By Steve Starr
Mae Murray, the glamorous, famous, and beautiful Hollywood icon who told the press, “Once you become a star, you are always a star!” was found destitute at the age of 75, aimlessly wandering the streets of St Louis, Missouri.
Marie Adrienne Koenig was born of Austrian-Belgian parentage May 7, 1889, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Years later, she told everyone she was born Mae Murray, "On my father's boat, whilst we were at sea."
The imaginative and ethereal Mae 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. The dazzling Murray also appeared in numerous other musical comedy roles and headlined performances in fashionable New York supper clubs.
Still in her teens, Mae married W.N. Shwenker Jr., the son of a millionaire. She got out of that marriage with some funds, and secured her second husband, producer Jay O'Brien, a stockbroker and Olympic bobsled champion known as the "Beau Brummel" of Broadway, and who proved to be helpful in Murray's stage career.
Only days after their highly publicized wedding, and soon after her involvement with Rodolfo Guglielmi, a dancer billed as Signor Rodolfo who was later to become Rudolph Valentino, in the De Saules affair in New York in which Valentino's socialite lover shot her husband to death for him, she dumped Jay and had the good fortune to marry Hollywood director Robert Z. Leonard. They lived in a beautiful apartment at 1 West 67th Street in New York. With 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 Miss 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.
In Hollywood, 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) as “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 loved her. The exquisite and elaborate costuming she insisted upon often brought her movies in way over their budget. Yet, Mae 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 magnificently 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 Murray, who wanted to become royalty too. Dumping her third husband, Murray found and married broke Ukrainian Prince David Mdivani in 1926. 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, Mae'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 above mere mortals.
With Prince David, Murray had a son named Koran. Princess Mae 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.”
Mae’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. Sound film 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 of 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, Mae Murray was asked her opinion of the great film Sunset Boulevard, which starred her old rival from the silent film days, Gloria Swanson. Mae stated, “None of us floozies was ever that nuts.” Ironically, Mae 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, Mae 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..
Mae Murray’s millions of dollars had been spent during a bitter life filled with lawsuits over salary agreements, damages, divorces, and bankruptcies. Some of Mae’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,” and died in peace March 23, 1965.
During the height of the depression of the 1930’s, which had wiped away many fortunes, Mae 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.”
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 websites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, artist and designer, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco artifacts and photo frames, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood’s most elegant stars.
Steve Starr’s column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, appears in various publications including Entertainment Magazine Online, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
Visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room, and see part of his collection, read Starrlight stories, and enjoy photos, autographs and letters he has received from some of his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to several publications, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. For further information phone 773-463-8017. Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2006, by Patrick Hipskind
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