Silent movie stars seem to have been forever falling from grace. Hollywood Hubris ran rampant through the paradisic Beverly Hills in the Twenties, and none of them seemed to learn from the crash-and-burn antics of their contemporaries. The coming of sound is often invoked as the wrecker of many a liquid-eyed silent star, but many more were casualties of their own gilded ego-trips. Mae Murray is a perfect case in point. Christopher Raymond Brocklebank has her story.

Supposedly the model for the Norma Desmond character of Sunset Boulevard fame, Mae rose from a shady, poverty-stricken childhood to conquer Broadway in her teens and Hollywood in her twenties and thirties. Then along came a phony Georgian nobleman in 1925 who married her, wrecked her career, spent her fortune and left her destitute. Not that park-bench penury ever seemed to dent her eternally buoyant self-esteem and arrogance (depending on your level of empathy) and she lived by her own proclamation ‘Once a star – always a star!’ to the end of her sad days.

Born Marie Adrienne Koenig to Austrian-Belgian immigrants in ol’ Virginia in 1889, Mae eternally embellished the details of her childhood, muddying the truth with tales of being born at sea and of being raised in numerous convents where the nuns would whip her soundly for prancing through the gardens late at night holding aloft lit matches and wearing nought but gauze (she was, apparently, pretending to be a firefly).

The imaginative and luminous young Mae grew up beautiful and somehow made it to Broadway aged 17 in 1906 where she joined the chorus line of the infamous Ziegfeld Follies, rising swiftly to a headlining role. She danced with Vernon Castle and rapidly became a star of the NY supper club scene; a shimmering blonde Southern Belle, she danced like a dream and believed utterly in her own beauty and brilliance -curiously, she was never known as ‘Modest Murray’.

By her mid-twenties, she’d married and divorced both a stockbroker and an Olympic bobsled champion, getting out of both marriages with a vast settlement apiece and a well-established career. Being a gorgeous millionairess with hair the colour of desert sand, Murray was at some sort of an advantage, one might say, and made her next marriage to a top film director, Robert Z. Leonard, thus finding her real destiny as a queen of the screen. Film production hadn’t yet moved out West, and Mae made her east-coast movie debut in To Have and to Hold in 1916, followed by A Delicious Little Devil, co-starring, at her request, a brooding young Italian dancer she’d discovered called Rodolfo Guglielmi, later famously known as Rudolph Valentino.

The public adored Murray almost as much as she herself did. Cunning application of blood-red lipstick soon had her tagged as ‘The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips’ and following their move out West, the fan-mag snaps of Murrayand Leonard with their block-long canary-yellow Pierce Arrow car, liveried chauffeur called Borzoi, and ludicrous wedding-cake mansion kept coming in. A golden girl in the golden state, Murray lived a lifestyle that can scarcely be imagined today – almost a parody of silent movie star opulence and waste.

Now in her mid-thirties but looking a decade younger, Mae was Hollywood’s first Bad Blonde, not in the sense of the tough-talking solarised blondes later spawned by Harlow, but rather as the antithesis of Mary Pickford, Hollywood’s premier blonde at that time, with an image as wholesome as apple pie, albeit a million-dollar apple pie. Mae, however, shimmied across the screen wearing as little as she could get away with in a series of fantastical and increasingly daft melodramas designed to showcase her talent as a dancer, which were infinitely superior to her acting one.

One critic (surely Dorothy Parker?) wrote of Mademoiselle Midnight (1924): “Murray having histrionic hysterics in Mexico. General blurred impression of film is this: Mae Murray – large mountains – Mae Murray – midnight love trysts – Mae Murray – weird Fandango dance by someone described as a screen star – Mae Murray – cowboys having spasms – Mae Murray.”

Still, the public swallowed her on-screen fuss-n-feather farragoes again and again, culminating in her most famous flick, Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925), the one project that probably did more to cement her reputation in film history than anything else she appeared in, dancing a stunning waltz with John Gilbert and looking for all the world like a woman at the very height of her beauty and prowess. The film was a roaring success, recouping its vast budget with ease.

For Murray, there was only one way to go from here, though it wasn’t immediately apparent. The ‘marrying’ Mdivani brothers arrived in America in the Twenties armed only with looks, cunning and phony titles, their father famously said he was probably the only person to ever inherit a title from his children. ‘Prince’ David charmed Mae into dumping her husband, and married her in 1925 (the other two brothers, Serge and Alexis, managed to snare Pola Negri and minted Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton respectively).

Mae’s prince had come – but so had the beginning of her end. Mdivani became her ‘manager’, taking control of her finances and convincing Mae to walk out on her MGM contract and work independently. She promptly obeyed, making a fierce enemy of Louis B Mayer, who famously wielded a Caligula-like power over Tinseltown at that time; he blackballed her and as a result, no roles were forthcoming anywhere.

Read on to find out about Mae’s sad later life.

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3 Responses

  1. Fleep

    Brilliant article. I am inspired to find out more about the mad Mae Murray now. Please can we have more about icons from the past- men too, like Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.

  2. jayd

    Interesting however I question the use of the word “Infamous” with regard to the Follies.
    That word denotes something unsavory, does it not? My dictionary defines that word as having a bad reputation, which the Follies did NOT have. In fact, the opposite is true.

  3. Hala Pickford

    There’s a little too much poision in the writer’s writing for me to enjoy this piece, though I do love Mae Murray and how crazy she went (take THAT Lindsey Lohan!) And I take offense to not only the notion that silent stars had talkie myth syndrome, but that their ‘gilded egos’ did em in instead. More like sad sad circumstances when a grouping of people with family histories of alcoholism and mental illness are given lots of money and put in the spotlight (if you look at a lot of their blood descendants you can see just what I mean). Like now.

    The 20s were the start but by no means an exception (Florence Lawrence to Marilyn Monroe to again Lohan…same ol same ol.) Someone said they were doing a new bio on Mae…I hope they do!