Like the fictional Lina Lamont of “Singin’ in the Rain,” the real-life Mae Murray was “a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament." While real people walked on the ground, Mae Murray fluttered above it on gauzy fairy wings. While real people breathed oxygen, Mae Murray inhaled the rarefied air of the gods. While real people ate, slept and aged. Mae faced each morning ageless and dewy-fresh, a vision of perpetual loveliness. So believed those wonderful people out there in the dark (for a time) and, sadly, so believed Mae Murray (all of the time).
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Although it is not proven that Mae Murray was the inspiration for Norma Desmond, it is almost impossible not to see a resemblance between the two. However, the real-life Mae made the fictional Norma seem almost normal. The real-life silent screen queen of the 20s was defined, not only by her screen allure, but also by her fabrications, her fictions, her pretenses, her litigiousness and her decidedly odd behavior. The real story of the girl with the bee-stung lips has lied buried beneath Mae’s attempt to artfully obscure the truth. She has remained an unsolved crackpot mystery. Unsolved, that is, until the seven veils of artifice have been lifted, one my one, by author Michael G. Ankerich in the aptly-titled “Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips.”
Author Ankerich gives us the Mae we know and the Mae we did not know. We know she was a Ziegfeld performer and successful dancer, we know she was a successful movie queen, we know she was bilked out of her fortune by faux-royalty, we know she lost custody of her son, and we know she descended into poverty and madness. What we did not know is that Mae, born Marie Koenig, came from poverty, that she was remarkably hard working and a team player (at her best), and that she tried, she really tried, to make it all work. The author also reveals that she had a family whose existence she denied as long as possible. Ankerich hit a homerun by interviewing her son Koran/David, a main player in Mae’s life who has, up until now, refused to be interviewed. He sheds invaluable light on his mother who, though she might have loved him, could not let go of the fantasy that Hollywood had, at first, so willingly helped her to create and, at last, destroyed any hope of her leading a normal life out of the spotlight.
“You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”
Cecil B. De Mille speaking of Norma Desmond
Like a circus performer whose spangles look glamorous from afar, but tawdry and tacky at close range, Ankerich gives us the sad, sad story of Mae’s decline. But, Mae is clearly a likeable gal, and the author likes her, too. When her life was secure and centered (especially during her marriage to director Robert Z. Leonard), she was fun, generous and a serious artist. He treats her with great compassion always, even when she was at her most unlikeable. The memories of George Hamilton, whose mother befriended Mae in her old age and who George knew (and tangoed with) as a youth, are tender and revealing (it was George’s mother who paid for Mae headstone upon her death).
“You were silly like us, but your gift survived it all.”
W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”
Yes, she was silly, but her gift still lives on. It is on display in many silent films still available, but in full flower in 1925’s “The Merry Widow.” She and director Erich Von Stroheim (oh the irony) butted heads, but in the end they produced her greatest achievement, the one she lived off the rest of her life.
"Where are the cameras? Where are my flowers? I must be photographed with flowers! Get them before I’m surrounded by cameramen!"
Mae Murray at the end of the long, dark journey
This book, bedsides being a swell read, is a must for all silent film lovers and for those who love the larger-than-life characters that made that era golden.
“Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” is available at Amazon.
For more about the irrepressible Mae, visit Michael G. Ankerich’s blog "Close Ups and Long Shots" by clicking HERE.