Reading Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips made me sad; sad in recounting the similarities between Mae and my love for Veronica Lake. The introduction by author Michael Ankerich is heartfelt, genuine, and is aware that by the end of his research he had to present a biography, warts and all. At times he felt at odds with his love for the star after discovering the disturbing decisions she made in life, but through it all there’s a tinge of sadness that permeates the entire book; sadness at how quickly Hollywood forgets its idols, and sadness at how one woman could only find comfort inside her own head.
Mae Murray was one of the top-rated and highest grossing silent movie stars who never felt her fame was at stake. When the money dried up and the film roles disappeared, in part due to the changes in filmic styles, Murray had no idea how to react and entered into a steady decline of mental illness and poverty. In reading Ankerich’s book, it’d be easy for him to paint an ugly portrait of the woman; there are several choices she made that reflect poorly on her such as her ugly relationship with her only child. However, Ankerich has nothing but respect for the woman because he is a fan. Again, I refer to his introduction, and his mentioning that he feared what he would discover about the woman. He did find elements that were negative, but he treats them as elements of her story and not decisions that define who she is as a person. Ultimately, the best way to describe the portrait painted of Mae Murray is fair. If a biography of Veronica Lake was written today, I’d appreciate a portrait similar to this.
The actual details of Murray’s life are fascinating and make for a compelling read. Murray’s iconic turn in The Merry Widow is what elevated her to new heights of stardom, and it certainly inflated her ego. For a woman to command such attention, and tell Louis B. Mayer what she would do, must have been insane at the time. Mae’s ego works for and against her throughout the book, and towards the end she’s so obsessed with her own hype that she refuses to acknowledge anything that threatens her world. It starts out with simple things, such as refusing to acknowledge her true age, before finally progressing into refusing to give details on her time in Hollywood at all. Several instances throughout the book I found myself frustrated at her, like when she wants people to believe she was only 19 when she made The Merry Widow, or getting irritated when people mention her “long” career (she would reply she hadn’t been in films that long). I did start to wonder if Murray had a touch of mental illness, or dementia, by the end which the book never details, although I believe anything would have been assumption.
It’s always hard to find a biography that includes totally new information, and Ankerich blows the lid off Murray’s life by being one of the few authors to interview Murray’s estranged son. I always want biographies to interview the children as their experiences are so different and unfiltered than the star themselves. In this case, Murray’s son details a sad life of isolation and ultimately becoming a pawn in a custody war that removed him from his biological parents entirely. It’s the highlight of the novel and presents Murray at her most human. It’s hard, and never fully resolved, to hear a woman just give up on her child, but towards the later parts of the book Ankerich returns and explores how Murray was affected by losing her child.
Every facet of Murray’s life and career is explored, free of judgement or salacious filler (which is unnecessary considering Murray’s life is already so colorful). I would be interested in reading further works from Ankerich because it’s nice to see a film fan analyze a star he loves in such a unobjective way. Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips is a must-read for fans of cinema!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.