It has been a tough week. There have now been several high profile news outlets that have not only claimed Louis B. Mayer was a ‘sexual predator’ but stated it as a matter of fact, and positioned him not only as Harvey Weinstein’s antecedent but the root of all evil in Hollywood. Variety has now made these claims in a major story and another about the casting couch, and there have been many, many others. It has been a tsunami of insane hate and vitriol.*
There were at least three studio moguls who were ‘known’ in this regard, but Louis B. Mayer was not one of them. The closest he came to this was pursuing bumbling relationships after the end of his 25-year marriage, and ultimately marrying Lorena Danker in 1948. They were together until his death in 1957.
I have heard from my cousin Daniel Mayer Selznick, his only living grandchild and the son of David O’Selznick and Irene Mayer, and here are some of his comments on the matter:
“This is just appalling!! Louis B. Mayer may have been the ONLY major studio executive who DID NOT engage in intimate relations… This is what my father used to call “cheap journalism”: pick a famous name and throw it around freely.
When my mother took me to see Judy [Garland] at the Palace, we went backstage and Judy was very upset about the negative things she had read about Louis B. She was particularly incensed that some journalist claimed he had caused her to be addicted! ‘On the contrary,’ I remember her clearly saying, ‘I begged him to give me anything that would keep me working: that was my salvation!!'”
Regarding the Judy Garland groping allegations that always come up: it is my understanding that her daughters have stated that Louis B. Mayer only ever treated her as if she was one of his own children, and their mother regretted making those accusations. And the reporting that L.B. made a pass at Shirley Temple appears to be a conflation of a story she tells about Arthur Freed exposing himself on her first day at M-G-M.
[WATCH] Daniel Selznick talks about Judy Garland and Louis B. Mayer (just under 2 minutes).
I feel like what’s left of my work to reposition Uncle Louis’ legitimately incredible legacy (on the wonderful foundation of Scott Eyman’s biography, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer) is in tatters thanks to journalists such as Variety’s Brent Lang and Elizabeth Wagmeister, who simply have no idea how incredibly wrong and unfair these claims are. (Here’s my earlier piece on this issue.)
I fought back and won when my great uncle was accused of being a Nazi collaborator but somehow this feels like a game-changer and I can’t keep pace with it all. The response on my official Facebook page has been incredibly supportive, but right now I need a larger voice than mine to counter the flood.
Just to give you a sense of how desperate journalists have become, it was reported in a major news outlet that Joan Collins wasn’t cast as Cleopatra because she wouldn’t sleep with Louis B. Mayer. Let’s do the dates: Cleopatra was released in 1963 by 20th Century-Fox. Louis B. Mayer died in 1957 of leukemia and was ousted from M-G-M in 1951. Clearly that story is impossible.
Somewhere along the way, Louis B. Mayer became the mogul Americans love to hate. It is this irrational thing that overshadows his remarkable achievements as an individual, for his family, for M-G-M, for the film industry, for Los Angeles, and for the country. During his nearly 30 years at the helm, the studio produced 800 films, thousands were employed, some of the greatest talent the world has ever produced had the jobs of their dreams.
So why is he always dragged into the mud? Because a few actors and actressed had grudges about roles they didn’t get? Because Garlandites want to hang on to the notion that she was ‘fed pills’ by some svengali figure? Because of anti-Semitism?
Here’s Norma Shearer, actress and wife of M-G-M executive producer Irving Thalberg, on all the supposed disagreements between the two men, which are always cast negatively against L.B.:
“Mr. Mayer and Mr. Thalberg were much too busy trying to run the studio and make good pictures to indulge in selfish bickerings, which some have chosen to dramatize.”
Now, for some hard truths. Did Louis B. Mayer and others in the M-G-M executive turn a blind eye? Probably. But sadly those were the times. Many men saw women as fair game — everywhere and around the world — as they had for millenia. The fight for equality, on so many levels, would start decades later and it continues on.
Society during the silent film era and the Classic Hollywood years (1910s-1950s) wasn’t a pretty one in several directions. There was endemic racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.
But did Louis B. Mayer personally counsel men to keep it in their pants? We’ll never know. What I do know is his love for his mother deeply affected how he approached women, not only in his personal life but in terms of the films he wanted M-G-M to make. He held women in very high esteem and expected others to do so too.
And as far as M-G-M employees, stars, producers and directors were concerned: as long as people kept their private life under wraps, they could live and work quite happily at M-G-M. When it would come undone is when they couldn’t toe the line, which was fundamental to the studio system, but also mirrored the paternalistic approach to leadership in businesses, families, and communities, generally. It wasn’t just the Mayer way or the highway. In fact, the studio system was a crazy mix of dictatorship and socialism: all for one, one for all, so long as we all follow the same rules.
Obviously that doesn’t sit right with us today, but that doesn’t change history, nor does it give us the right to view the past through the lens of this moment, right now. But it does serve to make us more clear about what we will no longer tolerate. So let’s hope the good that can come from the Weinstein debacle is true change, and not just in Hollywood, of course.
According to Shaun Chang of the movie/TV blog Hill Place, when he interviewed Ann Rutherford she said L.B. ran a family oriented studio and took care of his people. She shared the story of telling Louis B. Mayer she wanted to buy her mother a house in order to persuade him to give her regular raises. She knew he was deeply sentimental. At Fox, Darryl Zanuck retaliated when she rejected his advances by putting her in B movies and loaning her out to Republic.
Joan Crawford** should have the final word. Here’s what she had to say about Louis B. Mayer, the casting couch and more – and I think it’s very telling:
“…at Metro we were lucky because Louis B. didn’t believe in the casting couch routine… Mayer decided that his stars should be totally immune to the temptations of sex, alcohol, gambling, fast driving, drugs, flying, profanity, etc… He may have been a tyrant at times, but he taught me discipline, and he made me feel that I could be a star, and he made me act like a star.”
So, I am hoping for a miracle here…
*My heart goes out to all the women directly affected by Harvey Weinstein’s actions, and the flood of women, like me, who have been inspired to share our own stories of rape and sexual harrassment. I want to make clear this article is purely about the impact the Harvey Weinstein revelations have had on my great-uncle’s legacy and reputation. How I feel about Weinstein’s deplorable actions are a separate matter altogether.
**Thank you to Joan Crawford expert and collector Ryun Johnston for bringing my attention to that wonderul quote.