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MARY ASTOR, MEET LITTLE ME By Peter Filichia

There it was in a used bookstore, a fifty-cent paperback that had
been released in 1960, now understandably tattered.

But my eyebrows zoomed up as high as an elephant’s forehead when
I saw this copy of MY STORY by Mary Astor.

Whoa! I’d long heard that this was the great grandma of tell-all
books. So I paid my quarter and started reading.

As it turned out, MY STORY didn’t remotely tell-all, not compared to
all the dirt that Christina Crawford, Frank Langella and Christopher
Plummer dispensed in their memoirs. Astor did mention that her
lovers included John Barrymore, Samuel Goldwyn and George S.
Kaufman as well as lesser men, but she was particularly dry on juicy
details. True, she did admit “I was not at all clear about sin.” (Well,
that much seems clear after a few pages.) But the best we can call
the book is a name-all.

Not many pages into it, I began to suspect that MY STORY was the
inspiration for Patrick Dennis’ LITTLE ME.

Subtitled “The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen
and Television Belle Poitrine as Told to Patrick Dennis,” LITTLE ME is
an utterly fabricated biography of a person who never existed. It
lasted nine months on the best-seller lists and led to the musical of
the same name that opened fifty-six years ago next month.

All this time later, it still sports one of Broadway’s funniest libretti
(thanks, Neil Simon), some of its catchiest and memorable music
(congrats, Cy Coleman) and hellishly clever lyrics (hosanna, Carolyn
Leigh).

“A happy holiday of a show” (Kerr, Herald Tribune). “Sumptuous
success” (McClain, Journal American). “Three shows worth of
outrageously funny gags” (Nadel, World-Telegram; Sun). Howard Taubman of the Times didn’t much agree, although he conceded that the musical “gleams with show business savvy.”

So why were there only 257 performances? Star Sid Caesar was
fighting many drug and alcoholic demons, as he admitted in his
memoir WHERE HAVE I BEEN? His increasingly erratic performances
resulted in dirt-poor word of mouth. Luckily, the excellent original
cast album was recorded only days after the opening when Caesar
was still on his best behavior.

Back to Astor and Belle Poitrine. (If you don’t get the joke on the
latter lady’s name, that’s what Google Translate is for.) Charles Busch
in his foreword to LITTLE ME’s 2002 reissue accurately described
Dennis’ creation as a “deluded but determinedly optimistic grade-Z
movie star.” We’d call her a dim bulb, but she’s so faint that we’d say
she’s still searching for her first watt.

I can’t prove that Dennis actually read Astor’s autobiography, but in
Belle’s page of “thank-yous,” she did acknowledge “Mary, Mary,
Mary.” No, she gave no last names for them any more than she did
for the fifty-five other women (who ranged from Agnes to Zsa Zsa).

So while we are at best dealing with circumstantial evidence, there
are some striking similarities between MY STORY and Dennis’ story.
In Belle’s first chapter “A Star Is Born” (!), she wrote that she came
into the world in 1900. Her final chapter, which she established starts
in 1960, she titled “Frankly Forty.”

(Do the math. Belle didn’t.)

Astor too had her share of contradictions. She told of her conversion
to Catholicism and said “I slipped to my knees and prayed.” Only
seven pages later she wrote “I got the Church off my back.”

Later Astor declared her “blind, all-consuming fascination with Bill” –
her newest beau. A mere three pages after, she divulged that “We
discussed divorce amicably and decided to go ahead with one.”

Some Catholic! This brings up one of Belle’s funniest and most
clueless lines when she recalled NIGHTS ON THE NILE, her own
rewrite of Shaw’s CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA. Marc Antony is in love
with Cleopatra, but is married to Calpurnia. (History instead tells us
that Marc Antony had five wives, but none was named Calpurnia.)

Belle explained the conflict: “As they are both of the Roman faith,
divorce is out of the question.”

As for being “Frankly Forty,” Belle commented “Why try to ‘kid’
anyone about anything as silly as age?” You’ll note that “kid” is in
quotation marks that are quite unnecessary. Belle peppered her text
with hundreds of them encircling words and expressions. Here’s a
sample:

Drifters’ Row was the “shanty town” of Venezuela … many
“whatnots” filled with the most amazing collection of curios …
Madame Louise was not “received” by the grande dames … even in
my prim little school dresses visiting “drummers” would give me the
“onceover.”

And we’re only on page seven.

Astor’s book shows an equally generous slathering of superfluous
quotation marks:

Where was the “serenity” that the years were to bring? … I should
have some “pals” … I discovered that I must laugh loudly after a
dirty joke so everyone would be sure that I “got it” … I happily
became “one of the crowd” … He put on a “local boy” act … “Bill was
hardly a “drinker,” but after one drink …

I’d guess Dennis “took his cue” from her.

We can excuse Astor for being a little crazy. Her father was the male
version of Madame Rose Hovick — only he never wised up. Otto
Ludwig Langhanke was a thorn in his daughter’s side, front and back
right up to the day he died; the former Lucile Langhanke felt the
pricks until he did.

Without him, though, we wouldn’t have MY STORY, which gave me
some show-biz nuggets of interest. Astor mentioned that she filmed
THE WISE GUY with James Kirkwood. Just in case you assume that
he was the co-writer of A CHORUS LINE, no – this was his father, for
the movie was a 1926 silent.

Cavorting with Kaufman allowed Astor to attend a party where
George Gershwin sat at the ivories and played from his upcoming
work PORGY AND BESS. Kaufman also wanted her for his 1934 play
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, where she’d play Julia Glenn, the
prototype for Mary Flynn in the 1981 musical version.

Astor wrote that Noel Coward wanted her to star in BLITHE SPIRIT in
London, but didn’t say which role he had in mind for her. Ruth?
Elvira? Frankly, considering Astor’s dizzy nature, Madame Arcati
wouldn’t have been a stretch.

She turned down both plays, possibly because Hollywood paid more
money. It also paid her a big tribute by bestowing her with a Best
Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1941 film THE GREAT LIE. Poitrine,
needless to say, never came remotely close to achieving that honor.

Soon after, Astor experienced a steady decline in films. And when
Hollywood gives up on a star, we know what happens next. As agent
Gloria Safire told her, “You can always get a play.”

Broadway wasn’t accommodating. Astor’s first effort, MANY HAPPY
RETURNS in 1945, lasted two nights. And yet, it was literally twice as
successful as her second show, THE STARCROSS STORY, in 1954.

Astor was also offered to take over Shirley Booth’s role in THE TIME
OF THE CUCKOO, Arthur Laurents’ play that became DO I HEAR A
WALTZ?, an excellent musical (and I don’t care what Stephen
Sondheim says).

Whenever Laurents was around, could conflict be far behind? Astor
reported that he had “personal grievances against Shirley” because
“she was sacrificing his whole concept of the play in order to get laughs.” For whatever it’s worth, Astor opined that “Shirley was right.”

By page 305 of the book’s 382, Astor was down and out. The biggest
tragedy? “I couldn’t afford liquor.” That, however, wasn’t all she
wrote; in fact, she hadn’t finished the sentence which concluded with
“but I discovered that beer helped still the jitters.”

Is this so far afield from Belle’s statement that “I wanted only enough
liquor to stifle the pain until the Great Casting Director would call
little me to the Celestial Set”?

Whether or not Astor’s rest cures-religion-and-pills life inspired
Patrick Dennis (born Edward Everett Tanner III, by the way), we’re
sure of one thing: Carolyn Leigh certainly knew of MY STORY. For in
LITTLE ME’s first song “The Truth,” Belle announces that as a
memoir writer, “Mary Astor – meet your master.”

Leigh was right. On the page or on the stage, LITTLE ME is the much
more masterful work.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com.
He can be heard most weeks of the year on
www.broadwayradio.com.