When Mae Murray died in 1965, just a couple of months shy of her 80th birthday, there were still many people around who had seen her in movies with titles like “The Delicious Little Devil” and “The Gilded Lily,” and probably even a few very-old-timers who had seen her perform in the Ziegfeld Follies. But today, except for a few devotees of silent movies such as Michael G. Ankerich, there aren’t many who could tell you with any confidence who she was and what she starred in.
She was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1885 as Anna Mary Koenig, but not only her name but also her birth year were to change: She eventually claimed to have been born in 1898, which, as Ankerich points out, would have meant that she was 10 years old when she appeared in “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1908.” She became Mae Murray when she started looking for stage work as a dancer in her teens, taking her first name from the month of her birth and her last from Murray’s, a favorite restaurant on 42nd Street.
Her vivacity and her dancing skill made her a success on stage, which led to work in films, and by 1917 she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars. A publicist who noted the unusual shape of her mouth crafted an image for her: “By 1917,” Ankerich tells us, “Mae’s bee-stung lips were being compared to Douglas Fairbanks’s smile, Ethel Barrymore’s poise, and Maude Adams’s wistfulness.” It certainly didn’t hurt Murray’s career that she had an affair with and eventually married director Robert Z. Leonard. From 1916 through 1924, when they divorced, they made 25 films together. As Murray aged, Leonard carefully hid her wrinkles and crow’s feet by photographing her through gauze filters. The director Jack Conway once claimed, “Mae was photographed through a blanket.”
In 1925, Murray made the one film for which she is still remembered: Erich von Stroheim’s “The Merry Widow,” a silent version of Franz Lehar’s operetta. She had been spoiled by her cozy working relationship with Leonard, so it’s not surprising that she fought bitterly as Stroheim, in Ankerich’s words, “tore away at her artificial gestures” and “found an honest-to-God actress underneath the tinsel and temper.” But instead of pointing a new direction for her career, “The Merry Widow” was virtually the end of it. She made seven more features, three of them talkies, and by 1931 her film career was over.
In June 1926 she married David Mdivani, a fortune-hunter whose family had fled Georgia after the Bolshevik revolution. He claimed to be a prince, which may have reminded her of Count Danilo, the character played by John Gilbert in “The Merry Widow,” but Mdivani was also apparently the father of the child she had secretly given birth to in Paris six months earlier. The existence of the boy, christened Koran Mdivani, was not made public until 1928. Having found his fortune, David Mdivani proceeded to help Murray squander it, and the couple became tangled up in lawsuits. In 1933 they divorced. Murray’s fortunes declined to the point that when Koran became seriously ill, she was unable to pay the medical bills. She handed the boy over to the physician, Daniel Cunning, who treated him. Koran was raised by the doctor’s family after a trial that exposed Murray’s indigence and eccentricity and gave the Cunnings legal custody. Renamed Daniel Michael Cunning, he did not see his mother again until she was on her deathbed.
In her impoverished old age, Murray often wandered around in shabby finery, humming Lehar’s “Merry Widow” waltz, still convinced that she was universally adored. Her unreliable memoir, published in 1959, was aptly titled “The Self-Enchanted.” “I am not a realist by nature, and for me to try and become one would only make me acutely unhappy. . . . I have lived as much as possible in a world of fancy,” she once said. Murray, Ankerich comments, “always felt safest when allowed to live in her fanciful, imaginary world where everything and everyone rotated around her.”
Ankerich diligently sifts the truth from the myths that Murray created about herself, but he often throws his narrative out of shape with a welter of details, including the plots of Murray’s films, that distract from his book’s inherent drama. If Billy Wilder hadn’t made the definitive movie about the delusions of stardom in “Sunset Boulevard,” Murray’s story, a blend of absurdity and pathos, would make a terrific one.
The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips
By Michael G. Ankerich
Univ. Press of Kentucky. 376 pp. $40