Mary Astor is probably most famous for playing the slippery femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy opposite Humphrey Bogart’s hardened detective Sam Spade in the 1941 noir classic The Maltese Falcon. What’s lesser known — but equally intriguing — is the fact that Astor spurred one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of all time. In 1936, she sued her ex-husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe for custody of their daughter Marylyn — and as the court case transpired, Astor was filming Dodsworth, which went on to be hailed as one of her best performances. The trial quickly spun into a media circus: It was front page news for weeks as Thorpe and his lawyer threatened to release the contents of Astor’s diary, in which she details the disillusion of her marriage and her extramarital affairs, most notably with playwright George S. Kaufman. The details — Astor sued Thorpe for bigamy as he had a disputed common law marriage with a woman in Florida, and Kaufman fled California after a bench warrant was issued when he did not appear in court despite receiving a subpoena — prove the truth can be wilder than fiction. It also makes us wonder… how has no one made a movie about this yet!? Well, 80 years after the trial ended, we have books at least: Two vastly different offerings — Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary and Joseph Egan’s The Purple Diaries — retell those wild events of 1936.
Sorel is an illustrator by trade and transforms his decades-long obsession with Mary Astor into Mary Astor’s Purple Diary. He decorates the pages with delightful, colorful, and occasionally cheeky NSFW illustrations of the various stages of Astor’s life and court case. Sorel paints himself Astor’s costar in the book by adding personal anecdotes about the disintegration of his own first marriage and career. However, the juicy tidbits of the Astor case get lost between the fast-paced story and Sorel’s own trips down memory lane.
Meanwhile, Joseph Egan’s The Purple Diaries revels in the details: No morsel is too small and no participant is unimportant. Readers quickly become intimately acquainted with not only Astor, but Thorpe, their lawyers, the judge, family, friends, and lovers, as well as a revolving door of fame-seeking supporting characters. Egan offers readers an in-depth look at the case and spends pages on word-for-word accounts from the courtroom. Newspaper clippings and family photos pepper The Purple Diaries, providing a glimpse into the lost world of Old Hollywood and the pandemonium the court case caused. It’s this wider scope that makes The Purple Diaries endlessly fascinating. Now if the present-day Hollywood could just adapt it to the screen.