Mary Astor: The Prisoner of Moorcrest

Beautiful Mary Astor (born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke) was the daughter of teachers who didn’t really want to teach. When lovely Lucile showed a talent for acting and became a semifinalist in a Motion Picture Magazine beauty contest, papa packed up the family and moved first to New York, where Lucile entered motion pictures, and later to Hollywood, where Paramount Pictures renamed her Mary Astor. Papa Langhanke managed all of Mary’s affairs from 1920 (at which time Mary was 14 years old) to 1930.

Mary’s career continued on a upward path, though she was chiefly singled out for her Madonna-like beauty. Sadly, the black-and-white film of the day could not do justice to the lovely auburn hair that earned her the nickname “Rusty.” Mary entered into a true and passionate love affair with the much older John Barrymore at age 18, but Papa put the kibosh on that and hauled her back to the mansion they had bought with the money she had earned. It was this mansion that became her prison.

Completed in 1921, Moorcrest is often referred to as the “Charlie Chaplin House,” as Chaplin did live there for a short while. However, after he departed, Mary’s parents–who were learning to enjoy the good life on Mary’s sweat–purchased this Moorish-mission style mansion. It is a home with an interesting pedigree.

Theosophy, a belief system that mixes a little occult with a little faith and a dash of science, was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1921, members of the Theosophical Society created their own little Utopia called Krotona in Hollywood, below where the Hollywood sign stands today. Moorcrest was designed by one of Krotona’s founding members, Marie Russak Hotchner (former opera singer, society figure and architect). Krotona thrived for a while, but the materialistic lifestyle of the sin-loving movie colony soon convinced the Theosophists that it might be better to pack up and move to Ojai, where they still practice today. However, the Society’s temple – the Temple of the Rosy Cross – is now part of the Krotona Apartments, located on Alta Vista Street.

The Langhankes were not Theosophists, but were friendly with both Mrs. and Mr. Hotchner. In fact, Mrs. Hotchner pleaded on Mary’s behalf for her parents to give her a weekly $5 allowance when she was earning $2,500 a week from Paramount. What a friend.

And so, Mary toiled all day at the studio and was kept a virtual prisoner by her abusive parents at night. Finally, at age 19, she climbed out of her bedroom window and escaped, landing in a hotel in Hollywood. Hotchner again interceded and persuaded Mary to come home with a promise of a $500 bank account and control of her finances. She might have gotten the $500, but papa did not lose control until Mary was 26 years old. She finally escaped by marrying at age 22 and moving out with her husband.

Poor Mary Astor. She was a beautiful movie star to the world, but her life was a hell made by her greedy parents. When Mary did finally gain control of her finances at age 26, her parents promptly sued her for support. The case was finally settled, with Mary agreeing to pay mom and dad a monthly support check of $100. Mom, upon her death, left Mary her diaries. They were filled with unspeakable hatred of and cruelty towards the daughter who supported her.

Moorcrest as it appears today.

Ironically, Mary should have learned that keeping a diary could be dangerous as she found herself, in 1936, embroiled in a nasty court fight with her second husband over custody of their daughter. Although never entered into evidence, her purple prose diary detailing affairs, especially one with playwright George S. Kaufman, created a huge scandal. While Mary Astor went on to create many memorable screen characters with her sensitive and incisive style, no screen drama could match that of her early life.

Want to know more about Moorcrest? Click here to see how beautifully it has been restored.

Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of  classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page.