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Louis B. Mayer

Louis Burt Mayer (July 4, 1884 – October 29, 1957) was a Russian-born American film producer. He is generally cited as the creator of the "star system" within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in its golden years. 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".


Early life

Born Lazar Meir to a Jewish family in Minsk, today the capital of Belarus[1], then part of the Russian Empire, capital of the Minsk Province (Minskaja Guberniya). His actual birthdate is unknown; a patriotic Mayer chose July 4 when he became an American citizen, to honor his adopted country. Mayer emigrated with his family to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada when he was still very young, and Mayer attended school there. His father started a scrap metal business, J. Mayer & Son. His parents, Sarah and Jacob Mayer, had five children: Yetta, Ida, Louis, Jerry and Rudolph. 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

Mayer renovated the Gem Theater, a rundown, 600 seat burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts,[2] 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,[3] although most sources place the release date of that film as 1912.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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 couldn't 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 as "Mr. Skunk" in private.[8] Two years later, Schenck agreed to sell Loew's-and MGM—to William Fox. Mayer was outraged; despite his important role in MGM, he wasn't a shareholder. Mayer 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 Justice 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

File:Louis B Mayer and Joan Crawford.jpg
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 of the 1930s. 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 independent producers, e.g. David Selznick, 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.

Under Mayer, MGM produced many successful films with high earning stars, including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Judy Garland and many others.

Katharine Hepburn referred to him as a "nice man" (and claimed she personally negotiated many of her contracts with Mayer), and some younger actors, such as Debbie Reynolds, June Allyson, Mickey Rooney and Leslie Caron, who matured as MGM contract players, viewed him as a father figure.

Between 1939 and 1950, Mayer's success was so great that he was the highest paid man in America.[9]

Later years and fall from power

By 1948, due to the introduction of television and changing public tastes, MGM suffered a considerable dropoff in its success. The glory days of MGM as well as other studios were also over because of United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948), a Supreme Court decision that 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).

Under orders to control costs and hire "a new Thalberg," Mayer hired writer and producer Dore Schary as production chief. Schary, who was 20 years Mayer's junior, preferred message pictures in contrast with Mayer's taste 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 couldn't turn the tide, Schenck fired Mayer from the post he'd 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

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

Mayer lived on Saint Cloud Road in the East Gate Bel Air section of Los Angeles, California[10].

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. He was a delegate to the 1932 Republican National Convention with fellow Republicans Earl Warren, Joseph R. Knowland and Marshall Hale in Chicago. Mayer endorsed the second term of President Herbert Hoover.

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

Thoroughbred horse racing hobby

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

Louis B. Mayer died of leukemia on October 29, 1957 and was interred in the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California. His sister, Ida Mayer Cummings, and brothers Jerry and Rudolph 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.[11]
  • 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 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:

  • Mommie Dearest (by Howard Da Silva)
  • RKO 281 (by David Suchet)
  • De-Lovely (by Peter Polycarpou)
  • The Aviator (by Stanley DeSantis)
  • The Last Tycoon (by Robert Mitchum)
  • Barton Fink (by Michael Lerner as Jack Lipnick)
  • Hollywoodland
  • Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (by Al Waxman)
  • Cats Don't Dance (by George Kennedy as the voice of L.B. Mammoth)
  • Harlow (by Jack Kruschen)
  • Gable and Lombard (by Allen Garfield)
  • The Big Knife

Jacqueline Susann portrayed Meyer 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[12]

See also

  • Other Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood
  • Selig Polyscope Company


  1. http://www.belarus.by/en/belarus/people/mayer/
  2. Rosenberg, Chaim M. The Great Workshop: Boston's Victorian Age. Arcadia Publishing, 2004. p60.
  3. "Mr. Motion Picture." TIME Magazine, November 11, 1957.
  4. Louis B. Mayer at the Internet Movie Database
  5. Current Biography 1943. pp521-524.
  6. Id.
  7. Louis B. Mayer at the Internet Movie Database
  8. Hay, Peter (1991). MGM: When the Lion Roars. Turner Publications. ISBN 9781878685049. 
  9. Simon, Charnan (1995). Hollywood at War: The Motion Picture Industry and World War II. New York: A First Book/Franklin Watts. p. 14. ISBN 0-531-20193-7. 
  10. "Biography for Louis B. Mayer," IMDb
  11. Johnson, Ross (May 22, 2005). "To Be as a City Upon a (Hollywood) Hill". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/22/movies/22john.html. Retrieved May 11, 2010. 
  12. Canada's Walk of Fame.


  • Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon & Schuster, 2005) ISBN 0-7432-0481-6
  • Charles Highman, Louis B. Mayer MGM and the Secret Hollywood (Pan Books, 1993) ISBN 0-330 333143

External links

  1. REDIRECT Template:Find a Grave


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