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Mae Murray

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips

Michael G. Ankerich
Foreword by Kevin Brownlow
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 392
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jckn1
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  • Book Info
    Mae Murray
    Book Description:

    Mae Murray (1885--1965), popularly known as "the girl with the bee-stung lips," was a fiery presence in silent-era Hollywood. Renowned for her classic beauty and charismatic presence, she rocketed to stardom as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies, moving across the country to star in her first film, To Have and to Hold, in 1916. An instant hit with audiences, Murray soon became one of the most famous names in Tinseltown.

    However, Murray's moment in the spotlight was fleeting. The introduction of talkies, a string of failed marriages, a serious career blunder, and a number of bitter legal battles left the former star in a state of poverty and mental instability that she would never overcome.

    In this intriguing biography, Michael G. Ankerich traces Murray's career from the footlights of Broadway to the klieg lights of Hollywood, recounting her impressive body of work on the stage and screen and charting her rapid ascent to fame and decline into obscurity. Featuring exclusive interviews with Murray's only son, Daniel, and with actor George Hamilton, whom the actress closely befriended at the end of her life, Ankerich restores this important figure in early film to the limelight.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3691-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Kevin Brownlow

    Research can be disturbing. You expect to read an uplifting story of ambition and artistry, and you instead find yourself enmeshed in a psychiatric casebook. We demand too much of artists, even when we know their personalities are in sharp variance to their art. One great nineteenth-century painter was so abusive to his models that he used to throw them down the stairs, yet we all gasp with admiration at the delicacy and humanity of Edgar Degas’s work.

    Mae Murray wasn’t violent, but she makes you thinkSunset Boulevardwas a documentary. When she saw the picture, she is supposed...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    “How are you going to introduce me?” the woman in the blonde wig and picture hat asked through her red bee-stung lips. She lifted her head and waited for him to speak.

    It was in the early 1960s, and Miles Kreuger had collected the former star from the ramshackle Royalton Hotel on Forty-Fourth Street in Manhattan half an hour before. They were now seated around a microphone at the WBAI-FM radio station, where Kreuger was preparing to interview her live in five minutes. He had had difficult guests in the past, but this one was making him particularly nervous. Kreuger...

  5. 1 Untangling Mae Murray’s Tangled Beginnings 1885–1899
    (pp. 7-13)

    Carol Lee, writing forMotion Picturesmagazine in 1917, found extracting biographical data from stage and film star Mae Murray akin to “trying to chain butterflies.”¹

    “To begin with, everything, or nearly everything that has been written about her, is wrong,” Delight Evans, writing forPhotoplay,warned her readers in 1920. “They say she is Irish. She isn’t. They have said she cultivates persistently the mental attitude of a boarding school child who only went to a theatre once or twice—and then to see Julia Marlowe and E. H. Sothern in their Shakespearean repertoire.

    “They say she has a...

  6. 2 Dancing into the New Century 1900–1907
    (pp. 15-17)

    Fifteen-year-old Anna Mary Koenig danced her way into the new century and never looked back. It was through dancing that she was able to forget her dreary beginnings.

    “Dancing, of course, is second nature to me,” she later said. “I have danced since my birth—almost—and I can imagine myself dancing to the brink of the grave. It spells the joy of living to me. In dancing I can lose myself from the sorrows of the world.”¹

    The teenager began hanging around stage doors “with my wistful little soul in my eye,” she said. “I wanted to see how...

  7. 3 Ziegfeld and the Millionaire 1908–1911
    (pp. 19-27)

    Mae’s initial reluctance in meeting Florenz Ziegfeld stemmed from perceptions that she and many of her friends held about theatrical giants and their female stowaways. She was careful not to develop into one of the showgirls who, as actress Barbara Barondess so wittily said to me, “dances on one leg, then the other, and manages to make a living in between them.”¹

    Would Ziegfeld give her a job only to steal her innocence, tarnish her reputation, and damage her self-confidence and pride? Maybe so, but that evening in the lobby of the Knickerbocker Theatre, Mae was cornered.

    “Why haven’t you...

  8. 4 Life Is a Cabaret 1912–1914
    (pp. 29-37)

    The lives of Mae Murray and the other members of the Chorus Ladies’ Anti-Millionaires’ Sons Amalgamated Union took varied courses.

    The career of Edna Loftus derailed after her divorce from Harry Rheinstrom. She died in poverty in 1916 and would have been buried in a potter’s field had it not been for the intervention of friends. Vita Whitmore’s career fizzled, but she managed to reel in another millionaire. Upon her death in 1978, she bequeathed $5 million to Columbia University. Believing the old adage that practice makes perfect, Lady Betty Chapman focused on matrimony and finally landed a millionaire from...

  9. 5 From Footlights to Kliegs 1915
    (pp. 39-46)

    Mae had plenty of trepidation about breathing new life into the Sans Souci. Vernon and Irene Castle had tried the previous year to reopen the basement club beneath the Heidelberg Building, but with their limited experience in club management, including the city’s concerns about fire codes, they abandoned the venture, and the business folded by the spring of 1914. Mae felt she was a dancer, not a businesswoman. She had never been a smart manager of money; she often made poor, unsound business decisions when on her own. She did, however, have enormous faith in herself and her talent.

    Paul...

  10. 6 The Disillusions of a Dream Girl 1916
    (pp. 47-61)

    When actress Madge Bellamy arrived in Hollywood after a stint on the New York stage, she was ready to turn on her heel and catch the next train home. “I was frightfully disappointed and disillusioned,” she said. “I had it built up in my mind that it was as large as New York, and you can imagine coming from all those tall buildings to one street of one-story buildings.” Eleanor Boardman, covered in soot from the cinders that blew in her face on her train ride from New York, stepped out of the station and was overwhelmed by the fragrance...

  11. 7 Ready for My Close-Ups, Mr. Lasky! 1917
    (pp. 63-68)

    Mae Murray had anything but a merry little Christmas in 1916 after her alleged forced marriage to Jay O’Brien and her hellacious honeymoon. She claimed to have had only one more encounter with her socialite husband after the ceremony. It was a few days after New Year’s 1917 that he stopped by her Hollywood apartment for what turned out to be a two-hour quarrel. Intoxicated, he choked her, slapped her face, and flung her across a trunk. Mae was finished with him. He returned to New York to lure another sucker.

    A month after their marriage and immediate separation, the...

  12. 8 The Delicious Little Mae 1918–1919
    (pp. 69-87)

    In March 1915 Carl Laemmle opened the world’s largest motion picture production facility, Universal City Studios, on a 230-acre converted farm just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. Under Laemmle’s leadership, Universal thrived. In 1915 alone the studio produced more than 250 films, most of them two-reelers and serials. The studio developed three brands: Red Feather programmers, Bluebird, and Jewel, the studio’s most prestigious releases.

    When Mae signed with Universal, she joined a roster of some of Hollywood’s most popular actresses: Priscilla Dean, Ruth Clifford, Carmel Myers, Mary MacLaren, Louise Lovely, Ella Hall, Violet Mersereau, and Dorothy Phillips.

    James Bryson,...

  13. 9 On with the Dance 1920
    (pp. 89-99)

    Emerging from World War I physically unscathed and economically strong, the United States became a nation on the move. Cultural blinders were discarded, and aging sojourners from the Victorian Age roared into the 1920s with twinkles in their eyes. The country seemed to be shedding its stilted ways like a snake sheds its skin. It was an exuberant time to be an American.

    “Only rarely does the national life change this fast,” wrote James Traub inThe Devil’s Playground.“It did so in the late 1910s and early 1920s because so many things happened at once—the stock market boom,...

  14. 10 Strutting Like a Peacock through Tiffany’s 1921–1922
    (pp. 101-119)

    When the S.S.Olympicsailed into New York Harbor on September 15, 1920, Mae Murray emerged from the ship a bigger star than ever.On with the Dancehad set into motion a new excitement and energy surrounding the tiny movie queen. Her following of fans, a large percentage of them women, were ever curious about this dancing star. They wanted to know what was next for the golden-haired goddess. They studied her fashions, her hairstyle, and her makeup, and they were curious about her personal life, including where and how she lived. Despite the critics, who were not always...

  15. 11 Mae the Enchantress 1923–1924
    (pp. 121-139)

    “What do you do when things go wrong?” the frustrated reporter asked, trying in vain to pull from Mae Murray some shred of truth about her inner self. She was, he informed his readers, “fastidious, charming in an impersonal, noncommittal way.” Their conversation went this way:

    Mae: I never admit that things are going wrong.

    Reporter: But nobody can get everything the way they want it—when they want it.

    Mae: No, that’s true. But everyone can refuse to look at an unattractive picture. I have always thought in pictures. When I was a little girl I used to go...

  16. 12 The Merry Widow and the Dirty Hun May 1924–March 1925
    (pp. 141-155)

    Although the making ofThe Merry Widowwas akin to tactical warfare, Mae Murray never tired of talking about the picture over the years. In fact, it became an obsession. “The Merry Widow,well, it belongs to me and I belong to it,” she said in a radio interview in 1960. The interviewer asked about her legendary battles with the film’s director, Erich von Stroheim. Murray tried to explain by turning the questioning back to her interviewer. “What is the highest thing in your life?” Mae asked, then continued. “I fight for the highest thing that I worship, and I...

  17. 13 From Merry Widow to Gay Divorcée 1925
    (pp. 157-172)

    When Mae’s New York–bound train pulled into Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Sunday, March 15, a local reporter asked for an interview. Although she declined to allow the writer into her private compartment, she held the door open long enough to provide some details about her plans. Mae said that she had booked a passage to Europe for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Although she had no definite plans, she said she would use her time abroad to “pick material for her next picture.”¹

    Before boarding the R.M.S.Berengariain New York on March 25, Mae cabled her husband that...

  18. 14 Princess Mdivani 1926
    (pp. 173-187)

    When Mae Murray married Prince David Mdivani in June 1926 and claimed her place among Hollywood royals, Princess Mdivani’s friends and family felt she was harboring a dark secret—a revelation that, if brought to light, would so tarnish her tinsel that she would never work in Tinseltown again. Her brother, William, speculated that his sister had been “knocked up” while in Europe.¹ The talk around Hollywood was that a reckless Mae became pregnant while overseas the previous year, refused to get an abortion, and had quietly given birth in January 1926. The baby, a boy, waited for her in...

  19. 15 The Lion’s Roar, the Baby’s Cry 1927
    (pp. 189-200)

    The roar of the lion came quietly in the form of telegrams from Louis B. Mayer and Nicholas Schenck ordering Mae back to Hollywood—or else! Or else what? Mae had always called the shots; she had always gotten her way when she felt threatened or when her back was against the wall. She’d never been afraid of the big guys in the front office. This time, Mae didn’t lash back.

    When she crossed the Atlantic in mid-November, Mae Murray never intended to return to MGM. AfterValencia,Mae later said she had promised David Mdivani, who did not approve...

  20. 16 A World of Cheap Imitation 1928
    (pp. 201-214)

    Mae Murray, now a princess, was close to completing the fairy tale. She was married to a hot-blooded lover whose blood she thought ran blue, and she had a toddler to carry on the Mdivani lineage.

    Before she could write the final chapter—the part where they all live happily ever after—Mae was shocked to reality with the news that her vast fortune had dwindled to startling lows since her marriage to her Prince Charming.

    The news came in the summer of 1927 as they were preparing to sink money into a palace overlooking the Loire in France. Her...

  21. 17 The Sound of Bee-Stung Lips 1929–1931
    (pp. 215-233)

    Mae Murray was in no rush to cross that perilous cavern between silents and talking pictures. Four years before, Mae was among the constellation of Hollywood’s biggest and most successful stars. When she walked away from her MGM contract, Louis B. Mayer vowed she would never work in Hollywood again. Her glimmering star fell from the heavens. Her fans caught the falling star, and Mae basked in their adulation for the next three years while she traipsed back and forth across the country on the vaudeville stage, giving fans a chance to see her up close and in person. The...

  22. 18 Oh, Brother! 1932
    (pp. 235-241)

    After the confrontation between Mae and her sister-in-law, Ann King, in front of the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles in late 1929, Mae cut off all communication with her brother, William, and his family. She now had severe financial worries of her own.

    William, battling alcoholism, kept his wife and sons from the streets by driving a taxi when he was able. In November 1931, just days before Thanksgiving, William and Ann turned to the Assistance League in desperation. County welfare officials visited the King house on North Bronson Avenue in Hollywood and declared that the family of four were...

  23. 19 From a Prince to a Toad 1933
    (pp. 243-249)

    It was in 1933 that Mae Murray went from riches to rags—not overnight, of course, but it was certainly a turning point in her life when everything she had amassed over the years, the status symbols of being a movie star, were taken or sold to pay debts. The reversal of fortune was a sober awakening to Mae, who was happiest when living in an insulated world of wealth and privilege.

    The first to go was her pink stucco palace on the beach in Playa del Rey. During the foreclosure, Mae released her house staff and brought in an...

  24. 20 Losing Koran 1934–1940
    (pp. 251-269)

    With Koran in tow, Mae fled to New York in hopes of reviving her faltering career. While skidding out of control in her personal and professional life, the ex-princess clung to those she had always felt she owed a debt: her adoring public. “They’re part of me and I’m part of them,” she never tired of saying. Mae had no concept of the passing parade, or that her adoring public had moved on to other idols. Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, mere extras inThe Merry Widowalmost ten years before, were now top movie stars. Ann Pennington and Fanny...

  25. 21 Outliving Fame 1941–1957
    (pp. 271-283)

    Mae turned her sights from her son and focused her energy on someone who had never let her down, the most important person in her life: Mae Murray.

    “I think that you’re only somebody where people see you,” she said late in life. “Mae Murray is just a name, until you begin to be seen. Then, people say, ‘That is Mae Murray,’ then you become an entity. They can picture you, and you’re there, in their vision. Otherwise, you’re non-existent. That’s how I feel about myself.”¹

    As time moved from the painful custody fight, Mae spoke more and more of...

  26. 22 Self-Enchantment 1958–1960
    (pp. 285-290)

    Part of Mae’s plan to polish the tinsel that shimmered over Hollywood had to do with telling the life story of the greatest actress who ever lived—Mae Murray. She had pitched the idea to numerous agents, studios, and directors since the early 1940s.

    Mike Connolly, columnist for theHollywood Reporter,revealed that Mae had originally asked him to collaborate with her on her memoirs. “I bowed out as gracefully as I could because of her unwillingness to acknowledge dates of any kind,” he recalled.¹

    According to writer Jane Ardmore, Mae zeroed in on the William Morris Agency for the...

  27. 23 A Star in Twilight 1961–1965
    (pp. 291-302)

    When paramedics arrived at 628 South Ardmore Avenue and began working on the lifeless star, they detected a faint heartbeat and rushed Mae to Central Receiving Hospital, where she was revived.

    She had had a stroke. When stable, Mae was moved to the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills. Well wishes trickled in from admirers. Producer David O. Selznick sent flowers and a note. “You are well and fondly remembered by all in the motion picture industry and I am sure I speak for not only thousands of your old Hollywood friends, but also for millions of the public,...

  28. Epilogue
    (pp. 303-306)

    Mae Murray, who had earned as much as $7,500 a week and lived like a queen during her heyday, died broke. In the absence of a will, her paltry estate was turned over to the state of California’s public administrator. Her personal property—several suitcases containing photographs, a box of costumes, and other cartons containing various scripts, personal items, and mementos—were removed from storage. One of Koran’s math tests and a valentine he made for her as a child were among her things. Her meager possessions were sold at auction to various collectors. After commissions and fees were deducted,...

  29. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 307-310)
  30. Professional Theater
    (pp. 311-322)
  31. Filmography
    (pp. 323-336)
  32. Notes
    (pp. 337-360)
  33. Bibliography
    (pp. 361-364)
  34. Index
    (pp. 365-376)
  35. Back Matter
    (pp. 377-380)