Monday, November 5, 2012

Mary Astor: The Prisoner of Moorcrest

Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess whose mean father and evil mother worked her to the bone, lived off her earnings and kept her a prisoner in a castle called Moorcrest in a place called Hollywood. Sounds a little "Jane Eyre" and "Cinderella" with a dash of "Rapunzel." But, this is no fairly tale and the princess was Mary Astor.

Beautiful Mary Astor (born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke) was the daughter of teachers who didn't really want to teach. When lovely Lucile showed a talent for acting and became a semifinalist in a Motion Picture Magazine beauty contest, papa packed up the family and moved first to New York, where Lucile entered motion pictures, and later to Hollywood, where Paramount Pictures renamed her Mary Astor. Papa Langhanke managed all of Mary's affairs from 1920 (at which time Mary was 14 years old) to 1930.

Mary's career continued on a upward path, though she was chiefly singled out for her Madonna like beauty. Sadly, the black and white film of the day could not do justice to the lovely auburn hair that earned her the nickname "Rusty." Mary entered into a true and passionate love affair with the much older John Barrymore at age 18, but Papa put the kibosh on that and hauled her back to the mansion they had bought with the money she had earned. It was this mansion that became her prison.

Moorcrest as it looks today
Completed in 1921, Moorcrest is often referred to as the "Charlie Chaplin House," as Chaplin did live there for a short while. However, after he departed, Mary's parents, who were learning to enjoy the good life on Mary's sweat, purchased this moorish-mission style mansion. It is a home with an interesting pedigree.

The original land that became Krotona - a Utopian society
Theosophy, a belief system that mixes a little occult with a little faith and a dash of science, was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1921, members of the Theosophical Society created their own little Utopia called Krotona in Hollywood, below where the Hollywood sign stands today. Moorcrest was designed by one of Krotona's founding members, Marie Russak Hotchner (former opera singer, society figure and architect). Krotona thrived for a while, but the materialistic lifestyle of the sin-loving movie colony soon convinced the Theosophists that it might be better to pack up and move to Ojai, where they still practice today. However, the Society's temple - the Temple of the Rosy Cross - is now part of the Krotona Apartments, located on Alta Vista Street.

The Langhankes were not Theosophists, but were friendly with both Mrs. and Mr. Hotchner. In fact, Mrs. Hotchner pleaded on Mary's behalf for her parents to give her a $5 a week allowance when she was earning $2500 a week from Paramount. What a friend.

And so, Mary toiled all day at the studio and was kept a virtual prisoner by her abusive parents at night. Finally, at age 19, she climbed out of her bedroom window and escaped, landing in a hotel in Hollywood. Hotchner again interceded and persuaded Mary to come home with a promise of a $500 bank account and control of her finances. She might have gotten the $500, but papa did not lose control until Mary was 26 years old. She finally escaped by marrying at age 22 and moving out with her husband.

Poor Mary Astor. She was a beautiful movie star to the world, but her life was a hell made by her greedy parents. When Mary did finally gain control of her finances at age 26, her parents promptly sued her for support. The case was finally settled, with Mary agreeing to pay mom and dad a monthly support check of $100. Mom, upon her death, left Mary her diaries. They were filled with unspeakable hatred of and cruelty towards the daughter who supported her.

Ironically, Mary should have learned that keeping a diary could be dangerous as she found herself, in 1936, embroiled in a nasty court fight with her second husband over custody of their daughter. Although never entered into evidence, her purple prose diary detailing affairs, especially one with playwright George S. Kaufman, created a huge scandal. While Mary Astor went on to create many memorable screen characters with her sensitive and incisive style, no screen drama could match that of her early life.

Want to know more about Moorcrest? Click on the link below to see how beautifully it has been restored.



I have seen Mary as a supporting character some times, like in The Maltese Falcon, but I didn't know much about her early life. Wow, she suffered a lot! Nice to know more about hr, bu it isalso sad what happened to such a star.
Her surname Vasconcellos makes her a Portuguese descendent, no?

Cynthia said...

What a great post. I've always thought she was quite a beauty. Never knew about how she was mistreated by her own parents.

Samantha said...

I loved this post and loved the pictures.And yes, she did suffer but Oh what a life she had.
How beautiful and her house (mansion) was and is just amazing.

Silver Screenings said...

I had no idea that she was subject to such abuse at the hands of her parents. I have even more admiration for her!

FlickChick said...

Le - yes! Mary's mother was 1/2 Portuguese.

FlickChick said...

Cynthia - I know - what a story. Truth is stranger than fiction.

FlickChick said...

Samantha- oh that house - it is beautiful.

FlickChick said...

Silverscreenings - what makes it all so sad is that she suffered so at the hands of her parents.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Hard to believe this went on for so long. It reminds me of the Culkins and Lohans--at least Mary fared better than Macaulay and Lindsay.

FlickChick said...

Kim - she sure did, but she also struggled with alcohol most of her adult life. Those early scars never heal.