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.
Thanks for highlighting this bio of Mae Murray. She really did have one of the steepest falls of all Hollywood history, alas, mirroring her Merry Widow partner John Gilbert.She was the Queen of the MGM lot in the mid 20s but even then you could tell she had feet of clay, and her films have not aged gracefully. She really was like Norma.
Chick, although I usually gravitate to comedy-mysteries and film noir, I was moved by your poignant, beautifully-written account of May Murray's life and times. When the mighty fall, they sure fall hard, but you and Ankerich did a wonderful job of bringing Murray's story to life!
Thanks for you honest review of this book on Mae. I bought it recently and it's sitting in a stack of other books that I hope to get to one day.
I'm a big fan of hers so I was tickled to see that someone had taken time to write a detailed and well researched bio on her. She certainly deserved one.
I love the photos you chose and this review makes me want to find the time to dive in to the book. : )
Christian - she really was Norma, wasn't she? Only, no Max, no mansion & no oil wells pumping...pumping!
Thank you, Dorian. She was a larger than life character and when she fell - ouch.
Page - I sure hope you like it. Mae was - deliberately - such a mystery, but the author unravels her as best anyone can. She was wonderful and you really had to pity the pour soul in the end.
Hey! What do you mean by stopping after you got me all interested! I think they call that reader-interruptus! I can't afford the damn book right now -- this is awful! That is my way of telling you what a fascinating article this was, what a good job you did, and how much I enjoyed it!
Oh, Becky - you gave me a big smile! I hope this somehow finds its way to your reading list, as it is quite a story!
Oh, I must confess that I've never watched Mae Murray, although I'm considering watching The Merry Widow on YouTube some day.
Great glimpse of this star's life, and wise comparisons with "the queen of fallen silent stars", Norma Desmond.
I have to agree with Becky - I was on the edge of my seat with "and then what happened???"
I guess I should read the book...which sounds fascinating, judging from your review.
Thank you, Le - she is so forgotten today, but she was the queen of the MGM lot in her day.
Lady Eve - thank you so much, but you really can't go wrong with this story. If it wasn't so sad, it would be a hoot.
I have always wanted to read the book, The Girl with the bee-stung lips..
After reading your review.. it is at the top of my list of "must reads".
You've given us a thoughtful, well-crafted review of this book - thanks! Such a sad story of how fame can be someone's undoing... I'll have to make sure our local library orders this book in. :)
Dawn - I know you will really enjoy reading about Mae - she was a character!
Thank you, Silverscreenings. It's true - fame really did this poor soul in.
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