On October 29th, 1957 Louis B. Mayer died from leukemia, a disease that would claim his nephew, the youngest child of my great-grandmother, Ida Mayer Cummings, only eight years later in 1965.
In my earlier post, To Bury a Son, I wrote about Leonard’s premature passing at just 44 years old. In the process of researching his life and death, I discovered that Ida had not only buried her youngest son but all three of her brothers, including L.B., who for much of her life was the closest to her. I can’t imagine how painful each loss must have been.
With two deaths from leukemia, but a couple of generations removed, I fervently hoped it had been banished back to the Stygian depths where it could never claim another family member. When my youngest son began suffering from massive nose bleeds, I had a deep dread that perhaps he too had this horrible disease. Thankfully, he was soon cleared of anything insidious, the nose bleeds stopped, and that frightening shadow evaporated…
While I never knew my great-uncle – he died more than a decade before I was born – his influence stretched across even to my generation, though naturally, his reach is fading as time rolls on. What has often shocked and confused me, though, is that despite being instrumental in creating what many consider the greatest Classic Hollywood studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, over the years he has become the mogul people ‘love to hate.’
And believe me, I have seen all of the worst myths spread again and again until, unfortunately, everyone believes them as fact: he got Judy Garland hooked on drugs; he maliciously killed John Gilbert’s career (even tip-toeing in to fiddle with sound knobs!); he was a philanderer; he wickedly conspired with whole police departments and independently owned newspapers to suppress murders and suicides; and on and on it goes.
If you were to take these views as a composite, as so many do, what emerges is an evil man who spent all his time plotting and meddling. Frankly, if this was true, there would be no MGM, nor any of the stellar careers he helped to create, or the vast output of now classic movies we all love, or the many who pointed to him as the sole reason they had a platform for their talents.
Over the last decade or so, modern biographers, such as Scott Eyman and Eve Golden, have provided essential context to his actions and/or have totally debunked these unfair views.
For instance, regarding Judy Garland, MGM put faith in ‘modern’ drugs to help her deal with weight and mood fluctuations. There was nothing malicious about it; the entire world thought these drugs provided miracle cures. In fact, my great-uncle had a deep affection for Judy Garland, and her own daughters have spoken about how privately their mother praised ‘Mr. Mayer’, but publicly made claims they said she later regretted.
In her terrific biography John Gilbert: The Last of The Silent Film Stars, Eve Golden showed that sadly, he killed his own career.
Of course there are many other stories told about L.B. – and naturally some are true, too. He was certainly no angel but then again, he wasn’t running a convent.
At MGM he employed some of the world’s finest talents across a huge creative spectrum. Many sang his praises and said how grateful they were to have been a part of the world’s greatest studio. But others had their beefs and hated the man. When running a multi-million dollar, complex, creative enterprise over three decades you are not going to make everyone happy all of the time. He was the boss, but he also answered to Loews Corporation, the board, and other shareholders. He was also emotional, demanding, hot-headed, and powerful.
I was recently pondering Luise Rainer’s outright hatred of L.B. and then it hit me: she came from an upper class European Jewish family, and L.B. was from the shtetl; she was elegant, educated, and well-spoken, and saw herself above him. She hated that he controlled her career, was angry that she was let go, despite her Oscar. What she failed to understand is that Oscar is a golden statue, not a golden ticket. When you look at their relationship through the a more complex socio-cultural lens, you get light and shadow in her opinions.
What confuses me is how willing people are to not consider any context whatsoever. Even worse, some of the most pernicious views about him also seem to have an anti-Semitic element, and that troubles me greatly. I’ve received, and stumbled across, some pretty awful comments that can only be described as hate speech.
Then there are the books that should never have been published. Most were from decades ago from so-called ‘biographers’ who played fast and loose with the facts, but from June 2013, I spent about 18 months fighting a now discredited book that claimed my great-uncle had collaborated with Hitler and the Nazis. Of course he didn’t do this, in fact, he and others, including Irving Thalberg, secretly funded spies to infiltrate local pro-Nazi groups.
There are probably other actions he and others took during this time, but you don’t slap covert activity onto the cover of Variety magazine. As well, the studios wanted to release more anti-Nazi films but they also had to contend with Hays Office’s strictures on what could and couldn’t be released. It was a complex time, not to mention the anti-Semitism these Jewish moguls faced across all facets of their personal and professional lives.
And yet, as soon as the book’s publicity and the book itself were released, tens of thousands repeated the worst one can believe of a Jew, and this shocked me to my core. Eventually, this book was torn to pieces by many eminent historians – I covered this extensively here on my blog. Yet recently, a popular Classic Hollywood podcast used a shocking quote along these same lines as a promotional headline – for as long as we have the internet, this horrific descriptor will have a life. If my great-uncle was alive today, it would surely be the subject of a libel action.
Regardless of the lies and myths, Louis B. Mayer’s legacy to the film business and film lovers endures and stretches across the globe. Whether they know it or not, today’s filmmakers stand on the shoulders of the thousands of talented people he employed at MGM. But as the mogul you love to hate, my great-uncle’s huge achievements have been squashed in favor of nasty opinions, books that focus on sensationalist stories, and click-bait.
So for this post there were many photos I could choose from – serious portraits of the mogul or sitting at an Academy Award dinner surrounded by the many stars whose careers he helped to create – but instead I chose the young man before the fame, at a simpler time and enjoying a lighthearted and rather unlikely pursuit. I doubt anyone has ever thought of L.B. picking fruit or being fed an apple.
Clearly, he and his wife, Margaret – not yet the mother of his two daughters, Edith and Irene – are having a fun time, camping it up for the camera. What makes this photo so special to me is that it is before Hollywood, before MGM; before the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Oscars; before the Motion Picture Association of America; before the deals, the schmooze, the headlines, the money, the legend…
Before, when there was just the man.
Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012 – 2016.