Mary Astor Divorce Trial: 1936

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Mary Astor Divorce Trial: 1936

Plaintiff: Mary Astor
Defendant: Franklyn Thorpe
Plaintiff Claims: Custody of child, annulment of marriage, and abrogation of property settlement in earlier divorce
Chief Defense Lawyers: Joseph Anderson and Michael Narlian
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Joseph F. Rank and Roland Rich Woolley
Judge: Goodwin J. Knight
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trial: July 29-August 14, 1936
Verdict: Decree granted for plaintiff

SIGNIFICANCE: The Mary Astor case is a classic Hollywood divorce case. It entertained newspaper readers for weeks with charges, countercharges, and denials, and offered wondrous titillation and breathtaking insight into the daring illicit romances of people in show business. The case reads like the scenario of a life-in-Hollywood movie.

In 1936, actress Mary Astor was at the height of a Hollywood career that had begun in 1922 and had seen her move successfully through dozens of silent films in the 20s and into the "talkies." Her 74th film, the screen adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' novel Dodsworth, was in production, with Mary playing the "other woman." Over the years, she had appeared on-screen with such fabled names as George Arliss, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, William Powell, Jean Harlow, Gilbert Rowland, Dorothy Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Myrna Loy, Edward G. Robinson, Richard Dix, Frederic March, Clark Gable, and Paul Muni, in such classics as The Man Who Played God, Don Q, Son of Zorro, Don Juan, The Lost Squadron, and Red Dust.

Astor's first husband, director Kenneth Hawks, was killed in 1930 when his camera plane collided with another. In 1931, she married her doctor, Franklyn Thorpe. He sued her for divorce in April 1935, charging mental cruelty and incompatibility. Under the divorce settlement, he gained custody of their 3-year-old, Marilyn, and some $60,000 in negotiable properties and real estate. Astor could visit the child at will and have her for six months of the year if she wished.

"He'd Shake Her So Hard Her Teeth Rattled"

By the summer of 1936, Astor brought suit against Thorpe, saying she was coerced into the divorce and charging him with abusing Marilyn"He'd shake her so hard her teeth rattled and bit her lips," she sobbed in court. Astor demanded custody of her daughter, formal annulment of the marriage, and abrogation of the property settlement. To persuade the court he was unfit to have custody of Marilyn, she produced evidence that Thorpe had been married previously but had not told her so, and that he had had four postmarital love affairs.

Thorpe's attorney, Joseph Anderson, said he would dispute Astor's contention that she was coerced. "We can prove in her own handwriting that this was not the situation at all," he announced, "but that she wilfully abandoned the child for a married manGeorge Kaufman."

The Diary Written in Purple

Anderson had fired a shot heard "round the world. Headline writers outdid each other shouting that renowned play-wright and director George S. Kaufman had been named in Mary Astor's diary as her lover. Thorpe had the diary, dating from 1929. According to Anderson, its presentation as evidence would prove what everyone in show business knew: that Kaufman's sexual appetite was as great as his well-known appetite for work. And the diarywritten, the press reported, in purple inkwould reveal a scorecard by Mary Astor on the performance in bed of almost every well-known actor in show business.

Astor's lawyer, Roland Rich Woolley, told the court he wanted the diary produced by the defense as evidence, to prove that it was not such a compilation of titillation. Astor said the book was a forgery leaked to the press.

Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner, Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, and Jesse Lasky and their lawyers tried to convince Astor and Woolley that it would be better for the movie industry and for her not to introduce the diary.

PlayWright Flees in a Laundry Basket

Judge Goodwin J. Knight examined the diary. Several pages were missing. It was a "mutilated document," not admissible as evidence. Thorpe's attorneys got Judge Knight to issue a subpoena that would force Kaufman to testify in court on his relations with Mary Astor. Irving Thalberg, for whom Kaufman was working, put Kaufman aboard his yacht, sailed him off to Catalina Island, and said the playwright had "disappeared." The judge issued a bench warrant for Kaufman's arrest. Kaufman sneaked back, hid at Moss Hart's home, then was hauled in a large laundry basket aboard a laundry truck to the San Bernardino railroad station, where he boarded a train for New York. After staying in his berth the entire trip, he said, "That's the best way to travel."

Too late, the judge issued a search warrant for Hart's home. "The bench warrant will hang over Kaufman's head always," he declared. "If he can be cited, I'll sentence him to jail."

Thorpe admitted that, before marrying Mary Astor, he had lived in Florida with another woman as man and wife, and that he also had been married earlier.

The judge negotiated with the lawyers. He ordered the diary impounded. (Later, with Mary Astor's permission, it was incinerated.) The judge awarded custody of Marilyn to Mary Astor for nine months of each yearthe child could visit Thorpe during summer vacations from schooland nulled the earlier property settlement.

The bench warrant for Kaufman's arrest continued, but six months later the playwright visited the judge and paid a $500 fine, and they shook hands.

Mary Astor's career soared. Before she retired and turned to writing successful novels, she had made 109 movies, including The Maltese Falcon, Thousands Cheer, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. She died at 81 in 1987.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Astor, Mary. A Life on Film. New York: Delacorte Press, 1967.

My Story: An Autobiography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1959.

Meredith, Scott. George S. Kaufman and His Friends. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1974.

Teichmann, Howard. George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Atheneum, 1972.