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STARRLIGHT Mae Murray
by Steve Starr
2009-02-11

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"Once you become a star, you are always a star!"

Mae Murray, the beautiful, glamorous and famous Hollywood icon who told the press, "Once you become a star, you are always a star," was ultimately found destitute at the age of 75, aimlessly wandering the streets of St Louis, Mo.

Marie Adrienne Koenig was born of Austrian-Belgian parentage May 7, 1889, in Portsmouth, Va. Years later, she told everyone she was born Mae Murray, " [ o ] n my father's boat, whilst we were at sea." The imaginative and ethereal Murray also stated that a great-grandmother had raised her, placing her in several European convents. While in one of the churchyards, she told, she was punished for dancing in the gardens at night—pretending to be a firefly and striking matches as she fluttered through the grounds.

In 1906, the stunning young performer made her Broadway debut in About Town. Murray then danced in three editions of the Ziegfeld Follies: in 1907 as the partner of the famous Vernon Castle, and alone in 1909 and 1915. Murray also appeared in numerous other musical comedy roles and headlined performances in fashionable New York supper clubs. Still in her teens, she married W.N. Shwenker, Jr., the son of a millionaire. Murray got out of that marriage with some funds, and secured her second husband, theatre producer Jay O'Brien—a stockbroker and Olympic bobsled champion known as the "Beau Brummel" of Broadway, who proved to be helpful in her stage career.

After dumping O'Brien, Muray became involved with gigolo tango dancer Signor Rodolfo, the future Rudolph Valentino, in the Bianca DeSaulles murder case that made world headlines. Gorgeous socialite DeSaulles shot her husband dead a few months after their bitter divorce trial, in which Bianca's lover, Signor Rodolfo, testified against Mr. DeSaulles. The husband later had Rodolfo thrown in jail on trumped-up charges; the bail was paid by Murray, who soon had the good fortune to marry movie director Robert Z. Leonard. Rodolfo, his reputation dragged through the mud, smartly hightailed it out of New York to the West, and to future immortality.

The Leonards lived in a beautiful apartment at 1 W. 67th in New York. During this union she found her true destiny as a movie queen, and made her film debut in the East Coast filmed To Have And To Hold ( 1916 ) . Blonde and sensuous, standing five-foot-three with blue-gray eyes, the hideously arrogant Murray was completely obsessed with her beauty. She became famous for the extreme and unusual application of her lipstick, soon copied by millions of fans, and was widely known as "The Girl With The Bee-Stung Lips," a title of which she tried to claim exclusive copyright. Often seen zipping through town in her custom-built Canary Yellow Pierce Arrow, the star was always opulently dressed and dripping in jewels. Once, reportedly, when purchasing some jewelry at Tiffany's, she paid for it with tiny bags filled with gold dust.

The Leonards moved to Hollywood, where Murray requested her friend Rodolfo—now calling himself Rodolfo Valentino—for roles in two of her films, both made in 1919: The Big Little Person and The Delicious Little Devil. Murray's husband felt the cinema lovemaking was a bit too real and forced her to end her association with the man who would become the world's most famous star.

Murray's films included The Right To Love ( 1920 ) , The Gilded Lily ( 1921 ) , The French Doll ( 1923 ) , Jazzmania ( 1923 ) , Circe The Enchantress ( 1924 ) and Fashions Row ( 1924 ) . One critic wrote of her film, Mademoiselle Midnight ( 1924 ) , "More of Mae Murray's fuss and feathers thinly described as acting. This time Mae has her histrionic hysterics in Mexico. The general blurred impression given by the picture is this: Mae Murray-large mountains-Mae Murray-midnight love trysts-Mae Murray-a weird fandango by somebody described as a screen star-Mae Murray-cowboys having spasms-Mae Murray." The public, however, loved her. The exquisite and elaborate costuming she insisted upon often brought her movies in way over their budget. Yet, Murray danced her way to even greater heights of fame in Erich Von Stroheim's The Merry Widow ( 1926 ) . During the filming, their artistic differences and verbal brawls became an infamous Hollywood legend. She often referred to her director as "that dirty little Hun," which she brazenly called him in front of a thousand extras dressed for a ballroom scene. One day her co-star, John Gilbert, walked off the set during one of his own disputes with Stroheim, and the tenuous Murray chased after him to the parking lot while wearing nothing at all but her shoes. Also during filming, the very young Joan Crawford often watched and studied Murray intently, learning how to be a star. The Merry Widow became MGM's first big box-office hit. The movie was extraordinary, with lavish production values and gorgeous photography. Mae Murray gave the best performance of her career, and then toured the nation holding lucrative performances of her Merry Widow Waltz. She followed this film success with Valencia ( 1926 ) .

One of Murray's glamorous screen rivals, Gloria Swanson, married the Marquis Henri de la Falaise de Coudray, and became royalty. This infuriated the jealous Murray, who wanted to become royalty, too. Dumping her third husband, Murray married broke Ukrainian Prince David Mdivani in 1926—although his royal status in his native Georgia was never truly established. The headline-producing ceremony included Rudolph Valentino, who died that same year, and his paramour, sultry star Pola Negri, Murray's other screen rival, as matron of honor. Not to be outdone by Princess Mae, and not so long after the professed love of her life died, Negri married David's equally broke brother Sergei in 1927 and became Princess Pola, as well as Princess Mae's sister-in-law. The two princesses were completely committed to the important cause of showing the world they were both above mere mortals.

With Prince David, Murray had a son named Koran. She was rarely photographed without her head swung way back, looking down her nose at her adoring husband and fans. She stated to the press, "I've always felt that my life touches another dimension." When her marriage went bad, her doctor told her, "You live in a world of your own."

Murray's sweet prince became her manager, took over her finances and insisted she walk out on her MGM contract to work independently. Soon, she found it difficult to get any roles at any studio, as sound hit Hollywood. Her final movie was Bachelor Apartment ( 1931 ) with Irene Dunne, and the world was not pleased when it heard her voice. By 1933, she was broke, ordered by the court to sell her opulent Playa del Rey estate to pay a judgement against her. Prince David now found her useless, and they soon divorced. In 1934, Murray declared bankruptcy. By September 1936, she lost custody of Koran, and the former movie temptress was spending several nights sleeping on a park bench in New York, where she was arrested for vagrancy. The owners of the 67th Street residence where she resided luxuriously years before allowed her to live in the maid's room of the building.

In 1950, back in California, Murray was asked her opinion of the great film Sunset Boulevard, which starred her old rival from the silent film days, Swanson. Murray stated, "None of us floozies was ever that nuts." Ironically, Murray was the nuttiest of them all. Walking down Sunset Boulevard with her head thrown back even further than she had done in her youth, Mae created a smoother jawline, watching the sky as she carelessly moved towards treacherous curbs and posts. At the numerous charity balls she would attend, Murray would ordain the orchestra to play the theme song from The Merry Widow soundtrack, waltzing to it by herself until all the elegant guests left the floor. In 1959, a biography of her life appeared, The Self Enchanted by Jane Ardmore, but the public was not interested. In 1961, she appeared on a television program where she stated that the only present-day movie star who matched the talents of her time was the handsome Steve Reeves, famous for playing Hercules.

In 1964, living off charity and devoted friends, the poor deluded Murray continually traveled by transcontinental bus from coast to coast on a self promoted publicity tour, hoping for a comeback in movies. On the last of these excursions, she lost herself during a stopover in Kansas City, Missouri, and wandered to St. Louis. The Salvation Army found her and sent her back to her small Hollywood apartment near the Chinese Theatre, paid for by actor George Hamilton.

Murray's millions of dollars had been spent during a bitter life filled with lawsuits over salary agreements, damages, divorces and bankruptcies. Some of Murray's old friends made sure the still regally dressed and bejeweled star spent her last days in peace at the Motion Picture Country House where she often told the nurses, "I am Mae Murray, the Princess Mdivani." She died in peace March 23, 1965.

During the height of the depression of the 1930s, which had wiped away many fortunes, Murray gave an interview lucidly describing the gods and goddesses of her Hollywood days: "We were like dragonflies. We seemed to be suspended effortlessly in the air, but in reality our wings were beating very, very fast."

Sources:

—The Movie Stars by Richard Griffith

—The Movies by Richard Griffith

—They Had Faces Then by John D. Springer and Jack D. Hamilton

—Mae Murray Web sites

Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, writer, designer and artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios.

Steve Starr's column and photos, STARRLIGHT, appear in various publications including IMAGE Chicago Magazine, Entertainment Magazine Online

EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Windy City Times, Nightspots, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, Via Times Newspaper, Factio Magazine, Latin Social Events, LW Magazine and Splendor Magazine.

Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view a portion of his frame collection, read Starrlight stories, and enjoy photos, letters, and autographs that he has received from his favorite luminaries. Starr's new book, STARRLIGHT—Glamorous Latin Movie Stars of Early Hollywood—Rita Hayworth, Dolores Del Rio, Maria Montez, Carmen Miranda, and Lupe Velez will be published in 2009. Email at SSStarrlight@gmail.com

STARRLIGHT-Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-252-5171.

Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago taken Oct. 24, 2008 by Steve Wright


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