January 10, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Old Hollywood’s Darkest Fall From Grace

Mae Murray was a Broadway dancer and Silent Era actress who lived her life as a big dream. But between her ruinous marriages and foolish career choices, she might as well have been living a nightmare—even if it was a glamorous one. Here are the most bizarre facts about Mae Murray, the Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

1. She Is Mostly Forgotten

Mae Murray, born Marie Adrienne Koenig, would go on to become an above-the-title star and Hollywood pioneer. Even though audiences have mostly forgotten her, at the height of her career she was a major attraction, dubbed “The Gardenia of the Screen” and “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips”—but she started a long way from Hollywood.

Mae Murray

2. She Lied About Her Childhood

Mae Murray was born in New York City in May of 1885—but throughout her life, Murray did her best to hide the truth about her childhood.  She gave contradictory stories about her upbringing, claiming to have been raised by her great-grandmother, in European convents, or, alternately, on a boat far out at sea with her artist father. The real story, however, was much darker.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

3. She Was A Poor Girl

Murray’s actual childhood was a lot less whimsical and romantic—and a lot more tragic. Murray wasn’t an only child and her parents struggled to provide for their ever-growing family. Things got even worse when Murray turned 11 years old. Her father succumbed to acute gastritis, leaving the family with little hope—and even less income.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

4. She Was Very Lonely

To support the family, Murray’s mother found work as a housekeeper for the illustrious Harry Payne Whitney. But it left little time for bonding in the Murray household. Murray later revealed how lonely she was—and what she said was devastating. 

She went so far as to imply that she would’ve preferred to be spanked or scolded over the way that her mother left her alone. With so little attention, she found solace in other areas.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

5. She Always Wanted To Be A Dancer

Given the tragedy of her situation, Murray escaped into fantasy. She put on plenty of amateur performances with her childhood friends and dreamed of becoming a great dancer. She wouldn’t have to play pretend for long.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

6. She Learned From The Best

In short order, Murray turned her childhood dreams into a reality. Against her mother’s and grandmother’s wishes and warnings, Murray began spending her days hanging around the theater, hoping that would someone take notice. She studied the performers, hoping to soak up the subtleties of what they were doing—and she was learning from the best.

Marion Davies factsGetty Images

7. She Wanted To Dance To The Very End

After years of watching and waiting, Murray finally got her big break. She took to the stage like a duck to water in a 1904 production of The Shogun. It was a completely joyful moment, and she used her time on stage to escape from what she called “the sorrows of the world”. Well, as we’ll see, her sorrows had only just begun.

Mayo Methot factsPicryl

8. She Impressed An Impresario

Murray’s whimsical style of dance made her an instant success and she quickly became a chorus girl. In just a few short years, she attracted the attention of the legendary impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. At first, Murray ignored Ziegfeld’s requests. She and her friends feared Ziegfeld and thought that he used and discarded showgirls far too quickly. But one thing about Ziegfeld was that he was a persistent man.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

9. She Was Full Of Folly

One day, while attempting to leave the theater, Murray spotted Ziegfeld in the lobby. She tried to sneak out—but she was in for a unpleasant surprise. Ziegfeld saw her and immediately confronted her, asking her why she hadn’t answered his letters. Unable to avoid Ziegfeld and his questionable charms anymore, Murray agreed to join his famous troop, the Ziegfeld Follies.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

10. She Owed Ziegfeld Everything

As it turns out, Mae Murray had nothing to fear from Ziegfeld—all he wanted to do was give her a bigger stage on which to showcase her talents. She ended up changing her tune about him completely, acknowledging that he had picked her out of a mass of ambitious girls in New York and given her a big chance. So much bigger, in fact, than she ever could have dreamed of.

Working as a Ziegfeld girl, Murray became a famous dancer all across the United States. But there was a dark side to her fame.

Olive Thomas factsWikipedia Florenz Ziegfeld Jr

11. She Thought Men Were Pests

In interviews, Murray complained about all of the male attention that her new fame brought her. Men would wait at the stage back door and pester her and the other dancers. Truth be told, however, Murray liked some of the male attention that she received—as long as the attention came with a giant pocketbook.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

12. She Found A Rich Man

Around the time that she was complaining about all of the attention that she was getting, Mae Murray was also cashing in on it. She was dating a man named William Schwenker Jr, who just so happened to be the son of a wealthy brewer-supply dealer. Unfortunately, Murray wouldn’t see any of that money—but she would see all of the disappointment.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

13. She Had A Lavish (And Free) Reception

Less than two months after they started dating, Murray and Schwenker Jr eloped on a whim. To celebrate their unexpected nuptials, Schwenker Jr hosted a lavish breakfast at Rector’s Restaurant in New York—but he made an unfortunate mistake. He forgot to invite his father. And when Schwenker Sr received the bill for the party he hadn’t been invited to, he refused to pay it.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

14. Her Husband Was A Brat

When Rector’s Restaurant didn’t receive their money, they took Murray and Schwenker Jr to court. And, when Schwenker Jr took to the witness stand, Murray came to the conclusion that she had married a total dud. He confessed that his father was the one footing the bills for his lavish lifestyle—but that sometimes, his father would cut him off.

Murray quickly realized that she’d gotten in way over her head.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

15. She Had Back Problems

By 1911, at just 26 years of age, Mae Murray was getting “old” for a dancer and she began complaining about pains in her back. After completing a show, she checked herself into the hospital—and what the doctors told her was heartbreaking. They gave her little hope of recovering. Unfortunately for Murray, with a flat broke husband, an early retirement wasn’t exactly an option.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

16. She Came Out Of Retirement

Murray would have retired to a life of ease and luxury…if her husband hadn’t been so useless. And she didn’t back away from telling the press just how she felt, expressing rage at her husband. She called him a “millionaire’s little boy”—ouch—and complained about her unwanted comeback.

From the sounds of it, Murray was the one wearing the pants in the relationship.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

17. She Did All Of The Work

It’s little wonder that Murray’s back was aching. She was doing all of the heavy-lifting in her marriage. Her husband’s relationship was his big-shot dad was on the rocks, and she wasn’t just doing all the money-making—she also took care of all the household chores. Before long, it all began to fall apart.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

18. She Was Done With Men (For Now)

After just two years of marriage, Murray had to face the dark truth. She hadn’t married Schwenker Jr for love—she’d married him for money. Without it, there was no reason to stay. After their divorce, she let loose and claimed she was done with tightwads and the fathers-in-law that came with them. Well, these words would come back to haunt her.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

19. She Was An International Star

After her divorce, Mae Murray returned to the stage, this time determined to make it on her own and not just as a Ziegfeld Folly girl. For two years, she successfully made a name for herself, gaining recognition from Broadway all the way to Paris and Amsterdam and back again. And that’s just when Hollywood began to take note of her many talents.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

20. She Ignored Hollywood

Much like with Ziegfeld, Murray ignored the initial overtures that Hollywood producers made—but she couldn’t get away from them all. With the help of Ziegfeld, however, the producer Adolph Zukor ambushed Murray one day in her dressing room. What he said was identical to something she’d heard years before.

Ziegfeld jokingly upbraided Murray and told her that she’d been ignoring Zukor’s letters and was a very rude girl. Well, if she was ignoring him—perhaps because she wasn’t interested.

Mary Pickford factsWikimedia Commons

21. She Didn’t Care For Cameras

Zukor promised to turn Murray into an even bigger star, like he had done for Mary Pickford and John Barrymore, amongst others. At first, Murray was unimpressed and reiterated that her place was on stage in New York, and not behind a camera where she couldn’t see her adoring fans. But she changed her mind for the oddest reason.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

22. She Just Wanted To Walk On A Red Carpet

Nothing that Zukor said was having any effect on Murray. That is, until he made an off-hand comment about a red carpet and a brass brand awaiting her. That was all it took. All of a sudden, Murray perked up and said that, for a red carpet, she would happily act on camera. She didn’t exactly get the red carpet treatment, though.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

23. She Was Bee-Stung

Adolph Zukor was the one who would ultimately be responsible for giving Mae Murray her most enduring moniker: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips. Her full upper lip made her stand out from the crowd—but Hollywood had its own kind of sting.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

24. She Wasn’t A Natural Actress

Murray’s first days in Hollywood were anything but easy. Not only did she not get the red carpet and brass band welcome that she had been expecting, but her first film experience was a total disaster. Annoyed with Murray’s inability to hit her marks, the film’s director lashed out in a brutal way. After a failed take, he angrily told her she wasn’t in the Follies anymore.

For Murray, it felt like all her hard work had come undone, and that she was back at square one.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

25. She Was Pathetic To Watch

The film critics didn’t necessarily give Murray a warm welcome to Hollywood either. Even though they liked the film To Have and to Hold, they panned Murray’s performance. They claimed that she was a better dancer than actress, and one even said she was pathetic. That had to sting.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

26. She Became A Real Star

Despite the failure of her first film appearance, after a few more films in 1916, Mae Murray found her footing—and gained the adoration of the critics. For her performance in The Dream Girl, the New York Telegraph wrote that her hard work had paid off, and that she was finally a “real motion picture star”. And the critics weren’t the only ones turning their heads.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

27. She Rekindled An Old Flame

In Hollywood, Murray reconnected with a dashing man named Jay O’Brien. The two had met in New York after Murray’s divorce from Schwenker Jr, and it had been love at first sight. O’Brien came on strong with his words and his passion—but things that burn bright tend to be volatile, and this romance was no different.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

28. She Gave In To Temptation

The reason that Murray hadn’t pursued a relationship with O’Brien in New York was because he had a reputation for gambling and a fast temper. When O’Brien reappeared in Hollywood, Murray hoped that he had changed, but she was in for a big disappointment. 

However, despite her misgivings—and his faults—Murray and O’Brien rekindled their torrid romance and she agreed to an indefinite engagement.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

29. Her Marriage Is A Mystery

Murray’s and O’Brien’s engagement didn’t turn out to be very indefinite. In fact, their marriage happened pretty quickly after that—but no one knows exactly how. And the confusion was partially because of Murray herself, who gave wildly different accounts. One thing is clear, however. She regretted the marriage almost as soon as she had said “I do”.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

30. She Got Married On A Film Set

According to one version of events, Mae Murray claimed that O’Brien returned from New York and demanded that they get married right away. At the time, Murray was on a film set and said that they got married right there and then, with props lying about. The other version is even more dramatic—but considerably less romantic.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

31. She Regretted Her Marriage

Alternatively, Murray stated that O'Brien appeared on set with a weapon and forcibly removed her from the location. Murray then claimed that they traveled to the house of a mutual friend, where a judge performed the wedding ceremony. Whatever the exact version of events, Murray regretted it.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

32. She Took A Tumble Down The Stairs

According to the actress Anita Loos, Murray and O’Brien showed up at the Hollywood Hotel after their nuptials. Everyone there for a night out stopped in the tracks as they saw the happy couple—but they were in for a disturbing surprise. A mere two hours later, O’Brien was kicking his new bride down the very same staircase.

Whatever had happened in the honeymoon suite had been quite bad, apparently. How’s that for happily ever after?

Anita Loos factsGetty Images

33. She Fell In Love With Another Man

Naturally, Murray’s marriage to O’Brien couldn’t last. And it wasn’t just because O’Brien was a bad match for her. As she continued working, Murray met the director Robert Z Leonard, who openly professed his love for her. And the feeling, apparently, was mutual. For the first time, Murray thought she had actually found love.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

34. She Was Free At Last

Before long, Murray and Leonard were spending all of their time together. And Leonard even took Murray out on the town to all of the best spots where he impressed her with his dancing. From the sounds of it, he was good for her, as well. Her gave her more freedom than her previous partners. But she was still technically married to O’Brien. Were Murray and Leonard moving too fast? Maybe…

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

35. She Was A Little Too “Grand”

Murray divorced O’Brien in 1918 and immediately tied the knot to Leonard. While her marriage with Leonard was good for her romantic life and, more importantly, her career, some thought it went to her head. Her behavior on set was impossible and she thought very highly of herself—and it began to affect her career in disastrous ways.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

36. She Was Delusional

By 1920, with Leonard’s help, Murray’s career was at its peak. But not everyone thought she was so great to work with. Her reputation for being difficult spread, and a dark rumor proliferated that her behavior was the inspiration for the “abusive, and borderline delusional” character of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Given her antics, it’s not hard to see why.

Pola Negri FactsWikimedia Commons

37. She Was In A Dirty Movie

On the set of 1925’s The Merry Widow, Mae Murray famously clashed with the film’s director, Erich von Stroheim. Allegedly, the actress, by then 40 years old, would complain to the studio’s front office that Stroheim was making a “dirty movie”. Despite their creative differences, however, Murray should actually have thanked Stroheim.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

38. Her Director Made Her Into An Actress

The feud between Murray and Stroheim got so heated that the film’s producer, Louis B Mayer, fired and then re-hired Stroheim. For all of their bickering, however, Murray should have thanked Stroheim. The film was one of Murray’s biggest successes. Critics claimed that it was the film that had finally made her an actress. Of course, this meant that she didn’t really learn a lesson about her prima donna behavior.

Old HollywoodWikimedia.Commons

39. She Made A Director Quit

Stroheim wasn’t the only director that Murray clashed with. On the set of 1925’s The Masked Bride, the director, Josef von Sternberg, became seriously exasperated by her behavior—until he couldn’t take it anymore. Von Sternberg simply gave up. Apparently, he turned the camera up at the ceiling and walked off the set, never to return. Fellow director Christy Cabanne had to finish the project.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

40. Her Co-Stars Tried To Escape From Her

Murray also managed to get on the bad side of her The Masked Bride co-star, Francis X. Bushman. While Bushman didn’t exactly quit and walk off the set, he might as well have. The damage was done. Even decades later, everyone noticed Murray and Bushman avoided each other at Hollywood parties. And Bushman wasn’t the only one trying to escape from Murray.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

41. She Left Leonard For A Loser

It’s not entirely clear why, but in 1925, at the height of her fame, Murray broke off her marriage with her third husband, Leonard. She didn’t realize that she was making a dire mistake. Leonard had helped turn her into a star and, from that very pinnacle of her career, she would suffer a precipitous fall.

The end of the Silent Era and a fourth (disastrous) marriage would spell the end.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

42. Her Husband Married Her For Money

Shortly after divorcing Leonard, Murray married David Mdivani. He was the middle sibling of the “Marrying Mdivanis”—a family of Georgian refugees who all managed to marry into wealth and fame. Unfortunately for Murray, Mdivani turned out to be more a drag on both her wealth and her fame. You might say he even ended her career.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

43. She Was On The Naughty List

In 1927, Mdivani somehow managed to convince Murray to get out of her lucrative contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. By that time, studio head Louis B Mayer had already had about all he could take of Murray’s on-set antics—and her attempt to leave was the final straw. The powerful studio boss blacklisted her and ensured that she’d never work in Hollywood again. At least, not successfully.

Louis B. Mayer FactsGetty Images

44. Her Comeback Was A “Sorry Affair”

After leaving MGM, Mae Murray attempted a comeback with a sound remake of her 1922 hit Peacock Alley. But, by that time, critics and audiences had cooled to the actress. Critics dragged the film and Murray alike, even turning her nickname on her. They said she was “more bee-stung of mouth than ever”. Ouch—and the audience wasn't much kinder.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

45. She Wasn’t Welcome On Stage

By this point, not even the Broadway stage wanted to take Mae Murray back. When she attempted to return to dancing, audiences found that her costumes were too youthful and that she applied heavy makeup in an attempt to conceal her age. And sadly, it’s not like things were going well in her personal life either. In fact, they were imploding.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

46. She Was Publicly Embarrassed

In 1934, Mdivani divorced Murray—but not before he had torpedoed her career and drained her of all of her money. And that’s not even the worst part. Mdivani also deprived Murray of custody over their only child. Much of her dirty laundry ended up in the tabloids thanks to an embarrassing lawsuit in which her fitness guru, Sylvia of Hollywood, sued her for outstanding payments.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

47. She Was A Little Lost

For most of the rest of her life, Mae Murray disappeared from the public eye…until she reappeared in the strangest way. In February of 1964, officers found a nearly 80-year-old Murray wandering the streets of St Louis. When they questioned her, she confessed that she had become lost while trying to take a bus from Los Angeles to New York.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

48. She Didn’t Know Where She Was

Strangely, Murray thought that she was in New York and told the officers that she had checked into a hotel but couldn’t remember the name. When they offered to pay her bus fare back to Los Angeles, Murray obstinately refused and claimed to have a ticket in her purse that she was having trouble finding.

Sadly, Murray was already running out of time.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

49. She Was Penniless In The End

Mae Murray departed this life shortly thereafter in the Motion Picture House, bolstered by the Motion Picture & Television Fund that she had helped to initiate. But even in her final years, an old enemy tried to get revenge.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

50. He Never Forgave Her

According to some reports, Louis B Mayer still held his grudge against Mae Murray and refused to list her as a recipient of a pension in his final years. That’s how the “Gardenia of the Screen” wilted—but thankfully, Mayer’s attempt at vengeance didn’t quite take. Several years following her passing, she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to film.

Mae Murray FactsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8


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