbed when Astor first disclosed her dalliance with Kaufman.
But then he went behind her back and visited Kaufman to request that the playwright end his fraternization with his wife. Kaufman acquiesced to the doctor, and then liaised once again with Astor to tell her about the meeting and to assure her that his promise to end the affair had been an empty one.
“Mary decided that this was the last straw. She told Franklyn Thorpe that she wanted a divorce and this time there would be no talking her out of it,” Longworth said.
Thorpe finally agreed, but, by this time, he had acquired his own leverage. With the confiscated diary in hand, he threatened to publicize Astor’s most intimate thoughts and reveal her relationship with Kaufman if she didn’t agree to the following settlement: Thorpe would get full custody of Marylyn, but Astor would foot the bill for all child-rearing costs.
Astor could see Marylyn six months out of the year, but only supervised by Thorpe. Thorpe got the house and maintained possession of the diary.
Newspaper accounts of the split reported that Thorpe had filed for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s “mental cruelty and incompatibility.”
In court, he claimed that Astor had humiliated him for earning less money than her and that she had willingly agreed to give him custody because “she thought it better if I keep my daughter. Her work takes her away from home so much that she didn’t think it would be good for Marilyn [sic].”
Astor initially stayed mum in the face of these attacks, but a year later, she decided to fight back. The actress took her ex-husband to court seeking a better custody agreement. She claimed that she had been coerced into agreeing with the original divorce settlement; Thorpe responded that she was “morally unfit” to be the primary caregiver.
The grounds for both claims centered on the existence of a diary that purported to be full of scandalous details about the life of one of the leading American actresses. There were reports that in it she compared her lovers, commented on their “powers of recuperation,” and otherwise spilled all the tea.
But because the judge excluded the diary from evidence and it was disposed of soon after the trial, the full contents have never been determined. It is known that Astor did write about her relationship with Kaufman, as well as many unflattering things about her husband, and she indulged in the day-to-day musings of a diarist.
The media covering the case couldn’t get enough. While Thorpe’s defense eventually leaked some of the diary’s contents to the press, it is believed that certain newspapers also fabricated some of the “entries” that were printed at the time.
“Because no one reading newspapers had actually seen the diary, not only did the papers get away with it, but their manufactured diary quotes would blend with confirmed quotes from the diary published later to form a mythic diary in the public imagination,” Longworth said.
Astor struck back against the leaks. Her legal team uncovered their own seedy ammo concerning Thorpe’s dalliances, including one instance when a woman he had been involved with arrived smashing drunk at the Thorpe house late one night when Marylyn was in residence. Astor also claimed that the doctor had been involved in a long-standing common-law marriage with another woman during their own union, making him a bigamist.
By the end of the trial, the judge was exasperated. “This proceeding has from the very first been obscured by morbid sensationalism and by a furor of publicity damaging to both parties,” Judge Goodwin J. Knight said in his final custody order, which was printed in full in the papers, such was the interest in the case.
Astor was given custody nine months out of the year, while Thorpe retained Marylyn for three. But the real issue at hand was what would happen to the diary?
The press waited on tenterhooks for the devastating news to be issued. Before he gave his final order, Knight rebuked both parties and the media frenzy that had surrounded the custody case:
“Much has been said here and in the public press concerning a certain diary written by the mother and held in the possession of the father. In fact the court feels that altogether too much has been said about the diary and far too little about a flesh and blood child.”
He then ordered the scandalous book to be surrendered to the court and destroyed.
The infamous Purple Diary may have had a brief life, but its fame would last far beyond that of many of the players in one of the most scandalous courtroom dramas in Hollywood history.