“The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” – Mae Murray (1885 – 1965)

Posted in Rewind by - July 18, 2014
“The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” – Mae Murray (1885 – 1965)

“We were like dragonflies. We seemed to be suspended effortlessly in the air, but in reality, our wings were beating very, very fast.” – Mae Murray

A talented dancer and exotic beauty, Mae Murray is one of Hollywood’s best known names of the silent era. Today though, for those that do remember her, it is more so for her personal life than her movie output.

Born Marie Koenig on May 10th 1889, Mae dreamed of being a dancer from childhood, and by 17 she was on Broadway as a chorus girl, and later joined the “Ziegfeld Follies” chorus line before progressing onto silent pictures. A contract for Universal led to her screen debut in the 1916 silent drama ‘To Have and To Hold’, playing a young wife ‘bought’ by an English soldier turned explorer.
Already married and divorced twice, Mae met film director Robert Z. Leonard, and they were married in 1918. Now one of Hollywood’s highest paid stars, Mae was certainly enjoying the trappings that fame had given her, splashing out on furs and Rolls Royce convertibles. The following year Mae starred with Rudolph Valentino in the comedy-drama ‘The Delicious Little Devil’ (1919), and the two remained close friends until Valentino’s death in 1926.

Together, Murray and Leonard formed “Tiffany Productions” and made eight films together, which were mostly show-biz tales designed to make use of Murray’s dancing talents. One picture Leonard directed his wife in was ‘The Gilded Lily’ (1921), where she was well cast as a dancer in this above average showbiz saga with Jason Robards Sr. Other Leonard-directed titles included the 1922 romance ‘Broadway Rose’, and the extravagant looking ‘Jazzmania’ (’23), which was basically made to showcase Mae’s looks more than her acting flare.

Mae’s most acclaimed and fondly remembered movie was Erich von Stroheim’s 1925 adaptation of the famous operetta ‘The Merry Widow’. Mae was Sally, the ‘Merry Widow’ of the title, who loves then loses John Gilbert’s womanizing prince, before being reunited with him at he end. Many regard the movie as her best performance, and it was certainly a lavish production and a big hit at the time. Murray’s next movie saw her once again as a dancer, but also a part-time thief, in the French-setting drama ‘The Masked Bride’ (’25), which featured an early role for future Sherlock Holmes star Basil Rathbone. Around this time her marriage to Leonard collapsed and they divorced later that year.

A fourth marriage would prove to be damaging to both Murray’s career and bank balance. David Mdivani was an apparent Georgian prince, but really just a gold-digger, whom Mae married on June 27th 1926. He soon became her new manager and unwisely advised Murray to walk out on her MGM contract. Studio head boss Louis B. Mayer was furious and later blacklisted Mae from the Hollywood studios. Although the marriage produced a son (David, born 1927), it turned out to be a disaster and the couple were divorced in 1933 after her husband had virtually bankrupted her.

With Mae’s career now in decline, she attempted a comeback in talkies, but her transition to sound did not go well. Murray’s first sound picture was a remake of her 1921 romantic musical ‘Peacock Alley’ (’30). She garnered unfavorable reviews and blaming the production company, unsuccessfully attempted to sued them. After making ‘Bachelor Apartment’ (’31), with director-star Lowell Sherman, and a young Irene Dunne, Mae’s final movie was the 1931 comedy-drama ‘High Stakes’, again with Sherman. By 1933, after many courtroom antics, Mae was broke and forced to sell her opulent estate. A long custody battle for her son David finally ended in 1940 when he was legally adopted by Mae.

To make ends meet, Murray spent the next few years working nightclubs, dancing and performing to mixed reviews. A later trip to New York resulted in a confused Murray being arrested for vagrancy, after she was found sleeping on a park bench. Returning to California, Mae was now living in a small rundown apartment funded by actor George Hamilton, and still foolishly dreaming of a movie comeback.

Having retired to a community in Woodland Hills, California, Murray died of a heart ailment on March 23rd 1965, aged 79. A one-time diva and real-life Norma Desmond, Mae lived and loved the high life, but countless lawsuits and public meltdowns had left her penniless and alone. A sad and depressing end to this once publicity-loving and genuine Hollywood star.

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