Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, by Michael Ankerich. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Hardcover. $40.00.
Not too many remember Mae Murray. Not a one of her films is on Netflix, and she’s scarcely available at Amazon. But she was big – very big — in her day. She spawned fashion crazes and erotic fantasies, perpetuating and defining a 1920s ideal of film womanhood. Michael G. Ankerich’s revealing new biography, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, covers all that and more with unflattering detail.
She began life as Marie Koenig in 1889. Raised in New York City tenement squalor, her father died of alcoholism when she was 11, and her mother worked as a housekeeper. Pretty Marie meanwhile dreamed of becoming a dancer. She was on Broadway by 17 as one of Vernon Castle’s bevy of chorus girls. From there she appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, where she gained widespread attention for her buoyant, sexy charm. Then came a contract at Universal for her film debut in To Have and to Hold. Under director Robert Z. Leonard, she starred in eight films through their Tiffany Productions at MGM. With titles like Peacock Alley, Fascination, and Jazzmania, they featured Murray as actress-dancer exotically costumed in baroque ensembles of peacock feathers, beadings, and bull’s horns. Alas, the Tiffany features are either forgotten and/or lost to time and neglect. It’s a shame, for Leonard was as important to Murray as von Sternberg was to Dietrich. Her career pinnacle arrived in 1925 with the title role in The Merry Widow. Her spats with director Erich von Stroheim were legendary, but years later this was the one she fought to keep in the public eye.
Ankerich’s fastidious research leaves the conclusion that Murray was petty, vain, delusional, and perhaps even slow-witted. If there was a poor decision to be made, Mae made it. She married for money very young, and dumped the guy when he didn’t deliver the goods. Her second marriage fell apart so fast reporters barely knew it happened. Her third marriage, to her Tiffany partner Robert Z. Leonard, lasted as long as their professional union was solid. Her fourth collapsed when she learned her husband was a fortune hunter, not a Georgian prince as advertised.
She threw public tantrums, and found some kind of solace from marital and/or professional injustices by repeat litigation. The talkies did her no favors, her florid style clashing with the microphone. In 1931’s Bachelor Apartment, she is a bespangled over-emotive anachronism next to a lovely young Irene Dunne. On the advice of her “manager” and fourth husband, she walked out on Louis B. Mayer at MGM. That would kill anyone’s career, and in Murray’s case, it exiled her to vaudeville. It must have been a dispiriting spectacle to witness a former silent film star treading the boards when everyone knew both her and her stage genre had appointments with extinction.
A certain “she made this movie and Variety said that, then she made that movie and Variety said this” rhythm sets in to Ankerich’s prose, but with some irony, Murray’s story gains interest after her career hits the skids. In her decline we see a cavalcade of show business neuroses. She had a fear of aging, yet insisted on maintaining, not updating, her image. Her many court appearances look like surrogate film performances, with opportunities to face the flashbulbs in movie star glad rags. There was a custody battle between her and a husband, with their son adopted by a surgeon and his wife. Murray by then had lost most of her money and scruples, becoming ever more moody and reclusive.
Ankerich recounts scenes in Murray’s later life that ache with pathos. Murray had once mentored Loretta Young. Broke in the 1950s, Murray paid a visit to her old protégé, then a lavishly successful TV star. Murray needed money, and Young wrote a check. Living in the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, a confused Mae boarded a Greyhound bus for New York. She got off in St. Louis, believing she had arrived, and wandered the streets without an identity. The Salvation Army took her in and determined that the addled old woman with the corn-yellow hair once danced with Valentino and Gilbert. Right up to her death in 1965, she maintained a once a star, always a star attitude against an indifferent world.
Murray’s story fuels the idea that Hollywood is a place of monstrously large lives taking gruesome crash landing through bankruptcy, infidelity, addictions, and career failings. It’s not pretty, be it Murray or Judy Garland or Lindsay Lohan. In Murray’s case, she doesn’t appear to have ever been a warm or compassionate person, so while we may pity her, there’s no sense of great injustice. It’s a terrifying spectacle, really, all about a self-made woman who lived and died by her own delusions.