Mae Murray

Mae Murray

ca. 1920 Born Marie Adrienne Koenig
May 10, 1889(1889-05-10)
Portsmouth, Virginia, U.S. Died March 23, 1965 (aged 75)
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S. Occupation Actress, dancer, film producer, screenwriter Years active 1916–1931 Spouse William M. Schwenker Jr. (1908–1909)
Jay O’Brien (1916–1917)
Robert Z. Leonard (1918–1925)
David Mdivani (1926–1934)

Mae Murray (May 10, 1889 – March 23, 1965) was an American actress, dancer, film producer, and screenwriter. Murray rose to fame during the silent film era and was known as “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” and “The Gardenia of the Screen”.[1]


Born Marie Adrienne Koenig in Portsmouth, Virginia,[2] she first began acting on the Broadway stage in 1906 with dancer Vernon Castle. In 1908, she joined the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies, moving up to headliner by 1915.[3] Murray became a star of the club circuit in both the United States and Europe, performing with Clifton Webb, Rudolph Valentino, and John Gilbert as some of her many dance partners.

Murray & Monte Blue in Broadway Rose (1922)In 1908, she was briefly married to stockbroker William M. Schwenker, Jr. In 1916, she married Olympic bobsled champion Jay O’Brien and made her motion picture debut in To Have and to Hold that same year. She became a major star for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starring with Rudolph Valentino in The Delicious Little Devil and Big Little Person in 1919. At the height of her popularity, Murray formed her own production company with her director, John M. Stahl. Critics were sometimes less than thrilled with her over-the-top costumes and exaggerated emoting, but her films were financially successful.After divorcing Jay O’Brien in 1917, Murray married the movie director Robert Z. Leonard the following year and, beginning in 1925, Murray, Leonard, and Stahl produced films at Tiffany Pictures, with Souls for Sables (1925), starring Claire Windsor and Eugene O’Brien, as the first film made by Tiffany. For a brief period of time, Murray wrote a weekly column for newspaper scion William Randolph Hearst.At her career peak in the early 1920s, Murray, along with such other notable Hollywood personalities as Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Jesse L. Lasky, Harold Lloyd, Hal Roach, Donald Crisp, Conrad Nagel and Irving Thalberg was a member of the board of trustees at the Motion Picture & Television Fund – A charitable organization that offers assistance and care to those in the motion picture and television industries without resources. Four decades later, Murray herself received aid from that organization.In the early 1920s, Murray was painted by the well known Hollywood portrait painter Theodore Lukits(1897-1992). This work titled Harmony in Jade and Silver (Private Collection, Northern California) depicted the actress in the nude, gazing in a mirror. This subtle, rather chaste nude was exhibited at the Pacific Asia Museum in 1999 and two other venues as part of the exhibition Theodore Lukits, An American Orientalist.

Murray’s most famous role was perhaps the title role in the Erich von Stroheim directed film The Merry Widow (1925), opposite John Gilbert. When silent films gave way to talkies, Murray made an insecure debut in the new medium in Peacock Alley (1930), a remake of her earlier 1921 version Peacock Alley. In 1931, she was cast with newcomer Irene Dunne, leading man Lowell Sherman, and with fellow silent screen star Norman Kerry in the talkie Bachelor Apartment. The film was critically panned at the time of release and Murray made only one more film, High Stakes (1931) also with Sherman.A crucial blow to her movie career occurred when her fourth husband, “Prince” David Mdivani (a Georgian faux-nobleman whose brothers, Serge and Alexis, married actress Pola Negri and the heiress Barbara Hutton respectively), became her manager and suggested that his new wife leave MGM. Murray took her husband’s advice and walked out of her contract with MGM, making a powerful foe of studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Later, she would swallow her pride and plead to return, but Mayer would have none of it. In effect, Mayer’s hostility meant that Murray was blacklisted from working for the Hollywood studios.[4] Meanwhile, in 1927, Murray was sued by her then-masseuse, the famous Hollywood fitness guru Sylvia of Hollywood for the outstanding amount of $2,125 during a humiliating and detailed court case.[5]

Mae Murray, 1926Eventually, Murray and Mdivani, who married in 1926, divorced; they had one child, Koran David Mdivani (born February 1927). Koran was raised by Sara Elizabeth “Bess” Cunning of Averill Park, New York, who began taking care of him in 1936, when the child was recovering from a double mastoid operation (Cunning’s brother Dr. David Cunning was the surgeon). When Murray attempted to regain custody of her son in 1939, Cunning and her other brothers, John, Ambrose, and Cortland, refused, according to the New York Times, at which time Murray and her former husband, Mdivani, entered a bitter custody dispute. It finally ended in 1940, with Murray being given legal custody of the child and the court ordering Mdivani to pay $400 a month maintenance. However, Koran Mdivani continued to be raised by Bess Cunning, who adopted him in 1940 as Daniel Michael Cunning.[6] Reportedly, Mdivani had managed to siphon off most of Murray’s money.[4]In the 1940s, Murray appeared regularly at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, a nightclub which specialized in a “Gay ’90s” atmosphere, often presenting stars of the past for nostalgic value. Her appearances collected mixed reviews: her dancing (in p
ticular the Merry Widow Waltz) was well received, but Murray refused to acknowledge her age, wearing heavy layers of makeup and fitting her mature figure into short skirted costumes with plunging necklines.

Murray’s finances continued to collapse, and for most of her later life she lived in poverty. She was the subject of an authorized biography, The Self-Enchanted (1959), written by Jane Ardmore, that has often been incorrectly called Murray’s autobiography.She later moved into the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, a retirement community for Hollywood professionals. Mae Murray died at age 75. She is interred in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, North Hollywood, California.

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Mae Murray has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6318 Hollywood Blvd. In 2010 author Michael G. Ankerich began work on a biography of Murray.[7]

Year Film Role Notes
1916 To Have and to Hold Lady Jocelyn
Sweet Kitty Bellairs Kitty Bellairs
The Dream Girl Meg Dugan
The Big Sister Betty Norton
The Plow Girl Margot
1917 On Record Helen Wayne
A Mormon Maid Dora
The Primrose Ring Margaret MacLean
At First Sight Justina
Princess Virtue Lianne Demarest
Face Value Joan Darby Writer (story)
1918 The Bride’s Awakening Elaine Bronson
Her Body in Bond Peggy Blondin Alternative title: The Heart of an Actress
Modern Love Della Arnold Writer (story)
The Taming of Kaiser Bull Miss America
Danger, Go Slow Mugsy Mulane Writer
1919 The Scarlet Shadow Elena Evans
The Twin Pawns Daisy/Violet White Alternative title: The Curse of Greed
The Delicious Little Devil Mary McGuire
What Am I Bid? Betty Yarnell Alternative title: Girl For Sale
Big Little Person Arathea Manning
The ABC of Love Kate
1920 On with the Dance” Sonia
Right to Love Lady Falkland
Idols of Clay Faith Merrill
1921 The Gilded Lily Lillian Drake
1922 Peacock Alley Cleo of Paris
Fascination Dolores de Lisa
Broadway Rose Rosalie Lawrence
1923 Jazzmania Ninon
The French Doll Georgine Mazulier
Fashion Row Olga Farinova/Zita (her younger sister)
1924 Mademoiselle Midnight Renée de Gontran/Renée de Quiros
Circe, the Enchantress Circe (mythical goddess)/Cecilie Brunne Alternative title: Circe
1925 The Merry Widow Sally O’Hara
The Masked Bride Gaby
1926 Valencia Valencia Alternative title: The Love Song
1927 Altars of Desire Claire Sutherland
1930 Peacock Alley Claire Tree
1931 Bachelor Apartment Mrs. Agatha Carraway Alternative title: Apartamento de Soltero
High Stakes Dolly Jordan Lennon
1949 Dick Barton Strikes Back Associate producer
1950 Shadow of the Past Producer
Come Dance with Me Associate producer

  • ^ Wortis Leider, Emily (2004). Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. Macmillan. pp. 64, 64. ISBN 0-571-21114-3. 
  • ^ Menefee, David W. (2004). The First Female Stars: Women Of the Silent Era. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 127. ISBN 0-275-98259-9. 
  • ^ Mae Murray Biography –
  • ^ a b Program Note for “High Stakes” issued by Films on the Hill, Washington DC (June 13, 2009).
  • ^ Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia As Noted by Her Secretary (1931) Brentano’s.
  • ^ “Mae Murray Sues for Son’s Custody: Asserts Up-State Family Refuses to Give Up Mdivani”, The New York Times, 14 September 1939, p. 28; “Mae Murray Opens Fight for Her Son”, The New York Times, 29 September 1939, p. 20; “Mae Murray Wins Case”, The New York Times, 5 March 1940, p. 24.
  • ^
    • David W. Menefee, The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004) ISBN 0-275-98259-9
    • Jane Kesner Morris Ardmore, The Self-Enchanted: Mae Murray, Image of an Era. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959)
    • “The Rise to Stardom of Mae Murray” by Jimmy Bangley in Classic Images August 1996 (Muscatine, Iowa: Muscatine Journal, 1996)
    • F. Cugat, “Mae Murray’s Victory”, Movie Weekly (August 19, 1922)
    • Frances Marion, Off With Their Heads! (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972)
    • Adela Rogers St. Johns, “Mae Murray-A Study in Contradictions”, Photoplay (July 1924), 43


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