Louis B. Mayer was a powerful movie mogul during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was huge in the entertainment industry, but let’s just say… he wasn’t the nicest man. Similarly to Hollywood today, everything in the Golden Hollywood Age was manufactured. If there was one man who liked a good old phony movie set, it was the notorious head of MGM Studios – Louis B. Mayer.
On-screen, MGM studios looked like it was filled with glitz and glamour, but behind the scenes, things were much darker. Mayer used his power to his advantage and put his young stars through verbal, emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse. His stars may have been beautiful and talented, but everything about their job was a plastic representation of the truth. Nowadays, we can send evil Hollywood men who take advantage of their power to jail. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior was tolerated when Mayer was around; here’s the truth about Hollywood’s monster.
We hear a lot of “rags to riches” stories. A tale about an individual who started with nothing, but became something major. Louis B. Mayer is a perfect example; he was certainly a self-made man. According to actress Ann Rutherford, “if anybody on earth ever created himself, Louis B Mayer did.”
For starters, his real name wasn’t even really Louis Mayer. Back in July 1884, Lazar Meir was born far away from the glamourous life of showbiz. When he was a young child, his family moved to New Brunswick to give him a better life. Unfortunately, since his parents didn’t speak any English, the family was penniless.
Mayer was the definition of the rigid and horrifying Hollywood studio system. He enjoyed making new “discoveries” and had some real talent. He was the man behind some notable on-screen sensations, including Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, and Norma Shearer. He insisted on making the stars himself, and he had a knack for it. However, his methods weren’t the best.
He once famously stated that a star is “carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody.” He seems to have been projecting. Despite the fact that Mayer was in charge of one of the largest studios in Hollywood, that’s not how he started off. I mean, he was a little nobody from Russia.
While he was around his staff, Mayer came across as a calm guy with a paternal presence. However, things were much different behind the scenes. Various different insiders got to witness Mayer’s notorious temper tantrums first-hand. Reportedly, these tantrums were accompanied by loud sobbing and furious yelling.
Obviously, this is no way for a boss to behave, but keep in mind, this was a much different era. As you can imagine, these meltdowns weren’t fun to be around. The scariest part about it was that his crazy rages would go away just as fast as they started. As soon as they ended, Mayer would once again put on his icy mask on. Yikes!
As we touched on when Mayer was a little boy, his family moved from their Soviet hometown to New Brunswick in order to give them a better life, but that’s not what they got. Since his parents didn’t really know English, it was difficult for them to find jobs. At one point, his mom worked as a door-to-door chicken saleswoman just to make ends meet.
His family problems affected young Mayer. He had to drop out of school at the tender age of 12 so that he could help support his family. The future MGM boss used to walk around with a cart that said, “JUNK DEALER.” He first started off helping his dad sell scrap metal before he diverged into his own business path.
When it came to many of his actors, Mayer saw himself as a father figure. He frequently treated them like they were his children. He would give them advice and even recommend them to certain doctors. One of his legendary actors was Lionel Barrymore. Yes, Drew Barrymore’s uncle, from the infamous Barrymore acting dynasty.
When Barrymore was suffering from arthritis onset and was wheelchair-bound, Mayer visited him every single day. It seems sweet that all these actors have a father figure on set to look out for them, right? It feels good when someone cares about you, and everyone wants their boss to like them. Sadly, these generous deeds had a horrific dark side.
Mayer was extremely controlling of his actors; particularly, when it came to their image. Most celebrities (even now) are careful about their persona, but Mayer took it a bit too far. One of Mayer’s number one targets was Mickey Rooney, a teen star at the time, so naturally, he was wild and energetic.
On one specific occasion, Rooney got in a little bit of trouble. Reportedly, Meyer screamed at him, saying, “I don’t care what you do in private. Just don’t do it in public. In public behave.” Rooney was so embarrassed and terrified by his boss and responded, “I’ll be good, Mr. Mayer. I promise you that.” Sadly, this was not an isolated incident, and he treated other actors even worse.
Just because he came from a poor family didn’t mean that Mayer didn’t have big dreams of his own. Not only did he have bigger goals for himself, but he eventually bought the Gem Theater in Massachusetts. He renovated it and transformed the once-thriving burlesque house into a movie watching paradise.
Despite his terrible behavior, there is no denying Louis B. Mayer’s talent. He managed to make his theater stand out by featuring new movies, a five-cent seat special for kids, and even a woman only seating sections. He used his creativity, and ultimately, his innovative ways brought audiences to his theater. But that was just the start of his success.
After the mental and psychological abuse that Louis B. Mayer put Mickey Rooney through, he still had some good things to say about his boss at MGM, but not all the actors liked him. A famous example is the exquisite Elizabeth Taylor. She famously didn’t get along with Mayer and even nicknamed him “monster.”
The actress revealed: “When I was 15, and Louis B. Mayer started screaming at my mother and using swear words that I’ve never heard before, ‘I took you and your f*%king daughter out of the gutter.’ I uttered my first curse word and told him that he didn’t dare to speak to my mother that way, and he and the studio could both go to hell…” Yeah. If anyone tried to speak to my mother like that, they’re dead meat!
Some of the most horrifying allegations against Mayer came from his most famous starlet, The Wizard of Oz’s, Judy Garland. The actress claimed her boss made her sit on his lap, and he frequently groped her. That sounds inappropriate, but as we know now, sexual harassment is not uncommon in Hollywood, especially when it comes to men in power.
Things got worse for the actress. Supposedly, Mayer would teach young Garland how to “sing from the heart,” by “innocently” placing his hand on her left breast. Real smooth… and really disturbing. The worst part about these uncomfortable scenarios is that the actress was only a teenager at the time.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the extent of his abuse towards Judy Garland. In addition to sexual harassment, he scarred his actress physiologically, broke her confidence and put her on a path of lifelong body-image issues. First of all, he called her “My little hunchback,” making fun of her height and curved spine. Instead of focusing on her singing talent, he took away her spirit.
He also encouraged her to go on diet pills and put her on a liquid diet while filming The Wizard of Oz. The reason? To make her changing teenage body appear more child-like. She was given Adderall and was plagued with eating disorders, depression, and substance abuse up until her tragic death.
Despite his mistreatment of the actress, Mayer loved working with Judy Garland. He overworked the poor kid to the bone over the course of various films. Finally, Garland had enough and didn’t show up to work. The studio was filming Summer Stock, and her absences were noticeable. When her behavior continued onto the next film, Mayer fired her.
Then the actress had a heartbreaking response. Right after she was fired from MGM, an unhinged and deeply sad Garland tried to take her own life. Unfortunately, this wasn’t her first or last attempt. She continued to deal with permanent problems for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, the monster of MGM moved onto his next victim.
Slowly but surely, Mayer broadened his horizons. He had started off as a theater owner and then went on to become a producer. After the smash success of movies like Birth of a Nation, the businessman got really lucky when he met Marcus Loew. So the big question: Who the heck is Marcus Loew, and why was he so important?
Loew was the owner of Goldwyn Pictures – another production company. He was extremely interested in merging his studio with Louis B. Mayer’s company. Mayer eagerly accepted the offer and took on the position of vice president. That was the birth of the famed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pictures, otherwise known as MGM Studios.
Another thing Mayer was known for is that he was a major germophobe. If he wasn’t a hypochondriac, he certainly came close. Throughout his entire life, he was obsessed with his health. The head of MGM even took 30 minutes out of his schedule daily in order to go see a doctor.
Reportedly, Mayer treated his doctor way better than he treated his starlets. She cruised to and back from the studio with a professional driver for their one on one meetings. This transport was all on Mayer/MGM’s expense, of course. I can’t blame him for trying to stay healthy, and he was. But seeing a doctor every single day is a little extensive, don’t you think?
You can’t really describe how massive Mayer’s name was in the entertainment industry at the time. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mayer had one Golden year in particular – 1939. MGM Studios killed it that year. They released two major classics, Gone with the Wind starring Vivien Leigh and The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.
That same year, MGM also released Ninotchka, Greta Garbo’s first comedy, all under Mayer’s direction, of course. Things were going great for MGM and, subsequently, for Louis B. Mayer. The little Russian boy had become a Hollywood success story. Sure, he could have been much nicer, but his magnificent eye for film can’t be denied.
Shortly after merging his company with Mayer, Marcus Loew sadly passed away. Mayer thought he would take over the presidency, but that wasn’t going to happen. Mayer was furious when the position went to Nicholas Schenck, Loew’s confidant. Mayer and Schenck hated each other… to put it nicely. So Mayer got his revenge.
Since Mayer came from nothing, he was used to coming in second while getting his way. Even though Schenck had more power, Mayer tried to turn the whole studio against him. He gave him some cruel nicknames, including “Mr. Skunk.” He hoped that if he acted ridiculed enough, Schenck wouldn’t be able to handle the bullying and would loosen his grip on the company.
In 1929, Mayer’s despise of Nicholas Schenck reached a breaking point when Schenck attempted to sell MGM to William Fox. Yes, that Fox. Mayer didn’t have any real power in the situation, but he wasn’t going to let Mr. Skunk get away with this. Mayer worked way too hard to build his company, and nobody was going to take it away from him.
That’s when Mayer came up with a rather sinister plan. Louis B. Mayer literally went all the way to Washington in order to delay Schenck’s sale. He used some big bucks and powerful connections to convince the actual Justice Department to stall the agreement because of reported (by Mayer) sketchy dealings.
Then something else happened that summer. It was good for Mayer, but tragic for pretty much everyone else. William Fox got into a horrific car accident and was badly injured. He spent months in the hospital… up until the 1929 stock market crash. At that point, Fox’s massive fortune was gone, and so was that promising sale.
Merging with Fox would have been huge for MGM, but Mayer wasn’t about to let that happen. Especially at the hands of Nicholas Schenck. Schenck blamed Mayer’s delay strategy on the lost opportunity and never forgave him for it. It seems Mayer put his ego before his company because this sale could have done wonders for his studio. Now we’ll never know.
As we can tell, Mayer had some well-thought-out plans to get what he wanted. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop at the studio. Mayer also had a secret weapon to find out what’s going on in the personal lives of his stars. The manipulative boss had a gracious open-door policy for all of his actors that wanted to talk to him about their problems.
As we know, stars tend to have a lot of problems they may want to discuss. Some of this certainly stemmed from pure genuine interest, but it gave him unprecedented insight into his young vulnerable rising stars. One director described it as: “He would prod you and question you and suck you dry of any knowledge.”
Back in 1904, while Mayer was still working in the scrap metal business, he married a woman named Margaret Shenberg. She seems to be the only one who could stand him. Even though she met Mayer back when he was a nobody, she stayed with him throughout his entire fame and career.
The couple stayed together for a mind-blowing 43 years. That is literally a lifetime in Hollywood. The couple had two children together, Edith Mayer and Irene Mayer Selznick. The MGM boss even went as far as to thank his supportive wife for staying with him through all the ups and downs, but we’ll get to that later.
Mayer might have taken his job as the head of the studio a little bit too far. He went deep into the dating histories of his starlets. The “father figure” arranged dates for his actresses and even marriages. He liked to be in complete control of his stars’ images, and one way to do that is to control exactly who they are allowed to go out with.
If a relationship was going on that Mayer didn’t approve of, he sabotaged it, whichever way he could – mainly using threats; he used his power to frighten his young and impressionable starlets. When actress June Allyson started dating (and eventually married) David Rose, Mayer told her she needed to end it “If you care about your reputation.”
Mayer received a horrifying letter in the mail during the summer of 1942. The anonymous writer wrote:
“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!” Vengeful Mayer didn’t panic. Instead, he decided to get even.
Mayer seemingly agreed to the ransom demands. He was meant to address the money to someone named “Robert Sexton” and drop it off at the Ambassador Hotel. But when the two men came to get their cash, they got another surprise. The FBI was waiting for them to show up and detained the two criminals. They should have thought twice before messing with the powerful Louis B. Mayer.
Mayer met one of his most essential partners in 1922, Irving Thalberg. He was a romantic visionary who was able to take MGM’s storytelling to a whole other level. He really brought some magic into the studio, and it didn’t go unnoticed by the big mean boss.
Mayer saw Thalberg like a son and treated him like one. It didn’t take long for Thalberg to become a huge asset for the company. Mayer was in charge of the business side of things, and Thalberg was able to balance out his ruthless traits with artistry and creativity. That was until Mayer stabbed him in the back and completely betrayed his supposed friend.
Mayer and Thalberg worked incredibly together for years. They balanced each other out and became the ultimate dream team. Unfortunately, this duo couldn’t last forever. They started to butt heads a little, but when Thalberg was hoping to produce more poetic movies, while Mayer was focused on making crowd-pleasing blockbuster hits.
Most of the time, co-workers learn how to compromise and come to a mutual agreement. Well, unfortunately, the very next day, Thalberg suffered a heart attack. If that happened to one of my friends, I’d be worried sick! But Mayer smelled blood in the water. The selfish studio owner was going to use the situation to his advantage.
After his terrifying heart attack, Thalberg’s doctor advised him to take some time off. Mayer took the opportunity to kick his longtime collaborator to the curb. Thalberg was more than just his close friend; he was someone he looked at like a son, and he completely betrayed him at the most vulnerable time.
He exiled Thalberg from his position as production chief and replaced him with David O. Selznick – a future talented producer in his own right. This action certainly stung Thalberg. I mean, he trusted Mayer, and even though they had their creative differences, he never expected Mayer to replace him while he was recovering from a heart attack! Things went from bad to worse.
Unfortunately, he never fully recovered. Just four years after Mayer’s cruel betrayal, Thalberg passed away at the young age of 37. Mayer abandoned Thalberg when his so-called “son” needed him most. But Mayer’s fickle nature became evident once again. Mayer took advantage of the heart attack, but at least he felt compassion when he lost one of his closest friends.
After his collaborator passed away, Mayer was filled with grief. He seems to have taken it hard when his supposed friend died. He announced that Thalberg is “the finest friend a man could ever have,” and proceeded to close the studio for the whole day. It’s a little late for that buddy.
It appears as though Mayer used the same terrifying tactics that he used in the studio in his family life. Behind his white picket fence was a scary boss, and he controlled his children just as he tried to control his stars. However, at home, he ruled with an iron fist.
His nephew once admitted, “In our family, all the basic decisions were made by him. Were we afraid of him? Jesus Christ, yes!” I can’t imagine working for this man, let alone live in the same house as him. On top of the control, this man was abusive. Unfortunately, his abusive behavior was much more acceptable and common in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Mayer’s cruel behavior saw its dark consequences in his private life. As we mentioned, he had two daughters with his wife Margaret, Edith, and Irene. You think it would be nice to grow up with a rich studio owner as your dad. Unfortunately, the two young ladies were far from being daddy’s little girls.
Towards the end of his life, Mayer was brutally estranged from Edith; it got to the point where he took her out of his will. So, I’m sure you’re wondering why. What could this girl have possibly done? Well, she didn’t really do anything. Louis B. Mayer was such a staunch conservative, and Edith’s husband had some liberal views. So he did the only rational thing… took away her inheritance.
Rumors speculate that Mayer’s wickedness went farther than we could have imagined. Apparently, he once covered up a murder. Legend has it that one of his actors, Clark Gable, was driving too fast and got in a terrible car crash. Sadly, the accident left one person dead.
Supposedly, Mayer didn’t want any controversy, so he found a patsy to take the fall. It should be noted that there is no way to confirm or deny this story. The point is, Mayer has such a bad reputation. People actually thought he was capable of something like this. I personally like to see the best in people, and I hope he wasn’t involved in something as horrific as covering up a murder.
MGM profits started to decline when the early 1940s rolled around. That’s when the studio decided to take drastic and shocking measures – they ousted Louis B. Mayer. Surprisingly, they managed to do so without the vengeful retaliation that he was known for. However, this by no means meant Mayer left MGM quietly.
When he resigned in 1951, the MGM head frolicked down the red carpet lined with clapping actors cheering him on. Turhan Bey noted the sea of change: “In every meaningful way, it was the end of Hollywood.” As we know, the film industry has gone on to do incredible things, but Hollywood’s Golden Age? That was over.
Most of MGM’s money (and subsequently Mayer’s) came from “wholesome” family films. The first movie he showed at his theaters was From the Manger to the Cross – a family-friendly religious movie. It doesn’t get more innocent than that. As you could probably guess, his family life wasn’t nearly as wholesome as his movies.
His “wholesome family fun” philosophy came with Mayer’s obsession with the concept of women being motherly angels. He put them on a pedestal and once said: “I worship good women… and saintly mothers.” I guess this somehow facilitated his strict image and control of his “pure” little starlets. Which is also really creepy.
Mayer was a pretty complicated guy, but he did have some brighter spots. Sure, he creepily worships girls, but he also once defended them in a truly beautiful way. One particular day, director Erich von Stroheim had the audacity to call all women “W*ores” in front of Mayer – big mistake!
Shockingly, Mayer was fuming. He was so angry, and his infamous temper came out. He jumped up and hit the director so hard that he fell on the floor. I guess this is one of those instances where “nobody can talk to them like that except for me.” This action in no way excuses any of Mayer’s disgusting behavior, but it’s nice to know that somewhere deep, deep… deep in that big boss body, there might be a heart.
There is a lot you can say about Mayer, but one thing you cannot deny is his good instincts. He discovered Greer Garson and wanted her to star in the heartwarming film, Mrs. Miniver; initially, she refused the title role. Mayer asked if she would reconsider, and reminded her “to have the same faith in me” that he had in her.
Greer ultimately agreed and proved Mayer right once again. Garson ultimately won an Academy Award for her wonderful performance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both reportedly loved the movie. She impressed many people with her talent and continued to have a successful career in Hollywood.
One thing you can’t say about Mayer is that he wasn’t a hard worker. The man ate, slept, and breathed the MGM Studio. His typical workday was about 12 hours long, and he was known to spend most of his work time on the MGM lot. His fellow mogul William Randolph Hearst suggested he built a bungalow.
The bungalow would not only function as Mayer’s office, but it also served as his living headquarters while he was away on the studio’s huge output. Most people want to finish a long day or work and go home, but not Mayer. He literally brought work home with him. Now that’s some true commitment right there.
Without Thalberg’s visionary touch, many people thought it was only a matter of time before we see Mayer fail. However, that never happened. As a kid, he worked in the mean streets selling scrap metal, this lion’s den known as Hollywood was nothing for him. He had big dreams and did everything he could to make them come true.
He focused on one goal, and as we know, he became a massive success. Mayer eventually became the first American in history to earn a one-million-dollar salary. Wow! That is a huge change from his poor upbringing. Making that much money was more than just a pay-check, it’s a reminder of how far he’s come.
Even though he was a movie mogul, Mayer didn’t have so much faith in future movie technologies. He didn’t even like television, and he thought that adding color to movies was an unnecessary extravagance. However, he eventually got to with the times, and MGM started using color.
The first Technicolor film that MGM studios produced was The Wizard of Oz. It’s a classic. The movie is known for its bright colors, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same if there was no color. Can you imagine if The Wizard of Oz was black and white? Mayer also didn’t want to get behind wide-screen formats. I guess Mayer was an old fashioned kind of guy.
As it turns out, we should partly be thanking Louis B. Mayer for the Oscars. He was a huge contributor for the funding of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences…. AKA, the group which picks the Oscars. He and some other filmmakers wanted to create something that would complement music studios.
That’s when the Academy Awards was born. The first-ever Academy Award Ceremony took place on May 16th, 1929, and was presented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. A private dinner was held, and the best films of 1927 and 1928 were honored. The idea stuck, and the Award ceremony has since become an annual event held every year.
It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that Mayer wasn’t afraid to misuse his power. This was definitely true when it came to the boardroom, but it extended all the way to the bedroom. After Mayer met stunning actress Jean Howard, the MGM boss wanted her and decided he was going to at any cost.
Howard immediately said no and rejected Mayer’s advances. He then proceeded to chase her around the room, trying to force her to change her mind. He obviously didn’t do too well with rejection. When the poor girl still didn’t want him after that, the creepy old man took it to the next level.
Howard was understandably uncomfortable with Mayer’s unwanted attention. In an attempt to get away from him, she ended up in the arms of agent Charles Feldman. Needless to say, Mayer didn’t take it well, and his response was ruthless. He didn’t allow Feldman to step foot on the MGM lot and wouldn’t allow any of his clients to work at MGM for quite a while.
I guess it’s a historic thing where powerful Hollywood men think they can do whatever they want with women, and don’t take no for an answer. Does Mayer think he could just punish Howard for not sleeping with him? Remind you of someone? Maybe a huge powerful Hollywood man from our generation? Thankfully, Weinstein’s in prison, but Mayer got away with it.
Mayer was a horrific man, and the way he treated Jean Howard is despicable. That kind of behavior should never be tolerated under any circumstances. However, in his own creepy, twisted way, he did love her. On one specific occasion, he went as far as to propose to the actress and promised he would leave his wife for her if she said yes.
Wow, he really can’t take a hint. Well, this isn’t even a hint, she straight up said no multiple times. Anyway, he finally understood that she would never love him back, and he couldn’t handle it. This is a man who was used to getting what he wants. Reportedly, Mayer was so heartbroken over Jean that he tried to jump out of a window and end his own life.
From his humble beginnings, success, and miserable behavior, there was one person who stood by his side through it all- his wife, Margaret. But she too had a breaking point. After years of abuse and her husband’s casual sex with multiple women, she had enough. In 1947, the pair finally split up after four decades of marriage.
Even though he just went through a divorce, Mayer didn’t seem too heartbroken over it. His family was falling apart, but it didn’t really phase him. He was like some sort of sociopath. By 1948 (just one year after the divorce), Mayer tied the knot with his second wife, Lorena Layson. She was stuck with him until he passed away in 1957.
By the end of his life, Louis B. Mayer was finally starting to pay for his sins. He was being tormented just like he tormented others. He was plagued with leukemia at the age of 73 and hung on to his life by a thread. The old man was finally starting to get what he deserved.
To be fair, he should have been in jail, but at least he finally got what he had coming. On the day he died, he went through 20 blood transfusions, started hallucinating, and then fell into a coma. Soon after, he finally passed. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. This kind of torture should be reserved for the cruelest people. You know what they say, Karma is a… witch.