Mae Murray

Mae Murray

Murray as seen in Photoplay in 1917
Born Marie Adrienne Koenig
(1885-05-10)May 10, 1885
New York City
Died March 23, 1965(1965-03-23) (aged 79)
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting place Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery
Occupation Actress, dancer, film producer, screenwriter
Years active 1916–1931
Spouse(s) William M. Schwenker, Jr. (m. 1908; div. 1910)
Jay O'Brien (m. 1916; div. 1918)[1]
Robert Z. Leonard (m. 1918; div. 1925)
David Mdivani (m. 1926; div. 1934)
Children 1

Mae Murray (May 10, 1885 – 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".[2]

Early life

She was born Marie Adrienne Koenig in New York City, the second oldest child of Joseph and Mary (née Miller) Koenig. Her maternal grandparents had emigrated from France while her paternal grandparents had emigrated from Germany. She had two brothers, William Robert (born November 1889) and Howard Joseph (born January 1884).[3]

The family eventually moved to an apartment in the Lower East Side. In May 1896, Joseph Koenig, Murray's father, died from acute gastritis due to his alcoholism. To support the family, Mary Koenig took a job as a housekeeper for Harry Payne Whitney.[4]



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. 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)


Murray made her motion picture debut in To Have and to Hold in 1916. She became a major star for Universal, 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 popular with movie-going audiences and financially successful.

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. This work titled Symphony in Jade and Gold (The Actress Mae Murray) (1922, Private Collection, Northern California) depicted Murray in the nude, gazing in a mirror. It was exhibited at the Pacific Asia Museum in 1999 and two other venues as part of the exhibition Theodore Lukits, An American Orientalist.

Mae Murray in Photoplay magazine in 1916


Murray appeared in 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.

Mae Murray, 1926

A crucial blow to her film career occurred after she married her fourth husband, David Mdivani, a Georgian man of minor aristocratic roots, whose brothers Serge and Alexis married actress Pola Negri and the heiress Barbara Hutton respectively. The couple married on June 27, 1926, and Mdivani became her manager, suggesting that his new wife ought to 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 pleaded to return, but Mayer would not rehire her. In effect, Mayer's hostility meant that Murray was blacklisted from working for the Hollywood studios.[5]

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.[6]

Later years

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 particular 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. In 1946, she taught ballroom dancing to young teenagers at a dance studio in Los Angeles. It was located on Crenshaw Blvd. near 48th St.

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.

In February 1964, Murray was found disoriented in St. Louis, thinking that she had completed a bus trip to New York. Murray explained to a Salvation Army officer that she had become lost trying to find her hotel, which she had forgotten the name of. She also refused bus fare back to Los Angeles as she claimed to have a ticket for the remainder of the journey in her purse, "if she could find it."[7]

Personal life

Murray with fourth husband David Mdivani in 1926.

In September 1908, in Hoboken, New Jersey, while she was appearing in the Follies of 1908, Murray married William M. Schwenker, Jr. (born 1885), the unemployed son of a brewery-supply dealer, who cut off his son's allowance upon news of the wedding;[8] they divorced in 1910. On December 18, 1916, she married former dancer and future Olympic bobsled champion Jay O'Brien.

After divorcing O'Brien in 1918,[1] Murray wed movie director Robert Z. Leonard on August 18, 1918; they divorced on May 26, 1925.

Murray married her fourth husband, David Mdivani, on June 27, 1926. They had one child, Koran David Mdivani (born 1927), before divorcing in 1933. Koran was later 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 live with Bess Cunning, who adopted him in 1940 under the name Daniel Michael Cunning.[9] Reportedly, Mdivani had managed to siphon off most of Murray's money.[5]


Grave of Mae Murray, Valhalla Memorial Park

Many years later, Murray moved into the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, a retirement community for Hollywood professionals. She died there on March 23, 1965 at the age 79.[10] 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. She was one of three actresses (Pola Negri and Theda Bara were the others) whose eyes were combined to form the Chicago International Film Festival's logo, a stark, black and white close up of the composite eyes set as repeated frames in a strip of film.[11]


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


  1. 1 2 "Film Star Obtains Divorce", Motion Picture World, August 31, 1918, pg. 1239
  2. Wortis Leider, Emily (2004). Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. Macmillan. pp. 64, 64. ISBN 0-571-21114-3.
  3. Ankerich, Michael G. (2012). Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips. Brownlow, Kevin. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 9–11. ISBN 0-813-13690-3.
  4. Ankerich, Michael G. (2012). Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips. Brownlow, Kevin. University Press of Kentucky. p. 12. ISBN 0-813-13690-3.
  5. 1 2 Program Note for "High Stakes" issued by Films on the Hill, Washington DC (June 13, 2009).
  6. Hollywood Undressed: Observations of Sylvia As Noted by Her Secretary (1931) Brentano’s.
  7. "Star of silent film days found wandering, lost". Ottawa Citizen. February 21, 1964. Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  8. "Wedding Breakfast Made Him Bankrupt", The New York Times, April 10, 1909.
  9. "Mae Murray Sues for Son's Custody: Asserts Up-State Family Refuses to Give Up Mdivani", The New York Times, September 14, 1939, p. 28; "Mae Murray Opens Fight for Her Son", The New York Times, September 29, 1939, p. 20; "Mae Murray Wins Case", The New York Times, March 5, 1940, p. 24.
  10. Thomas, Bob (May 29, 1965). "Mae Murray Played Role of Star Right Up to Death at 79". St. Joseph News-Press. p. 3A. Retrieved November 19, 2012.
  11. About Our Logo The Chicago International Film Festival.
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