“A simple rule, but to me it has been a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.”
Louis B. Mayer in His Own Words
Many of you won’t be surprised to learn that just in time for my great-uncle’s 130th birthday, he reached out to ensure his own words could be heard, instead of merely the volumes that have been written about him, true and otherwise, since his death in 1957.
Two days ago, and completely out of the blue, I was contacted by Brett Leveridge of Guideposts magazine offering to share with me the inspirational article L.B. wrote for the February 1951 issue. In case you aren’t familiar with it, Guideposts was established by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (most notably the author of The Power of Positive Thinking and If You Think You Can You Can) in 1945 to provide inspiration to the returned servicemen of WWII but found, instead, that their most avid readers were women, especially in the midwest and south. Although they initially missed their target audience, nearly 70 years later, Guideposts is still going strong – as is Dr. Peale’s positive thinking message.
As you can imagine, I was stunned and delighted and when I told Brett that the next day would be Louis’ birthday, he was shocked. So I am thrilled to share this article with you, as well as the front cover of that very issue. But first, some context because you may find this story a bit over-sweet but it is important to note that for my great-uncle, his mother represented the very pinnacle, not only of womanhood, but of love. And of course, in Jewish culture, the mother of the family is the young child’s steward into higher ideals, and certainly in his generation, the mother’s role would have been deliberately focused on the religious directive to “Know Him in all your ways,” meaning to also see God in the mundane and every day life.
Tragically, L.B.’s mother would never see his success: Sarah Mayer died in Saint John, New Brunswick from complications of gall bladder surgery in October, 1913. Her death was his greatest sadness.
It is well known that Louis B. Mayer had no more than an elementary school education, so we can assume that these words below were dictated to his secretary Ida Koverman and she polished the final article and the magazine’s editor did the rest. Or, he may even had worked with one of MGM’s greatest writing talents to take his childhood experience, his thoughts about how it had shaped his life and his desire to share his story as a guiding principle for anyone willing to listen and learn.
by Louis B. Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Every man in the world is given moments of light and words of truth. They do not always come at expected times. But once seen, once heard, they return again and again. In moments of danger, of temptation, of pain or sorrow or fear, in times of triumph and high endeavor these tokens move as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.
They do not forsake us.
My mother was a gentle woman of simple faith and love of God. It never entered her heart to doubt that prayer was part of everyday life and that God was a very present help in trouble.
One day when I was a small boy I got into a fight at school, as boys will. My recollection is that the result was a draw, but I may be giving myself a little the best of it. It is most often the loser who is bitter and filled with resentment and vengeance, and I remember distinctly that I was sore in mind as well as in body. When I got home I went about muttering threats of what I was going to do to my opponent when next we met, and it must have been that my vocabulary had been partially, at least, acquired from the older boys at school who thought profanity a sign of manhood.
My mother didn’t seem to be paying any particular attention and went on about her work in her usual serene manner. I was surprised, however, the next day when we were out in the country on a family picnic and she called me aside. “Louis, come here a moment. I want to show you something,” she said.
Now that part of the country near New Brunswick, Canada, was in a beautiful valley, with tall, rugged mountains towering on all sides, perfect for echoes. My mother took me over to a little clearing that faced the mountain wall.
“Now, Louis, say what I heard you say yesterday.” I began to feel embarrassed.
“But I don’t remember saying anything wrong,” I protested weakly.
My mother was never one to dodge an issue. “I do,” she replied. “You said ‘Damn you’!”
I had to nod. I could keep nothing from my mother and she knew it. “Yes, I remember now.”
She touched my arm gently. “Say it now,” she commanded.
I repeated it, as quietly as I could. The words rolled back with startling volume in the echo.
My mother smiled patiently. “Louder, son. Say it louder. Whatever you say, you must be willing to say as loud as you can, to shout it for all to hear.”
I didn’t want to do this very much. But it did not occur to me to disobey my mother. Gentle as she was, she carried the authority vested in her by God where her children were concerned. So I faced the mountains and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Damn you!” Right back it came, like thunder. Like a voice from heaven it denounced me.
“Now,” said my mother, “try it another way. Say ‘Bless you!’ instead.”
I took a long breath and yelled, “Bless you!”
Back came the benediction. “Bless you,” strong, clear, welcome.
“Which do you prefer, my son?” my mother said. “It’s entirely up to you. That is the way life is. It always returns to us what we say to it. If you shout at it and at your fellow man, ‘damn you,’ life and your fellow man will shout it right back at you. If you say to life, to humanity, ‘bless you,’ then your life will be an echo of those words, ‘bless you.’
“Choose ye whom ye shall serve, Louis. You have that choice. As long as you live you will have your choice. Every day, almost every hour, in some way a choice will be presented to you. It says in the Bible, that before you this day is the choice, blessing or cursing. I tell you now, my son, that life will echo back to you what you say to it as surely as you just heard this echo here, and the choice is yours what you shall say for it to echo.”
At that moment, though of course I was impressed by the amazing illustration (and sometimes later sneaked out to that spot to see if I could change the law and get the echo to come out wrong, though it never did), I don’t suppose I realized that my mother had given me a light, a moment of true inspiration. Like every human being, I have sneaked up on life at times and tried to see if I couldn’t break the law of the echo, but I have never succeeded, not once.
As the years went by, that law was confirmed in my experience. The wonderful hope of the lesson became more and more present in my thoughts. The words came back so often, a guide, a reminder. This situation, this moment, this experience, this decision, this person, will echo back to you what you say to it. Back to you will come your own words, and beyond that your own thoughts. What you do now to this man will come back to damn you, or bless you. For many years it has refused to leave me and though I have not always been obedient, it has checked and led me often.
Just a few years ago I had a bad accident when some stablemen put the wrong bridle on the horse I was to ride. The fall was almost the end of me. For many weeks the doctors had little hope and my fate was in the balance.
As I lay on my hospital bed in pain and misery I seemed to hear my mother’s voice again. “You will have your choice as long as you live.” And I began to meditate and to ponder and to wonder what I should give the law of the echo to give back to me. I said to myself, “I am not afraid to die, but I want to live.” That last word echoed back to me. Live. Live. It was strong and clear. So I began to give out that word all the time. Live. It multiplied into life, into strength, into power.
The doctors called it the will to live, making a fight of it. They said I was a “good patient” and that I never gave up and that it made all the difference in the result. But I knew that I was getting back the exact echo of what I had put in, and that was all I could get. If I put in hatred, meanness, revenge, I would get them back. If I tried to speak love, kindness, forgiveness, they would be returned to me. If I said Death, it would come back; if I said Life, it would echo in my experience.
God bless you.
God bless you.
A simple rule, but to me it has been a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.
Postscript: Although Louis B. Mayer used July 4th as his birthday, research indicates that it was actually July 12, 1884. He died of Leukemia on October 29, 1957. Click here to read a collection of articles by some of the many prominent people and entertainment figures who have written for Guideposts over the decades.
Text and front cover copyright and courtesy Guideposts magazine.