In Old Hollywood, whatever happened at the studio lot stayed on the studio lot. And oh, things happened. Smack in the middle of all this was infamous studio head Louis B. Mayer, "The Monster of MGM." For every part of him that was a genius film mogul, there was another part that was a sinister beast. To find out where it all started, read on...
Mayer was a self-made man in every sense of the word. As actress Ann Rutherford put it, "If anybody on earth ever created himself, Louis B. Mayer did." For one thing, Louis Mayer wasn't even his real name: He was born Lazar Meir in July 1884 in the former Russian Empire. If this sounds like humble beginnings, it was—and his childhood was heartbreaking.
Mayer was the epitome of the rigid and terrifying Hollywood studio system. He loved making "discoveries"—he was the man behind screen sirens like Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, and Norma Shearer—and insisted that he made the stars. As he once famously said, a star is "carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody."
In front of his staff, Mayer presented a calm, paternal presence. Behind closed doors, the truth was much different. Multiple insiders witnessed Mayer's infamous temper tantrums, complete with loud sobbing and furious ranting. Most terrifying of all, these rages would go as quickly as they came, and then Mayer would put his icy mask back on again.
When he was a boy, Mayer's family moved from their Soviet hometown to New Brunswick in search of a better life. Sadly, "a better life" isn't what they got. Mayer's parents didn't speak much English, and often couldn't find good work or any work at all. To make ends meet, his mother even worked as a door-to-door chicken sales-woman.
Mayer's family troubles eventually affected the young boy as well. When he was just 12 years old, he had to drop out of school to support his family. He initially helped his dad sell scrap metal, but then branched out into his own business. In the early 1900s, you could see the future studio head walking around town with a cart that read JUNK DEALER.
Mayer thought of himself as a father figure to many of his actors. He often treated them as children, and he'd give them advice and recommend them to doctors. When legendary actor Lionel Barrymore was wheelchair-bound and suffering from arthritis on set, Mayer also visited him every day. But these attentions had a chilling dark side.
Mayer was incredibly controlling of his stars, especially when it came to their image. Mickey Rooney, a prominent teen star at the time, was one of his most frequent targets. When the young, wild Rooney got into trouble one day, Mayer reportedly hauled him up by his lapels and warned, "I don't care what you do in private. Just don't do it in public. In public, behave."
Terrified and chastened, Rooney responded, "I'll be good, Mr. Mayer. I promise you that."
Mayer had bigger dreams than scrap metal, and he set out to revolutionize cinema at the time. When he bought and renovated the Gem Theater in Massachusetts, he turned the once-thriving burlesque house into a modern film paradise. Mayer made his theater stand out with perks like frequently changing movies, five-cent seats for kids, and ladies-only seating sections.
Somehow, Mickey Rooney still had good things to say about Mayer at the end of it all, but not everyone felt the same. Elizabeth Taylor famously clashed with Mayer constantly, and dubbed him a "monster" for the way he tried to rule every detail of her life. And we're not even through with Mayer's horrific behavior.
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Some of the worst allegations against Mayer come from his most famous starlet, Judy Garland. According to Garland, Mayer frequently groped her and made her sit on his lap. At other times, Mayer would "innocently" place his hand on her left breast to show her how to "sing from the heart." The worst part? She was only a teenager at the time.
All this was only the tip of the iceberg of Mayer's mistreatment of Garland. He apparently called her "my little hunchback" because of her short stature and curved spine, and encouraged her to take diet pills to slim down and look less girlish. Thanks in part to Mayer's actions, Garland was plagued with eating disorders and insecurities all the way until her tragic, early end.
Thing is, Mayer just loved working with Garland. In fact, he worked her to the bone over the course of multiple films, until one day the exhausted starlet simply didn't show up. By the time she filmed Summer Stock, her absences were glaring, and when the problems continued on her next film, Mayer fired her outright. Garland's next response was heartbreaking.
Immediately after MGM and Mayer fired her, an unhinged and seemingly unloved Garland tried to take her own life. It was not the first or the last time, but Mayer had already moved on to his next victim.
Mayer slowly built himself up first as a theater owner and then as a producer. After enormous success with films like Birth of a Nation, the mogul really struck gold when he met Marcus Loew. Loew owned Goldwyn Pictures, and wanted to merge the studio with Mayer’s company. Mayer accepted a position as vice president, and the famed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pictures was born.
Mayer was an intense germaphobe and almost certainly a hypochondriac. He spent his entire life obsessing over his health, and made sure to see his doctor every day for around 30 minutes. In fact, Mayer treated her better than he treated his starlets, currying her to and from the studio lot with a professional driver for their tete-a-tetes.
It's hard to overstate how much Mayer was a titan on his time. In the year 1939 alone, MGM released the mega classics Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Greta Garbo's first comedy Ninotchka, all under Mayer's direction.
Marcus Loew passed on soon after the MGM merger, but if Mayer thought he was going to grab the presidency, he was sorely mistaken. Instead, it went to Loew's confidant Nicholas Schenck, and Mayer was none too happy. He and Schenck absolutely despised each other—so Mayer got his revenge in the only way he knew how.
Mayer had come up from nothing, and he had gotten used to playing second fiddle while still getting his way. Even though he didn't have as much power as Schenck, he still tried to turn everyone against the boss by giving him a cruel nickname. Mayer called him "Mr. Skunk" to friends, perhaps hoping the ridicule would slowly loosen Shenck's grip on the company.
Mayer's hatred of Nicholas Schenck reached a boiling point in 1929, when Schenck tried to sell MGM to William Fox—yep, that Fox. Once again, Mayer had pretty much zero real power in the situation, but he wasn't just going to let "Mr. Skunk" do that to his company and then walk away. So he came up with his most sinister plan yet.
Believe it or not, snake supremo Louis B. Mayer went all the way to Washington to delay Schenck's sale. Using his deep pockets and powerful connections, Mayer managed to convince the literal Justice Department itself to stall the agreement by looking into supposed shady dealings. Then something very…"fortunate" happened.
That same summer, William Fox got into a terrible car accident and was out of commission for months on end...right until the stock market crash of 1929. When Fox came to, his entire fortune was gone, and the sale had disappeared with it. Schenck blamed Mayer's delay tactics for the fallout, and never forgave him.
Mayer had a secret weapon for finding out about his stars' personal lives: He would graciously offer an open door to anyone who wanted to discuss their problems with him. While this was probably partly out of genuine interest, it did give him unprecedented insight into his ingenues. As one director put it, "He would prod you and question you and suck you dry of any knowledge."
In 1904, the young and untried Mayer married Margaret Schenberg when he was still working a scrap metal business. Schenberg stayed with him through all of his fame, and they were together for an astonishing 43 years, which is just about an eon in Hollywood time. Not that Mayer thanked her for it (but more on that later).
The studio head's control extended all the way into his starlet's dating histories. Mayer arranged dates and even marriages, and if a relationship blossomed where he didn't want it, he clipped it to the root. When actress June Allyson started dating the married David Rose, Mayer told her in no uncertain terms to end it "If you care about your reputation."
In the hot summer of 1942, Louis B. Mayer received a horrific letter in the mail. In the message, an anonymous writer had scrawled: “MR MAYER, IS YOUR LIFE WORTH $250,000 TO YOU BECAUSE IF IT ISN’T – YOU WILL BE A VERY DEAD MAN INSIDE OF TWO SHORT WEEKS!” True to form, Mayer didn't panic–he got brutally even.
On the surface, Mayer complied with the ransomer's demands that he address the sum of money to a "Robert Sexton" and leave it at the Ambassador Hotel. But when two men came to get the package, they got a nasty surprise instead. The FBI swooped in and detained them. What, like Louis B. Mayer was going to part with that amount of money without telling the authorities?
In 1922, Mayer met one of his most important partners: Irving Thalberg, a romantic visionary who took MGM's storytelling to the next level. Mayer treated him like a son, and the "boy wonder" soon became a huge asset. Where Mayer was business-minded and populist, Thalberg balanced out these cutthroat traits with artistry—until Mayer dealt him a cold-hearted betrayal.
Although Mayer and Thalberg worked together as a dream team for years, it couldn't last. Thalberg wanted to produce more poetic films while Mayer wanted blockbuster crowd pleasers, and they started to butt heads. Then one day, Thalberg suffered a heart attack. While most friends would be worried sick, Mayer only smelled blood in the water...
After his heart attack, Thalberg took time off on the advice of his doctor—and Mayer took the opportunity to kick his longtime friend and collaborator to the curb. He ousted Thalberg as production chief and replaced him with David O. Selznick, a future famed producer in his own right. That had to sting. But it was about to get so much worse.
Thalberg never fully recovered, and he passed on just four short years after Mayer's betrayal at the tender age of 37. In another display of his fickle nature, Mayer was overwhelmed with grief for his so-called "friend." He declared Thalberg “the finest friend a man could ever have,” and closed the MGM studio doors for an entire day. Too little, too late, Louis.
It sounds like Mayer used the same terrifying tactics in the film industry as he did in his family life. Behind his white picket fence, he was still the boss, and ruled his children with an iron fist. As his nephew once revealed, “In our family, all the basic decisions were made by him […] Were we afraid of him? Jesus Christ, yes!"
Mayer's behavior had dark consequences for his private life. He had two daughters with his first wife Margaret Shenberg, Edith and Irene, but they weren't exactly daddy's little girls. By the end of his life, Mayer was bitterly estranged from Edith, and completely disinherited her from his will. Why? Mayer was a staunch conservative, and didn't like her husband's liberal leanings.
One rumor claims that Mayer's villainy even went so far as to cover up a murder. According to the story, Mayer's star Clark Gable was driving recklessly when he collided with another car, slaying someone in the process. To avoid controversy, Mayer lined up a patsy to take the fall. Though this story isn’t confirmed, it does go to show just how blackened Mayer's reputation was.
By the late 1940s, MGM's profits were in decline, and the studio took drastic measures: They ousted Mayer. They somehow did it without his vengeful retaliation, but that didn't mean the man went quietly. When he resigned in 1951, Mayer walked down a red carpet lined with applauding actors. As Turhan Bey said of the sea change: “In every meaningful way, it was the end of Hollywood.”
Mayer made his money on "wholesome" family films. In fact, the very first film he ever showed at one of his theaters was the religious flick From the Manger to the Cross. It doesn’t get much more wholesome than that—too bad his personal life couldn't have been more different.
In line with his whole "wholesome family fun" ethos, Mayer was obsessed with the idea of women as motherly angels, and placed them on a pedestal not only in his movies, but in real life. He once told a screenwriter, "I worship good women...and saintly mothers," even as this fed right into his strict image control of his "pure" starlets.
Mayer was a complicated human, and he did have some bright spots. While he creepily worshipped girls, he did also once defend them in a stunning way. One day, director Eric von Stroheim had the gall to call all women "W—res" in front of Mayer. Appalled, Mayer's infamous temper exploded, and he jumped up and decked von Stroheim so hard, he knocked him to the floor.
It can't be said that Mayer didn't have good instincts. When he wanted one of his personal discoveries, Greer Garson, to act in the heartfelt Mrs. Miniver, she initially refused the matronly title role. Mayer asked her to reconsider, reminding her "to have the same faith in me" that he had showed her. When Garson finally agreed, Mayer was proven right tenfold.
Though many see Mayer as a tasteless blockbuster maker—and, well, he sort of was—he did have artistic integrity. During his time at MGM, he was known to care only about making the best film, not the cheapest film. When one of his bosses told him to "cut, cut" a film for economy, Mayer reportedly sniped, "A studio isn't salami."
Mayer ate, slept, and breathed the MGM studio. His normal working day was over 12 hours long, and he spent most of that time on the MGM lot. Under the advice of fellow mogul William Randolph Hearst, he even built a bungalow that could function as both his office and his living quarters while he worked away on MGM's massive output.
Mayer might have been known for his outbursts, but it's hard to say which of these tantrums were real. The studio head had a notorious ability to cry on cue.
While Mayer trawled the streets selling scrap metal, he met the man who would become one of his heroes: John Wilson, who started giving him all his copper trimmings. Mayer was called a lot of things, but disloyal was never one of them. Even though there was a huge age gap between them, the young Mayer considered Wilson his best friend, and the first business partner he ever had.
Though everyone expected Mayer to fail without Thalberg's visionary touch...he most certainly did not. If this kid could make it through the mean streets selling scrap metal, he could make it through the lion's den that was Hollywood. In fact, MGM was so successful, Mayer became the first American ever to earn a million-dollar salary.
Mayer was a movie mogul, but he had little faith in future film technologies. He didn't like television, and he thought color in film was an unnecessary extravagance, even though he produced The Wizard of Oz, one of the first and most famous color movies. He couldn’t even get behind wide-screen formats! Get with the times, old man.
We may have Louis B. Mayer to thank for the Oscars. Mayer was largely responsible for founding the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, AKA the group that chooses the Oscars. Along with some fellow film workers, Mayer wanted to make something that would harmonize film studios, and with this came the Academy Awards.
Mayer wasn't afraid to misuse his power when it came to the boardroom, but this also went for the bedroom. After meeting actress Jean Howard, Mayer decided he had to have her at whatever cost. When she declined his advances, he then chased her around the room, trying to force her to reconsider. When that didn't work, he really took "creep" to the next level.
In order to get away from Mayer's unwanted attentions, Howard jumped into the arms of agent Charles Feldman. Mayer's response was swift and brutal. He immediately banned Feldman from visiting the MGM lot under any circumstances, and didn't let any of Feldman's clients work for MGM for a good long while. Sore loser, much?
Mayer was absolutely horrific to Jean Howard, but he did love her in his own, twisted way. He had even proposed to her and promised to divorce his wife if she would have him. So when he finally accepted the cold fact that she didn't love him back, he took it very hard, even reportedly trying to end his life with a drunken jump from a window.
Mayer's wife Margaret stood with him through all his infamy and philandering, but in 1947 she finally had enough. That year, the pair divorced after over four decades of marriage. If Mayer was heartbroken, he sure had a funny way of showing it. He married his second wife, Lorena Layson, just a year later in 1948. They remained together until his passing.
Karma's a witch, and Mayer's dark end was as tormented as some of his ingenues. At the age of 73, he was hobbled by leukemia and hanging onto life by a thread. On his very last day on Earth, he went through 20 blood transfusions before hallucinating, falling into a coma, and finally passing. Not an end I'd wish on my worst enemy.
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