Review by Mel Neuhaus, film writer for Examiner.com.
MAE MURRAY: THE GIRL WITH THE BEE-STUNG LIPS by Michael G. Ankerich
Let’s cut to the chase. By that I mean let me begin by stating that this biography is an awesome work that boggled my cinema-addicted mind. I don’t offer faux praise for nothing. The subject is possibly the most celebrated elusive character in the history of motion pictures. Mae Murray was one of the major stars of the silent era – a trend-setter, an icon – a model/idol for strong women who aspired to imitate her. Joan Crawford worshiped her; ditto Louise Brooks. Girls worldwide wanted to dress like her, dance like her. Why so secretive? Mae’s deadliest sin was her vanity, and despite her gorgeous looks, was nearly 40 when she made her landmark film The Merry Widow. To call her a master of the cover-up is an understatement. She effectively destroyed all traces of her lower East side New York roots. As many as two dozen different stories of her birth and upbringing filled fan magazines for decades – mostly fabricated by Murray herself. She left no paper trail – astonishing since she was a Follies star in 1906, which, according to her accounts, would have made her a ten-year old Ziegfeld girl. I personally know several established writers who futilely attempted to tackle Mae as a bio subject…and all valiantly failed – throwing up their arms in frustrated defeat. There just wasn’t any factual material out there. Until now.
That’s why this book is so astounding. Mr. Ankerich must have spent decades researching this fantastic volume. He not only gives us the truth of Ms. Murray’s youth, but reveals why she opted to spiral into the weird lifestyle she inhabited. We learn about her parents and her brothers (which up to now few even knew existed!). Ankerich even tracked down her family’s survivors – and got some incredible warts-‘n-all interviews!
Here is an outstanding story of a woman whose many fashionable hats included Follies girl, Jazz Age baby and motion picture superstar before sadly sinking into dementia (becoming a victim of her own delusions of grandeur). Mae Murray not only personified the Jazz Age (she’s the one who introduced the bee-stung lip look, which, to this day, identifies the fashionable females of the era), but served as a warning application of the age-old adage “don’t wish too hard for something…”
Many believe that Murray was yet another casualty of sound. But it wasn’t that simple. Mae wasn’t done in by talkies (she was actually not bad in the few she appeared in). Mae Murray was her own worst enemy. Even in her youth she lived in a make believe fairy tale world. She was as far from reality as oil is from water. That seemed to work when she was in vogue, but later seemed to peg her as the role model for Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Truth be told, she wasn’t – it was actually worse. In effect, Mae Murray, in her later years was a hybrid of the most horrific of silent diva borderline insanity: part Norma Desmond, part Baby Jane Hudson. She once stated that she was the biggest star at MGM. She probably was; but it was Mae who walked out on Metro to pursue life as a bogus princess with one of the notorious ‘marrying’ Mdivanis. All silent goddesses seemed to crave a royal title – and like Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri, Murray succumbed to the charms of a fake Prince, so she could further live out her dreamworld existence. The ‘prince’ quickly stripped her of her bank account, her career (Louis B. Mayer’s not-a-promise-but-a-threat truism of “walk out on me and you’ll never work in this town again!” decree) and what was left of her sanity.
It’s obvious from Ankerich’s slant that he wants to like Mae Murray – but his painting the factual tapestry of her life pretty much denies this. Mae Murray was a beauty to be sure. She was also a magnificent dancer. And, while she had that special something that the camera loves – she was never much of an actress (her demands of way too many pouting and primping close-ups were the subject of much parody, even at the time of her greatest fame); but that didn’t matter…she was a star. That said, even her most ardent admirers admit that, in addition to the bee-stung flapper, she is likely to be have been the inventor the Hollywood prima donna. It took a genius like von Stroheim to finally get a great performance out of her – and although, like everyone she clashed with – their relationship was a difficult one – the 1925 Merry Widow firmly entrenched MGM as the premiere studio in Hollywood (as much due to Murray – as to von Stroheim and co-star John Gilbert). Murray made life hell for almost everyone she encountered including her numerous lovers (with Valentino perhaps being a notable exception), co-workers, family members and dwindling friends. Her promiscuity perfectly fit in to her mist-enshrouded mind; her son, conceived while she conquered the boudoirs of Europe was thought to be the result of coupling with the iniquitous groom-to-be Mdivani. While this is indeed possible, no one – not even Mae – could correctly guarantee that this was the case.
Few crossed Mae Murray; as celebrated for her grace on the dance floor and movie screen, she was also infamous for her suing offenders at the drop of a chapeau (and everyone on the planet was apparently a potential offender). Her lawsuits were legion – and quickly became a joke within the movie colony and overall show business community. Love her or hate her, Mae Murray was an original – and this book is a real keeper.
Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips works on many levels. For those who know of her, it’s a revelation. At last a reliable narrative of her life. The voluminous footnotes alone are a treasure trove for hardcore classic movie fans. But for readers simply intrigued by her looks, the era and cinema in general – this book unfolds a jaw-dropping chronicle of an amazing person in an amazing era…actually many amazing eras (New York City in the 1880s-Hollywood from the 1920s-1960s). The high level of the research cannot be applauded enough. The segment on the making and production of The Merry Widow alone is worth the purchase. Utilizing reader’s reports, unpublished memoirs of Hollywood players and more could in-and-of-itself constitute a separate book (the ego-driven battles between such formidable opponents as Murray, von Stroheim, Gilbert, L.B. Mayer and Thalberg is an engrossing tale that makes one wonder how the movie ever got completed at all!). So biography aside, this is an excellent examination of the beginnings of serious filmmaking – the birth of Hollywood – and thus becomes extremely valuable as an historical document of the most talked about industry of the 20th century.
Available early December 2012