A Forgotten Custody Battle....and a Lesson
Updated: Jun 1
She was famous – on and off and on and off through the late 1920s through the early 1950s. Mary Astor was iconic in the early ‘30s, disappeared to Broadway then came back for one of the greatest roles of the decade – Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, opposite Humphrey Bogart. She won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 1941 and was gone, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned, again.
In the mid-1930’s, Mary was famous (or infamous depending on which side you were on) for something different. The 1930s version of the Trial of the Century.
Here are the [very] basic facts: Mary married Dr. Franklyn Thorpe in June, 1931. They had a child, Marilyn, in June 1932. In late 1933, Mary, unhappy in the marriage and in her career, went to New York to work on the stage. She had an affair (torrid was the mildest word used in the tabloids of the day) with the playwright and Broadway director, George S. Kaufman, a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. Mary, an excellent writer (she went on to write two bestselling memoirs and five novels), kept a well-written, detailed diary of her time in New York.
Mary went back to Hollywood in 1936. The moment she did, Thorpe obtained an uncontested divorce. Then he found the diary. Then he demanded custody. Then it went to trial. Then it got ugly.
The one thing to take from this in the age of litigation and the Internet is clear: you can hide a diary probably a lot better than Mary Astor, but you can’t hide your social media. Enough said, that’s not where we’re really going with this.
Dr. Thorpe claimed that Mary was an unfit mother because she had affairs. The fact she wrote about them probably made it worse. She had a tendency to write about her lovers and Thorpe came up short in comparison.
It didn’t look good for Mary – in civil court or in the court of public opinion. Without a great attorney, Mary’s prognosis was bleak.
Then she hired an attorney almost as famous as her, George Simon Kaufman. He had the diary thrown out as inadmissible. The fact that Thorpe shared it with a gossip columnist and together they added bogus entries and changed others most likely had a lot to do with that decision.
More importantly, Kaufman presented all the facts: Mary had the stage parents from hell. At 14, she was under contract for $500/wk. (that’s $7,000 in today’s dollars). Her parents controlled the money and imprisoned her in the mansion they bought with her money. She got out to perform. She was given a $5/week allowance but had no place to spend it. Her father was physically abusive and derided her performances while cashing the checks.
Mary escaped. She fled one night through a carelessly left-open third floor window. It was 1928 and she was earning $3750/wk. ($53,000/week). She married a director in 1929, but her parents still held her money. When she finally gained control of her finances in 1932 after a contentious law suit, there was so little money left she had to apply for aid from the Screen Actors Guild. Then her parents sued her for support.
Mary’s husband, Kenneth Hawks, was killed in a plane crash in 1930. It devastated Mary. A few years later, earning a huge salary again and working almost nonstop, she took a leave of absence from the studio. She signed into a ‘mental health’ hospital. By now you can probably guess who her doctor was. Thorpe.
No one will know if Thorpe ever loved Mary but there’s no doubt he loved her money. Weeks after the wedding he bought a yacht and opened a private practice.
This filled in the blanks in the custody case. It was enough for the judge, he awarded Mary full custody. Her career took off again. The diary disappeared during the trial. It became the Loch Ness monster of Hollywood, sightings were rare but hyped up in the papers., It was discovered in 1953 in a safety deposit box. By court order it was burned.
The important lesson from the Mary Astor custody case is that facts don’t mean anything until someone makes a narrative out of them. That someone is a good attorney.
 If she really did hide it. The more I read about this the more I’m convinced Mary meant to get caught – see below for why.