1-INTERVIEW WITH MARY ASTOR’S DAUGHTER, MARYLYN THORPE ROH
|Marylyn Thorpe in 1936||Marylyn Thorpe Roh 80 Years Later|
This interview is a distillation of the almost 26,000 words of Marylyn Roh interview material that I amassed while writing “The Purple Diaries and in the months afterward.” Most of this material did not appear in the book as it fell outside of the book’s parameters. The questions and answers were done through email. Therefore, except for the use of transitional words to tie material together, some punctuation and the questions, of course, everything here was written to me by Marylyn and these are her written words. I merely cut and pasted it together. The interview is not illustrated as this website is full of illustrations and it would be repetitive to use any of them here. Nevertheless, a few excerpts are used to introduce several picture galleries on this website.
Q-You were born in Honolulu Hawaii in the same hospital in which Barack Obama was born. How did that come about?
A- In May 1932 my father and mother went on a yachting trip from San Pedro, CA to Honolulu. On the way over, there was a horrific gale. Mom said she tossed over and over in her bunk and could feel my tiny hands in her womb, moving desperately as if to keep my balance inside. It’s no wonder I was born two months early and a wonder that I’m here at all. Mom was really frightened because I was only four pounds eleven ounces. I think my early parental programming was because I was a preemie as I was to ‘eat everything on my plate’ and still do that.
In those days, a pediatrician would design a week’s menu of meals for their child patients—the same thing on each day of the week. For Tuesday dinner, I had to have ‘corn chowder’ and did I ever hate it. Not only was it too salty but it looked like monkey vomit and I could barely eat a few teaspoons of it. The crux was, if I didn’t eat it at night I had to have it heated up for the next day’s breakfast before I could have anything else! One time, Daddy took me to lunch at a café near his office, and Mom made him take a little container of it for me to eat before lunch. Well, he had it heated up at the restaurant. I took a few teaspoons and Dad mercifully said that was enough. He must have put his foot down with Mom because I never saw corn chowder again! The other foods for the week I didn’t like were: stewed tomatoes, steamed white fish and peas that were cooked to death and tasted like garbanzos. Ugh! I can’t remember any good things I ever ate as a child except when I was with Dad. He always bought me an ice cream bar off a truck. I definitely was spoiled with him.
Q-You returned to Hawaii after your mother married Manuel del Campo in 1937.
A-I very much remember that trip to Honolulu. Folks were seasick but I wasn’t and my nurse Nellie Richardson was and had to stay topside. Mom and Manuel were at the other end of the Matson Line ship we were on and one night Nellie left me in our cabin with the door locked. There was no potty in the room. I got panicky and finally had to tinkle on the carpet. I still have quite a recall about Honolulu; different images of the place are still intact but nothing about Mom there. I can open a jar of Noxzema and ‘go’ there in my mind. I was slathered on with it for a bad sunburn I got on the boat. Cary Grant was on the return voyage with us but I don’t remember mom ever mentioning him.
Q-How do you remember yourself as a child?
A-An ‘attention getter’. If I were my own mother I could never have put up with myself. I was all over the place, and talked too much and always ‘acting’. I was such a little ‘actress’ when I was kid. I imitated some actresses and Daddy would always ask me, “What/who are you being now”? I use ‘being’ now with my great-grandkids.
Q-How does it feel to have been the reason for that famous custody scandal?
A-Actually, when I do talk about it I laugh saying, “Hey! I was the most famous 4-year-old on the planet in 1936” and then drop the whole thing. Frankly I care so little about the subject unless someone asks me for details I don’t feel I have to bring it up. It’s totally boring to me.
Q-How do you feel about the publication of “The Purple Diaries.”
A-I think Joe has done an exceptional job with the Book – he’s worked on the subject for years – his goal being to ‘set things straight’ about the scandal my parents went through for my custody – overriding the lies of ‘Hollywood Babylon’.
Q-What was your reaction when you saw Edward Sorel’s illustrations in “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary” specifically the nude which appeared in Vanity Fair?
A-Well, I am no prude but I’ll have to admit that, at first, I was angry and embarrassed for Sorel that he would draw my mom like that. After talking it out with the family, I’ve simmered down and have ‘let it go’ as there’s not a thing I can do about the really bad taste of his publisher to use the drawing in Vanity Fair.
Q-What were they like as a couple? Was it more romantic or tumultuous?
A-I have no idea – I don’t remember them as a ‘couple’ – or together at all. From what I’ve read my father threatened my mother lot at the time before the divorce and made her sick with fear which is why she gave him custody. That can’t have been too much fun!!!
Q-Do you remember as a child what that time was like?
A-Frankly I don’t seem to remember it being a difficult time for me. Life went on from day to day. I was well cared for, I lived in a beautiful house, had food and clothes. I was pretty well shielded from what my parents were going through. I don’t remember meeting Goodwin Knight. I do remember that up to the time of the custody Dad was very strict and that I loved my parents very much but sometimes I didn’t ‘like’ them but then again, aren’t all kids that way sometimes?
Q-How difficult was life for you after your parent’s divorce and after the custody battle?
A-The fact is, I don’t remember being ‘un-happy.’ Sure I didn’t understand why I could only see one parent at certain times but I thought that every kid went through the same thing. It was like, so my parents don’t live together any more. Next? Everything seemed ‘normal.’ Yes, I was definitely ‘shielded’ from a lot things that I only learned about many years later. And now it’s, ‘so what’? What am I supposed to do about it?
Q-Did your parent’s divorce have any effect on how you perceived what love should be?
A-Not sure – I’ve never had any real problem with ‘loving others’.
Q-Do you blame either of your parents for their divorce? Since they both had extramarital affairs, what was the reason they ultimately got divorced?
A-No blame involved. It was the best thing they could have done. I’d say Mom had my welfare in mind. She didn’t like how Dad treated me and she was the one with the money to raise me. Dad just wanted to ‘win’ in Court for his own ego which is still alright. We all are flawed in one way or another!
Q-How did you learn that this case was in newspapers?
A-Mother kept a large scrapbook, and some of the articles were kept in there. Truth is I cared so little about that.
Q-After all these years, are you still shocked that new discoveries have come out about the scandal of 1936, as it’s been called?
A-Not at all. It’s so common in Hollywood that none of it amazes me anymore and maybe never did. I’ve learned to live with the fact that my parents went through that time and if people are still interested and more stuff emerges concerning the scandal, there’s nothing I can do about it. I would hope true fans would forgive the past and get on with their lives and not continue to dredge up old garbage. I never have written about Mom’s ‘scandals’ anywhere. Or do I discuss them at length.
Q-Do you believe it was better for you that your mother won back primary custody?
A-Well, for one thing there would have been no way that Dad could have given me a real home. He usually had a steady girlfriend. He had two who looked after me on Thursdays and Sundays when I was with him. As a ‘lothario’—the press’ term—he had others and would have made a great polygamist! Also, Dad was OCD about his professional life as a doctor. Where would I have fit in, really? He always told me I would have made a ‘fine doctor’ and said if I had lived with him, I could have gone on to that! Who was he kidding! He wasn’t around enough to be of any help getting me through the demands of that career, as in, paying for my education. Mom paid for all of my education until after my 1st year of college. I recently looked at some torrid newspaper headlines referring to the custody battle and really, all I did was laugh and think ‘Poor Mom’ and ‘what a mess.’ The case was a battle of egos, and not for ‘little Marylyn’ because after I was ‘won’, I was cared for by others. Ironic, isn’t it.
Q-Do you remember anything about Norma Taylor chasing after your father?
A-Actually I remember vaguely watching Dad being chased by a woman with what I thought was a knife while I was sitting halfway up the staircase. Really vague in my memory. Nellie got me out of the way by then. I don’t remember Nellie taking me into my room, or cops, or anything more.
Q-Whatever happened to that oversized Teddy Bear? A picture of you holding it was printed in almost every newspaper in the world.
A-My ol’ Teddy Bear. It probably went the way of all teddies; maybe to the Salvation Army? Would you believe I recently got another chocolate colored Teddy. I have quite a collection of stuffed animals, my favorite being a large white Siberian Tiger!
Q-Did you ever keep a diary?
A-I did keep a journal for a few years but then one day I read through some of it and thought, ‘what AM I doing with this. Such a waste of time!’ No one in their right mind will be interested in my boring everyday life—not even my now-50 plus progeny. So, I trashed the journals and have, as they say, ‘never looked back’.
Q-For a while after the divorce and custody hearing your father remained the family doctor?
A-Both my parents had heavy-duty careers at different ends of the spectrum. They were both in their own way, self-serving. It’s a wonder they could agree on anything. I saw it as a power struggle most of the time. Dad no longer treated Mom after the early 1940s and she had a regular doctor who worked out of Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. After I was married he became our family doctor and delivered all my children. And that’s when I would see him.
Q-Tell me about your house at Toluca Lake, CA. It was prominent during the Custody Hearing.
A- I called it then ‘Tooka Lake.’ The Toluca Lake house was really very handsome; Spanish style with lots of tiles and a fountain in the enclosed front patio. Flagstone paths. Inside it was furnished in Dad’s taste: heavy dark Spanish décor—curvy tables and chairs and dark wood. Mom had her own space; art deco, etc. In later years, when Frank Sinatra eventually bought the house, his wife, Nancy Sinatra, had the house painted pink.
The house overlooked the lake, but separated from it by a lawn-yard and wire fencing. There was a kind of pool about 4’x6′ in the lawn near the lake. I used to romp around in there for fun, under supervision, of course. There were swans there which scared me so much with their hissing. Fortunately there was the fence at lakes’ edge but groups of them seemed to park right there where I played in my little pool. I loved that pool. It was all natural stone and no fancy tiles. I often wondered later how or if the water was ever changed in it! I also remember my Teddy Bear and one doll, ‘Mimi.” And, yes, my sand box. I loved making cookies and shapes with cutters and wet sand for hours. I remember Mom and Dad had an African American couple; John and Wilma Wright. John was Dad’s valet, and Wilma was our housekeeper. I don’t know when they left. Much later when I was married, my husband, the children and I visited this dear couple and their family.
During the summer months at Toluca Lake, there were umpteen bullfrogs in the lake that would loudly croak at night. Sometimes I refused to go to bed because I was so afraid of their noise. It was so scary!
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby lived down the street on Valley Spring Lane and Mom and Dad jogged down that street in the mornings before work. Actor Richard Arlen lived across the lake from us and my early childhood nemesis at Toluca Lake was his son, four-year-old Ricky. Mom and Dad had soirees, and Richard and his wife would be there. Ricky would come to play occasionally. And for whatever reason I couldn’t stand him and didn’t want to be around him. Other than that, I have absolutely no other recall about Toluca Lake.
Eventually mom sold the house to Frank Sinatra when he came out to Hollywood to make movies. Nancy Sinatra painted the house pink and someone told me they saw Sinatra home movies with the kids swimming in the lake and Nancy Sinatra saying she and the kids really loved living there. One time in my early driving years, Sinatra and I were next to each other at a stop signal. He smiled and we tried to see who could screech ahead first in a drag race. He beat me of course in his huge car but it left me smiling.
Q-What are some of the things your mother told you about her early life?
A- Mom was a very complicated person. I always felt bad that she had such a sad childhood, and that her Dad was so abusive – i.e., – if she made a mistake playing the piano, he’d smack her knuckles with a ruler. She once had a beautiful singing voice and her father, Otto, yelled at her one time—among many other times—telling her that she was late for her daily singing lesson. She’d finally had enough and yelled back at him “No Daddy, I will never sing another note”! And, although she said she sang well before, the affirmation was enough to make her ‘tone-deaf.’ So she lived up to it although she could still play the piano!. Who knows what drove him to be so domineering. Fear of losing control or his value? Mom was afraid of him. Mom and her parents were anathema. I was never with Otto alone. I was basically afraid of him because he was huge and gruff and grumpy. Helen Langhanke was as good a gramma as well as she knew how to be. No spoiling. How could an emotionally abused wife like her become anything but spineless. She was with us at the San Remo house after Otto had died. She died possibly of Alzheimer’s in a facility. We were never close.
Q-Was there anything positive about your mother’s childhood?
A-Musically, Mom’s Dad raised her on the classics and Mom had a great love of the classics which she passed down to me. Her Dad taught her that. She always had her records going on her Capehart phonograph when she was around. I, in turn, learned to love them as well. Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and many more. I also liked Manuel de Falla – ‘Nights In The Gardens of Spain.’ There’s too many to list.
Q-Was your mother actually called Rusty?
A-Yes, even her Mom called her that. It was because of her red hair. Also her lose friend Menifee called her that.
Q-What did she wear at home?
A-Mom wore slacks before most women did, except those in the factories. Good looking slacks and a simple blouse. I was a Bobby Soxer back then; usually wearing black and white ‘saddle shoes’ with my uniform at Westlake School For Girls when I was in boarding school.
Q-Your mother wore eye glasses but she always took them off for photographs.
A-She was definitely pretty lost without them. She did wear them in “Desert Fury” and looked pretty cute in those glasses, but they weren’t her own prescription ones. My mother was an avid reader. I couldn’t talk to her in the morning until after her two cups of coffee and after she had read the newspapers. She read heavy-duty history books mostly. She’d read the classics and heavy tomes which puts me to shame. In second grade I had to stay after school with a reading tutor and still am a slow reader.
Q-How outspoken was she?
A-She really had a mouth on her. Mom’s ‘candor’ was just part of her. I guess my little brother, Tono, and I thought it was just how things were for us; not really caring either way. You don’t want to know about how frank she was. I just know I didn’t or wouldn’t like being at the other end of her ‘opinions.’ I’m sometimes accused of the same behavior and I shrink with horror at the idea.
Q-Was she that way with everyone?
A-Not being outside the house with her very much, I don’t know. I never heard her monopolize any conversations or go on and on about anything. She was a good listener if she chose to be. I don’t think she would deliberately ‘hurt’ her co-workers and friends. But, she did let it fly if something was really not right according to her opinion. She didn’t put up with anyone’s guff. She could smell a fake a mile off. Mom used to tell me that false modesty and self-deprecation were attention-getting devices negative or not. I can’t see her holding back anything although she was choosy as to whom she expressed her opinions. She knew who she was, and I imagine she used that to her advantage. She was no longer the little farm girl from Quincy, Illinois.
Q-Why do you think she was this way?
A-I think her toughness came out of her insecurities and fears. Don’t get me wrong – Mom and I had our ‘fun’ times. Looking back, I think Mom felt guilty after she had been sharp with me.
Q-“Fun Times?” How So?
A-Mom had a good ‘colorful’ sense of humor. Laughter came pretty naturally to both of us. She was wry/witty at best. She didn’t tell jokes but her humor was spicy, often, suggestive and raunchy. She swore like a pirate and we’d laugh at it all. We were both ‘word-lovers’ and we could find something hilarious about certain words. She laughed for hours at an ad that had the word ‘horse-feathers’ in it. Mom used to say; ‘ like a pan of noodles’ about homely faces. Things like that. Mom and I would do peoples’ accents together and act out stuff. When she was married to Manuel del Campo he had a thick British accent and, so, having the good ear she had, she took it on as a permanent fixture for the few years they were married. She was good for making me giggle, for sure. Mom usually used the same studio photographer at home so she could be comfortable having home pix taken of us. After the photographer left, Mom and I would take the flashbulbs up to the little porch off mom’s library. It was a balcony off the upper middle front of the San Remo house. We’d stand there and throw them down on the brick landing below trying to see how loud we could make them pop, out-doing each other. I probably was eight or nine then.
Q-What were some unique things about her?
A-She had a very unique personality. You either loved her or couldn’t stand her! She disliked long conversations on the phone and called just to make appointments and did not like “gab-fests “on the phone. Come to think of it we never talked at length by phone either. I remember Mom having a large wooden salad bowl and we would go to her garden and ‘pick-a-pansy’ and fill up the bowl. I still love pansies. I always loved Mom’s handwriting; it was unique to her, for sure. I took a handwriting course years back, and it’s not ‘far off’ in showing her personality. Sometimes she was uneasy, edgy and withdrawn but managed to make friends easily. Mom’s standards were high. So, Mom was never an easy person to work for. She hired and fired at the drop of a hat. During World War II she knitted socks for the service men. She also flew and did ‘duty’ with the Civil Air Patrol in Texas during the war and was responsible for sighting a Japanese sub offshore. She was also multi-talented. She enjoyed playing the piano, and, as I said, was an avid classical music fan. She did a sculpture bust of my little brother Tono in terra cotta, and some of her sculpture was displayed in art shows. She painted and was an avid “birder.” She loved Nature. She gave me the gift of being a birder and I’m also a nature-lover.
Q-She seemed to me a person who didn’t let people in?
A-Only to those she chose to do so. She didn’t really like people very much. She was pretty much “on stage” at any one time, i.e., the center of attention and was uncomfortable about that.
Q-Who were some of the people that she didn’t like?
A-Charlie Chaplin. Mom wasn’t all that fond of him and thought him a bore who was always “on.” Mom also couldn’t ‘stand’ Loretta Young. She always said that she looked like some underwater creature. Mom didn’t like Louie B. Mayor, either. He was a character and a bossy tyrant. I often wonder what her career would be like sans contracts with the moguls.
I felt that, regarding Chaplin, Mom was a crepe hanger because I love Charlie Chaplin’s films. I probably saw The Gold Rush first but in all Chaplin’s pictures he shows such humanity and empathy. He portrays the underdog; taking his characters from the life he knew as a child and he gets into their souls and acts them out as if he was truly THEM. He is an impeccable showman, dancer, actor, and comedian. For me Chaplin’s shining hour is his final speech to the soldiers in The Great Dictator. I cried with him when I watch his humility at the Academy Awards when he received his special Oscar in 1973. (It’s on YouTube) I never tire of watching his films.
Q-What was your childhood like?
A-I think the main emotion I felt was were loneliness because my mother was always working but I didn’t know enough to resent her absence. I probably would have wanted a ‘normal’ family and be with two parents in the house. I am not sure I would have chosen going to boarding school for six years. I look back and it’s just what she did and on my part I didn’t ever consider it a ‘sacrifice’. It was just natural behavior for her and it was what it was. To me it seemed all very normal. I look back and realize that all these experiences, like with anyone of us, have made me who I am today – for good or not so good. After my little brother, Tono, and I went to boarding schools she was out of that loop. Most of the time, while I was not especially happy, neither was I especially unhappy. Also anxiety; she and I have that trait in common. I wonder if she recognized it as we do today. Actually, it wasn’t something I thought very much about; lack of self-confidence and lousy self-image.
Q-We know where hers lack of self-confidence came from. What about you?
A-Most of the time I was afraid of what Mom would do, or say about stuff I did. I was afraid of BOTH my parents and worked hard—if a kid can do that—at not offending, or ticking them off. I was terrified of their responses; a diatribe or a spankings, or something taken away from me that I wanted to do or have or like losing their affection. I guess it’s called ‘cloying’ from fear of loss. I’m kind of that way with my youngest daughter; I just dissolve into the woodwork when she reprimands me for what she believes is my lousy behavior to agree, just to make peace. It’s just nasty childhood programming that still haunts me.
She was always mad at me for something. I could never really please her. Does that sound familiar – like with her and her own Dad? I was usually too busy being afraid of her and trying to please her so I was very ‘compliant’. I’d call it wimpy-spineless. I was told by my father many times; “You talk too much!” And Mom was usually too busy to really ‘listen’—ergo— why should I talk, anyway? So, I’ve never been very swift at speaking up for myself. It was what it was—no more, no less. I know she ‘loved’ me in her own way and I loved my mother but, as I said, I was usually afraid of her. I was always “Mary Astor’s daughter,” which in a way was a burden, being only recognized as such. I was her “shadow” for years. It wasn’t good. Both my brother and I were in boarding schools when, off and on, she married. What kind of life is that?
Q-How would you describe her as a mother?
A-How about if I told you she was like a collection of all the roles she ever played in pictures. She did her best at being a mother. She provided for me and cared for me with hard work being a ‘famous celebrity’ and through thick and thin times. Stern is the best word to describe her a lot of the time. And surely, no nonsense as well! When she ‘loosened up’ a bit, she had a great laugh. My youngest daughter says that Mom was only being ‘hard on me.’ For example, Mom just had to be right and always have the last word and one didn’t dare argue with her. I never won. She was always right. I was asked a question, “What Did Your Mother Teach You” and I could only think of one thing—that she taught me to always be on time.
Q-I feel she felt she was there to help you develop the emotional tools to get through life successfully.
A-I think this is what Mom was aiming for but never really felt she ‘made it’ and that was part of her guilt. She wasn’t around enough to be a mother very much, so she did, indeed make sure there was a nanny or governess around to take care of my brother, Tono, and me. It all seemed so ‘normal.’ In other words, didn’t every other kid do what I did? I had no sense of others’ problems. She did the best she could with the choices she made for herself—that goes for everyone. She was the best mother she knew how to be and did the best she could with the mental and emotional tools she had. If we don’t have certain ‘tools’ then it really isn’t anyone’s fault. That says a lot. Mom definitely was no “Mommie Dearest” she was a dearest Mommie to me; being the only one I had! I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else. She had her soft times. Even being her daughter, I have no right to judge her behavior or actions no matter their consequences in my life. She deserves all the honor possible to give her because she did so much with her life.
Q-Was she physically affectionate.?
A-I’m probably overly affectionate. I do a lot of hugging! Mom was good in that she didn’t wince when I gave her any hugs and “smoochies,” and she did hug me back. With an adult’s perspective I look back and see how her behavior affected me and maybe not. I love my mother with more of a spiritual respect rather than an earthly ‘love’ that fades or brings much sorrow. And, when you really think about it, never lasts.
Q-What were some of the things you did together?
A-Mom did take me regularly to see the Ballet and Ice Follies, Ken Murray’s Blackouts where we both signed autographs. She took me also to see “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio,” and “Snow White;” all the current Disney pictures. We never traveled outside California (it was an order of the court) except when I was 6 and she, Manuel and I, with Nellie my nurse, sailed to Hawaii for a 2-week vacation.
Q-Was she over-protective with you?
A-Well, when I was around 10 she was listening in on my phone calls and interrupted on one. I thought can’t I do even this on my own? Actually, it wasn’t something I thought very much about. It was just natural behavior for her and it was what it was. It’s not easy to go back in time to those events and to my parents and the programming I still subconsciously retain and which is still affecting me a lot.
Q-How did you feel about your mother’s third husband, Manuel del Campo?
A-When he was with us I dearly loved Manuel. He was always good to me in his own way if and when I saw him. He was also a playboy and a womanizer; a handsome ‘continental’ type who spoke a few languages and English with a British accent. He also drank way too much. He was definitely a ‘lady killer’ and flirted right in front of Mom. Maybe it was a Mexican/Spanish custom to have ‘other women.’ I have to admit, he was gorgeous to look at, dressed well, and smelled of aftershave. I loved the part of him that was kind and gentle. He snapped at me a few times, but for good reason. Manuel spoke with a warm, friendly British accent and had a very sexy voice. My name sounded like Medalyn. Even Mom took on the accent after a while. Mom had to convert to Catholicism or Manuel wouldn’t marry her, yet, he never went to Church. Tono was baptized as a baby. I was baptized the day before my marriage at 18 or Mom wouldn’t have let me get married if I hadn’t. Honestly!
The only thing I didn’t like was when Manuel came home late at night drunk and would take a bath in his bathroom adjacent to my bedroom wall. He’d sing loudly and way off-key to the max which was more like howling. It was annoying because it was late at night and always woke me up, and I probably couldn’t get back to sleep. I also remember Manuel once running drunk and naked down the hall next to my bedroom at the San Remo house. Yoiks! What a memory! He would sometimes run down the halls in his underwear with Mom following him in a lather. I missed him for a long time when he left to go to England.
As for socializing, Manuel was a playboy and they did some heavy-duty nightclubbing. But Mom hated it because she was the one who got up early to go to the studio. Mike was gorgeous, and at age seven what does a little girl know about playboys, nightlife and the hot-and-heavy and seedy side of the movie industry. My mother divorced him when he was in the Royal Canadian Air Force in England because he wasn’t dependable and not a “husband,” but more of a lush and an opportunist that she couldn’t maintain anyway with her career. After their split, Mom and I lived in that huge Georgian mansion on San Remo Drive with my brother, Tono, and the servants. She also threw parties. At one Humphrey Bogart and I chatted for a bit. He was nice and oh so handsome, and I had a mad crush on him at 9.
During the del Campo years Mom and Manuel owned two polo ponies which they rode a lot whenever she was not working. They seemed to enjoy it and played polo. Mom was happy on her horses until she fell off her horse, Nipper, and broke her back, laying her up for I don’t know how long. She couldn’t ride anymore and had a personal physical coach, Terry Hunt. Mom was faithful about going to the gym and working out which may have been therapy for her back. I suspect this may have been the time when she became addicted to pain-killers.
Q-How Old were you when you moved from Toluca Lake to the house on San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades?
A- I was barely 6. Manuel married Mom in 1937 and Tono was born in 1939 when we lived there.
Q-What do you remember about San Remo?
Q-I remember Mom telling me that my nurse, Nellie, had left because she woke up one morning staring at a mouse on her pillow! Our big Georgian mansion was rife with mice! It gave Nellie an ‘out’, for sure. I didn’t like Nellie at all. She was very strict. I’m sure if I knew her now, I’d think she was wonderful. But, back then I gave her a bad time. I wouldn’t ever want to have to have a kid like I was to look after!. Remember sticking out my tongue at her . The poor lady walked with a bad limp. I was pretty much of a brat for her. Of course I feel badly now that I ever treated ANYONE badly. As I mentioned she left promptly when she woke up one morning with that mouse staring at her on her pillow. We had a humungous mouse problem at San Remo. They were everywhere!
After Nellie Anora Gibson took care of us, a woman named Frieda did the housekeeping and a French lady, Julia did the cleaning. She would clean spots in the fridge with a rag and a little spit. That wasn’t my modus operandi. Still isn’t. She really didn’t like me but I don’t remember being mischievous.
There were two parties I remember having at San Remo. Mom delighted in inviting the original Bozo the Clown—I now have a phobia about clowns—to perform for us. I was 6 and 10 – or thereabouts. I went to many star kids’ parties and Shirley Temple was always there.
There was always a piano in the house. I even had one in my bedroom. As I said, throughout the years Mom enjoyed playing piano. The house was tastefully decorated with beautiful period furniture. Classic French in the living room and beyond, Spanish furniture in the dining room and Mom’s bedroom was art-deco.
In the San Remo house, without fail Mom made sure we had a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree every year which she decorated beautifully with her Dad’s Christmas ornaments from Germany including crystal icicles and with angel hair. We had a few very happy Christmases with a big “old-fashioned” Christmas tree, a big turkey and much fun opening of presents. She knew how to bake a turkey and she was a creative present-wrapper and tree-decorator. And we had a happy family atmosphere that made my heart feel good. It was nice and we all got along pretty well. Those were the good days. I give Mom credit that’s due her for her efforts here.
Mom was a total green thumb and I am not a gardener like my Mom. She’d look at a philodendron and its vines would spread around the room. She always had house plants in just about every room. She grew sweet potatoes in mason jars and the leaves would spill over the sides nearly to the floor. But, during the war, we had a rather large veg. garden at San Remo. Surely you’ve seen pix of the huge brick house with white pillars?
At Pacific the Palisades mansion she had Fred, our gardener. He was our faithful gardener with us all those years. He was also priceless, Swiss with a horrific yodeling voice and what a job he had with the huge lawns and flower gardens and the veg. garden which he kept fed and watered. He called me Schatzeli (sp?) meaning ‘Darling’ in Swiss. As I didn’t have anyone to play with in those days, I followed him around like a puppy while he did his work. We were ‘chums’ until I left for boarding school at age 11. My husband, Frank, and I went to see him and his wife after my first child, Francie, was born in ’51 and Fred was so glad to see me grown up. He was my old friend. There were other servants who were either fired or couldn’t stand it anymore. Mom had problems with all the ‘help’ she hired for one reason or another. Some stole her silverware and other stuff. Mom stood about as much as she could, or until the person complained and she fired them and hired someone else. Fred stayed the longest because he didn’t have to deal with Mom as much about us kids and household matters.
When we lived there it 1441 San Remo Dr. Pacific Palisades. The house is now 1341 San Remo. I saw a recent picture of it. In the front the changes are in the landscaping; every bit that’s there including the fencing with brick pillars is new. In my day, Fred had all that in lawn space to mow and there was the driveway to the rear of the house and garages between the street and the front door. The old trees at the left in back were probably there. Two deodars that were on either side of the front path to the door have probably been gone for years. I think these folks went for overkill with the landscaping. Imagine having to trim those umpteen little bushes on the left of the front of the house. I’m sure much has been added in back and also on the interiors.
Entertainer, Ken Murray lived next door and I used to swim in his pool. He’s the one who took 1,001 plus home movies of the stars. Ken was friendly and loud and cigar-y. Mom and I went to see his “Blackouts” in Hollywood. He introduced us and we stood up and waved to the audience. Afterwards, we both signed autographs for the crowd outside. Thomas Mitchell was a close neighbor at the San Remo house and we would visit him occasionally. He had a severe drinking problem and was kind of scary. Joan Bennett, director Sidney Lanfield, and Basil Rathbonel were all in a particular cluster of star’s homes within a few blocks of each other in the area. Except for Tommy and Ken Mom didn’t visit the others.
Q-How was your mother in the Kitchen?
A-She really didn’t cook anything on a regular basis. Another ‘should’ for her that she felt she had to do for her kids to be a ‘good mommie’ was fix a wicked can of chili when the housekeeper was off! She liked to make salads. No desserts past Jello.
Q-Tell me about your baby brother Tono del Campo.
A- I adored my brother. Tono was born on June 5, 1939 and was a wonderful brother; brilliant smart kid with a lot of moxie. His father, Manuel loved Tono but loved his freedom more and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Tono was only two years old when he left and, yes, Tono was ‘wounded’ by the lack of father although he turned out comparatively normal. Manuel deserted him totally after the divorce and I know that he only communicated with his son a few times as Tono grew up. If anything, Tono later probably resented his Dad leaving him. I think if he’d have had a father around in his early years, things for him would have been different and maybe better. His father, after he finished his stint in the service, remarried and lived in Europe and then England where he became a top film editor. He had a daughter, Nicole, with whom Tono and his wife Patricia kept in touch.
Tono will always be my ‘little brother’ as he was 7 years younger. He was so dang cute and very sweet. How could a dad leave his son like that? My mother had friends who would say to her about me—after mentally comparing me with Tono who had handsome Spanish features combined with Mom’s beauty–“Mary is HE your child, too.” Mother would fume at that, of course. She resented the intimation that he was not the homely child that I appeared to others to be. Since Manuel was very handsome, as Tono grew older he became just the same—only taller and in better shape.
His first nurse was Martha Wright, a very nice lady around 30ish. After Martha was Anora Gibson, who abused Tono when he wouldn’t eat his breakfast. He didn’t like to eat it because he always barf up his eggs and was apparently allergic to them! She’d poke him, and yell at him. She was very physically abusive to my little brother. I never reported it to Mom as I was afraid Anora would come after me, as well. Anora was a huge lesbian whom I didn’t realize was a lesbian until years later when I learned about ‘gender ‘ and realized it because of Anora’s looks, actions, dress, and her a ‘special friend.’ As a child it was one thing but as you get older when it’s so obvious how does one not tell.
Anora did not get along with Mom because she fought and fought with Mom over our care and locked horns with Mom for the two years she was there; meaning there was always a power struggle between her and Mom about how to raise me and Tony. The two totally disagreed on house and child-raising rules. I imagine there were some loud words between them. By the time Anora left, I don’t remember any more nannies as when Tono was 5 and I was 11, we were scooted off to boarding school and military academy. After that a long line of ‘live-in’ servants.
Q-Do you have any memories of your mother preparing for work?
A- With her gone from 5:30 am to midnight or so, I didn’t see any preparation, even when I was on set. I did witness how she memorized her scripts. She took ten matches and counted how many times she took to memorize a paragraph or scene. Mom was always awesome in her self-discipline with anything having to do with her work. I think her fellow actors appreciated her professionalism. Mom couldn’t stand ‘un-professionalism’ or performers who showed up late all the time. Mom was always on time and dependable to a fault; never keeping others waiting for the ‘star’ to show up.
I remember hearing the Tchaikovsky’s B-flat piano concerto for months on end when she was preparing for “The Great Lie.” She practiced on her piano ruthlessly until her hands were raw while learning the music. As far as disturbing her when she practiced, it may not have been us kids bugging her or being noisy upstairs. The Steinway was in the living room, and there were no doors to cut out the household sounds.
Q-Where you ever on a movie set with your mother?
A-I spent a lot of time on sets; bored into oblivion. Tedious for actors when they had to sit around and wait for the cue to get up and “act.” I spent many hours on the set when the nanny was off and I met many stars over the years. But I have never have been hooked on celebrity. They were not the people they were on film. They were just doing their job. “On Meet Me in St. Louis,” I met Judy and the rest of the cast. She was darling in those years. “Little Women” gave me the chance to have lunch at the commissary with Liz Taylor. I don’t remember what we talked about or even what we ate. What I definitely do remember were her purple blue eyes. A lavender-eyed beauty, she was gorgeous to the max. She also had the reputation of always being late on the set. Mom was always on time which, as I said, was a trait she gave to me.
I don’t remember ever going on vacation with her until we went on mountain location for “Brigham Young, Frontiersman” up in Big Bear City, CA. where years later, my husband and I lived. She lost one of her tooth fillings, and we had to go home early. Once, the “Brigham Young” cast was all set to do an outdoor scene. It was hot and dusty and out in the fields with horses and equipment all around. Then, for quite a while everything was very quiet; an unbearably long silence for a child. I was sitting on the ground beside a horse that urinated about four feet from me. I was very hot at the time and this seven-year-old could stand it any longer. Apparently, the cast was doing their lines out of my hearing range, and Mom was a part of it. I was kind of a scared because the cast were quite a distance away. So, I suddenly yelled out at the top of my lungs: “Is she working yet?!!” Meaning, if Mom was ‘working’ there’d be some kind of noise going on. Of course, they had to shoot the whole scene all over again. Mom was really sore at me. I was also terrified of John Carradine. During after-hours he got loud and noisy after some heavy drinking. When we were in a cabin having dinner he got rowdy after drinking – so loud it really scared me. To add to that, he’s very ‘rough’ looking. Scary for a 7 yr-old. I don’t think Bela or Boris could scare me any more than John Carradine did.
Q-In “A Life On Film” she wrote that there was no air conditioning in those studios.
A-Yeah, and makeup melted under the hot lights. Mascara would literally drip down her cheeks.
Q-Who were some of the actors you met through your mother?
A-Humphrey Bogart, as I said. Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, and John Carridine, of course. The casts of “Little Women,” and “Meet me in St. Louis,” Tyrone Power, Dean Jagger on “Brigham Young,” Elizabeth Scott and Marlene Dietrich are the ones I can remember.
Q-When did you meet Marlene Dietrich?
A-Dietrich was doing “Kismet” where she danced in gold from head to toe. I met her in the hall by the makeup rooms at MGM when mom was introducing herself. I thought she was tall and overwhelming in her gold costume. It was really a fabulous outfit; even her face was gold painted. I shook her hand but I didn’t know what to say to her and so I asked Mom, “Can we go now?” Even then, I was unimpressed by ‘celebrity’
Q-And Clark Gable?
A-Clark was a longtime friend of Dad’s and my Dad’s best friend for years! My dad liked him a lot and was a household name. They were hunting buddies up in the California Kaibabs. He, Mom, Clark and Clark’s second wife, Ria, ‘double-dated’ sometimes. Once when Clark and my dad were in the Kaibabs shooting cougars Clark had an appendicitis attack. That’s a very long drive to the Kaibabs from L.A but Dad drove the two of them the umpteen miles down to Los Angeles to the Queen of Angels Hospital where Dad performed the surgery on Clark’s appendix. Clark gave him a watch. I remember it—it was a Hamilton. Dad wore that watch the rest of his life. I saw Clark again during the shooting of “Any Number Can Play” and was amazed at his immense charisma and presence. I didn’t personally think he was much of a ‘thinking actor’—Mother’s term—but he was right for all his roles. He was never anything/anyone but ‘Clark Gable’. I was 17 and somehow Clark Gable just never really impressed me. Clark was bigger than life; tall and imposing and that voice, but by then and now—even though he seemed friendly enough—was plastic and ‘actor-y.’ He always seemed like a caricature of himself. He was a ‘movie star’ to the max, period. A plastic icon. He couldn’t help that. I say, just give me Bogie.
Q-Do you remember Fredric or Florence March? His wife Florence was at the Custody Hearing with Ruth Chatterton.
A-They were ‘household names’ but I don’t remember them at our house. Mom always called him Freddie. Mom knew Orson Welles very well. He had awesome charisma. Mom thought Welles was a genius and really admired him! She thought well of C.B. DeMille when she did some Lux Radio shows. I think Mom and others actors simply went on to making their next pictures and really didn’t have the inclination to stay close. If they saw each other in passing, I’m sure they still admired each other. It’s was a grueling job.
Q-Tell me about her film Desert Fury
Desert Fury was HER! She really played Fritzi tough to the max. In the early years, Mom was usually cast as a sweet young thing. She was pretty good at golf and was playing with some of the studio big shots at Paramount and she missed a shot, and let her temper fly. The guys decided from that she could play a Fritzi. Actually Mom wasn’t far off from her own personality with Fritzi. I remember her making “Desert Fury” because I was older then and was on the set. I even met Burt Lancaster who, like Gable was massive but not so ‘actor-y’. He had incredible charisma. I liked Liz Scott’s looks and her voice. Somehow Mom looked good although this film was made during her heaviest drinking years. Mom liked herself in that picture. And because she always ‘brought Fritzi home’ at the end of the day, she had a hard time getting out of the character when we had dinner. One time at the dinner table after a day of shooting we were eating and all of a sudden she barked, “Pass the butter!” “Well, OK Mom, here’s the butter. I see you’ve brought Fritzi home with you, today.” She said with a laugh, “I guess you’re right, I did.” She worked very hard from then on not to bring that character home.
Q-A-In the Blu-ray copy of “Desert Fury” the woman doing the commentary noted that Fritzi, due to to her wearing pants and a short haircut was a character with Lesbian overtones who essentially had a bit of thing for her daughter. What do you think of that?
A-That lady is very observant. It’s something no one really discussed ‘back then’ and because Mom had all those men ‘friends’. Does that mean ‘bi-sexual’?
Q-I would presume. Since you have said that Fritzi is the character on screen that most resembles your mother in real life, do you think that was true about her. I always thought she wore pants in the film because she had gained weight and Edith Head had her in pants and loose fitting dresses to conceal that act.
A-Good excuse as any. Not weight so much as possibly too much beer. She was drinking a lot back then. But her hair was short thanks to Wally Westmore. It was cut for Sandra in “The Great Lie” and caused a trend and was called in 1941 ‘the Bombshell Bob’.
Q-And was there a Lesbian aspect to your mother?
A-Who really knows? I do know Mom was a very lonely person and had an addictive need for approval – and possibly this was a way she made that work. Mom also had many ‘gay’ and lesbian friends. I do know that during the time I was with her, 1—18yrs, I can look back and recognize maybe 4 women who may have been Lesbian—well, they weren’t married anyway—who were ‘close friends’ under the guise of secretary or assistant or script girl, or friend. I remember specifically, John van Druten and Carter Lodge were gay but there were too many to mention. Being gay didn’t make any difference to Mom or to me, for that fact.
Q-How did you feel when your mother won the Oscar?
A- I remember absolutely zero about Academy Award night and anything she said upon getting the award. At 9 years old, I wasn’t impressed in the least with its value or importance. The dress she wore was OK for its era. I have seen others look better on her. It was designed by Irene. I met the lady once. Mom really liked her and depended upon her for costuming. I wasn’t always in love with mom’s clothes; especially when she wore suits. As I said, Mom really favored a blouse and black slacks for home life. I’m kind of the same way and only wear good sweaters over slacks in winter, and tee-shirts and lighter slacks in warmer weather. I’m not fond of ‘dressing up.’
Q-Who has your mother’s Oscar?
A-Her original plaque Oscar was sold by my brother for $177,000. Tono’s family has the replacement Oscar statuette, which, according to post 1950s Academy Rules can’t be sold. I got a a nice chunk of money the sale.
Q-You went to boarding school when you were 11. What was your schooling before you went to Westlake School for Girls?
A- In nursery school “Highland Hall”. I was lucky to be able to ‘get along’ with others. I went to Pacific Palisades Elementary for 1st & 2nd grades. At St. Monica’s elementary/grammar school I went for second, (I skipped third) then went for fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Then Mom announced I was going to boarding school—it all happened very fast—and that’s where I was going, period, like it or lump it beginning with grade 7.
Q-How was it at Westlake?
A-At first I was sad because, little brother, Tono, was going to a Military Academy really far away and I missed him so much! Being ‘Miss Astor’s daughter’ I was treated ‘differently’ in school and so much stupid stuff was expected of me. No one really knew me. I got used to boarding school quickly enough because even though I was very ‘different’ I made friends easily and there were other celebrity’s daughters there as well. In high school, I changed my name to Myckie – keeping the ‘y’ in there as a piece of Marylyn. So I was Mickey to everyone.
Actually, I had some really nice friends, and had some good experiences at Westlake. We were more like family in a boarding school. I was not exactly a ‘scholar.’ I didn’t like the school curriculum but enjoyed socializing. I was ‘popular’ but I never belonged to a clique and usually friends to the underdogs. I was more into service projects, art, drama, Glee club and I got A’s in art, typing and shorthand. D’s in math. B’s in science and French. C’s in history. Part of the problem was that I was bored to death in class. I wasn’t a good reader. I probably needed glasses way back then. Mom & Dad also wore glasses. Believe it or not, I was the peacemaker there. I can only remember about two spats in the six years I was there. My ‘housemother’ told me after the years I was there boarding, that she had deliberately given me ‘difficult’ roommates to live with because she knew that I would ‘take good care of them.’ I was an empath even then. I graduated from Westlake on my 17th birthday in 1949.
Q-Who were some of your friends at Westlake?
A-Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Montgomery’s daughter. Carol Lee Ladd, Alan Ladd’s stepdaughter was a good friend. We sat next to each other in French class for four years. Irving Thalberg’s daughter, Katherine was at Westlake. She was a beauty even at 9 years old—beautiful girl; sweet and shy. I knew Melinda Markey, Joan Bennett’s daughter very well. Patty Wellman, William Wellman’s daughter, and I were chums. Ardath Humberstone daughter of director Bruce Humberstone and Susie Tracy, daughter of Spencer, were my very best friends there. Suzie had a good brain and great sense of humor. She was a lot of fun and we could always find something to giggle about. She and I never talked about movies or about her Dad either. I met Spencer Tracy only once at a school dinner for parents and felt pleased I got to shake his hand. A super-nice person—warm and friendly! They had a deaf son for whom they named The John Tracy Clinic For The Deaf, which the Tracy’s totally sponsored. Louise Tracy was an amazing lady in her own right with her philanthropic interests. She was Catholic which is one of the reasons why they never divorced. The Tracy’s lived not far from me when my mother moved to Encino. I saw Suzie’s brother, John, a few times. Once he came to my house to pick up Susie and I didn’t know that he was deaf and, so, I thought he was scary. As we had a rehab place two blocks away I thought he had ‘escaped’ from there. What does a teen know, anyway? And yet, he overcame more obstacles than most do in a lifetime. After our graduation I pretty much lost track of Susie.
I also knew Shirley Temple. I was in 8th grade and she was a senior at Westlake. She was well thought of and liked. We all wanted to be like her. Mom said Shirley’s Mom, before Shirley ever did a scene, would tell her: “shine, Shirley” and she always would. I never saw her again after graduation
Cutie pie Scotty Becket—he acted with Mom in “Listen Darling” and in “Cynthia”—came with someone else to one of our proms. He came up to me, called me by name like an old friend, and we had a little chat. Never got to dance with him, though.
We used to call it Westlake School for Snobby girls. I was probably just as snobby as the rest although at the time I never ‘felt’ snobby. I do remember Westlake as being racially biased. Surely no girl ‘of color’ was allowed. And when I was attending, 1943 – 1949 [grades 7 thru 12] Jewish girls were finally allowed in. In fact one of my best friends my senior year was Janice Taper, the daughter of S. Mark Taper founder of the Taper Forum in L.A. Her brother, Barry was one of my very first dates. I spent a lot of time with that family in their home in Santa Monica. To me he was always Mr. Taper and I didn’t know at the time that he was born in Poland. I absolutely adored his wife, Amelia, who we called Auntie Mimi. She gave me some of her clothes when times were rough years later. Amelia died at 49 of cardiac arrest at home in her own bed. I was crushed by her loss. She was a lovely lady and had a great sense of humor. Always looked ‘smashing’ in her wardrobe. Wealthy to the max but never bragged. Janice was brilliant and eventually took over the management of the Forum and the other buildings. They were the epitome of true philanthropy. Beautiful Jewish family. I really loved them so much.
Q-When did your mother marry her fourth Husband? And What Was He Like?
A-Mom married Tom Wheelock on 12/24/1945 when I was 13½. Before she married him she sold the San Remo house and bought a medium sized older home in Encino. It was a mile from where Suzie Tracy lived. I liked Tom a lot. He was a drunken, lovable ol’ Teddy Bear and it was sad to learn that over the years he had used Mom’s money for so many bad investments that three years after leaving MGM she was not only broke but seriously in debt. Tommy took a great chunk of her income and spent her money on a ‘banana boat’ venture that never brought in any income. Mom and Tom were a kind of arrangement. After all the men in her life I don’t know what she saw in him. Emotional security, I would imagine. For one thing he bored her to death and they drank themselves into oblivion. She was going to AA, but shortly gave it up. After separating in the early 50’s they finally divorced in 1955. The only good thing about a studio contract is that Mom could count on the income. Frankly. I think mom and ‘money’ were anathema
I think mom was unsuccessful at marriage because her expectations were too high as she expected marriage to fill in her ‘neediness.’ She was usually a lot smarter than the men she was with and she probably kept searching for one that could keep up with her. I imagine she was bored with many of them and sex was merely an escape, as well as another addiction.
Q-How was the Encino house?
The address was 4714 Hayvenhurst. It was nice change from the San Remo mansion. I don’t know what she did with the San Remo furniture except for a huge couch and 2 winged chairs that were in the living room. The Encino house was refurnished, with help of designer Ralph Hurst, into more country ranch style. Nothing too fancy or expensive, but comfortable and livable. She built on a 2 BR w/bath wing for Tono and me. It was totally off the main house. We liked it. And for our summer vacations my brother and I had a pool to enjoy We all got along pretty well considering I was in boarding school from age 11. So I didn’t see Mom all that much until my last year at Westlake when I lived at home and drove to school. I think I gave Mom a bad time during our time during our time together there. I don’t think I would have wanted the “teen me’ during those years.
Q-It was at Hayvenhurst that you first started to date?
A- I dated John Mahin’s nephew, Sam Adams; he was a sweetie. Strong and gentle; I loved him to pieces like only a teenager could. All we did was neck. Unfortunately, there was no real common interests between us.
Q-You Also Learned To Drive While At The Hayvenhurst?
A-I managed to dent up Tom’s Mercury while trying to see if I could really drive. I didn’t quite make it through the front gate and messed up the right front fender. I somehow wasn’t reprimanded for it. My first car was a dinky little Simca-Fiat. There was always something wrong with it so my girlfriend’s father had to tweak it or charge the battery every morning before school when he dropped her off at my house. I didn’t board my last year at Westlake. We always managed to get to school on time. After that I had a new Ford Coupe for my 17th birthday in 1948, which worked just fine to take me down to USC for 6 months and then to a Catholic college for another 6 months until I was married on my 18th birthday in 1949.
Q-Did you ever considered acting?
A-I guess for a while I ‘thought’ I was going to be an actress, until I saw how lousy I was. In my high school senior year, I took the large role of the Chancellor in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” in the senior play. Mom liked that a lot. But I was not all that interested in being an actress. I kind of did what I did as something that was probably expected of me. Then I had a bit part in “Little Women” because the part was there. It was fun enough. I was in the school room scene when the girls filed past Elizabeth Taylor. My one line was “That’ll teach her not to cut up didoes” I was so terrified that I kept sluffing and after the first two takes, I let out a few cuss words and several more takes had to be made—so much for being a movie star’s daughter! Mom wasn’t on the set those two days but she did hear from the director and I got a pasting for it. I’m not sure my bitsy part wasn’t written in there just for Mom’s sake. Then in the next scene where Taylor is telling her friends about the classroom incident, I was standing in the very back because I was the tallest at 5’6
After that I made several stabs at acting. I was Regina in “The Little Foxes” in Circle Theater at USC at age 17. Mom liked me in “Foxes” too and gave me some pointers, but no criticism. “Foxes” was not a big deal and there was no real competition for parts. We were all students just getting a play together ‘in the round’ in a ‘community theater venue. Once again, I blew my lines, proving to myself that I was not made for acting!
After that I did go to interviews with Menifee Johnstone, Mom’s agent friend. Mom had Sam Jaffe Agency as an agent. Menifee was a faithful friend and she was a star’s agent. I was turned down for “Annie Oakley” in the TV series because I was ‘too pretty.’ I hated the rehearsals, and being indoors on a set. A lot of the time during those years, I was in school. I didn’t have the drive or interest. I would have rather been a doctor. I had interviews even after I was married for a year or so, but I think I put off the people I saw. Today, I am grateful I never ‘made it’ into the motion picture Industry; suffering like Mom, fading from public view and drinking and sick and alone. None of that ever seemed like magic, nor did I ever truly want to be part of it. And now, I say “Thank Goodness”! I had the talent but zero interest in it all.
I remember coming out of Ken Murray’s “Blackouts. It was a compilation of his home movies and Mom was in it. I was with Mom and her fans were piled up outside to get autographs, and there was “Little Marylyn” around 11 signing autographs. I heard myself saying, “What is this all about. It’s craziness!” Thinking about schoolmate Shirley Temple and Margaret O’Brian, who were deadly doted-on by their parents on the set, I’m glad I never got into the business.
Q-Let’s talk about your mother’s drinking.
A-I imagine Mother had been drinking fairly heavily a long time before I noticed it. After all, in her younger years after she left her parents, her life became radically different. That was way before my time. She used to tell me of the wild parties with celebrities drinking and using dope. I’m not sure if she ‘sniffed’, though. She never drank on the set or while she was making a movie. When I was a teen coming home on weekends from boarding school, my stepfather Tom Wheelock and she were heavy at it. They always had weekend drinking friends over and it would get louder and louder. One guy was a songwriter and another played whore-house piano. My sainted mother gave me rum and cokes to drink during my 14th summer. While I drank with my husband years later, I only remember one time I was actually out of it! Never came near being addicted. I haven’t had anything heavy since 1972.
Mom became an active alcoholic as the late 1940s were especially hard on her. I know she had periods of self-loathing; because of her past, her drinking, her sinking career, her marriages and her health. When she was ‘down’, I was ‘there’ for her, and she could share her latest upsets with me. I remember us sitting together, and she was happy just holding my hand and not speaking a word. Comforting to her, I guess. She relied on me to, shall I say, ‘keep her sane’? When I was not at school I was always ‘there’ for her. I am a born empath, so I did get emotionally entangled at times with her addiction as I did what I could for her. I was never mad at her for her drinking.
At the end of my junior year at Westlake, when I stopped boarding because I had gotten a car, my housemother told me she deliberately put ‘problem’ girls with me for roommates because she said, I would “take good care of them and be patient with them.” In other words, they’d be in good hands. I guess that’s what Mom depended on me for, too.
Later, I think she felt the fall from more specialized roles and the change to TV appearances took its toll on her. She was lonely and on her own having to fend off guilt for as she said, not being of more ‘influence’ on Tono and me which to me seems really sad.
Q-You married at 18? What’s that story?
A-Well, I wasn’t very smart about early boyfriends. She was outspoken about who she liked/didn’t like. We didn’t discuss the subject at length at any time. So I was doing “Little Foxes” at USC ‘in the round’ and Eddie, a fellow actor, introduced me to Frank Roh who was working with William de Mille trying to get his Master’s in theater. While I was walking by as they sat on a stoop of a classroom bungalow, Eddie introduced us and I then rushed off to microbiology class. Later Frank told me he told Eddie at the time that he was’ going to marry that girl’. Gads! I was 17 and he was 26 which I found out when he was stopped for missing a stop sign and had to show his wallet. I just about croaked. He already had graying hair, and still used a crutch from his war injuries. A Marine veteran he had been paralyzed for two years from action on Tarawa. He was nerd of the month. But, he was very kind to me and once, when Pat, my roommate and I didn’t have enough to pay for our lunch at a nearby café, Frank was there with a friend and was dating the cashier. So, he had her ‘put it on his bill’. Pat kept urging me to date him. So, we started dating. I couldn’t stand him at first and we ‘spatted’ a lot. .
He told me he was attracted to me because I was ‘nice’ to everyone; especially the service folks around—the gardener, maids, and others. I’ve always been an ’empath’. Before I’d get into the relationship deeper, Mom, into Catholicism, had me transfer to Mt. St Mary’s College in Brentwood. She was doing what she thought was right about it. Soon Frank and I were going to two different schools about an hour apart. The thing was that I never had any real ‘goals. Sure marriage, motherhood, interest in art and music and religions, and wishing I could be a doctor—but no goal just for me. So, I had no motivation to continue college; thinking ‘so what’ about anything I’d ever learn there. Mom didn’t want me to get married so young, but who could blame her. She suspected Frank wanted to marry me so he could somehow get into the Industry. She resented him. He wasn’t ‘upper crust’ and maybe Mom was disappointed. She felt that she failed because I didn’t complete college. Why did I marry someone Mom didn’t like? Because I wanted to get out of that drunken household! I really didn’t ‘love’ Frank all that much but wanted to make a break from that alcoholic household, as I said. Frank was solid, and looked like ‘security’ to me and I figured living with him would be much saner than with Mom and Tom. I was too young but Frank meant ‘security’ to me and a way out of that house.
As I said, Mom wouldn’t let me marry without being baptized. Frank hadn’t been to church in years. So the day after I was baptized, we were married in a Catholic boys’ reform school chapel in Sherman Oaks, CA. It was my 18th Birthday. It was a poorly planned wedding; only a handful of guests that weren’t even invited to any wedding ‘breakfast.’ Then I had a totally miserable honeymoon. We drove to Maryland and for a while stayed in a ‘honeymoon’ cottage on Bobsy and Carl Hoffman’s farm. Bobsy and Mom were best pals for a long time and she was script girl on several of mom’s pictures. Carl had a huge farm. Then Frank and I got on horses that hadn’t been ridden for a year and I exchanged my tamer one for Frank’s because he never rode very much. My horse then tried its best to rub me off of him and I got wiped against a barb-wire fence gashing my foot on top through my boot leaving me bleeding badly. Our friends took me to the vet as there was no real doctor around. The vet patched up my foot without Novocain. I was sore as heck for a month and it pretty well ruined our honeymoon. Try walking around New York City with a foot with 20 plus stitches. Then Frank was super sick with appendicitis and finally all four of my wisdom teeth decided to come in all at once. By the end of the month, I was feeling lousy because I was pregnant with my first daughter. What else could go wrong, I thought! There were good parts of the trip. I did enjoy the scenery along the way but Frank and I squabbled a lot. What a disaster of a honeymoon. After I was married and, possibly because she couldn’t stand Frank, Mom’s and my relationship changed considerably.
A-Each of us were busy with our own lives. I got married and had my kids. I was happy doing that no matter the ups and downs. I didn’t want to raise them with nannies while I did something I didn’t want at a movie studio. Then, in 1951 when my daughter was just a few months old, Mom had what the police and press called a ‘suicide’ attempt and we went to see her at the hospital. She was ‘out of it’ pretty much.
Q-How was your mom doing emotionally before you were married?
A-Before I left the Hayvenhurst house Mom had holed up in her little library and never got out of bed and I hardly saw her. We had a housekeeper, Ebbie, and Tom Wheelock was around along with seven cats and a dog. After I left I don’t remember this period at all because I was married living a half hour away. Mom didn’t like phone calls, and I’d always have to ‘make an appointment’ to see her. I was busy with family in those years, and that was my world. I knew she had to let go of her house keeper, Ebbie. Ebbie was the only servant we ever had at the Encino house. Lucky for Ebbie; she put up with us for years. Two bus transfers from L.A. to get to us at 8:00 in the morning every day! She was totally a wonderful, patient, loving woman.
Q-Why did you return to the Hayvenhurst with your husband and the baby?
A-In 1953 Mom decided to go back east to do “Time of the Cuckoo” on the stage and some other plays and realized she could no longer manage a household and she asked us to take care of it. So, we moved into her house and continued living there with Frank and me. Tono was a good kid and no trouble at all and was no problem. He was in military school for another 2 years.
Then in 1955 when Mom sold the house, and Frank, the baby—she was 3 years old—Tono, Frank and I moved to Van Nuys, a short distance away. Then we all moved to Santa Monica when Frank got a job at the Douglas Aircraft Co. Tono was happy with Frank and me as Frank was a good influence and Tono who was responsible and dependable. He lived with Frank and me for 10 years until he was 22. Tono became our ‘son’ for sure and I’m really glad he came to live with us. My kids adored their ‘Uncle Tono’.
Tono put himself through Los Angeles College, and got a degree in zoology. He worked the night shift as a fry cook at a drive-in restaurant. Tono did all that on his own when he was living with us and with absolutely no input from Mom. Then he joined the Navy and went to Japan where he basically sat behind a desk for two years. He married in 1963 and stayed married for nearly 50 years until his death in May of 2014. I’m not sure how difficult his life was but, later, when he was in computer work at Boeing he was well off. He had a nice house, great wife and great kids. Unfortunately, like Mom he did pick up her penchant for cigarettes and drink but, until his last years, was in good health.
Q-After she returned to LA. permanently from New York how was your relationship?
A-I didn’t see her much in that time period. I knew she was dating this guy Ted—she changed his name and age in “My story” the book—but not that she was planning to marry again. He was a bit slow and younger. He probably thought he could start acting if he had her recommendation. He even made a pass at me, ugh! I really know very little about that tag-along.
Q- Your mother had always wanted the life you had—marriage, children and a home life.
A-I often wonder if she had these goals because ‘that’s what good women do;’ have kids at home to take care of and enjoy.’
Q-Your mother’s conversion to Catholicism, What did you think of that?
A-Mom did all the outward things of her religion but eventually quit going to Mass. I know it was a crutch for her insecurities and lack of self-value. She did her best with it and probably always had an ‘inner faith’ which no religion can provide. During her renewed ‘Catholic years’ she called her Malibu home STELLA MARIS, Latin for “Our Lady of the Sea.”
I know I was a disappointment to Mom when I was no longer in the Catholic Church. Eventually I became Mormon.
Q-At the End “My Story” she wrote that she had stopped drinking. Did it last?
A-There was actually a two-year stretch when she was writing that she was dry. But then she was back to square one when her Siamese kitty was killed by her German shepherd before her eyes. So yes, she took it up then and, until about 1985, because she had to stay in the Motion Picture Country Hospital.
Q-What exactly happened to the cat?
A-The cat was getting pretty old. She loved that Siamese so much. So, Mom thought she’d like a dog for company. It was a German shepherd, much too large for Mom to handle and a mistake to get him. He didn’t like cats, and did “what came natcherly”. Unfortunately, Mom saw and heard it all happening down on the beach from her porch way above, and she freaked out. Remember the comic strip “Terry & the Pirates”? She named all her cats after those characters, plus others. I also loved cats down through the years and they were a definite part of our family.
Q-What was your relationship with her in the late 50’s and 1960’s?
A- We were more ‘friends’ than a Mom/daughter which worked for us. I suppose this is fairly true from her vantage point. I was busy with kids for sure and occasionally I would go to see her wherever she was living. She could stand having kids around for about 15 minutes. I remember once seeing her holding my baby son with a cigarette in her hand—she smoked like chimney. I guess subconsciously, that’s why I didn’t ‘invite’ her over. If she wanted to come over, she could have. But she may have been like I am today. I don’t like to interfere with new mothers. If one visits, it stops their schedules with the kids. There were a few years I didn’t have a car to visit anybody and I didn’t see her much in those years. I was married in 1949 and years later in my own world as a mother of teens. Mom just wanted to kind of blend in with the scenery when she worked mostly in television. Parents believe that their kids are theirs; that they belong to them. Well, wrong; they grow up and leave and live their lives, for good or bad. Not that Mom was ever ‘clingy’—but because of our given ‘humanities’ perhaps we both expected more from each other than we could give. More power to her for getting through this test of life and having lived to write about it!
Q-In late 1950s your mother transitioned from actress to writer.
A- I could never have done all she did after her acting career faded. As part of a psychotherapy to try to get rid of some of her psychological baggage she wrote out her ‘problems’ to somehow get rid of her demons that way. Then, this was expanded into “My Story,” Mom’s ‘tell all’ book She enjoyed writing it as she always did want to write. So, that part was good for her. Mom ‘blended’ a few of the characters in both “My Story” and “A Life On Film” to spare the men of her life because they were still around. “A Life On Film” is a good read for her fans who still contact me about her. Mom loved it as it was enjoyable writing for her. She didn’t have a computer like we have. Can you imagine what an effort it must have been for her? “A Life on Film” and “My Story” were best sellers for a short time. My favorite chapter in “A Life On Film,” is “What Was It’s Like to Kiss Clark Gable?”
Q-And the novels?
A-I didn’t really care for her fiction very much. Good writing, but dumb stories. Maybe she’d had enough of ‘Hollywood’? Her subject matter was a bit too lurid for me; and boring. I didn’t read them all. Frankly, I had to force myself to read two of her novels. As I said, her writing was good, but the content was sleazy. Others might think differently, though, but I didn’t read all her fiction. She asked me why I hadn’t read all her books and I didn’t have an answer for her at the time. She definitely had a talent and a way with words, but to me, they were just boring. She probably used snippets of her life as an abused child and experiences. She had a great imagination as well. That’s what made her good at writing and acting. Interesting, she couldn’t speak in front of people without a script, though. No Teleprompters in those days!
She also was an avid reader of anything she could get her hands on, even the medicine bottles around her. (She told me that she always looked around for something to read. That’s pretty desperate.) It infuriated her that I couldn’t read like she could; I had astigmatism as a child just as I do now.
Q-Your mother lived in Malibu from the late 50s through the late 60s.
A-I vaguely remember the Malibu house. To be honest, I don’t know how she afforded it. It was comfortable enough but nothing fancy. The house looked out on the ocean and there were stairs outside from the house down to the beach and ocean. She really loved that place. It was her Nirvana; right above the beach with the roar of the ocean nearby. She felt really free there. She didn’t even need to feel glamorous any more. By then it was too much trouble to get dressed up. She just did her writing, and drinking. She loved the long walks on the beach.
Since she didn’t know how to ‘keep house’ she couldn’t keep it up very well, so I helped her at times to catch up with the housework/cleaning. I did some of that for her, along with others. Maybe there was a housekeeper once in a while. She became so reclusive; it was just her and her Siamese cat. If you planned on visiting her, you had to phone first for an ‘appointment’. I visited her with the kids in Malibu sometimes. Even then, she could handle our visits for only about 20 minutes.
Mom sold the Malibu house to Buddy Hackett. Ironically, three weeks after she moved out, there were rainstorms which loosened the cliffs above the house, and rivers of mud came into the house and ruined the carpet and probably other things.
Q-Why did your mother move to Mexico?
A-I don’t know how she afforded it. It was so she could concentrate on her writing. She resigned from AFTRA. She obviously ‘meant business’ about quitting her acting career and moved to her dream home in Mexico. It was beautiful there in Alamos, Sonora in the American colony there although she wasn’t sociable with many of her neighbors. She did have a few ‘gringo’ friends, and actually did a little socializing when she wasn’t writing. The house was really nice and she had two servants The ‘casita’ was a very nice small place and she added a guest house on to the main house. The house had a master bedroom, two baths, a kitchen, a patio, and it was built on a small hill which she could walk down and look at what was planting for her. She had a housekeeper and handyman to take care of things and a poodle named Jasper. I think she was really happy for a while but she drank a lot. She tried to learn Spanish and learned only enough to get by. I think she was in Mexico at least two years and I visited her twice to stay with her for a few weeks. I used to enjoy going to visit Mom in Alamos. I loved Mexico and the people. I went down for her 65th birthday and set up a party for Mom and invited her gringo chums. It was fun for her somehow. I fixed some great chicken stuffing with raisins and sliced green olives and sausage with the bread cubes. It turned out nice. When I went down, I spent most of my time with the ‘natives’ and had a lot of fun with the cute kids, learning Spanish, horseback riding, and watching the Mother’s Day parade. I LOVED it there. Mom hated my ease of getting along with the people there. If I didn’t have a family but had a decent income, I’d consider moving there. Well, maybe not, in these scary times.
The last time I was there was in 1969. Then she developed heart problems. One time when I was there she had to go to the hospital in Hermosillo due to her heart condition – not an ‘attack’ – and she was gone for three days. Another time she told me that she felt very faint and her mozo brought her some gin to revive her. All her ailments were heart-related. When Mom couldn’t work her air conditioner in Mexico she became ill, needing an oxygen machine because of the atmosphere and heat. Her heart became ‘iffy’ and then she had a small heart attack and her health got even worse. So Tono went down there with his wife, Patti, packed her up and brought her to Fountain Valley to live with him and Patti for a few months. Always a great reader when she left Mexico, Mom left shelves of her books there for the ‘gringos to read at the local library in Alamos. She was an 8th grade dropout but read the Will & Ariel Durant series!
Mom recovered and moved to an apartment nearby in Huntington Beach. She lived in the San Fernando Valley with a girlfriend for a while who she got out of jail; as in sharing the rent, etc but that didn’t work out because of personality differences, I suspect.
I can’t imagine ‘living’ with my mother as another woman. And then she moved to rental houses. I can’t even begin to count the many times Mom moved from place to place. She moved to so many places during her life.
Q-What about the suicide attempts after the came up from Mexico?
A- They were ‘attention getters’ more than the real thing. Not being in Mom’s moccasins at the time, I can’t speak for her, but I suspect she got sick and tired of her lonely–and to her–now useless life. She felt she wanted ‘outta here’. Her drinking was no help, and her chemistry and prescription drugs may have led to that behavior. There were two attempts. One time it got so bad because she did a job on her wrists in the bathtub and Tono was questioned about the incident because he found her. She called and he drove over but it was obvious to the police what had happened. Patti was good with Mom, and vice versa. She went to Mom’s apartment to clean up after Mom’s bathtub suicide attempt. Pretty awful.
Q-What do you remember when she was at the MPCH?
A-The years are blurry here. She moved to MPCH in 1972, I think. We visited her when we could. She was there over 16 years with the last two in the hospital. She had to give up drinking and smoking which were the cause of her COPD, and final demise.
Q-What do you remember?
A- The Motion Picture Country Home is located in the San Fernando Valley in Calabasas just outside of L.A. and was very well kept and beautifully landscaped. Mom had her own little cottage there with her personal belongings for 12-13 years. The cottage was a nice little one-room with bed, her desk, work area, a couch, some bookshelves, and a potty and bathtub in a separate room. She ate in the common dining room but not with others. She had her own table. Mom used to say she didn’t like to sit with others in the dining room because they would all be giving ‘organ recitals’—my kidney this, my bladder did that, my eyes this, my heart that. She told me that couldn’t “stand all those old people.” My funny Mom.
There she was, sitting alone at a tiny table in the corner of the dining room—once famous and glamorous Mary Astor isolated in boredom eating institutional food, all of which could have done nothing for her waning self-esteem. She invited me to have dinner with her there once. She drove the short distance between her cottage and the dining room on her 3-wheeler (picture in LIFE – ‘Whatever Happened to Mary Astor’?) – and I walked over alongside her. She was seated by the hostess at her small card table-sized table in a corner. Two chairs only. Only thing I remember was a feeling of empathy for her loneliness, and her toughness about definitely NOT wanting to sit with other ‘old farts’ and listening to their ‘organ recitals’. Her humor always made me laugh. We managed to get through the unmemorable tasteless dinner–I was also bored to death and the food was blah–and that was the end of that particular visit. This was when we lived only 25 minutes away and before she was in the MP Hospital.
She was happy enough there when she could do her writing away from “people.” Mom was a ‘birder’ – she adored them – and she left that legacy to me. When she was a lonely little farm girl in Quincy IL, she (even then) wrote copious notes in a little notebook about the comings and goings of the indigenous birds on the farm. When she was at the MPCH she would feed the pigeons at 4pm – they waited for her on top of a neighbor’s roof – she tapped the side of the sliding door and down they’d fly and light on the lawn for their seeds. It was part of her ‘soft side’. It’s one of my favorite memories of her.
At the MPCH as she was getting older she asked me why did her peers die off, “How come they get to go, and I don’t.” It was hard for her. I’m sure Mom must have resented it that she just didn’t finish herself off. I visited her as often as I could, but I had children but by then we lived a three-hour drive, ironically, back in Big Bear, where she filmed “Brigham Young.”
Q-Her Last appearance On Camera Was in Brownlow’s “Hollywood” series.
A-There were a few words from Mom around age 70 plus. She didn’t look too healthy and to me she appeared rather snobbish. I kept looking at her dilated eyes, wondering why they were that way. She seemed to slur a bit. Maybe she was a tad soused? Most likely she was just bored again.
Q-Why do you think she stopped writing?
A-She had a couple of light strokes at the MPCH. I’d say she didn’t write anymore because she was drinking more and feeling lousier all the time. So, her writing career faded. But I wasn’t there and I just don’t know.
Q-How difficult did she become as she became older?
A-One year, my middle daughter, visited her at the MPCH at her cottage. She had flown all the way from Middletown NY with her baby daughter, and my husband had driven her out to the MPCH to surprise her Gramma with a visit. When she got there, Mom refused to see her because my daughter hadn’t phoned first. I’m not sure Mom even knew who she was as she was possibly drinking. Of course, my daughter came away bawling her eyes out. It was so sad. I’ve always had a bad feeling about that—‘how dare she do that to my daughter.’ In other words, who cares about a phone call to see someone you haven’t seen for a few years after flying in from NY! In the modern vernacular, I was pissed about it. I should have known better. No one was ever allowed a visit without phoning first but of course my daughter wanted to surprise her Gramma, having not seen her for 4 or more years! Another time Mom ‘cut off’ my brother Tono for 5 years over some stupid misunderstanding over the three wheel bicycle she rode to and from the common dining room. I never did learn that story. Such a waste of life.
Q-Tell me about the last time you saw her?
A-It was about four months before she died. She had COPD and had to give up drinking and smoking which was the cause of the COPD. She had been moved to the hospital where she spent her last two years and had good care from the hospital staff there. I’m glad Mom had her last days there. It was a good place to be at the end. My husband and I drove 3 hours from Big Bear City to Calabasas to visit her for a bit. She was sitting up on her bed and I told her I had missed her and she told me “not to get too sentimental” about it. I’d had it. It hit a wrong nerve with me and I asked her why she would never let me love her like I wanted to and why she always had to have things “her way.” In other words, ‘why can’t you accept the way I feel about you?’ I was fed up with her not letting me ‘love’ her my way. My tone was not very nice and I was wrong to be sharp with her; she wasn’t well, after all and I was smothering her, apparently. After I asked her that Mom looked at me for a few seconds as only she could and then looked at me again, and just told me, “GO” I stared in amazement, and she simply said ‘go” and I slowly went. I never saw her alive again. The thing was, here she was on her last leg so I should have just shut up when she’s telling me to ‘not get too sentimental.” Anyway, it was my fault. I had no idea it would escalate. We had driven three hours down to the MPCH to see her and it was a smack in the chops like when my daughter got turned away. The point is I didn’t have any kind of reconciliation with Mom before she died.
Q-Where were you when she died?
A- It was four months later. She died at night. I was not at home in Big Bear, and no cell phones in those days. I was babysitting for my son in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. He and his wife were in Catalina for the weekend. I had left my home phone number with the hospital but no one there even tried that number and no one there knew I was at my son’s house for the weekend even though the hospital had his phone number. My brother, Tono, phoned me at 1:00 am, and simply said, “Mom’s gone’. He had at least been at her side. I felt a sense of relief with a tinge of anger thinking, “Mom, why couldn’t you ever be nice.” The doctor had given her a shot to help her feel more comfortable as she complained of feeling bad. It was time for her to go. She had made it to 81, in spite of how badly she had treated her body.
Q-What about her possessions?
A-The MPCH did a rotten job of taking care of mom’s things when she went into the hospital there. They “misplaced” two lovely charcoals drawings of her dog Jasper, a drawing by Picasso with a lovely mushy note from him; he had a little crush on her. And, a wonderful large Hirschfield watercolor which was a gift from the entire “Maltese Falcon” cast hunched over “the Bird” with every cast member’s signature, i.e., “no one can hold the liquor like you, Mary,” Bogie. There was also the cover page of the music she played on the piano in “The Great Lie”—Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B flat Minor—which was autographed by the cast of “The Great Lie.”
Q-Do you miss your mother?
A-I don’t actually ‘miss’ her. For me it’s like what ET said to little Elliott when he left for home. He pointed to Elliot’s forehead and said, “I’ll be right THERE!”, So, when I think of her, she’s right in my thoughts and remembrance. I’ve never really mourned for her, because, being as it was, she lived a full life doing the work she came to do and now was no longer in pain and sorrow and loneliness. I have no doubts whatsoever that at some future time we’ll be together once again.
Q-What about your life now?
A- I’m 83—but you know 80 is the new 50 so I’m definitely still a kid at heart. It’s supposed to be exciting being a movie star’s daughter. I always laugh when I say that, because I care so little for that kind of life. I’m a practical, no-frills, no BS lady. The way I’m living now, it’s amazing to think I was part of that movie ‘family’ they talk about and that Mom went through. I detest being in any kind of limelight, or the center of attention. That huge house my grandpa bought, with five servants is the antithesis of my lifestyle. I wouldn’t trade my present life for anything like that incredible decadence. I’m usually dressed in jeans and a tee or sweat shirt with moccasin shoes. Most of my clothes are hand-me-downs from my girls or from a thrift store. I’m not one for shopping for clothes. As long as I’m clean and comfy, that’s fine with me. I still wear makeup; my one vanity.
Like my mother I have chronic anxiety but I try not to live in the past. I try to live in the NOW, as the ‘new-agers’ say. I have the same temper both my parents had, and I’ve come a very long way in controlling it. As I said above, I loathe arguing and contention as well as competition as to who’s right or wrong. I hate conflict so much, I’d just as soon let the other person always be right just so I can be left to be happy. Depression has always plagued me and I’m grateful to be able to say I’ve done pretty well with it. I don’t always feel all that marvy and positive but I’m grateful for a sense of humor, akilter as it gets at times and that pulls me through the rough spots. I can gratefully say, my dear kids me in line!
I was married for 57 years. We had four children, then 43 grand and great-grandchildren. At one point I was going to divorce my husband, but neither of us could afford it, nor did I really want to be responsible for repeating Mom’s ‘drama’. I stayed with him because we couldn’t afford living apart, and for the children. He traveled on business trips for McDonnell Douglas Corp a great part of our years together while I raised our 4 kids and he provided for them the best he could, and was dependable that way. We didn’t get along famously but we stuck it out until the end. I was no prize to live with either under those conditions but we did luck-out with a wonderful huge family that’s growing as we speak. He was a good man; got a purple heart for his time in the South Pacific as a Marine. He was Mayor of our community in Big Bear, CA for a few years. He also designed the Senior Center and Thrift Store and served the community in many ways.. He put up with a spoiled movie star’s brat for 57 years until he died in 2007 of Parkinson’s. My youngest daughter, and I are often amazed that we do have the family we have seeing as my husband and I are both products of divorce and didn’t get a parenting manual.
In November of 1986 my husband and I were driving down the mountains of Big Bear to see our son. We hit some black ice at the top of a mountain and went in slow motion over and over about 350 feet down the mountainside, landing upside down in our Datsun truck. We did have our seat belts on and, miraculously, we were spared. Frank turned to me and asked, “Are you alive” and I said, “Yes, are you”? He unbuckled himself and then me and we squished our way out of the driver’s side. Frank, being an ex-park ranger always carried a rope in the truck, tied it around my waist. He climbed up the umpteen feet to the highway and pulled me up slowly with the rope. He had a few face scratches and I had scrunched my L2 & L3 vertebrae. He waved down a VW, they went for help and got me to the hospital about a mile away. I had to stay overnight and wear a brace for a few weeks. Was that a miracle or not? And, I’m still here. I’ve had a good life.
Q-Finally, In General, what do you think of your mother’s films?
A-It’s so weird sometimes to see Mom onscreen and think ‘that woman was my mother.’ Some of her roles were pretty amazing. I know a lot of her silents have been lost to nitrate damage. Mom was what she called a “thinking actor”. She knew her craft. She made her characters come alive as the author intended. And she had the confidence to be what she intended to do with them. I believe it’s the various painful experiences she suffered throughout her life that made her characters so believable. Abuse, early widowhood, four husbands, her own temperament, alcoholism, and her own drive for perfection! She was scarred by a lot of it, yet she was indomitable, picked herself up and carried on. I’ve always envied her grit!
Of course as her daughter I’m proud of her many accomplishments as an actress and writer. She was a dependable, hard worker. She hated being under contract and making lesser movies with no substance, but enjoyed being Edith Cartwright in Dodsworth, Sandra in The Great Lie, Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon and Fritzi in Desert Fury. She definitely left her mark.
Q-I know you haven’t seen all of your mother’s films. Here’s the few I know you watched or were on the set. What do you think about them?
The movie was dumb. Barrymore was a total HAM but that was the style in those days. It’s what made him ‘Barrymore.’ In those days he had total charisma with the ladies but some stars can be overwhelming with charisma. That poor girl, fainting; kind of like the girls did with Sinatra and the Beatles. All hero worship. It must have taken a huge ego to keep up that image of himself and such a need for value which he couldn’t ever get enough of that he drank himself to death. More to be pitied than censured.
“Don Juan” must have been a very hard picture to make. He and Mom did look fabulous onscreen together here and in “Beau Brummel.” As for me, I couldn’t find anything attractive about him. After I saw the film I thought about him being just one big letch! I was totally turned off thinking of him with Mom when she was so young. Mom told me a lot about “Jack” Barrymore. He asked her to marry him but she was afraid of her parents; especially her father Otto Langhanke, and she had to say no because of her parents. And then Barrymore broke her heart. The man might have been my father! I’m just glad she didn’t marry the guy. He was a non-husband-type. No thanks.
Looking at him in the film I remembered her telling me how he aged pretty badly and she hadn’t seen him for years when she saw him from the back for the last time walking like a very old man down a radio studio hallway and didn’t approach the drunken old man. She said she felt so very sad for him. She even wrote about it in “A Life On Film.” Yes, a sad encounter. So very sad and such a sad fall from fame for him.
Mom was with Barrymore for two years that I know of. If he made her happy for those 2 years, that’s all that matters. He was her first love and . He had great influence on herBarrymore ‘saved’ her from her miserable family life and was a good escape from her parents; although she always had Gramma Helen as a chaperone. Barrymore looked after her protectively and taught her acting and elocution so that when sound pictures came along, and actors dropped away like flies because of their lousy speaking voices, Mother, was able to resume her career because she had a perfect speaking voice, without her Midwest twang. I’m thinking she loved him through all the years and probably wondered what her life would have been had they married. My poor Mom!
. Mom was a very ‘needy’ person because of her lousy childhood – hence the affairs and alcoholism. That subconscious programming played over and over during her life – affecting it at every level.
I loved it. I had never seen Ann Harding in a movie before – She had some major scenes in Holiday that were just way over the top. That’s real acting. Mom was real good here.
Other Men’s Women-1931
I watched the film last night. I’d never seen it before. Mom looked really cute and she had some good scenes for a B picture.
I saw U Tube and I LOVED it! Mom looked really young here and it is surprising to see her in this part and then in all the other characters she played and realize this is the same woman.
I think Red Dust is pretty sultry. I liked Harlow a lot!
This was Mom’s favorite of all her films. It was made during the Custody Hearing but should be seen on its own merits. Mom looked so very lovely and had good scenes at the end with Huston about ‘not letting him go’. Ruth’s Chatterton did a good job. There were unforgettable scenes between Chatterton and Huston. ‘Short of suicide’—Chatterton hasn’t caught on to his intentions. “You might at least meet me halfway;” are you kidding me? And then she finally looked so bereft without him. The very last few feet of film is an unforgettable; especially when we know all that led up to that moment! Mom’s welcome by calling Sam’s name had no sound. It was so sweet. Good for him, he earned it! Funny to see John Payne in there and David Niven too! I can see why Mom liked it. I know some of her fans were affected in their lives by Mom’s portrayal of Edith Cortright – her strength of character.
When my husband and I moved to Big Bear, the first time we turned on the TV and there was Mom in her silly hat in “Listen Darling” with Judy Garland, Freddy Bartholomew and Walter Pidgeon. It’s a sweet picture and I really liked it. Scottie Becket played the lively little kid brother with the bow and arrow. He was really fun in that part. Freddie had a habit whenever he said something of looking like a hen pecking back and forth with his head. I thought he was amusing. While making this film Judy had an interview audition for her role in the “Wizard Of Oz.” She got the part and went running to Mom with the great news and history was made.
I like “the Hurricane” a lot. I remember being on the set and seeing the miniature model of the yacht. I was around 4 or 5 years old. An aside; during “Hurricane” Mom was also doing a play in Santa Barbara CA which is a hefty drive from the studio in Hollywood where was working on the movie. So her friend/secretary, Marciele Sutherland drove her back and forth for I don’t know how many weeks the play ran.
Prisoner Of Zenda-1937
Prisoner of Zenda was a frothy piece. I think Mom was prettiest in this picture but was wasted in it. I liked Madeline Carroll. She did a good job. I liked Douglas Fairbanks Jr. better than John Barrymore. He was great in the fencing scenes.
The Great Lie-1941
I watched “The Great Lie” on TCM. I hadn’t seen it for over 10 years. I couldn’t believe how absolutely corny, boring and phony it was. Cliché after cliché; and everyone had British accents. At the beginning of the film George Brent enters through a door which he shut with noise and then he tells someone to shush with his finger over his mouth. Anyone hearing the door would have woken up. George Brent spoke without moving his lips and was greyed up too much—oh so phony. Those stereotype ‘blacks’ showed how far we’ve progressed with our treatment of them in film. I think Bette is a fine actress but to me she will always be Bette Davis doing a part but I think she did a good job in this picture
Actually Mom wasn’t far off from her own personality with Sandra and surely pulled off playing the bitch. She had some dreadful lines but some good clothes and some not so good. Those were her skinny years and she did look great in her clothes. That bathrobe she wore in the cabin is what I always saw her in after her showers; white terry cloth. I think we saw the character’s vulnerability when Betty broke into the kitchen and Mom was standing there like a guilty lil’ kid having her hand in the cookie jar. What a face and then the lettuce line and then, “no pickle.” The slaps were the high point, of course. I wonder how many takes that took!
The bombshell bob—the hair cut she had in the film—’made’ her looks in those days. It was really different and influenced other women in the war years when Tillie the Toiler worked in aircraft plants. The first time I saw it, it was almost as shocking as seeing her turn blond for Palm Beach Story. It was her hairdresser who dubbed it the Bombshell Bob, and she set a trend for ladies of her day.
I love “The Maltese Falcon” over and over. It’s my favorite film of hers. She did have some funny lines, like lying through her teeth. “Help me, Mr. Spade.” She played that character to the hilt. Here’s a tidbit; remember when she slapped Peter Lorre in that scene? One time while shooting a take, she slapped him and actually took a slice out of his cheek – i.e., big scratch. I enjoyed the case a lot. She felt so bad about it that she stopped the scene. If she hadn’t, they’d have kept it and wouldn’t that have been a perfect slap scene, with him bleeding, and that incredible expression on his face? “The Maltese Falcon” needs to be seen a few times to get all the innuendos. Huston did a fantastic job. As black and white drama it is superb. Mom said that the movie was used in a directors’ class at UCLA just for that reason. Later, Ted Turner changed many B&W’s to color movies – and Falcon took the brunt of the change – with everyone in dark clothes, and Mom’s auburn hair turned to orange and totally faded makeup.
Across The Pacific-1942
I think I had the most fun watching “Across the Pacific;” although I don’t remember the story at all.
Palm Beach Story-1942
I remember mom coming home with her hair bleached blond! Mom outshone herself and everyone else in “Palm Beach Story.” She was a kick. Underneath it all she had a sharp sense of humor and could keep me in giggles for hours. “Palm Beach Story” is a real change of pace and Mom is funny as heck. She did have a ‘colorful’ sense of humor.
Meet Me In St Louis-1944
I spent a lot of time on the set with those folks. Met Judy, and the cast. These ladies were also really nice. June Lockhart and I went to the same school, but not at the same time. “Meet Me In St. Louis” is a sweet film perhaps a little sticky-gooy ‘saccharine’ but maybe there were families back in those days like that. It was very touching. The music and Judy were really good and Margaret O’Brien breaks your heart over the snowmen and her illness. Both girls were just being their age. I remember seeing a scene shot with Mom at the top of the stairs talking to Lucille Bremer about something. The scenery and costuming were flawless. My favorite scene in the picture is the piano scene between Mom and Leon Ames singing “’You and I”. Ames was such a nice man. Mom was tone-deaf and so she was lip-syncing. I also liked the tiny sliver of cake scene where Mom asked for a tiny piece of cake because she was upset when Leon tells the family about moving to New York, and they celebrate with a cake. Mom shows her sadness/displeasure at the prospect of moving, by only taking a little bite of it. Great actress with her bits of ‘business’ like that. My favorite movie dress of my mother’s is in that film. It’s the last costume she wore in it; the long lavender one with the grapes along the hemline about 5″ wide and maybe some up at the collar. She had a hat to go with it.
I saw Cynthia only once when it was first made and as a teen it didn’t impress me then. It was ‘just another of Mom’s pictures. I’m not crazy about that movie but Mom did do a good job in another one of her ‘mother’ parts. I especially didn’t like her severe stagey makeup as she was made to look older. She looked better than that in person. Scotty Becket was also in it as a teen and I knew him. Elizabeth Taylor is gorgeous but to me she was only Elizabeth Taylor being Elizabeth Taylor.
I liked Fiesta well enough. I had seen it when it was first made. It was colorful with fun music. I love Mexico, and was amazed and impressed with Ricardo’s Montalbán’s playing Copeland’s “El Salon Mexico.” It is one of my favorite pieces and he had to work much harder than Mom did in “The Great Lie.”
I remember Mom saying she was working on ‘Cass Timberlane’. She looked pretty ‘cute’ with ‘her hair piled high upon her head. Her voice seemed higher pitched. She and I are semi bassos. I don’t remember the story line or anything else about it..
Act Of Violence-1948
You have to wait halfway through the picture before Mom shows up as a prostitute in a bar. She played it to the nines; even speaking with contractions like goin’, bein’ watchin’, etc. So strange because she had perfect diction. The movie is typical 40’s B picture thriller. Nevertheless, Mom did a great job
Any Number Can Play-1949
I’ve never seen “Any Number Can Play”, even though I was on the set with Mom. This is where I met’ ‘Uncle Clark’ Gable.
Return To Peyton Place-1961
I was on the set during a courtroom scene. Mom stood behind some kind of barricade and it her a close-up being shot. When it was her turn to speak, she stood up nobly before a circle of at least 100 people on the set, and spewed out a 10-minute speech flawlessly with cameras rolling in one ‘take’. People dropped jaws. When Mom finished her speech all the people on the set—the entire cast, crew and visitors—stood up and clapping, gave her a standing ovation for her performance! Who, my Mom? I saw her in action at what she was best known for—‘one-take Mary”- meaning with her in the scene, there was a strong chance for no retakes of the scene. She had a great memory for dialog.
I watched all I could stand of it. Much too long and boring. Such a totally dumb story with actors being actors. I never have seen so much ham or so much hot air in one picture! I saw one scene with Mom but walked out before Mom’s last scene.
Q-What About Your Mother’s TV Work?
A-Mom did quite a few appearances on TV; ‘Rose’s Last Summer’ and the like. Something with Van Heflin and something on Boris Karloff’s show but I can’t remember the show’s names. Some can be seen on internet if one knows where to look.
Q-And her radio appearances. She did quite a lot and even had two shows of her own. Did you listen to them?
A-We have recordings of them somewhere. And yes, I often went with her to do ‘Hollywood Showcase’ at CBS – a quasi-talent show she hosted of the early 40’s.
Q-Do, you have any on CD
A- No, on quite a few huge size 10″ ‘records, vintage 40’s of Mom on Lux Radio Theatre.
Q-Some of this is now commercially available on CDs
A-Never have seen this stuff anywhere before Top of Form
2-INTERVIEW WITH MARY ASTOR’S ELDEST GRAND DAUGHTER, FRANCES ROH YANG
Photograph Francis Refers To In The Interview Circa 1955 L To R, Marylyn (Pregnant with her second Child) Tono Del Campo, Mary Astor, and Granddaughter Frances.
Francis or, as she likes to be called, Francie stayed with my wife for a few days and while here—in between being deluged with some of her Grandmother’s films—she was kind enough to consent to an interview. I thought that it would offer another point of view of Mary Astor from someone who knew her. She was born in 1951. This was a tape recorded interview which I conducted and transcribed.
Q-You lived in the Encino House when your Grandmother was doing plays not long after you were born.
A-Yes. The Encino house is the first house I remember. It had a pool and my uncle Tono was there. What I remember about the Encino house was all the books and the bookshelves.
Q-When did you remember first meeting your grandmother?
A-This is 1955. We were having a nice meal. This was at mom’s house on 19th street in Sana Monica. And my grandmother was sitting down and I was excited to have her there. She was dressed so pretty. Then she poured salt into her coffee instead of sugar and let out a curse. I don’t remember what it was. But I think most people would react that way. I remember that.
Q-When you first met her was there anything you were concerned about.
A-I mean as a kid I had to worry a little about what I said or did. I felt that way. I felt that she might look down on me a little bit. I was a kid.
Q-What Film Character that your Grandmother played is most like she was in real life?
A-None that I have seen.
Q-Your mother said that in real Life Your Grandmother was most like her Character Desert Fury
A-That’s not what I saw. She has a different feeling about her mother than I do but that was when Grandmother was younger and they were living together.
Q-Did you ever see your Grandmother act?
A-I did go with her to the studio once when she was doing a Ben Casey [Dispel The Black Cyclone that Shakes The Throne] It was her last TV performance. It was being filmed at Desilu in 1963 and I was 12. I was totally blown away because that was really my first time on a set. I was so proud of her because she seemed to be in charge. People looked up to her. They listened to her. They respected her. She had a suggestion and they would change things. In between shooting she was working on her lines. She was very involved. It was quite an experience for me. I remember her in a show [TRILLER. Rose’s Last Summer.] where she gets hit by a car and the relatives are trying to take her money. It was really good. I was fascinated by the acting she did. She was supposed to be old but she really wasn’t old. They just made her up. I was very proud of her. She really did do acting in that show and I thought, this crummy little thing and she still cared about putting on a terrific performances. She was the best thing on that show.
Q-Did you ever see her writing?
A-No but I was went to her office. It was in a house and I remember the typewriter. This was before Malibu. And, I said “Grandma, how do you get all the writing done?” And she’s like, “I sit down in front of the typewriter and I sit there and I write and I do it until I feel like writing and I write.” But she didn’t put a time limit on it. She didn’t say 700 words. But I always tell my son, “Remember grandma, you sit in front of that whether you want or not and get it out because something wonderful is going to happen.”
Q-What do you remember her in Malibu?
A-I like that fact that she was by the sea. She loved the sea. I thought that it was interesting that she was by herself. I was with my family. I remember she had this piece of furniture that you kneel on to pray. It was wood.
Q-Did you ever visit her in Mexico?
A-No, but she sent me postcards from Mexico. Mom also sent me post cards because mom went to see her. Just hello, thinking about you. Love you. Grandma always sent me Christmas cards “Love you, grandma.” I always felt that she was genuine. She was not a phony.
Q-Did you see her when she was staying with your uncle Tono?
A-It was very, very brief. I was married when I was 21 but I do remember going there.
Q-At the MPCH when did you visit her?
Whenever I came into town. It was in the 80s when I had my first baby.
Q-But you had to call first.
A-I think she thought of it being respectful. You just didn’t drop by.
Q-Tell me about her when she was at the MPCH.
A-I was 21 when she moved to the MPCH. I didn’t know her well when I was younger but did as an adult going to see her in the motion picture home. That’s when I got to really know her. We enjoyed each other’s company and I just liked being with her. She didn’t complain. I remember that.
Q-When you visited her did you ever talk to her about her movies?
A-Well the thing is that I came there just to see her. I never did talk about her movies because everybody else did. I know that she was harassed all the time. And she really didn’t want to and I respected that.
Q-Were ever hesitant to talk to her about anything.
A-Not at all. I felt so comfortable and I was so grateful that she made me feel comfortable. She welcomed me. She was loving. We brought lunch in; my mom and I brought lunch in for her. We had a really nice spread you know. I remember what we ate. It was in her bungalow. I thought the bungalow was perfect. I could tell that she was still smoking and I was really sad about that. The drinking was a hidden part of her that I don’t know about. I never saw her like that. But knew the damage that it caused.
Q-What did you think of her as a person?
A-Well, I just knew all these things about her. I had seen her sculptures in our house. They were beautiful. In fact I have one. It’ a mother breast feeding a baby. I have a beautiful…it’s like an ashtray that she made. I inherited them.
Q-How was type of relationship you had with her?
A-She always gave me books. She gave me a reading list. Will Durant was her favorite author. I found her very loving. She was always excited and happy to see me. Anytime I ever saw her I told her about her eyes. She had the most beautiful eyes. They were so beautiful. When I told her that her face lit up in a smile. She was an old lady and it made her feel good. When you see somebody and you see their eyes…I really was moved. Her eyes were very beautiful. And I thought that she had been a beautiful woman all her life and she is still a beautiful woman. She really was. I always found her warm and welcoming. And I would hear her voice which I had grown to love all my life. She’s always called me darling. “Hello darling.” We never talked about movies. We talked about books. I had a baby with me. That was her first great-grandson. So, we talked about breast feeding and she was glad to share that experience with me. And I thought well that, yes, she was thrilled to see that.
Q-How do you think that she felt about you?
A-I knew that she loved me. I have a picture taken with her. My mother is expecting. This was taken in our Santa Monica house when she was visiting. So, I was like four years old and my grandmother has her hands interlaced with mine. It’s one of my favorite pictures. When I was younger she would take her hands and wrap them around me. In the picture was my mother, she was expecting so it was 1955, and Grandma and me and my uncle Tono who was still a teenager. So that’s three generations. And she’s got her arms around me and our hands are interlocked. It shows her feelings for me. Whenever I look at that picture, I think to myself, “My Grandmother loved me so much.” It makes me so happy. I was her first grandchild and she loved me. That photograph is proof to me. She was excellent at expressing love….her love for me
Q-So, she was not I am Astor the Actress.
A-No, not at all. She was just gramme. I felt that she enjoyed being with me and we could sit down and just be together. We’d show our love for each other in just the little things I mentioned.
Q-So when you were with her she was not Mary Astor but just grandma.
Q-Was she ever nasty or discourteous to you?
A-Never, never. I never heard her scold my mother either. I don’t remember that at all. I really don’t. That’s what I know of her. I didn’t know the other side of her.
Q-How did your reconcile your mother’s s attitude towards her mother with your own.
A-I really haven’t reconciled it. She didn’t have to be authoritarian with me she didn’t have to make do anything. It was a different role being a grandma. And now I know that well. When I see all these photos of my grandmother with my mother as a baby I can indeed see that she loved her. I am just like “That’s not what my mother thinks.” According to mother that wasn’t what she saw. The impression that I got from the photos was that my grandmother was very happy to be “mom.” . But if my mom sees the pictures of her mom showing love, showing her happiness all those things don’t matter because she is keeping it in her head that last moment with her mom when she felt like she had to beg her mother for love and her mother said “go.”
Q-When was the last time you saw her.
A-The last time I saw her was when Arthur was a baby. That’s 82-83. No. I must have seen her after but I don’t remember. She was in her late 70s.
Q-What is your favorite film of hers?
A-LITTLE WOMAN. I do love it. I mean I knew her as an older woman and it was a thrill for me to see her in the movie as a young woman. But I also love LISTEN DARLING. I really like that one. She was so genuine in it. Of course I am a big Walter Pidgeon fan. He had a great voice and so, she had a hunk for a co-star.
Q-How do you feel about her books?
A-I am not fond of one of the books but the other books I like. I love LIFE ON FILM. I just love that. There’s one, A PLACE CALLED SATURDAY I like. There’s THE INCREDIBLE CHARLIE CAREWE, I like.
Q-What did you like about LIFE ON FILM.
A-I felt like she was saying it. I felt like she was telling it. I really like her writing. I have to admit I love the way that she describes things. I think her writing is superb. I would rank it very high, including her novels. I just love the way she does things. I read it early in my life and then when I was older. It was like, “It is wonderful.” It made me feel like I was there with her because I really didn’t know many things. There were a lot things that were confusing to me when I was younger. For example what really happened with John Barrymore. What was the first kiss like?
Q-And MY STORY.
A-It reveals a lot of things to me about my life. I’m mentioned in it. I loved reading about myself when I was born. It was all new to me.
Q-Tell me about your father, Franklyn Thorpe.
A-I-adored him. I really did. We were really close. We talked about everything. I knew nothing about his past, really. I knew he had a couple of wives. And I did know Virginia. I met her. I want to Seattle and I met her. And of course, he was my doctor, too. So I went to him for several different things. He was very professional as a doctor. As a doctor, I thought he was great. He really knew what he was doing and the best doctor I ever had. He was awesome as a doctor.
Q-What about his other wives.
Q-Actually he had remarried but we didn’t know about it. He was kind of …we didn’t know it at the time. He married Maxim in Mexico.
Q-How was he as a grandfather?
A-My grandfather used to come to the house and play guitar. That was our Christmas. Every Christmas he come and play the guitar and sing. Very lovely person. But I know he was harsh with mom. I know that she remembered that but I don’t think that she got over that. But I never saw his temper. I knew that he had terrible migraines.
Frances Yang on my guest bathroom floor exasperated as she struggles to get a Wi-fi signal so she can speak with her husband. This is my favorite photo of her.
3-INTERVIEW WITH PATTI DEL CAMPO
Patti Del Campo with Husband Tono
Patti Del Camp was married to Mary Astor’s son until he died in 2014. It was a 52 year marriage. She was Mary Astor’s daughter-law and knew the woman in her later years. She was kind enough to share her memories of both her mother-in-law and her husband who was remarkable in his own right. This tape recorded interview was conducted by Andrew Yang and transcribed by me. Patti Del Camp died of Co-vid in December 2020. She was 77 years old.
Q-How and when did you and Tono meet?
A-Tono was living with his sister Marylyn and my best friend Janie was baby-sitting her children. By that time it was just Francis, Clare and Gabby who was a baby. My friend baby sat and I’d go over there with her and help her. And at one point she had a body cast on for months and months and couldn’t do a lot for the kids. She’d pick them up and change the baby, gabby. So, I’d go baby sat. Janie would get the money because I was just having fun with Janie. And it was originally her job. When Janie and I were there visiting in the afternoon because Marylyn was cool Tono would come into the house and for some reason would say, “Hi people. Hi Patti.” Was he a jerk or what? I was 14 maybe. As Tono was born 1939 and we were married in 1962 that would mean he was 18 when the first met. I was nineteen when I married Tono and he had just turned 23.
That first date he took me on it was to a football game where Santa Monica College was playing in Bakersfield. The players were farm boys and little older beach boy types. Tono had just gotten out of the Navy and because I had grown up a little bit our relationship had changed. I wasn’t a little girl anymore. It was on Friday the 13th and as I am basically a quiet person I didn’t talk very much and was quiet. I was just watching the game going “Yaa!” Finally Tono looked at me. “SAY SOMETHING!” I said, I have to go potty. He never forgot that.
Q-When did you first meet Astor and what was your impression of her?
I first met her at her house in Malibu. And I don’t think she liked me a lot because I was going to marry her son. But she was very gracious. She’s a good actress and acted like she liked me. But I found out later from Marylyn when Tono and I announced our engagement that Miss Astor said, “I wish them well but I can’t attend the wedding. I wanted him to marry a Catholic.” And Marylyn when told her, “She is a catholic.” It became, “Oh!” And then She came to the wedding. My religion changed everything. Marylyn was Catholic for a whilethen she became a Mormon and deeply went into it.
Q-How different was she in person from how she was on the screen or TV?
A-I think that she was very different. In RETURN TO PAYTON PLACE she played a bitchy old lady. In real life she was not a bitch old lady but portrayed one beautifully. She did such a good job that she was booed at times when the film was in theaters. That is how good she was. She did such a good job, and people believed it so much, they booed her on the screen. But, in life she was gracious.
Q-Over the course of years you became close.
A-I don’t think we got any closer than we did in the early years. I will tell you something. There was a time when she lived with us after she was sick after coming back from Mexico and I’d be cleaning up in the kitchen watching Christian…Christian was like two years old. Astor would call Tono down to the basement to sit on her bed and he talked to her every night for an hour and a half leaving me alone with Christian. And I’d have to take care of her, do the dishes and clean house. How close could I be if she was down there with her son for an hour and a half?
Q-During this period how did you think she saw herself ?
A-There were times she felt sorry for herself and probably with good reason but overall, I think that she was a damn good person. I liked her for the most part. Not always but you can say that about anyone.
Q-Did she ever comment about her film work?
A-She talked about other actors and actresses and told anecdotes about them. But always cute, nice…nothing mean. She always spoke well about all the people she worked with.
Q-What did you think of her life in Malibu?
A-Oh, I think that she loved it. It was a shame she moved to Mexico. She sold that house to Buddy Hackett. And that was a beautiful house overlooking the ocean. She could go down and walk on the beach. She said she wasn’t drinking but she had alcohol in the house. If you are not drinking why do you have it in the house?
Q-What did you think about her life in the apartments after Malibu?
A-She went to Leisure World for a while. She sold Malibu and moved there. It’s a community of apartments with washing machines in a laundry room. And some of the people there were of an age where they knew who she was and they wanted to chat. When she was in the laundry room they would ask her
“Do you want to join our gin game.
And Very pleasant.
“No thank you.
“Do you play Tennis?”
“No I don’t.”
She said that she felt they were saying “What do you do?” And she wanted to say, “I fuck.” That was typical of her. “Mind your own business, I fuck.” And she did too. She wrote checks to gentlemen. If it makes you happy, hell yes. If it feels good, do it. She was no sweet little old lady.
Q-To The best of your recollection why did she decide to move to Mexico?
A-She was there probably two or three years. Not a long time. She had a group of friends down there that talked her into building a home and it was a beautiful house the she built there. They didn’t tell her they only lived there in the fall winter and spring. It was too damn hot to live there in the summer. But she’s there year round so she purchased a room air conditioner but she got sick so we brought her back up here. She was really, really sick and needed to come back home. She was 64 and it was when I was pregnant with Christian. So, that would be 1970.
We went down to get her, walking into her bedroom we saw that she had the air conditioner on with every window in the house was open. She really didn’t know how air conditioners worked. So Tono said. “Are you trying to cool all of Mexico?” We had to close the damn windows. No wonder she got sick, she was trying to cool Mexico. If she had closed the windows it would have cooled the room. Forget the rest of the house and stay in your room.
While she was there people would bring her food and did stuff for her. She had a friend, a man named Rene. I can’t remember his last name but he was the architect who built her house and they were close friends. She had a friend, Pete Dixon from Malibu who would visit her and take her medications that she couldn’t get in Mexico. He’d write to her “I’m bringing your horse down” such and such a time. And he’d take her tons of medications every few months. I’m am sure it was medication that she probably shouldn’t have been taking. After she found out that her friends didn’t stay through the summer she stayed a couple of summers. It must have been that second summer that we had to bring her home. She just couldn’t handle that heat..
Q- Was very happy in Mexico?
A-At first. But when l her friends didn’t hang around during the summer she got to thinking “What the hell am I doing here.”
Q-How do you feel about the fact that she dedicated “A Life On Film to you and Tono.
I thought it was very sweet of her. I am not sure she was with us when she wrote it.
Q-Before moving to the MPCH how many different apartments did she have?
A-She lived here and in the Valley in an apartment. She moved there from here when Christian was about two. I don’t have a date on that. When she left us she was standing there holding her suitcase and Christian, who was two years old, had no idea what was going and she loved her grandmother. She said, “Are you going somewhere?” And her grandmother snapped her head and said, “No, I always carry a suitcase around.” I didn’t say anything but that ticked me off. There were certain things she did that tick me off but there were many things she did I think that were sweet and kind. But that can be true of anybody.
She lived with a couple of ladies two different times. She let them be her roommates. She didn’t along with them at all; either one. She had Tono drive over there; it was way out in the Valley somewhere and he’d drove to mediate their arguments. I don’t remember where it was but it was far away. He calmed them down while I sat home alone with the kids.
Q She in interviews that she was paying her own way at the MPCH. Where did she get this money?
A-From her work. She earned it.
Q-Do you think she was happy there?
A-Not at first. That is how you are when you are new to something. But then I think she really was happy. She had a three wheel bike and rode around on that and made rounds. There were people there in her industry that talked the same language. So, once she got settled in, yea, I think that she was happy there.
Q-During the 1980s how did the strokes affect her temperament? Was this the reason she seemed to withdraw?
A-She had heart problems.
Q-Why do you think she became so reclusive at the MPCH? Eating at her own table and basically wanting to be left alone.
A-At the MPCH? I never heard that. She had a delightful personality. Can’t imagine her shunning people. I did hear that someone went to screen a few of her movies at the MPCH and she was eating alone and everyone said, ‘Don’t bother her” but he went and talked to her and she went to the movies and said, ‘I don’t remember being that good.”
Q-Exactly why didn’t she speak to Tono for ten years regarding the tricycle?
A-No, she didn’t. She might have fallen off her tricycle that I don’t know about. We both encouraged her to use it. I thought it was a great idea.
Q-Do you have any memories of your mother-in-law writing?
A-She spent hours a day at the typewriter.
Q-Have you read any of her books.
A-I still have all of her books and read all of them even the fiction. She did a good job with them. A PLACE CALLED SATURDAY I liked. LIFE ON FILM was a good book too. Very informative.
Q-Which of her films or TV roles do you like?
A-My favorite movie of hers would have to be MALTESE FALCON.
Q-What were her last two years in the hospital like?
A-Terrible! She knew that she was dying. She had emphysema. She couldn’t breathe. It was a nightmare for her. It was a long sad way to go. And for Tono too when he died. He learned to smoke when he was in the navy. His buddies said, “Here, try it, it’s good.” And so he did and when we got married he got me started. So, I smoked for about 40 years until he was diagnosed. When he was diagnosed I quit and I was smoking two packs a day. I did everything I could to try and help him not die. And he still died. Smoking killed my husband.
Q-I know that Astor smocked a lot?
A-She left cigarette burns on all my wood furniture in the bedroom when she was living here. She would set a cigarette it down when there was no ashtray and forget about it.
Q-How did you and Tono feel when she died?
A-She was suffering for a long time so really it was a relief and we were thinking she was going to be in a better place.
Q-What is the best single word you can use when remembering her?
Q-What was Tono’s relationship with his father like after Astor and Manuel divorced. Were they in contact?
A-Not exactly. I think Tono met his father twice. When he was fifteen was the last time he saw him. No wait. It was before he was 15. Because his father told him that, “Tono, when you turn 15, I am going to come and get you and take you and introduce you to ladies of the night to help you learn the ways of love.” Tono was maybe 12 or something so Tono was so looking forward to that. So, when he was 15 it was, “When is he coming?” And his Dad never came back and that was a disappointment. .
Q-What did Tono say about not seeing his father for years and years.
A-He pretty put it out of his mind. I contacted his father after we got married. At the time Manuel was working as an editor on the old TV series, THE ADVENGERS with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Wonderful series. Brilliant. I found that out he was editor because I watched the show and saw the credit “Editor Manuel Del Campo.” So wrote him a letter. And I said something about “I’ve enjoyed our work on THE ADVENGERS. And I enjoyed some work you did far earlier than that with Mary Astor. That product was your son. I married him.” I don’t know if the man ever got the letter or not but it was about the time that Manuel died in 1969. He was living in London.
Q-Why did Tono want to continue living with Marylyn even when his mother returned to L.A.
A-He kind of didn’t have a big choice. He liked living with them and his mother was always working. Besides that, a few years earlier, there was a period of time that he and his mother had no money. This was after Marylyn married. Tono would go to a groceries stores and search for dented cans of dog food they sold them at a discount so he could feed his dog. He and his mother were quite poor for a period of time. And then when she started working again she was drinking a lot. She was not being a good mommy then. Years earlier Tono was sent away to military school when he was five years old. To me that’s not being a good mommy. It’s an expeditor. And Tono loved her. Marylyn was crushed watching her baby brother being driven away. That really hurt her. She didn’t understand why he couldn’t stay. He was going to military school and he told me that he had a crying jag because he was scared and lonely. To me, that’s a sin. I could never send my kids away as youngsters.