Happy Birthday to my great-uncle Louis B. Mayer. Co-founder MGM Studios, the MPAA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, MPDAA, funder of spies to infiltrate American pro-Nazi groups, family man, Saint Johnner.
He was the eldest son of Sarah (nee Meltzer) and Jacob Meier (later Mayer); the father of Edie and Irene; husband to Margaret (1904-1947) and of Lorena Layson (1948-1957 at his death), and stepfather of Suzanne (who he adopted). Younger brother to Yetta and Irene, and older brother to Ruben and Gershon. He was grandfather to Barbara and Judy Goetz, and Danny and Jeffrey Selznick.
He was tough, he was visionary, he was emotional. He was proud to be an American citizen. He created the finest studio in the land and stellar careers for hundreds of people and together they all left a legacy of thousands of wonderful films. He appointed Ruth Harriet Louise, the first female head of MGM’s photographic studio and would remain the only female head of ANY major studio; appointed Ruth Mathis as the first female executive, who made Valentino’s career and was at one point the highest paid of any studio exec; his own physician was a woman – Dr Jessie Marmorston and he held her in the highest esteem. He was best friend to director Clarence Brown and my great-grandmother Ida Mayer Cummings, who he supported.
Sarah with her five children – Yetta, Ida, Louis, Rubin and Gershon. Most likely Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, 1890s.
His family fled the pogroms of Russia and Belarus. He experienced poverty and hunger. He lived through the Spanish Flu, WWI, WWII, and the Korean War. He experienced anti-Semitism and discrimination. He gave heavily to charity (including the LA Jewish Home for the Aged to ensure the elderly lived their last years in dignity and comfort), to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and to his community. He loved horses and had one of the finest Thoroughbred stables in the US. He was deeply loyal – if you had helped him as a child and/or as a young man, he would support you for life. For most, he was ‘Mr. Mayer’ and for some, he was that son of a bitch.
As time and film historians and biographers like Scott Eyman and Eve Golden and others have shown, he didn’t ‘drug’ Judy Garland (he loved her like his own child) or kill John Gilbert’s career (he managed that himself). Yes, he probably hated the Marx Bros. Yes, Luise Rainer, who came from an upper class European Jewish family thought he was beneath her and couldn’t stand him and expected more from the studio after her Oscar. Yes, his daughter Irene was best friends with Katharine Hepburn and she thought he was swell and they both loved a day at the races.
So on July 12th, think about what Louis B. Mayer achieved from the young kid who dove into the frigid waters of Saint John, New Brunswick for scrap metal to help support his family, through to the man who helped create Hollywood and a multi-million dollar business that supported thousands of American families and those in overseas MGM offices, and give him his due.
Happy Birthday, Uncle Louis!