The man’s phone was always ringing. Whether it was Jean Harlow, panicking that her lover William Powell had knocked her up, or a security guard reporting that he had removed a loud-mouthed Spencer Tracy from a bar, or even Marlene Dietrich freaking out after discovering John Gilbert’s dead body – Howard Strickling was the guy to call.
Strickling was the head of publicity for MGM and thus “handled” any potentially scandalous matters for the studio’s stars. For about three decades, from the 1930s through the 1960s, Strickling worked with MGM’s general manager, Eddie Mannix. Together, they kept the carefully selected image that MGM had built for its movie stars. It was all about appearance, after all. So, at the end of the day, anything that could possibly damage that image had to be “fixed.”
Once a thug who hung out with mobsters, Eddie Mannix first caught the attention of two film-executive brothers, Nick and Joseph Schenck, while he was working construction at their amusement park in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He later joined the MGM studio around the time of its inception and worked there for the rest of his life until his death in 1963.
Mannix had a hand in covering up “every day” misdemeanors, such as car wrecks and pregnancies, as well as some of the most horrible scandals in the history of Hollywood. It was also Mannix’s job, as the studio’s accountant and general manager, to keep the boat afloat. So, he might just be more responsible for the longevity of MGM than any other big wig at the studio.
Strickling was a former journalist who moved over to MGM publicity back in 1919. He controlled how the press reported on all of MGM’s stars and films (this was back in the day when studios basically owned their actors). Strickling was the guy who made sure that scandals didn’t make their way to the papers.
Such a job typically meant that he had to give reporters different stories to print instead, so he gave them stories about other film stars as a means of misdirection. When Jean Harlow became pregnant from her affair with William Powell, Strickling made sure “Mrs. Jean Carpenter” entered Good Shepherd Hospital “to get some rest.” Only her private doctors and nurses entered room 826, where she had been treated for an “appendectomy.”
While Strickling was focused on distracting the media, Mannix was busy arranging to get unruly stars out of the drunk tank, paying off the victims of their car wrecks and fistfights, and even arranging abortions. When Mannix didn’t manage to efficiently scare one of the actors himself, he would call in an old buddy from New Jersey (aka a “wise guy”) who would deliver the message for him.
Mannix and Strickling would read every telegram that was sent or received through the studio, including the stars’ personal messages. It was just one of the many ways they were able to stay on top of any trouble that might be brewing.
Being on top of the inner drama meant they could plan how to respond to a scandal before it happened, or better yet – prevent it from happening in the first place. Mannix settled into the role of all-around fixer. In the meantime, he developed close friendships with some of these stars, like Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy — whom he was like family to.
Despite their close bond, Mannix also had the tendency to be extremely unforgiving to those under his watch. To give you an idea: He had a sign on his desk that read, “THE ONLY STAR AT MGM IS LEO THE LION!”
Mannix and Strickling squashed almost every tabloid headline imaginable. When Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, and too many other MGM actresses found themselves with child out of wedlock, these two arranged hasty abortions. As he did with Jean Harlow (“Mrs. Carpenter”), they covered up these hospital visits with false names and ailments.
Jeanette MacDonald, for example, had an “ear infection.” Ava Gardner once discussed the abortion she had when she was married Frank Sinatra, who had no idea about it. “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies,” Gardner said in The Golden Girls of MGM.
“If I had one,” Gardner explained, “my salary would be cut off. So how could I make a living? Frank was broke, and my future movies were going to take me all over the world. I couldn’t have a baby with that sort of thing going on.” The starlet revealed how MGM (aka Mannix and Strickling) made all the arrangements for her… It was “hush-hush… very discreet.”
But the starlets’ unwanted pregnancies were not the only things these fixers fixed. The men had their share of activities that needed to be dealt with. Spencer Tracy, for one, was a known drinker.
Well aware of Spencer Tracy’s boozing, Strickling assigned a whole “Tracy Squad” ambulance team complete with a driver, doctor, and four “attendants” who were actually security guards. The squad was a special procedure the fixers had in place for whenever Tracy fell off the wagon.
They would find Tracy going on bar-destroying benders every few years during the ‘30s (eventually, Tracy kept his boozing spells to the Beverly Hills Hotel). Keeping Tracy in line was practically a full-time job for Mannix. E.J. Fleming, who wrote the book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine said that Tracy was an “awful human being.”
Fleming also noted that Tracy was “a real nasty drunk who would punch fans in the face if they asked for an autograph.” Mannix arranged it so that every bar and restaurant within a 30-mile radius of MGM would have a special hotline to call if Tracy walked in.
If called, the Tracy Squad would be dispatched to literally carry the film star out. Tracy, as well as Clark Gable, was a frequent patron at a brothel on Sunset Boulevard, and Mannix colluded with police to ensure that fact never emerged.
Fleming also mentioned that once Mannix took care of a problem, he “owned” the actor. And if a “difficult” film star refused Strickling and/or Mannix’s assistance in fixing up his/her problem, the fixers had no problem throwing them under the bus.
The closeted actor Nils Asther refused to keep up his bogus marriage to actress Vivian Duncan for a single moment longer and ignored Strickling’s insistence to keep the sham going. So, the Hollywood fixer greenlit a 1933 article in Screenland Magazine which questioned why Asther wasn’t living with his wife and child. The article heavily implied that his affairs were not with other women. Asther was soon fired from the studio.
What may be one of the wildest and most elaborate examples of the fixers’ elaborate work was Loretta Young’s mysterious “adoption” of her biological daughter Judy Lewis. In 1935, Young discovered that she was pregnant by her co-star Clark Gable while they were shooting The Call of the Wild.
At the time, Gable was married to Maria Langham, his second of five wives, and according to Young’s daughter-in-law, the physical affair was not consensual. Since Young was Catholic, she refused to have an abortion, so Strickling sent the young starlet into hiding so no one would see her growing belly. But he had a plan as to what to tell the press.
Strickling first told the press that Young was on vacation, but then the story changed to say that she was ill. Then, when she missed her own sister’s wedding, media speculation went wild. Strickling set up an interview between Young and his friend, a journalist at Photoplay.
At the time of the interview, Young was nearly nine months pregnant, but they had her sitting on a bed full of strategically placed pillows and blankets. Throughout the interview, a studio nurse was sent in to replace a prop intravenous bottle. It was all part of the plan.
Once the actress gave birth to her daughter, the baby girl was kept at a bungalow in Venice Beach for a few months and was finally placed in an orphanage. More than a year later, Young announced that she was planning to adopt two orphaned babies.
But – oh dear – in a surprise turn of events, Young told the press that the biological mother came to reclaim the “second baby.” The whole plan was for her to “adopt” her own baby, whom she named Judy – all so that her image wouldn’t be tampered with (insert eye roll here).
The MGM fixers were with Young every step of the way in this elaborate story, which the actress stuck by publicly throughout her entire life. It seems as though she felt the need to be loyal to the entity that gave her her career.
She only confirmed the truth to one person: her daughter, in 1966. She did eventually spill the beans to the world, but it was in her 2000 posthumously published autobiography. Apparently, Strickling and Mannix were following her express wishes. Some say they were working in her best interest. But don’t be fooled – these two fixers committed horrific transgressions against women.
Patricia Douglas was not one of the film stars that the Hollywood fixers often dealt with, but her story might just be one of the worst of MGM’s cover-ups. Douglas was a young dancer who only ended up in Hollywood because her mother had a lifelong dream of designing movie costumes.
Douglas was nothing like the MGM ladies – she didn’t drink, date, or even dream of film fame. But she did start appearing in musicals for Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers, which is how she stumbled upon an MGM casting call in 1937 when she was 20 years old.
What she thought was just another dancing role in a movie was actually a party. And not just any party. It was just one event in a five-day sales convention organized to honor MGM’s big year. The bash was a “stag affair, out in the wild and woolly West where ‘men are men.’” By the time the party took place, the men had already been drinking for three days straight.
Douglas, along with 120 other dancers in short cowgirl outfits, arrived at the MGM-owned “ranch.” She eventually realized why she and these other “dancers” were hired as toys for drunk, lewd businessmen.
One of these vulgar men was a man named David Ross, whom Douglas found extremely creepy from the beginning. She tried to dodge him the whole night by escaping to the ladies’ washroom. But as soon as she walked back into the party, Ross and another man held her down and poured liquor down her throat.
She managed to break free in time to vomit in the bathroom, and she then stumbled outside for fresh air. But Ross found her, dragged her to his car, and raped her. Douglas was later taken to the hospital and “examined” by a doctor, who was practically owned by MGM.
Sadly, none of the policemen at the party even bothered to file a criminal report. Even worse, the studio tried to pay Douglas $7.50 for her troubles the following day. Douglas went ahead and filed a complaint anyway, accusing Ross of what he did. She then took her story to the press.
Mannix, who was at the party, had a big problem to fix. He systematically forced witnesses to slander the poor girl. She was framed in the press as a lying drunk, despite the fact that she never drank a sip of alcohol.
People who had previously given statements supporting her claims were now choosing not to repeat them in court. Her case failed, and MGM succeeded in stalling her civil suit. Douglas tried again, but her own lawyer betrayed her. Tragically, her story was effectively erased for decades.
When he was once asked about Douglas, Mannix reportedly joked, “We had her killed.” Douglas’ nightmare was finally exposed in 2004, a year after her death, by David Stenn at Vanity Fair. It Happened One Night at MGM gave a voice to a woman whom no one would listen to.
While fixing all these Patricia Douglas troubles, Mannix was having problems of his own. The married man was having an affair with Mary Nolan, a former Ziegfeld folly. Nolan happened to be at the wrong end of Mannix’s stressful job.
She had to be hospitalized 15 times for abdominal surgeries, which many believed were the result of beatings at Mannix’s hands. Now that her acting career was destroyed from these beatings, Nolan tried to sue Mannix in 1935. Mannix did what he did best: He fixed the problem.
He had the LAPD run Nolan out of town on phony drug charges (she supposedly become addicted to morphine after so many surgeries). As for his wife Bernice, she had enough of her husband’s philandering and beatings.
She sought to divorce as well as sue him for breaking her back in one of his beatings. It probably didn’t help that by this point, Mannix was living with Toni Lanier, another Ziegfeld folly girl who was famous for being the “The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs.” In 1938, all of his problems went away when Bernice Mannix died in a car accident.
Many people attest that there had been another set of tire strikes at the site of the crash, indicating that Bernice’s car was violently sideswiped. Obviously, there was no follow-up investigation. Mannix and his new wife Toni lived “happily ever after” until his death in 1963.
But before he passed away, both Mannix and Toni —had wandering eyes. Mannix was particularly fond of a lovely young Japanese woman whom he hired as his “maid” (as well as Judy Garland’s spy). For Toni, there was only one man she was looking at. And that was George Reeves. We’ll get to him in a moment…
Eddie Mannix was born in 1891 in New Jersey. His full name, Joseph Edgar Allen John, was shortened to Eddie around the time he dropped out of school as a pre-teen. At the age of 20, Mannix discovered and fell in love with the Palisades Amusement Park, which sat across the Hudson River facing Manhattan.
Mannix eventually caught the eye of the Schenck Brothers, who purchased the tourist attraction in 1910. He started out as a ticket taker but quickly rose to the role of bookkeeper. All the while, he earned a reputation for being able to “fix” any problem in the park.
During those years, in New Jersey, problems typically meant the violation of unions, teamsters, and the like. Mannix’s abilities impressed Nicholas Schenck, one of the brothers and co-owners of the park and the deputy at Loew’s Inc., a big theater chain based in New York.
In 1924, Loew’s took over and combined Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures —forming the almighty MGM Studios. Schenck, however, got stepped over by Louis B. Mayer. Scornful, he sent Mannix to Hollywood as an “accountant,” although he was really just there to keep an eye on MGM, especially Louis B. Mayer.
What made Schenk even more livid was that Mannix never came back. Instead, he was hired again as a bookkeeper, as well as an assistant to Irving Thalberg. And again, he was meant to keep an eye on these guys for the corporate office.
Within a year, he joined the higher-ups as general manager. So, for the next 27 years, Mannix would begin his days with a personal meeting with Mayer to discuss the studio’s financials… and, of course, whichever problems needed to be “addressed.”
At the height of Hollywood’s Golden Era, the studio system was basically royalty in Southern California. And if California was a castle, then MGM was King. Louis B. Mayer was closely connected to political offices, police chiefs, and other institutional luxuries.
In other words, Mayer carried the clout, and his own fixers applied it to a disturbing effect. Mannix supposedly played a hand in all of the studio’s spins, from keeping gay actor William Haines’ in the closet to hiding one of Clark Gable’s drunk driving incidents and making it seem like a harmless mistake.
One of the more titillating cover-ups Mannix was involved in was Joan Crawford’s early adult film, Velvet Lips, which she starred in when she was a teenager. Crawford was allegedly underage in the silent exploitation. As the story goes, Mannix spent years tracking down all of the film’s prints.
He paid $100,000 out of studio funds for the original negative. According to Tim Adler’s Hollywood and the Mob, MGM brought gangsters in to negotiate with the blackmailers and they were able to bring the price down to $25,000. Otherwise, these wise guys “would have them all murdered.”
One of Mannix’s most infamous scandals involved the Man of Steel himself – The Adventures of Superman’s George Reeves. At 6’2”, Reeves was a tall drink of water and not bad to look at, either. Even though he was hand-picked for Gone with the Wind (in 1939), a movie star career didn’t really work out for him.
After World War II,Reeves was only getting bit parts, so when B-movie producer Robert L. Lippert offered him the lead role in Superman and the Mole Men in 1951, he was quick to accept. The movie, of course, led to The Adventures of Superman, a hit TV series that featured Reeves.
Soon enough, Reeves became the first major star of the Baby Boomer generation. And like many future icons of the “Me Generation,” Reeves’ story ended in tragedy. Apparently, the actor was never satisfied with playing the Man of Steel. In fact, he reportedly called Kryptonite “Kryptocrap.”
He also went so far as to burn his Superman costume at the end of each season. He even raised a glass to Phyllis Coates (the actress who played Lois Lane) on the first day of shooting the TV series, saying in his toast: “Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, babe.”
Around the time he first donned his iconic red cape, Reeves met Toni Mannix, who was eight years older than him, and, yes, you know where this is going. Although she was married to the toughest guy on the MGM lot, the Mannixes had an untraditional marriage.
Remember his “maid”? The husband and wife also slept in two separate bedrooms divided by a red carpet that Toni nicknamed “The Red Sea.” But really, by the time the ‘50s rolled around, Mannix’s health was failing him. And although he was an immoral man, he still wanted Toni to be happy.
The truth is, he wasn’t only aware of his wife’s romance with Superman himself – he even supported it. Toni had Mannix’s financial permission to buy Reeves a little house at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive. She decorated it for him and even bought the actor a new car to go with it.
Whenever Mr. and Mrs. Mannix flew first class on vacation, Reeves and Mannix’s mistress flew coach. As unconventional as it was, it worked. Anyways, Toni was waiting for her husband to meet his fate. She was waiting to make it official with Superman. She gave Reeves a pocket-watch with the inscription “Mad About the Boy.”
He may have been in love and getting showered with luxuries, but Reeves was struggling with depression. During the early morning of June 16, 1959, he was found lying lifeless on his bed, naked with a bullet hole in his head. A Luger was found lying beneath his feet. He was 45.
It was seen as an open-and-shut suicide case, and the official story was that Reeves took his own life because he was so depressed about playing Superman and then having to see it vanish (the series was canceled in 1958). He reportedly was considering transitioning to professional wrestling.
But that’s not the end of the story…
A year before his death, while on a New York business trip, Reeves had a chance encounter with 38-year-old socialite named Leonore Lemon, who had quite a scandalous reputation of her own. She showed up at his hotel room later that night and didn’t really leave much for the following two weeks.
After his NY trip, Reeves flew back to Hollywood and ended his affair with Toni Mannix, who was devastated (along with Mannix). She was expecting a marriage proposal from Reeves. Even more upsetting was hearing that Leonore (who later claimed to be his fiancée) had moved into the house that Toni bought him.
For weeks, Toni would call Reeves at all hours of the night and follow his car. Reeves’ beloved dog was even stolen, never to be returned. Then, Reeves found himself in a major car accident when the fluid in his brakes ran out, leading him to crash through the windshield.
Reeves’ mechanic looked at his car and said, “Somebody wanted him dead.” Knowing what we know now about Mannix, we’re all the wiser. It looks like Reeves got involved with the wrong woman – or, to be fair, a woman who was married to the wrong man.
On that fateful morning of June 16, Leonore told the police that Reeves went to bed at 12 a.m. after a night of heavy drinking, only to return irritated that she had neighbors and guests over that he had never met.
Reeves then went upstairs, and Leonore reportedly said, “He is going to shoot himself” well before the gunshot was heard. At first, no autopsy was performed, and his body was sent straight to a funeral home to be embalmed before a coroner or police officer could search for powder marks, which is common in suicides due to the close range.
Meanwhile, an off-duty police sergeant returned to the scene and found three bullet holes in the house, two of which were hidden beneath a rug in the bedroom. But L.A. Police Chief William Parker — a close friend of Eddie Mannix – obviously refused to reopen the case.
It also didn’t help that Leonore later explained that two of the shots (yet no mention of a third one) were due to a drunken brawl she and Reeves had the week before. Leonore fled town with $4,000 in traveler’s checks that Reeves had already withdrawn for their planned honeymoon.
According to Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, who wrote the book Hollywood Kryptonite, Phyllis Coates told them years later that Toni Mannix called her at 4:30 a.m. on that morning of June 16 — hours before the story hit the press – to tell her: “The boy is dead. He’s been murdered.”
Howard Strickling himself fessed up. He allegedly told the ghostwriter of his unpublished memoirs, Samuel Marx, that “Eddie did do it, of course.” Reeves’ death remains a frustrating uncertainty to this day. As for Mannix, he died in 1963, and Toni lived for another 20 years, never remarrying. Rumors have it she watched reruns of The Adventures of Superman.
Strickling and Mannix’s fixer days were over by the time the ‘60s rolled around. Mannix died in 1963, and Strickling retired in 1969. By then, the whole studio system was already on its deathbed. Gone were the days of traditional fixers in a traditional studio system.
There was, however, a man named Fred Otash who might be the unofficial heir to Strickling and Mannix’s shady realm. A former LAPD cop turned private investigator, Otash took on some of MGM’s celebrity clients, including Peter Lawford, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, and Judy Garland.
Like the fixers before him, he would spy on people involved in his clients’ messy personal affairs. At other times, he provided security (Garland’s ex-husband said that Otash guarded her home.)
The difference between Otash and those before him, though, was that he played both sides of the industry. In other words, he was a two-faced bandwagoner. As a freelancer for the Confidential (a sleazy tabloid), Otash helped expose several closeted stars and spread other damaging dirt. He gained a reputation for sensational stories that people often questioned. Otash wasn’t the most reliable source.
For instance, he told his associates that he rushed to Lana Turner’s home on the night her boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, was stabbed by her daughter Cheryl Crane. He even said he removed the knife from his body, but then Otash dismissed the whole story in a 1991 interview.
“Beverly Hills police chief Clinton Anderson once accused me of removing the knife from Stompanato’s body, wiping off Lana Turner’s fingerprints, putting on Cheryl Crane’s fingerprints and then shoving the knife back into the body,” he said, word for word, finishing it off with, “Crazy.