A charming slice of retro Hollywood tabloid scandal.
Though the book might have benefitted from a few more of the author’s exquisite illustrations and a little less explication, this exhumation of the “Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” allows the artist to fully indulge the obsession he’s carried for the last half-century. When Sorel (Certitude: A Profusely Illustrated Guide to Blockheads and Bullheads, Past and Present, 2009, etc.) was replacing his kitchen linoleum, he found newspapers alluding to the scandal featuring the diary of actress Mary Astor, who was in court to regain custody of her daughter and whose estranged husband “planned to use the diary to prove she was an unfit mother….Mary, he claimed, had not only kept a tally of all of her extramarital affairs but graded them.” Though the subsequent pages recount the story of young Mary’s exploitation, first by her parents, then by the movie industry, the playful tone suggests a more innocent era and a time when the glamorous Hollywood, amid the transition from silent movies to talkies, gives the artist the opportunity to “draw that exotic place when it was just at the beginning of its love affair with art deco.” As the narrative traces Mary’s rise and fall, it also provides an account of “how Eddie Schwartz morphed into Edward Sorel,” a story that ultimately provides some parallels with Astor’s and suggests why her plight so strongly resonated with that of the renowned magazine illustrator. In addition to diary excerpts and other research, the book features an extended interview between the author and “the long-dead actress” as the “proselytizing atheist” attempts “to channel her in her Catholic heaven” and get her to tell her story about the beginning of her notorious affair with Broadway’s George S. Kaufman.
What was then labeled “the worst case of dynamite in Hollywood history” seems pretty tame today, but Sorel’s command of tone and pen sustains readers’ interest.