May 10, 1885 – March 23, 1965
“Where are the cameras? Where are my flowers? I must be photographed with flowers! Get them before I’m surrounded by cameramen!”
Many believe that silent film star Mae Murray was the inspiration for “Norma Desmond” in Sunset Boulevard since her real life featured Paramount Studios, Cecil B. Demille, Erich Von Stroheim and ended in insanity. But unlike Norma Desmond, poor delusional Mae did not end up in a palatial mansion with a devoted manservant.
Mae Murray (born Marie Koenig in Virginia) was a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl turned headliner turned silent movie star. She made her film debut in 1916 and despite her abstract costumes and emoting, her films made money for a solid decade. From her early Paramount stardom she was known as the “Girl with the Bee Stung Lips” and “The Gardenia of the Screen”. Her biggest hit was at MGM in Erich Von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925), opposite John Gilbert.
The tiny (5′ 2″) Mae, once called Miss Itsy Poo of ’22, was a giant presence in her film industry. She formed a production company (Tiffany Pictures) with her 3rd husband, director Robert Z. Leonard, and she was a founding trustee of The Motion Picture Fund (which helped her in her declining years). Mae was reportedly worth $3 million by 1925. Then silent films gave way to sound films — Murray’s 1922 silent hit Peacock Alley was reissued partly in sound in 1930 — and Mae Murray gave way to Hollywood excess.
In 1926, Mae married her 4th husband – a gold-digger phony prince – David Mdivani who convinced her that she should leave MGM and hire him as manager (bad idea – her film career came to a halt by 1931). The “royal” couple and their son Koran David (born in 1927) settled into their custom-built, enormous, ocean front property at 64th Street & Ocean Front Walk in Playa del Rey (a stretch of coastal land near today’s LAX airport).
Mae also owned oil wells behind her house (pumping, pumping…) that she let her husband and his brother manage (another bad idea – the shady brothers were accused of grand theft by stockholders and the oil co. went bankrupt).
Mae Murray became known about town as the most litigious of stars – suing Fox Studios, as well as beauticians, producers, realtors, dog breeders, masseurs – and the list goes on. To Mae, an audience was an audience, and she would take her screen antics to the courtroom and faint on the stand if it would make the news and help win her case. By 1933, Mae was broke and court ordered to sell her opulent Playa del Rey estate to pay a judgment against her. The “Prince” had bankrupted her and moved on to another wealthy victim. Mae’s life spiraled out of control.
Mae battled for years for the custody of her son David who at age 9 was left in the care of a New York surgeon’s family while he recuperated from an operation. When Mae finally regained custody of her son (to his dismay) – she had neither the funds or skills to parent and left him with his foster family. In 1940, Mae’s only son, Koran David Mdivani was legally adopted and renamed Daniel Michael Cunning.
In the early 1940s, Mae was in Manhattan performing her Merry Widow waltz in Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe Review in the basement nightclub of The Paramount Hotel.
Her relationship with Billy Rose ended with — guess what? – her lawsuit against him. She was later arrested for vagrancy in NYC when she was found sleeping on a park bench. Mae eventually returned to California and did her 20s nostalgia act at the Mocambo Nightclub on the Sunset Strip.
She was reportedly seen during these years wandering the streets of Playa del Rey and sitting on the beach in front of her former home.
On December 16, 1949, Mae Murray attended a celebration for Cecil B. DeMille’s 35th Anniversary in Hollywood.
A year later at the premiere of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, an offended Mae Murray commented on the Norma Desmond character with the quote, “None of us floozies was that nuts.”
On October 19, 1951, Mae attended Judy Garland’s comeback concert at The Palace Theatre in New York.
There would be no comeback for Mae however.
By the late 1950s, Mae was living in a small apartment in the rundown (now demolished) Garden Court Apartments at 7021 Hollywood Blvd, paid for by actor George Hamilton and his mother Ann, both friends of Mae.
George once recalled dancing the tango with Mae Murray at the Coconut Grove on his 21st birthday.
Hollywood was changing under Mae’s nose and she was prone to public meltdowns on her frequent strolls down the boulevard. Artist Jack Lane recalled an afternoon at the Brown Derby on Vine Street when Mae let out a piercing scream and became hysterical that her caricature had been moved from a place of prominence on the front wall to the back bar area. Mae wouldn’t quiet down until waiters hung her likeness back to where it had been located for 20 years. In 1959, her authorized biography The Self Enchanted was published – but again – no comeback.
In 1964, Murray (“Once a star, always a star!”) took it upon herself to travel by Greyhound bus from coast to coast on a self appointed publicity tour, hoping for a film comeback. She was found penniless and wandering around St. Louis thinking that she was in New York City. The Salvation Army came to her aid and sent her back to California.
Eventually, unable to take care of herself and in an impenetrable haze of dementia, Mae ended her days at The Motion Picture Country Home with a trunk full of memorabilia and an obstinate, narcissistic regal air (“Step aside, peasants! Let the Princess Mdivani pass!”, she’d tell the nurses).
Mae Murray died in her sleep (from a heart ailment) on March 23, 1965 at age 75. She was buried by The Motion Picture Fund at Valhalla Cemetery, North Hollywood. George Hamilton’s mom paid for Mae’s grave marker.
At her death, Mae Murray left several boxes and suitcases filled with clothing, scripts, books, photos, costumes and mementos that were valued at $120 and sold at auction by a state administrator for $357.
Mae Murray is remembered with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame at 6318 Hollywood Blvd. Her dress is displayed at LA’s Museum of Natural History – early Hollywood section.
Findadeath friend Kathleen Campbell sends this: Coffee and Donuts. Together at Last: Legend has it that dunking donuts first became a trend when actress Mae Murray accidentally dropped a donut into her coffee while dining at Lindy’s Deli on Broadway in New York City.
Profile by Mark Langlois and Donna Lethal, with estate details from Celebrity Collectables.