The Trials of Mary Astor
July 23, 2009 § 2 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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
Marie Russak Hotchener and Moorcrest: The Theosophist Opera Singer and Her Architectural Fantasia
July 6, 2009 § 7 Comments
Moorcrest stands on a hill overlooking Beachwood Drive. Its hybrid Moorish-Mission architecture, imposing size and prominent location lead many people, even Beachwooders, to assume it is a public building rather than a home. When I was working on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” people kept asking if I had filmed the “temple” on Temple Hill Drive. They were surprised when I told them it was called Moorcrest and always had been a private home. (The Theosophical Society’s actual temple–the Temple of the Rosy Cross–is now part of the Krotona Apartments on Alta Vista Street, just to the south.)
Those who know Moorcrest is a home tend to call it “The Charlie Chaplin House.” While Chaplin did briefly live in Moorcrest, he was a renter and soon moved on, to a house he had his set builders construct for him (the infamously nicknamed “Breakaway House”) in Beverly Hills.
Retiring from the stage, Marie Russak began a new life as a rich Upper East Side matron but soon turned her sights to the wider world, moving to Paris with her husband in 1901. She had become a Theosophist in 1898 and deepened her commitment by relocating to the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India in 1906. (No word on what happened to her marriage, as Frank Russak seems to have stayed in Paris.) Her four years in India, where she studied under Annie Besant, not only schooled her in Theosophy but sowed the seeds of a new avocation: architecture.
In India, Marie Russak no doubt saw magnificent examples of the Mogul style that would inspire the Theosophist buildings of Beachwood. The arches, keyhole windows and domes of the Krotona Colony are directly inspired by India’s Islamic architecture of the 16th-18th centuries, the best-known example of which is the Taj Mahal. The Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai), a hybrid of Indian and British Colonial styles, probably inspired the ecclecticism of the Beachwood’s Krotona Colony, whose buildings were as much Italianate and Spanish as Islamic in their derivation.
In his otherwise excellent study of Krotona architecture, “The Surviving Buildings of Krotona in Hollywood,” (Architronic vol. 8, 1998), Alfred Willis bemoans Marie Russak Hotchener’s lack of architectural training, dismissing her proportions as “awkward” and her interiors as “rather garish.” Further noting that all her houses were “somewhat vulgar,” he concedes that they reflect “their designer’s own middle-class taste but also the vulgarity increasingly evidenced in the commercial and domestic buildings of boomtime Los Angeles in the 1920’s.” That the hardly middle-class Marie Russak Hotchener was reaching for an architectural style as unique and hybridized as Theosophy itself apparently never occurred to him.
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 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.
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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