Louis B. Mayer

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For the North Carolina jurist, see Louis B. Meyer.
Louis B. Mayer
Louis B. Mayer and wife.jpg
Mayer with wife, 1948
Born Lazar Meir
(1884-07-12)July 12, 1884
Minsk, Russian Empire (now present-day Belarus)
Died October 29, 1957(1957-10-29) (aged 73)
Los Angeles, US
Occupation Film producer
Studio executive
Years active 1915–1950
Board member of
Spouse(s) Margaret Shenberg
(1904–1947; divorced)
Lorena Layson
(1948–1957; his death)
Partner(s) Beatrice Roberts
Children Edith (Edie) Mayer (1905–1987)
Irene Mayer Selznick (1907–1990)

Louis Burt Mayer (/ˈm.ər/; born Lazar Meir; July 12, 1884[1] – October 29, 1957) (Russian: Лазарь Меир) was a Russian born, Canadian-American film producer. He is generally cited as the creator of the "star system" within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in its golden years. He was one of the founders of AMPAS famous for its "Oscars" Academy Award.[2] Known always as Louis B. Mayer and often simply as "L.B.", he believed in wholesome entertainment and went to great lengths so that MGM had "more stars than there are in the heavens".[3]

Early life[edit]

Born Lazar Meir, possibly on July 12, 1884, to a Jewish family in Minsk, Russian Empire.[1][4] His parents were Jacob Meir and Sarah Meltzer and he had two sisters—Yetta, born in 1878, and Ida, born in 1883. Mayer first moved with his family to Rhode Island, where they lived from 1887 to 1892 and where his two brothers were born—Rubin, in April 1888,[5] and Jeremiah, in April 1891.[6] Then, they moved to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and Mayer attended school there which he did not enjoy very much.[7] His father started a scrap metal business, J. Mayer & Son. In 1904, the 19-year-old Mayer left Saint John for Boston, where he continued for a time in the scrap metal business, married, and took a variety of odd jobs to support his family when his junk business lagged.

Early career[edit]

Mayer renovated the Gem Theater, a rundown, 600 seat burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts,[8] which he reopened on November 28, 1907 as the Orpheum, his first movie theater. To overcome the unfavorable reputation that the building once had in the community, Mayer decided to debut with the showing of a religious film. Years later, Mayer would say that the premiere at the Orpheum was From the Manger to the Cross,[9] although most sources place the release date of that film as 1912.[10] Within a few years, he owned all five of Haverhill's theaters, and, with Nathan H. Gordon, created the Gordon-Mayer partnership that controlled the largest theater chain in New England.[11]

In 1914, the partners organized their own film distribution agency in Boston. Mayer paid D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to show The Birth of a Nation (1915) in New England. Although Mayer made the bid on a film that one of his scouts had seen, but he had not, his decision netted him over $100,000.[12] Mayer partnered with Richard A. Rowland in 1916 to create Metro Pictures Corporation, a talent booking agency, in New York City.

Two years later, Mayer moved to Los Angeles and formed his own production company, Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. The first production was 1918's Virtuous Wives.[13] A partnership was set up with B. P. Schulberg to make the Mayer-Schulberg Studio. Mayer's big breakthrough, however, was in April 1924 when Marcus Loew, owner of the Loew's chain, merged Metro Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn's Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Mayer Pictures into Metro-Goldwyn. Loew had bought Metro and Goldwyn some months before, but could not find anyone to oversee his new holdings on the West Coast. Mayer, with his proven success as a producer, was an obvious choice. He was named head of studio operations and a Loew's vice president, based in Los Angeles, reporting to Loew's longtime right-hand man Nicholas Schenck. He would hold this post for the next 27 years. Before the year was out, Mayer added his name to the studio with Loew's blessing, renaming it Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Loew died in 1927, and Schenck became president of Loew's. Mayer and Schenck hated each other intensely; Mayer reportedly referred to his boss, whose name was pronounced "Skenk," as "Mr. Skunk" in private.[14] Two years later, Schenck agreed to sell Loew's – and MGM – to William Fox, which angered Mayer. But despite his important role in MGM, Mayer was not a shareholder, and had no standing to challenge the sale. So he instead used his Washington connections to persuade the Justice Department to delay the merger on antitrust grounds. During the summer of 1929, Fox was severely injured in an auto accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash had wiped out his fortune, destroying any chance of the deal going through even if the Justice Department had lifted its objections. Nonetheless, Schenck believed Mayer had cost him a fortune and never forgave him, causing an already frigid relationship to get even worse.

MGM boss[edit]

With Joan Crawford at the premiere of Torch Song (1953)

As a studio boss, Louis B. Mayer built MGM into the most financially successful motion picture studio in the world and the only one to pay dividends throughout the Great Depression. Although he initially got along well with production chief Irving Thalberg, their relationship soon frayed over philosophical differences. Thalberg preferred literary works over the crowd-pleasers Mayer wanted. He ousted Thalberg as production chief in 1932 while Thalberg was recovering from a heart attack and replaced him with producer David O. Selznick, among others, until Thalberg's death in 1936, when Mayer became head of production as well as studio chief. He became the first person in American history to earn a million-dollar salary. For nine years from 1937, when he earned $1,300,000—equivalent to $21,326,620 today[15]—Mayer was the highest-paid man in the United States.[16]

Under Mayer, MGM produced many successful films with high earning stars, including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Lon Chaney, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and many others. Mayer was ruthless when negotiating to keep his actors' salaries low, even using blackmail to pay Gable below his worth,[17] although Katharine Hepburn referred to him as a "nice man" and claimed she personally negotiated many of her contracts with Mayer. Elizabeth Taylor described Mayer as a monster,[18] but other actors, such as Robert Taylor,[17] Jane Powell,[19] Greer Garson,[20] and Hedy Lamarr,[21] Mickey Rooney and Van Johnson viewed him as a father figure; Mayer even gave away Garland during her wedding to film director Vincente Minnelli.[22] Roddy McDowall described him as

a very tough, able, responsible, energetic, and sometimes demonaic creature. The figure of such tremendous theatricality. All those scenes he put on to accomplish his ends. Weeping and wailing. That was his way ... So, there Mr. Mayer was daddy, and so on and so on. Mr. Mayer was a very shrewd guy.[23]

Esther Williams said that

MGM, as far as L. B. Mayer was concerned, was one big happy family. Well, he used the word "happy". Lot of people weren't happy. He thought he was our father. First of all, he was the son of a pushcart junk dealer, and here he has all this power. What does he come up with so that he can get by with it and his lack of education and culture? Intimidation! That was his number one tool. He was such an actor; the biggest ham on the lot. Oh, he'd throw himself on the floor and foam at the mouth. I always wondered what he would put in his mouth so he could do that.[24]

Later years and fall from power[edit]

In 1948, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948), a Supreme Court decision severed the connection between film studios and the movie theater chains that showed their films (though it would be another six years before Loew's sold majority control of MGM). The introduction of television and changing public tastes, also reduced MGM's prestige. Under instruction to control costs and hire "a new Thalberg", Mayer hired writer and producer Dore Schary as production chief. Schary, who was 20 years younger than Mayer, advocated message pictures over Mayer's preference for "wholesome" films.

By 1951, MGM had gone three years without a major Academy Award, which provoked further conflict between Mayer and Schenck. Believing that Mayer could not turn the tide, Schenck fired Mayer from the post he had held for 27 years, replacing him with Schary. The firing reportedly came after Mayer called New York and issued an ultimatum--"It's him or me" (or "It's either me or Schary", depending on the source). Mayer tried to stage a boardroom coup but failed and largely retired from public life.

Personal life[edit]

Mayer had two daughters from his first marriage to Margaret Shenberg. The eldest, Edith (Edie) Mayer (August 14, 1905 – 1987), whom he would later become estranged from and disinherit, married producer William Goetz (who served as vice president for Twentieth-Century Fox and later became president of Universal Pictures). The younger daughter, Irene Gladys Mayer (1907–1990), married producer David O. Selznick and became a successful theatrical producer.

Mayer lived on Saint Cloud Road in the East Gate Bel Air section of Los Angeles, California.[25]

Active in Republican Party politics, Mayer served as the vice chairman of the California Republican Party from 1931 to 1932, and as its state chairman between 1932 and 1933.

As a delegate to the 1928 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Louis B. Mayer supported Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover of California. Mayer became friends with Joseph R. Knowland, Marshall Hale, and James Rolph, Jr. Joseph Schenck was an alternate delegate at the convention. L.B. was a delegate to the 1932 Republican National Convention with fellow California Republicans Joseph R. Knowland, James Rolph, Jr. and Earl Warren. Mayer endorsed the second term of President Herbert Hoover.

Mayer also loved boats and racehorses, and owned a number of each. [26]

Thoroughbred horse racing hobby[edit]

Mayer owned or bred a number of successful thoroughbred racehorses at his 504-acre (2.0 km2) ranch in Perris, California, 72 miles (116 km) east of Los Angeles.

In the 2005 biography, Lion of Hollywood, author Scott Eyman wrote that: "Mayer built one of the finest racing stables in the United States" and that he "almost single-handedly raised the standards of the California racing business to a point where the Eastern thoroughbred establishment had to pay attention." Among his horses was Your Host, sire of Kelso, the 1945 U.S. Horse of the Year, Busher, and the 1959 Preakness Stakes winner, Royal Orbit. Eventually Mayer sold off the stable, partly to finance his divorce in 1947. His 248 horses brought more than $4.4 million. In 1976, Thoroughbred of California magazine named him "California Breeder of the Century".

Death and legacy[edit]

Louis B. Mayer died of leukemia on October 29, 1957.[27] He was interred in the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California. His sister, Ida Mayer Cummings, and brothers Jerry and Rubin are also interred there.

  • The primary screening facility for Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television—the Mayer Theatre—is named after him. Mayer permitted the university's sports teams to use the MGM lion as their mascot.[28]
  • The main theatre at Santa Clara University bears his name.
  • Mayer was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1990.
  • A street in Laval, Quebec a suburb of Montreal, Quebec holds the name of Louis-B-Mayer.
  • The Louis B. Mayer Research Laboratories building at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston opened in 1988.
  • Former MGM Studio Lot in Culver City, is now Sony Pictures Studios.

Mayer has been portrayed numerous times in film and television including:

Jacqueline Susann portrayed Mayer in Valley of the Dolls as Cyril H. Bean, referred to by his employees as "The Head".

Mayer has a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.[29]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Despite this, Louis B Mayer maintained that he was born in Minsk, Russian Empire, on July 4, 1885. According to Scott Eyman, the reasons were any one of the following:
    • Mayer's father gave different dates for his birthplace at different times, so Mayer was not comfortable specifying a date;
    • It was part of Mayer's sense of showmanship and, being born on July 4, seemed to stand for patriotism and had a certain ring to it;
    • "He needed to believe in a myth of self-creation which, in his case, was not far off the mark;" :)
    • When Lazar was young, his family moved to Minsk and constantly moved around in the general area of Vilnius/Minsk/Kiev;
    • As Jews, they felt insecure and therefore were reluctant to be specific.
  2. ^ Land of Ancestors: Louis Burt Mayer. September 3, 2012. Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  3. ^ McLean, Adrienne L. (ed.), Glamour in a Golden Age: Movie Stars of the Nineteen Hundred and Thirties. Rutgers University Press, 2011, p. 6.
  4. ^ Eyman (2005) p.18-19
  5. ^ According to Scott Eyman the year is 1889, but according to the Saint John District Census 1901 Index the year is 1888
  6. ^ Eyman (2005) p.19
  7. ^ Eyman (2005) p.22
  8. ^ Rosenberg, Chaim M. The Great Workshop: Boston's Victorian Age. Arcadia Publishing, 2004. p60.
  9. ^ "Mr. Motion Picture." TIME Magazine, November 11, 1957.
  10. ^ Louis B. Mayer at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ Current Biography 1943. pp521-524.
  12. ^ Id.
  13. ^ Louis B. Mayer at the Internet Movie Database
  14. ^ Háy, Peter (1991). MGM: When the Lion Roars. Turner Publications. ISBN 978-1-878685-04-9. 
  15. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  16. ^ Friedrich, Otto (1986). City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in 1940s. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 15. ISBN 0-520-20949-4. 
  17. ^ a b Schulberg, Budd (December 7, 1998). "LOUIS B. MAYER: Lion Of Hollywood". Time. Retrieved March 24, 2011. 
  18. ^ Molloy, Joanna (March 24, 2011). "Lies and suffering lurked behind Taylor's glamour, but she selflessly helped thousands to fight AIDS". Daily News (New York). 
  19. ^ Lawler, Sylvia (October 16, 1986). "Jane Powell Finally Has Learned How To Get Off The Treadmill". The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania). Retrieved April 22, 2012. 
  20. ^ Troyan, Michael (2005). A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson. University Press of Kentucky. p. 260. ISBN 0-8131-9150-5. 
  21. ^ Shearer, Stephen Michael. Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. Macmillan. p. 39. ISBN 0-312-55098-7. 
  22. ^ Griffin, Mark (2010). A Hundred Or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli. Da Capo Press. p. 103. ISBN 0306818930. 
  23. ^ Stewart, Patrick (host). "The Lion Reigns Supreme". MGM: When the Lion Roars.
  24. ^ Stewart, Patrick (host). "The Lion in Winter 1946-86". MGM: When the Lion Roars.
  25. ^ "Biography for Louis B. Mayer," IMDb
  26. ^ A Private View, Selznick, Irene Mayer (New York, 1983)
  27. ^ Obituary Variety, October 30, 1957, page 87.
  28. ^ Johnson, Ross (May 22, 2005). "To Be as a City Upon a (Hollywood) Hill". The New York Times. Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  29. ^ Canada's Walk of Fame

Bibliographic references[edit]

External links[edit]