Ruth Harriet Louise, the groundbreaking female photographer who created some of the best known 1920s jazz age Hollywood portraits for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, here captures Mae Murray at her most provocative and playful. Her “bee-stung lips” are on full display in his orientalist inspired and erotic sepia view. Large double-weight photographs such as this were never intended for widespread distributions, and were hand printed by the photographers themselves. With its creamy sepia, soft focus and highly artistic qualities, this is a particularly alluring view of the silent film icon, who today is best remembered as the real life inspiration for “Sunset Boulevard.” This features a blindstamp by Louise, and her hand numbered archival notation on verso, along with press snipe and studio stamp.
A biography of Ruth Harriet Louise by Robin Lenman:
Louise, Ruth Harriet (Ruth Goldstein; 1903-40), American, chief portrait photographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios 1925-9. The daughter of a New York rabbi, she apprenticed herself, probably, to Nicholas Muray before leaving in 1925 for Hollywood, where her brother Mark Sandrich was a rising film director. She was promptly hired by MGM, where Louis B. Mayer favoured an in-house star-marketing system that made heavy use of photography. (Eventually, the publicity department might dispense 10, 000 prints of a top player every month). Although Louise kept her independence from stills chief Clarence Sinclair Bull (1895-1979), she had limited facilities, using a heavy 8 x 10 in camera in a cramped studio with only a single assistant to shift lights and props. She nevertheless developed a distinctive style that reflected influences ranging from German Expressionism to sporty Californian modernism. (There was increasing convergence between Hollywood and the contemporary fashion scene). She photographed the three MGM “queens” Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Marion Davies, took memorable portraits of the newly contracted Greta Garbo, and was equally effective with male stars, from pin-ups like Ramon Novarro and John Gilbert to more complex types such as Lon Chaney.
In 1929 she was ousted by George Hurrell (1904-92), perhaps because of his success in transforming Shearer, the wife of production chief Irving Thalberg, into a sex goddess; while Garbo by this time was increasingly insisting on Bull as “her” photographer. Louise’s career declined, and she died of post-natal complications on 12 October 1940.
Biography of Mae Murray by Hans J. Wollstein
“Once you become a star, you are always a star,” Mae Murray once stated, and she fully believed in that credo for the rest of her life — despite having made her final film in 1931, and the final successful one in 1925. Publicized by Florenz Ziegfeld in the 1910s as the “Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips,” Murray had made a professional debut of sorts singing “Comin’ Through the Rye” in a 1906 Lew Fields concoction entitled About Town. She was in the Follies two years later and earned heaps of publicity when substituting for an ailing Irene Castle in Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step (1910). Adolph Zukor of Paramount spotted her in the 1915 version of the Ziegfeld Follies, in which she impersonated Mary Pickford while being chased around by comedian Ed Wynn, and signed her to a screen contract.
Although she attempted to get out of her obligations to Paramount on several occasions, Mae Murray took to Hollywood — and the Hollywood lifestyle — like a fish to water, starring in scores of melodramas with titles such as Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1916), Princess Virtue (1917), Her Body in Bond (1918), The Delicious Little Devil (1919), and On With the Dance (1920), all of them popular and all of them more or less variations on the classic Cinderella tale. Her most frequent director was Robert Z. Leonard and she married him during a break from What Am I Bid? (1919) (having previously divorced New York playboy Jay O’Brien mere days after their highly publicized wedding). The union with Leonard lasted a bit longer and produced Tiffany, a company created to present her in the best light possible.
Releasing through Metro, Murray starred in the popular Peacock Alley (1923) and when the releasing company merged with Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, she became the new conglomeration’s first star. She was delighted when Mayer ushered her into a lavish screen version of The Merry Widow (1925) but clashed throughout with director Erich Von Stroheim, publicly denigrating him as a “dirty Hun.” Surprisingly, the results of all the fighting proved a smash hit and Murray, on the top of the world, added the title of “Princess” to her name by marrying the Ukrainian Prince David Mdivani. Increasingly imperious, she then made the mistake of turning down Women Love Diamonds (1927), which she felt beneath her new status. Pauline Starke replaced her and she was virtually blackballed in Hollywood.
An old friend, Lowell Sherman, came to her rescue but Murray’s appearances in both Bachelor Apartment and High Stakes (both 1931) were downright embarrassing; the years had not been kind and she now rather resembled Mae West but without the humor and talent. She briefly replaced Gladys George in The Milky Way on Broadway and performed in several dance recitals, but when a biography, The Self-Enchanted, appeared in 1959, few remembered her and it was quickly forgotten. Not by Murray, however, and in 1964 she embarked on a self-appointed publicity tour to New York. Sadly, she did not get any further than St. Louis, MO, where she was found, ill and destitute, by the Salvation Army and returned to her home in Hollywood. In her final years, Murray was known to hum a few bars of the “Merry Widow Waltz” in public, lest anyone forgot, and reportedly insisted on being called Princess Mdivani even when dying at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital. With some justification, it has been suggested that Mae Murray was the true inspiration for the character of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s poignant Sunset Boulevard.