Mary Desti Dempsey: Preston Sturges’s Mother of Invention

October 6, 2009 § 2 Comments

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three.

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three./From "Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges," Touchstone copyright 1990.

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1898 to a beautiful mother (and fabulist of the first order) named Mary Dempsey and an unreliable father named Edmund Biden, which seems straightforward but wasn’t, at least to Sturges in his early years. Because his  father left the scene when he was an infant, his mother led Sturges to believe his stepfather was his biological father. She also claimed to have been 15 when Preston was born–she was actually 27–and 16 when she entered medical school, which she wasn’t, and didn’t. But those fibs were mere warm-ups for the Big Lie: deciding she was descended from Italian nobility–on the grounds that Dempsey had to be a mispronunciation of the princely “d’Este”–Mary Dempsey opened a cosmetics business in Europe called Maison d’Este. After threats of litigation from the actual d’Estes, she modified the firm’s name to Desti and used it as her middle name. Sturges summed up the situation by writing:

My mother was in no sense a liar, nor even intentionally unacquainted with the truth…as she knew it. She was, however, endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed ferverently. Often, twice was enough.

When Mary Dempsey was between marriages, she took the 2 1/2-year-old Preston to Paris, where she ostensibly planned to study theater. On her first day in town, Mary met a Mrs. Duncan whose daughter, Isadora, was a dancer. Isadora Duncan and Mary Dempsey not only became instant best friends but maintained a lifelong bond that outlasted their many relationships with men.  Though Mary soon returned to Chicago to marry Solomon Sturges, she managed to exact an agreement to live with him only half the year. The remainder of her time–which often stretched well beyond six months–would be spent in Europe,  accompanying Isadora to Bayreuth and other venues.

The result was that Preston Sturges not only spent his formative years in Europe but at one point, after being left for a long period with a French family while his mother traveled, spoke English with a French accent. After his adored stepfather divorced Mary in 1911, he spent nearly all his time in Europe. By the time his mother had married a Turk, learned a secret Ottoman skin cream formula from her new father-in-law and started Maison Desti, Preston was a full-fledged expatriate child, fluent not only in French and German but able to fend for himself during his mother’s frequent absences. The culmination of his European childhood involved running her shop in Deauville as a 15-year-old on summer vacation. When WWI broke out in August, he packed up the business and got himself to New York just ahead of the fighting. (His mother had gone to the front to volunteer as a medic, citing her non-existent Chicago medical credentials.)

Eventually mother and son were united in New York, but the pull of Europe was too strong for Mary to resist. One night in 1915 they were seeing Isadora off on a ship to Italy when she called from the deck, “Mary! If you don’t come with me, I don’t know what I’ll do!” Despite having no money and only the clothes on her back, Mary Dempsey walked up the gangplank, saying to Preston, “Do the best you can, darling. Keep things going. I’ll send you some money as soon as I can!”

Anyone familiar with Preston Sturges’ heroines can see where he got his inspiration. His movies are loaded with smart, hilarious and devious babes who bedevil the hapless and innocent men who love them. In “The Lady Eve,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a shipboard fortune hunter who snags a rich but naive heir (and snake expert) played by Henry Fonda. Madcap adventures ensue. “The Palm Beach Story” features two Mary Dempsey-like characters, the gold-digging runaway wife played by Claudette Colbert and the talkative, much-married heiress played by Mary Astor. A key scene in the movie, in which Colbert leaves the rowdy Ale and Quail Club car and returns to find that it, along with her clothes, has been left on the tracks, was taken from Sturges’s life. As a boy traveling by train through Germany, Preston and his mother had left their compartment–and all their belongings, including two dogs, some canaries and a parrot–for the dining car and come back to find it gone.  This presented a problem, not least because–like Claudette Colbert–Mary Dempsey had left her purse in the missing car. Madcap adventures ensued. Fortunately,

…everything was straightened out when we pulled into Cologne, where a soldier with a bayonet was guarding our pile of stuff, with the parrot insulting him in French.

Preston Sturges inherited not only his mother’s enthusiasm for culture and her sense of humor but her impulsive nature. Like her, he married often and sometimes suddenly, as in the case of his third marriage, which occurred during a brief separation from another woman with whom he’d spent a decade. The maternal source of his behavior seems obvious, though apparently not to him. In his memoir Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges, he wrote:

And yet, except that she chose the schools in which I was placed and made a few wise remarks which I remember with pleasure now but thought totally inconsequential at twelve, Mother had absolutely nothing to do with my development or what I grew into. Strangely, Father, though he was not my true progenitor, had very much more to do with the shaping of my character than Mother ever had.

This jaw-dropping lack of awareness didn’t serve Sturges well in his personal life. He found domestic happiness only in his fourth marriage, which lasted from his early 50s until his death at 61.  He had a talent for alienating friends and co-workers, abruptly cutting off relationships that had lasted for years. His hasty departure from Paramount, home to all his hits, was a mistake from which he never recovered. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1959, Sturges was struggling to pick up the pieces of a brief but astonishingly fertile and lucrative career. Twenty minutes before his death, he wrote:

…I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak.  

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Mary Astor at Moorcrest: the 1925 Publicity Photos

August 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

From Mary Astor’s second memoir,  A Life on Film (Delacourt Press, 1967), come two previously unseen (at least by me) photos of her at Moorcrest.

Mary Astor & Helen 1925014

In the first, she poses with her dreadful mother, Helen Langhanke. Helen, who made no secret of hating her daughter during her lifetime, underscored the sentiment by leaving Astor her diaries, which were a litany of viciousness and abuse. (Helen Langhanke’s diaries not only compounded Astor’s pain but, oddly, instilled the diary-keeping habit that would trigger the 1936 custody suit brought by her second husband, Franklyn Thorpe.) 

Astor hated Moorcrest’s decor, which she called “unfortunate.” The red lotus keyhole windows and central arched window are clearly seen in the background of the photo, which appears to be the north side of the house. Here’s how the north facade of the master bedroom looks today:

Looking North to the Hollywood Sign from Moorcrest/Hope Anderson Productions

Looking North to the Hollywood Sign from Moorcrest/Hope Anderson Productions

Far more glamorous and fun is the second photo. Astor poses in Moorcrest’s porte cochere with the family chauffeur and their Pierce Arrow limousine, both afforded by her earnings.

She was 19 years old, the family’s sole supporter and a virtual prisoner of her parents and Moorcrest. And though Mary Astor would attain freedom in three years, she wouldn’t reach the height of her stardom for another fourteen.

Mary Astor & Car 1925015

For more about Mary Astor, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign”at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Trials of Mary Astor

July 23, 2009 § 2 Comments

Mary Astor/Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mary Astor/Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mary Astor is probably best remembered today for her roles in films like “Midnight,” “The Palm Beach Story” and “The Maltese Falcon,” but in her lifetime she was as famous for two notorious legal actions. In both cases, she suffered public embarassment but ultimately triumphed.

The first was a suit brought by her own parents for financial support, which Astor had recently ended. That Helen and Otto Langhanke should have felt entitled to any of their 29-year-old daughter’s earnings was illustrative of her role as a cash cow: she had been the family’s sole wage earner since her mid-teens. Otto Langhanke, a failure in all his jobs, had set his sights on a Hollywood career for his young daughter–then called Lucile–and seen his investment pay handsomely. At 19 Astor was earning so much money that her father was able to buy Moorcrest, an estate located at Temple Hill Drive and Helios Street in Beachwood Canyon. Her money not only paid for the enormous house but a staff–maid,  gardener, chauffeur–and a Pierce-Arrow limousine.

As a teenaged Silent Era star

As a teenaged Silent Era star/Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Yet Astor herself had no control over her money–and except for a $5 a week “allowance” granted when she was 19, no money of her own. Otto, who was both physically and emotionally abusive, allowed her out of the house only to go to the studio–and even there she was accompanied and watched by her mother. Astor’s first love affair–or as much of one as she could manage under the circumstances–was with the charming 40-year-old John Barrymore, who eventually left because of the terms of her house arrest. (He married Astor’s fellow WAMPAS Baby Star Dolores Costello, whose mother kept her on a longer leash.)  

Finally in 1926, when Astor was 20, she daringly escaped Moorcrest by climbing down a tree off her balcony and hoofing it to a hotel in Hollywood.

Moorcest Bedroom--possibly Astor's

Moorcrest Bedroom--probably Astor's/Hope Anderson Productions

Her return was brokered by Moorcrest’s architect, Marie Russak Hotchener (see below), who had befriended the Langhankes and recently negotiated Astor’s allowance and right to work unchaperoned.  “Helios” Hotchener (after whom the street outside Moorcrest is named) persuaded Otto Langhanke to let Astor go out in public on her own and have a personal checking account with a $500 balance–at a time when she was earning $2,500 a week.

Mary Astor left Moorcrest for good for good by marrying Kenneth Hawks, the director-producer brother of Howard, in 1928. Hawks, whose total lack of sexual interest in his bride was accompanied by kindness and financial generosity, insisted that Astor spend only his money for both household and personal expenses. That meant every penny of her whopping salary–up to $3,750 a week–went to her high-living parents.

The gravy train stopped running when Hawks was killed during an aerial shoot in 1930. The following year,  Astor married her doctor, Franklyn Thorpe, and the couple lived frugally while her parents lived grandly in Moorcrest. It was only after giving birth to her daughter Marylyn in 1932 that Astor signed over her share of Moorcrest–Otto had made her sign a document giving her 1/3 ownership of her own house–and cut off the flow of money.  Unwilling to downsize, Otto Langhanke sued. The judge dismissed the suit after Astor offered to pay her parents a $100 monthly stipend. In her 1959 memoir, My Story, she wrote: “The reporters had rather a cruel laugh at Daddy’s expense; they got him to pose on the little bridge over the pool, gazing sadly into the water, and they ran the picture with the caption: “Down to their last swimming pool.” In end, Otto put Moorcrest up for auction after refusing an $80,000 offer–and got $25,000 for it.

Astor and Thorpe divorced in 1935. Though the divorce was uncontested, Thorpe sued for custody of Marylyn the following year. Complicating matters was Astor’s diary, which included references to her extramarital affair with the playwright George S. Kaufman. After forged pages of the diary were leaked to the press, the trial became a sensation. According to Astor, “it became a standard joke at parties for some man to come in looking furtive…and say, “I’m leaving town–I’m in the diary.” Despite pressure from a consortium of studio executives to settle the case,  Astor persisted and won primary custody of Marylyn.  Though she expected to lose her acting career over it, her popularity among audiences actually increased after the trial. Astor entered her best professional years in 1939 with “The Maltese Falcon” and a radio show, “Hollywood Showcase,” a kind of “American Idol” for undiscovered actors.

In later decades, Astor suffered a cascade of personal trials–loser husbands, loser boyfriends, a devastating non-sexual love affair (she seems to have had absolutely no gaydar), alcoholism, financial ruin and an Everest-sized avalanch of health problems. Each time she bounced back, going back to work and learning new techniques that allowed her to transition from movies to the stage, radio and, finally, television. After finally getting sober in the 1950s, she turned to writing, publishing two best-selling memoirs and five novels.   

Overcoming her horrible upbringing, Astor had good relationships with her daughter, son and grandchildren.  She retired from acting in 1964 after 123 films; her last was “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” In 1971, she chose to live out her life at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills rather than burdening her children with her care. She died there of heart failure in 1987, at 81.
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For more about Mary Astor, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign”at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

Alternative Religions, from Theosophy to Scientology: A Hollywood Tradition

June 2, 2009 § 1 Comment

Visitors to Hollywood are struck by the presence of the Church of Scientology, which cannily established itself along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in the 1970s and ’80s, when the average tourist visit to Hollywood Boulevard lasted less than half an hour and decrepit old buildings could be bought for a song.  Scientology’s success in gaining followers from the entertainment industry seems to have been both a cause and effect of its physical location, but no one can deny its philosophical appeal to actors and other creative artists.  

The entertainment industry is well-populated by all kinds of seekers, most of whom are not particularly attracted to mainstream religions. Instead, they tend to gravitate toward new, unconventional avenues of spirituality. And while Scientology is the most obvious of Hollywood’s new religions today, it is  hardly the first to appeal to a comely, spiritually underserved population.

A look back at the Hollywood’s beginnings proves that alternative schools of religion have attracted creative artists in the film industry since the Silent Era. Once famous–and in the teens, it really did happen overnight–young Hollywood stars found themselves adrift, tempted by alcohol and drugs and overwhelmed by sudden, enormous wealth. All of this was made worse by their social isolation in a city whose elites would have sooner dined alone than with “movies,” whose working class origins and questionable morals made them objects of derision. In the face of ostracism, many film stars preferred partying to spirituality while others kept up the religious practices of their youth. But some branched out into previously unknown schools of thought, including Theosophy.

The former Theosophist Temple and Meeting Hall, now Krotona Apts.

The former Theosophist Temple and Meeting Hall, now the Krotona Apts. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

 The Theosophical Society made its headquarters in Beachwood Canyon in 1911, establishing a utopian community, called Krotona, on ten acres. By Webster’s definition, the Theosophical Society was a cult–“a usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure”–though unlike most modern cults, it wasn’t organized around a single charismatic leader. Instead, the Theosophists had a hierarchical leadership and distinct branches of thought. The Beachwood group looked to the English social reformer and suffragist Annie Besant as its spiritual leader, while other branches regarded the Russian philosopher Madame (Elena Petrovna) Blavatsky as theirs.

Theosophy was based on Indian Buddhism but incorporated elements of all the major religions in its teachings. Its texts were challenging to read and comprehend. But the practice of Theosophy at Krotona–which included outdoor exercise, vegetarianism, agriculture, music, art and philosophy, as well as occult dabblings like seances–was easier to follow and appealed to a variety of Hollywood residents, including such actors as Charlie Chaplin.

The actress Mary Astor was connected to the Krotona Colony by virtue of her parents’ purchase–with her money–of Moorcrest, a mansion on Temple Hill Drive that was designed by the prominent Theosophist and amateur architect Marie Russak Hotchener.  Astor’s career ascended quickly after she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926; roles in silent films and early talkies followed. Her love affair with John Barrymore brought a greater connection between Hollywood and Theosophy because Barrymore retained Marie Hotchener as his astrologer and her husband Harry as his business manager. Though Astor and Barrymore never married, he seems to have maintained his association to the Hotcheners.  

Mary Astor outside her family's home, Moorcrest. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mary Astor outside her family's home, Moorcrest. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

But it wasn’t just actors who were attracted to Theosophy. Other local luminaries who cultivated ties to Krotona  included the writer L. Frank Baum and the architects  Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. 

During the teens, The Theosophical Society became an important cultural force in Hollywood during its transition from small town to city by sponsoring regular musical and theatrical programs. The most ambitious of these, an outdoor pageant based on Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem about the Buddha, “The Light of Asia,” was a smash hit in 1918. Its success led two Theosophists to the purchase some nearby land for the construction of a permanent civic amphitheater: the Hollywood Bowl.

Nearly a century later, the words “alternative religion” and “cult” conjure negative images of servitude, dogmatism and coercion, but none of these applied to the Theosophical Society. High-minded and intellectual, the Theosophists of Beachwood Canyon not only eschewed such hardball tactics but soon retreated to more sylvan surroundings, relocating to Ojai in 1926 because Hollywood had grown too urban. Their influence waned both because they failed to attract new members and because they tended to reproduce sparingly. But  the Theosophical Society’s declining influence can’t detract from the its success in building a vibrant artistic community in what was a tiny backwater only a century ago.  Reminders of that accomplishment persist not only in the Beachwood’s remaining Theosophist buildings but in the Hollywood Bowl’s Easter Sunrise Service, as well as every concert held there. 

Although both the Theosophical Society and the Church of Scientology began their Hollywood tenures as cults, the differences between them couldn’t be more dramatic. Those who regard alternative religions as a strange new phenomenon can take heart in the fact that Hollywood, in addition to hosting many mainstream churches, has been home to cults since its rural beginnings. In light of its founding by members of the Christian Temperance Movement, Hollywood’s tradition of religious tolerance is nothing short of miraculous.

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