Born at Blessing Hospital in Quincy on May 3, 1906, Lucile Langhanke was the only daughter of Otto Langhanke and Helen Vasconcells Langhanke. Emigrated from Germany in 1890, Otto eventually lived with his mother in Topeka, Kan., Where he worked as a window cutter for Crosby Brothers. On August 3, 1904, Otto married another Crosby Brothers employee, Helen Vasconcells, in Kansas. They moved to Quincy in 1904 where Otto worked at the Stern Clothing Company and taught German at Gem City Business College. In 1906 he began teaching at Quincy High School. After a fight in the halls of the school with another teacher, the school fired him in 1912 but reinstated him in 1916. Other occupations included decorating shop windows in 1914 in Stern and running his own poultry farm. . Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, Helen was a drama teacher who wanted to become an actress. She also taught German in 1917 at the Quincy College of Music and Art, as did Otto from 1905.
After Lucile’s birth in 1906, her family lived for a few years in an apartment above the Boston Store, a dry goods store, at 725 1-3 Hampshire. From at least 1910 to 1913 their address was 1837 Broadway. In 1913, they rented a 12-room Victorian mansion at 2335 N. 12th Street, outside the city limits of Quincy, and just north of the Illinois Soldiers ‘and Sailors’ Home, now known as of Illinois Veterans Home at Quincy. Lucile loved being alone on this eight-acre farm. She attended Highland School, a two-room school. When Otto regained his teaching position, the family moved from the farm to 1244 Kentucky Street in Quincy.
Author of a German textbook and a teacher’s manual, Otto was a faculty member at Quincy High School during the 1917-1918 school year. Due to anti-German sentiment, he again lost his teaching post. This prompted the Langhankes to move to Chicago. There they resided in an apartment at 1120 E. 47th St., and Lucile miserably attended public school. After Helen became a professor of literature and drama at the Kenwood-Loring School for Girls, 4600 Ellis Ave., Lucile was admitted as a tuition-free student. She loved school and appreciated her mother’s teaching. Lucile graduated in 1919.
Lucile gained attention by participating in beauty pageants sponsored by Motion Picture magazine. On the strength of this thin reed, the Langhankes moved to New York City, where Otto sought to promote Lucile as a fledgling actress. Photographer Charles Albin has created hauntingly beautiful photographs of her. They eventually caught the attention of film directors who got her roles in silent films and eventually won her contracts as the newly renamed “Mary Astor”. In 1920, she was only 14, a very intimidated very young woman-child.
For many years Otto was Astor’s business manager and controlled / spent his income. More than that, Otto and Helen controlled their daughter’s every move. She had no studies, no boyfriend, no confidante. Her parents opened her mail, read all the letters she wrote, did not allow her to venture out on her own, not even to the mailbox, and discouraged any friendship outside of the family.
Besides controlling her money and every moment of her waking up, Otto berated her as a stupid, bad girl. From his book, “Une vie au cinÃ©ma”. âI was a constant failure. He expressed his disappointment with breezy sighs and nods. “He was going to be a rich man if it killed meâ¦ I was a real disappointment, I saw that.” Helen’s attitude was no longer tolerant. Entering her diary with hostile words, Helen let her daughter read a hate-filled diary after Helen’s death.
In âMy Story: An Autobiography,â published in 1959, Mary Astor spoke candidly about her four troubled marriages and recurring financial stress, as well as a sex scandal fueled by speculation about the actual content and spoofed pages of his diary, left deep wounds. His lifelong struggle with alcohol was at times appeased by his religious faith, which encouraged self-awareness, self-acceptance, liberation from “the confined mass of egocentric thought – infantile, emotional and childish solutions. ineffective at the problems that had bound me deeper and deeper in loneliness and misery. Weak in many ways, yet she had a solid core: âI was fortunate to have inherent vitality; the deepest need, survival, was very strong. Astor’s courageous description in his memoir of his plight demonstrated great strength underlying overt weakness.
Self-acceptance required rejection of “Mary Astor”, imposed identity and imposed ambition. Writing under the name “Rusty”, in an end-of-life letter to her only childhood friend, Marian Fisher Kesler of Quincy, she said: “I have lived a battle royale with the demons who seem to be chasing me … back completely on ‘Mary Astor’ ‘She’ was furious! And I ran away and kept running. And I ran into ‘her’ everywhere I went … let’s let ‘Mary Astor’ belong to the story. Let her have her Oscars and her fame – and die. Damn her. She’s not part of my soul …. So trust your friend and pray for Rusty. “
The question remains, if Mary Astor was one of the biggest female stars of the silent era, why wasn’t she doing more lead roles in sound films? She appeared to be suffering from depression, as well as alcohol abuse, and she had attempted suicide. His memoirs describe financial abuse and psychological violence. All of this creates an image of self-destruction. But that’s far from the whole story, which is one of courage and recovery. Today, she is best remembered for her roles in “The Maltese Falcon” and “Meet Me in St. Louis”. His Oscar for Best Actor was won in 1941 for “The Big Lie”.
1900 and 1910 United States Census.
Astor, Marie. A life in the cinema. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971.
Astor, Marie. My story: an autobiography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1959, pp. 29-30.
Document 2B5, Mary Astor Papers: Marian Kesler Collection. Quincy Public Library, Quincy, IL.
Landrum, Carl. âLucile Langhanke was Mary Astor â the Famous Quincy Movie Star,â Quincy Herald-Whig, December 10, 2000.
Landrum Carl and Shirley Landrum. Quincy, Illinois. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 1999, p. 40.
Mary Astor, Letter 2A45-2, 2A45-3 and 2A45-4 to Marian Kesler, undated [between 1972 and 1974], Marie Astor
Documents: Marian Kesler Collection. Quincy Public Library: Quincy, IL.
New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957.
Topeka, Kansas, City Directory, 1902.
Kathleen Spaltro is the author of “The Great Lie: The Creation of Mary Astor”. Spaltro has written biographical articles on figures such as Welles, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, as well as over 40 biographical profiles in “Royals of England: A Guide for Readers, Travelers, and Genealogists”. She also writes for Illinois Heritage and lives in Woodstock, IL.
The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County preserves the Governor John Wood Mansion, the History Museum on the Square, the 1835 Log Cabin, the livery, the Lincoln Gallery exhibits, and a collection of artifacts and documents that recount the history of who we are. This award-winning column is written by members of the Society. For more information visit hsqac.org or email [email protected].