Friday, September 28, 2018

J.F. Powers, Masterful Short Story Writer of the Middle West

Perfection of the Life or of the Work?:
James Farl Powers, Illinois Writer

(c) Copyright by Kathleen Spaltro (2018)
All Rights Reserved

              One of the greatest masters of the American short story—unknown to most American readers but well-known to his peers as "a writer's writer"—J.F. Powers was born in Jacksonville, raised in Rockford, Quincy, and Chicago. The Library of Congress subject headings for his Collected Stories denote Powers's recurrent topics: Middle West—Religious life and customs—Fiction; Middle West—Social life and customs—Fiction; Catholics—Fiction; Clergy—Fiction. Powers's stories and two novels mostly portrayed Roman Catholic American priests and their relationships with one another. For Powers, as for Anthony Trollope in his Barsetshire series about Church of England clergy in the cathedral city of Barchester, this is a humorous subject. Perhaps you don't think so? You are wrong. Trollope and Powers both make me laugh out loud in their depiction of the interpersonal relationships of clergy in very hierarchical churches. Powers masterfully portrays irritation, boredom, fear, toadying, and other assorted very human behaviors as men interact with other men who may be in the same profession but whom they don't like much.
Clerical Conflict
              Likewise, the interpersonal conflicts between Church of England clergymen of varying ranks constitute most of the plot of Anthony Trollope's delightful novel Barchester Towers, one of the 47 novels Trollope wrote in the time he spared from his very busy 33 years as a civil servant in the British postal service. Another novel in the series, The Last Chronicle of Barset, concerns a very poor and learned clergyman, Josiah Crawley, who stands accused of stealing a cheque. At once neurotic and noble, annoying and impressive, Crawley is a complex, self-defeating, obstinate, yet brave and dignified man. While I love Trollope's Barchester Towers as a comic masterpiece, I can see that The Last Chronicle of Barset surpasses even Barchester Towers as a great novel of portraiture: "No one ever on seeing Mr. Crawley took him to be a happy man, or a weak man, or an ignorant man, or a wise man."

              Trollope holds his own with the greatest of novelists writing in English. A minor genius who plumbed the same topics, Frederick Rolfe ("Baron Corvo") might provide another context within which to assess Powers. Although expelled from two seminaries, Rolfe insisted that he had a vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood. In his novel Hadrian VII—an astonishingly prophetic forecast of  the modern papacy, Rolfe portrays himself as George Arthur Rose, whose vocation was denied and then spectacularly, if belatedly, recognized. After 20 years of frustration, prelates come to apologize to Rose, and not long afterwards his persistent quest of his vocation gains attention in a blocked papal conclave that then selects Rose to be Pope. The newly elected Hadrian VII expresses his view that "The clergy are more than less human; and they certainly are not even the pick of humanity": "They mean well: but their whole aim and object seems to be to serve God by conciliating Mammon." Rolfe shares this central theme with both Trollope and Powers. Trying to serve God by conciliating Mammon is the theme of many of Powers's stories, as well as of his first novel, Morte d'Urban, and his long-delayed second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green.

              Trollope was financially successful, industrious, and pragmatic. Rolfe was unsuccessful, industrious, and impractical. Powers was unsuccessful, spasmodically industrious, and impractical. All three focused their fiction on the lives and careers of clergymen. Trollope made a solid financial success of his novels about infighting among clergy:  "I never saw anything like you clergymen," says  a female character, the daughter, wife, and sister-in-law of  a warden, a canon, and an archdeacon, "you are always thinking of fighting each other." Powers's choice of subject matter does not really seem to explain his financial difficulties, which were not eased even by winning the National Book Award in 1963 for Morte d'Urban. Nor does choice of topic seem to explain Rolfe's financial failure. 
              Temperament seems a more likely culprit—in Rolfe's case, paranoia coupled with a thoroughly narcissistic sense of entitlement:  "I have not a friend in the world to help me.… even though the quality and quantity of my work are admired, and predictions daily are made of the brilliant commercial success which will attend my stuff sooner or later, no one ever yet has conceived the idea of investing money in me to keep me alive to do more work and win that commercial success." Actually, many people kindly tried to help Rolfe, but "Rolfe saw himself as a permanently picturesque figure oppressed by a circle of enemies jealous of his talents or exhibiting their own meanness. It was his compensation for the maddening sense of failure, for his poverty, for his inability to dominate circumstances as he desired."

              While Trollope had a temperament that aided him to success, Rolfe alienated even his friends—partly because (according to a former friend)  he "had only the vaguest sense of realities." "He had so many gifts, and industry above all; but what he had to sell found no price in the market-place," his biographer A.J.A. Symons concluded. "His brilliant books, expressed in prose as exquisite as the hand and as brightly coloured as the inks with which it was written, brought him trivial sums and no security…. Behind his fury and lack of financial scruple, behind his inconvenient insistence on the artist’s right to live at the expense of others, behind the excesses into which his repressed nature tempted him, there remains an intense soul which maintained its faith, and expressed its aspirations in many excellent words and works."

              Trollope was financially successful, as well artistically prolific and notoriously industrious. Lacking the commercial success won by Trollope, Rolfe resembled Trollope in unceasing industry. Unlike Rolfe, Powers was intermittently industrious. Like Rolfe, Powers "had only the vaguest sense of realities." His daughter Jane commented,  "he was so hopelessly impractical."
              Comparing Rolfe with Powers pinpoints a crucial difference: while both were unsuccessful financially, Powers was often unproductive and time-wasting. His perfectionism seems to have seeded his persistent procrastination, which tried his long-suffering wife's patience as Betty Powers stabilized the family's finances during their long marriage (1946–1988) while maintaining a belief in his genius. "Are we to make him into just another man who will die, his body rot, his possessions be dispersed, and his immortality all in heaven?," Betty Powers asked her journal. "God does intend there to be man-made beauty on earth. We are to make order of it all. Order and art." In his last conversation with his dying wife,  his eldest child, Katherine A. Powers, has revealed,  "Jim said he spent that time telling her how sorry he was for giving her such a hard life and no home. He never really recovered from her death…."
              Powers's intermittent industriousness, his habits of procrastinating and wasting time, may have resulted in part from a perfectionism born of the very motive that impelled him:  his sense of vocation. As Katherine A. Powers has remembered, "For him, art was as much a spiritual vocation as the priesthood--a more exalted one even….But art, by contrast to the priesthood, allowed no compromise.... My father, however, felt that daily life could only be a distraction from his calling. Tragically, in the years that he struggled to write Wheat, he was often lost in a wilderness of petty detail and procrastination, wasting hours repairing and polishing his shoes, rubbing emollients into his leather-bound books, battling bats, mice, and squirrels in the house, and gophers under the sun; caulking windows, spackling cracks and holes, gluing, taping, and tapping in tacks." Believing that art was his God-given vocation may have so heightened his anxieties and standards to a breaking point that this belief (which sometimes generated perfect stories) often paralyzed artistic creation in the name of perfection.
Artistic Vocation
              This could seem like (and sometimes was) laziness or narcissism but was often self-paralysis probably worsened by recurrent financial failure. A 1959 diary entry by Powers notes, "I now see our whole married life as a search for a home, and every child making the need more pressing and the prospects less likely... I hope this will be the last harvest I will reap of the failure of Betty to educate her parents and others in the meaning of her calling and mine (as writers, artists) and the few prerogatives attending same." Powers had warned his future bride in 1945, "The jobs I had, in bookstores and the rest, were never honest. Not for me. Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions or a worm fly a kite?"
              Often refusing to turn from his writing to more renumerative work, Powers also often refused to write. Thus, his and Betty Powers's belief in his vocation entwined to create  what Katherine Powers called "the black comedy of children, five all told, great poverty, bad luck, and balked creativity." Her other comments plainly set out the human cost of living with his genius: "Growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again. There was so much uncertainty, so much desperation about money, and so very little restraint on my parents' part in letting their children know how precarious our existence was."
              This prolonged procrastination is hard to defend, given that Powers also often refused offers of paid work and allowed his family to subsist on the generosity of others. Rolfe, who starved in spectacular fashion during his last years in Venice, at least was a childless bachelor. Bernard Shaw pinpointed this failure of parental responsibility: "As long as a man has a right to risk his life or his livelihood for his ideas he needs only courage and conviction to make his integrity unassailable. But he forfeits that right when he marries….Women, for the sake of their children and parents, submit to slaveries and prostitutions that no unattached women would endure."
              Although distinguished by the deep respect of more famous authors for his eminence as a short-story writer, Powers never achieved much commercial success. Were the residential instability and the unceasing financial stress on his wife and children, as well as on Powers himself, inherent in his stubborn devotion to writing as his God-given vocation, or were his personal characteristics at fault as he chose the perfection of his work over the perfection of his life? Powers did indeed choose perfection of his work over perfection of his life. Only his wife and five children have the right to forgive or excuse that choice. At the same time, as a minor American writer with great gifts, Powers became a major practitioner of the short story in such brilliant pieces as "The Forks," "The Valiant Woman," and "Prince of Darkness." Unlike fellow American masters of the short story Flannery O'Connor and John Cheever, Powers also wrote readable, well-executed novels.

              I enjoy his comic sense of the discrepancy between religious vocation and the realities of the lives of secular priests. I respect his deep faith, which advocated a pacifism that sent him to prison for being a conscientious objector. I just wish that the human cost to his family of his vocation had not been so great.

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse

—William Butler Yeats

For Further Reading

The Stories of J.F. Powers, Morte d'Urban,  and Wheat That Springeth Green [with an introduction by Katherine A. Powers] are available from New York Review Books. Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers and The Last Chronicle of Barset are available in many editions.

Powers, Katherine A. (Ed.). Suitable Accommodations, An Autobiographical Story of Family Life:  The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942–1963. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

Rolfe, Frederick (Frederick Baron Corvo). Hadrian VII. New York:  Dover, 1969. Reprint of 1904 edition.

Scoble, Robert. The Corvo Cult:  The History of an Obsession. London:  Strange Attractor Press, 2014.

Symons, A.J.A. The Quest for Corvo. New York: Macmillan, 1934.

Capsule Biography of J.F. Powers

              Born in Jacksonville, Illinois on 8 July 1917. [Father (James A.), also born in Jacksonville in 1883, worked for many years as a manager for Swift and Company in Jacksonville, Rockford, and Quincy, Illinois.] In the late 1920s, attended St. Peter's School in Rockford, taught by Sisters of Loretto. From 1931-34, attended Quincy College Academy in Quincy, taught by Franciscans. In the mid-1930s, moved to Chicago—sold books at Marshall Field's, drove a Packard as a chauffeur. In the late 1930s, attended evening classes at  Northwestern University's Chicago campus, including a writing seminar taught by Bergen Evans. By 1940, employed as a Research Assistant for the Works Progress Administration's Illinois Historical Records Survey. Sold books at Brentano's but was fired for refusing to buy war bonds. As a writer for Catholic Worker, agreed with Dorothy Day's pacifism and was arrested in 1943 for not appearing for induction. Eventually sentenced to three years in prison and served 13 months in Sandstone, Minnesota, before parole in late 1944.Worked as hospital orderly (St. Joseph's Hospital) in St. Paul as a condition of early release. Briefly taught at St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota in 1947 (after 1975, was Regents Professor of English and writer-in-residence at St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict until 1993), at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, 1949-51; at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1956-57; at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1965-66. Awarded American Academy grant, 1948; Guggenheim fellowship, 1948; Rockefeller fellowships, 1954, 1957, 1967; National Book Award, 1963. Lived with his wife in 20 residences in the United States and Ireland. Died in 1999.
              Illinois addresses included Jacksonville, 1917, 812 Grove Street. 1920, 119 East Morton Avenue. 1924, 503 S. Prairie. Rockford, 1926, 1111 Grant Avenue. 1927, 947 N. Church. 1928, 2305 N. Court. 1929, 1811 Melrose. 1930, 1910 Douglas Street. Quincy, 1930, 1658 1/2 Jersey Street. 1931, 730 N. 24th Street. Chicago, 1940, 4453 N. Paulina.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Martin Scorsese's "Silence"

Martin Scorsese's Silence

 Kathleen Spaltro.

(c) Copyright (2018) by

All Rights Reserved.

Movies are often good, sometimes great, but rarely are films true masterpieces. Even more rarely is a film both a cinematic and a spiritual masterpiece. I wanted to watch Martin Scorsese's Silence (2016) again precisely because my first viewing had impressed me so much.

This truly amazing film comes from a director who once studied for the priesthood and whose sensibility has always remained deeply and authentically religious.

Silence masterfully renders human doubt, sadness, mercy, and devotion in an echo chamber in which unceasing human noise cannot conceal the silence of God while people suffer torment and persecution.

Einstein said something that illuminates this film: "God is subtle, but He is not cruel."

The film is subtle and leaves itself open to interpretation from many points of view. A Christian may feel as disturbed and moved by it as an atheist may feel. It imposes no doctrine, but it suggests a great deal.

The film asks, "Why is God silent?" But then it questions the assumptions underlying the question. It asks, "Is God silent?" It asks, "What is God?"

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Perennial Appeal of Communes

The Perennial Appeal of Communes

Kathleen Spaltro

(c) Copyright (2018).  All Rights Reserved. 

Baby Boomers like myself associate communes with the hippies of the Sixties and Seventies, but the appeal of the commune actually has attracted people for many centuries. A recent book about social experiments conducted in Illinois estimated that, in the 300 years that ended in 1964, visionaries established 516 "intentional communities" in North America. Of the 120 American communes begun between 1800 and 1850, 24 succeeded; these pre-Civil War societies usually were religious and Christian.

Despite their varying agendas, whether religious or secular, communes have persuaded many people who have tired of conventional communities to enlist as obedient followers espousing a cause or ideal of individual behavior or societal organization. As a member of a contemporary commune in Dorset, England, has explained, "It suits people who want to change, and those who want to be among people. A lot of the people [at Osho Leela] have gone through life, got married and had kids, and are just not happy with life. Then they turn to something like this."


I admire the idealism that motivates some members of communes to transcend the expectations of our highly individualistic society, and I find interesting the accounts of the organizational, interpersonal, economic, sexual, parental, and authority issues that challenge and sometimes destroy intentional communities. Sometimes the overriding motive is spiritual, and the people are noble, and I have always found saintly projects intriguing. The establishment of a monastic rule that governs a religious community, for example, creates one kind of intentional community.

But the more common fates of marriage, establishment of a nuclear family, and membership in one or more extended families sufficiently challenge most of us. Whether we succeed or falter as wives or husbands, parents, and adult children, we accept our society's norms. To reject these norms, to declare and act upon our dissatisfaction, requires more discernment and personal strength than we can easily muster. It may also require presumption and arrogance.

Our motives may be noble, or they may be merely self-serving. As Bernard Shaw wrote in 1913, "All movements which attack the existing state of society attract both the people who are not good enough for the world and the people for whom the world is not good enough." He had expressed this insight a decade earlier:  "The reformer for whom the world is not good enough finds himself shoulder to shoulder with him that is not good enough for the world." Shaw's friendly opponent in argument, G.K. Chesterton, agreed that the societal norms that we reject may well have a solid foundation in human nature:  "Tradition is the democracy of the dead."


Most of us are probably neither saints nor scoundrels, but perhaps the allure of experimental community attracts a preponderance of both saints and scoundrels. Sometimes, in the pursuit of individual and societal perfection, even saints may exhibit very unsaintly traits.

I thought of this when I visited a museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, that includes the Fruitlands farmhouse, a relic of the ill-fated commune founded in 1843 by Bronson Alcott. His much more famous daughter, Louisa, wrote a hilarious sendup of her father's commune, the short story "TranscendentalWild Oats." As a girl, Louisa was a cold, hungry, and involuntary participant.

Paul Elmer More's essay on Emerson included a section on the Fruitlands commune and Bronson Alcott. More crushingly explained Alcott's intention " to plant 'a love colony,' as their Eden was called, where the brotherhood of man should reign unpolluted by the lust of property, and by their illustrious example to aid 'entire human regeneration.' … The men of the colony were so absorbed in the contemplation of the mystery of holiness that the fruits of the field rather languished. As Alcott's daughter said, they 'were so busy discussing and defining great duties that they forgot to perform the small ones.' The barley crops somehow would not harvest themselves, so they were got in by the women while the masculine sages were wandering off in the amiable desire of 'aiding entire human regeneration.' Things grew worse and worse, until it came to a question of leaving or starving. It is very pretty to declare that the body is 'all sham'; but you can't feed it by shamming work."

Before Isaac Hecker founded the Paulist Fathers, he belonged to the Brook Farm (1841) and Fruitlands communes. More quoted Hecker in More's demolition of Bronson Alcott:  "by some unaccountable means the serpent seems to have crept into this Eden, as he did into the original experiment. The 'love colony' soon developed into a circle of disappointed, jealous, fault-finding men and women, who found it to their advantage to seek shelter from one another by scattering in the wicked world. This is one of Father Hecker's memoranda: 'Somebody once described Fruitlands as a place where Mr. Alcott looked benign and talked philosophy, while Mrs. Alcott and the children did all the work.' It is well to look benign, but another of the colonists wrote in a different vein. 'All the persons,' he complains, 'who have joined us during the summer have from some cause or other quitted, they say in consequence of Mr. Alcott's despotic manner, which he interprets as their not being equal to the Spirit's demands.' It looks a little as if these spiritual demands were not unaccompanied with spiritual pride; and pride, we remember, is sometimes said to have been the sin that broke up the original Eden."

It is well to remember that our attempts to transcend ourselves, to become perfect, may so strain our frail human nature that they create and reveal even more, and worse, imperfections. As the philosophy of the lamasery at Shangri-La is explained to a Western visitor, “If I could put it into a very few words, dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excesses of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself.”

Monday, February 26, 2018

Mary Astor

Real Tinsel:

How Lucile Langhanke of Quincy 
Became Mary Astor of the Silver Screen

Kathleen Spaltro

(C) (2018) All Rights Reserved. 

"Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel." — Oscar Levant

For both good and ill, the talented actress Mary Astor—the veteran of almost 45 years of silent films and talkies, stage and TV—also wrote, often and well. American newspapers salivated in 1936 over extracts from Astor's allegedly graphic sex diary that her ex-husband threatened to submit as evidence in a child custody trial. Long after both her scandal and her stardom had faded, Astor wrote two best-selling memoirs, My Story and A Life on Film; the financial success of her autobiographies encouraged her into writing novels. Astor's novels and her diary aside, her memoirs stand as well-written, insightful, and intelligent testimony to a life spent struggling with the residue of exploitation by people she should have been able to trust—a life spent discerning phony tinsel and all too often finding real tinsel in its stead.

Parental Hate

Astor graduated from being the practically cloistered daughter of smothering, controlling, disapproving, and demanding parents to being the rebellious wife in four failed marriages fraught with emotional disappointment and financial distress. She served as a lodestar for parents and husbands seeking to capitalize on her exquisite, delicate beauty and her acting ability with its consequent large salaries. Naturally, this sensitive girl, untrained in life's practical tasks and confused about parental, sexual, and spousal love, grew up into a brittle woman, uncertain about trust, inclined to make bad decisions about money and people, and full of self-hate. Indeed, the adult Astor would conclude that her parents' legacy to her was hate.

Born in Quincy's Blessing Hospital on 3 May 1906 as Lucile Langhanke, she was the only child of Otto Langhanke and Helen Vasconcells Langhanke. Emigrating from Germany sometime between 1889 to 1891, Otto had come to Quincy in 1904 and taught German from 1906 at Quincy High School. The high school fired him in 1912 after a fistfight in the school halls with another teacher but reinstated him by 1915 and retained him in 1916. Other occupations included decorating store display windows in 1914 at the Stern Clothing Company and running his own poultry farm. Born in Jacksonville, Helen was a drama teacher who wanted to be an actress; she also taught German in 1917 at the Quincy College of Music and Art (as had Otto from 1905). 

When Lucile was born in 1906, her family lived in an apartment over a saloon. In 1908, their address was 725 1-3 Hampshire; from at least 1910 until 1913, their address was 1837 Broadway. In 1913, they rented a 12-room Victorian mansion on North Twelfth Street, just north of the Soldiers' Home and outside Quincy city limits. Lucile loved being by herself on this eight-acre farm. When Otto got his teaching job back, the family left the farm for Kentucky Street in Quincy, and Lucile attended Highland School, a two-room schoolhouse.

The author of a German language textbook and teacher's manual, and a faculty member for the 1917–1918 school year, Otto lost his teaching job at Quincy High School again because of anti-German feeling. The Quincy Daily Journal on 5 April 1918 reported a resolution unanimously adopted by the board of education to "remove German sympathizers and the German language from the public schools" at the end of the school year. This prompted the Langhankes' exodus to Chicago.

There they resided in an apartment on East 47th Street, and Lucile miserably attended public school. After Helen became a teacher of literature and drama at the Kenwood-Loring School for Girls, 4600 Ellis Avenue, Lucile was admitted as a tuition-free pupil; she loved the school and enjoyed her mother's teaching. Lucile graduated in 1919.

Trapped by Beauty

Lucile won attention by entering beauty contests in 1919 and 1920 sponsored by Motion Picture magazine. On the strength of this thin reed, the Langhankes moved to New York, where Otto sought to promote Lucile as a fledgling actress. The gifted photographer Charles Albin created some hauntingly beautiful photographs of her; they finally caught the attention of movie executives, got her parts in silent films, and eventually won her contracts as the newly renamed "Mary Astor." When Astor won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Great Lie in 1942, she commented, "twenty-two years ago this coming June I first faced a motion picture camera—I hasten to add I was very young." In 1920, she was only 14—and a very young, very intimidated child-woman.

For many years, Otto was Astor's business manager and controlled/spent her income. More than that, Otto and Helen controlled their daughter's every move. "I had never been permitted to grow. Too early I became a very valuable piece of property to my parents, closely guarded, closely watched. I was not permitted to make decisions, therefore I could not learn how to make decisions.… No imprisonment could have been more thorough and more stultifying….The closely guarded young girl of European countries is trained for womanhood and marriage. For me there was no goal—except tomorrow's movie job. I escaped—the desperate flight of a child into an unmapped and unknown adult world. And I rushed headlong into nothing but trouble!"

"I had no personal life. There was no school, no beaux, no parties, no friends of my own age. There was just Mother and Daddy and the people in the studios. And I was chaperoned ever more and more closely." Her parents opened her mail, read any letters she wrote, did not allow her to venture out alone, not even to the mailbox, and discouraged any friendships outside the family.
More even than this: besides controlling her money and her every waking moment, Otto berated her as a disappointing, stupid, bad daughter. "I was a constant failure; he indicated his disappointment with windy sighs and shakes of the head." "He was going to be a rich man if it killed me….I was a real disappointment, that I could see." Helen's attitude was no more accepting. Inscribing her diary, "This is for Lucile—she asked for it!", Helen left for her daughter to read after Helen's death "a shocking hymn of hate for me from the time I was born."

This child-woman on the brink of stardom was ripe for financial and emotional exploitation by others, including her first lover and the love of her life, John Barrymore, 42 to her 17. "I was all messed up in an affair with a man twenty-five years older than I and I was terrified if I ever so much as whispered a thought of my own." Barrymore shocked his timid virgin-mistress by implying that her parents had guessed about their affair and tacitly accepted it as way of controlling her and increasing her financial value to them. He challenged her to break from Otto and Helen—"They'll just make a meal ticket out of you"—but she was not yet strong enough to leave her parents for Barrymore. Losing him prompted her to rebel, finally, but, unmoored from parental control, she was unprepared to recognize exploitive motives in others or to manage her own life well.

Four failed marriages and recurrent financial stress, as well as a sex scandal fueled by speculation about the real content and the forged pages of her private diary, left deep wounds. "I hated everything, including myself—especially myself. Drinking helped for a few hours at a time, but alcohol will soothe and relax only for a while. Then it will turn and viciously exaggerate the moods of the drinker. And this drinker's moods were not the kind that could safely be exaggerated."


Her lifelong struggle with alcohol was eased at times by her religious faith, which encouraged self-awareness, self-acceptance, freedom from "the confining mass of self-centered thinking—infantile, emotional, ineffective solutions to problems that had bound me deeper and deeper in loneliness and misery." Weak in many ways, she yet had a strong core: "I was fortunate enough to have an inherent vitality; the deepest need, survival, was very strong." Astor's courageous description in her memoirs of her plight demonstrates great strength underlying manifest weakness.

Self-acceptance demanded the rejection of "Mary Astor," the imposed identity and enforced ambition. Even at the beginning of her career, "the feeling I was to have always [was]: 'What's this got to do with me?' " "As well as I know the actress, Mary Astor—every movement, every shade of voice, and I learned to manipulate her into many different kinds of women—she is still not 'me'." Writing as "Rusty," in a late-life letter to her only childhood friend, Marian, she confided, "I have been going through a battle royal with the devils that seem to pursue me….when I first turned my back completely on 'Mary Astor' 'She' was furious! And I fled and kept running. And ran into 'her' everywhere I went….let's let 'Mary Astor' belong to history. Let her have her Oscars and her glory—and let 'her' die. Damn her. She is no part of my soul…. So have faith in your friend and pray for Rusty."

For Further Reading

Astor, Mary. A Life on Film. New York : Delacorte Press, 1971.

________. My Story:  An Autobiography. Garden City, NY:   Doubleday & Company, 1959.

Egan, Joseph. The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s. New York: Diversion Books, 2016.

Mary Astor Papers: Marian Kesler Collection. Quincy Public Library, Quincy, IL.

Oral History Interview with Mary Astor in Hollywood Film Industry Oral History Project, Columbia Center for Oral History Archives, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. [Astor was interviewed by Nicholas  Benton on 7 June 1971 in Fountain Valley, CA.]

Quincy's Historical Newspaper Archive.

Sorel, Edward. Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936. New York : Liveright, 2016.

This article originally appeared in The Woodstock Independent.