Never! Never in a million years did I expect to find myself comparing notes with aristocracy from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Sure, Clark Gable’s (ex) great-niece was a friend of mine…but that doesn’t really count. Instead, it was in the pages of Irene Mayer Selznick’s 1983 autobiography A Private View that I found my long-lost sister.
Irene was the daughter of film pioneer and MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, who brought Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford to the silver screen. Who hasn’t lost themselves in the magic of The Wizard of Oz or held their breath at the amazing tap dancing of Eleanor Powell, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in Broadway Melody of 1940!? We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this brilliant narcissist!
Given her father’s position and wealth, Irene should have had the best upbringing. Instead, she survived the engulfing, silencing, restricted, harsh, clueless and obsessive upbringing of the Scapegoated younger daughter of a narcissist. If you too were raised by an engulfing, hypocritical narcissist, Irene’s story is your story too.
Coming of marriageable age in the 1920s, Irene and her Golden Child sister, Edie, were chaperoned, guarded, watched, observed, accused and all but imprisoned in an unassailable ivory tower of isolation and virtue, denied even clear nail polish. While their parents cultivated in them the wifely virtues of thrift and cooking as well as antiquated Victorian parlor “accomplishments” like singing, the truth is that no men were good enough. Daddy had his “harem” and intended to keep it exactly as it was. No suitors need apply.
Meanwhile, in his career behind the gates of the MGM lot, Irene writes that Daddy Mayer’s “puritanical instincts were being violated by his young female stars…he was a very unsophisticated man threatened by a sea of iniquity.” (page 68)
Or Was He???
Was this self-made narcissist really the paragon of virtue Irene blindly recalls or was there another side? Was he one person at home and another person at the studio? Are all narcissists one thing at home and another thing out in the world?
You have to dig a little bit. But slowly, the story of L.B. Mayer’s narcissistic hypocrisy begins to be revealed first in the tragic story of little Frances Gumm (Judy Garland). We are shocked to discover that, if young Judy objected to a role or a song, Daddy Mayer routinely and repeatedly demonstrated exactly where she was hurting his heart and where she should be singing from by groping her chest. Above, he’s pictured kissing an underage Judy on her birthday. Not only did he molest her, he starved her, he drugged her, he ruined her health, her mind and her life. Perhaps conscience glimmered as he often paid for her stays in sanatoriums as she tried to kick the drugs and learn how to sleep and eat normally again. Somehow, his hypocrisy allowed him to sexually abuse the young daughter of Ethel Gumm, while protecting his own adult daughters from even respectable suitors!
But it gets worse.
Daddy Mayer owned a brothel. Richly caparisoned with MGM leading lady lookalikes, MGM leading men were expected to perform at the brothel…or else face the rumors that they “bashed the shuttlecock from the feathered end.” Homosexual MGM stars of the so-called “Golden Age” were often forced into “lavender” marriages, also arranged by…you guessed it! Louis B. Mayer.
But it gets worse.
Daddy Mayer didn’t just keep a tight reign on the shooting schedules of the plethora of pictures being shot consecutively on the MGM lot, he also kept a tight reign on his Leading Ladies’ monthly cycles. If her cycle went long, the lady in question (with or without consent) was dispatched to Louella Parson’s husband for an “appendectomy,” “ear infection”…or some other fanciful fiction to keep their figures and virginal reputations intact.
But it gets worse.
Far from Irene’s statement that MGM’s wayward female stars needed L. B. Mayer’s “protection and…guiding hand,” we find that it was the other-way ’round. They needed protection from L. B. Mayer who was bedding his Leading Ladies and starlets on the infamous casting couch. Scintillating soprano Jeanette McDonald was just one of his conquests. Ad Schulberg was another. Were it not for the unfortunate discretion of that era, the list would be longer!
Yet, despite his own peccadilloes, when his soon-to-be son-in-law, David Selznick begged L.B. Mayer to set a date for the wedding so Irene and he could finally consummate their love, he was treated to a lecture on “character and self-control.”
And we haven’t even gotten into how roly-poly Mayer’s malnourished starlets, like Greer Garson, were forced to starve themselves to maintain their weight as required in their contracts. We haven’t mentioned the cleverly covered up drugging, doping, rapes, murders, suicides and the “bugs” Mayer had planted in his stars’ private homes! (Orson Welles would boom, “Good Morning, Mr. Strickling!” every day, full well knowing MGM’s Head of Publicity, Howard Strickling, had bugged the home he shared with wife, Rita Hayworth.)
Like you, I’m flummoxed by L. B. Mayer’s, and all narcissists’, glaring hypocrisy. And yet, and yet. Mayer told Irene, “I do things in a day that maybe aren’t right. I make mistakes. I come home tired. I look in [my wife’s] eyes. Whatever I think of myself, it comes out all right. I am forgiven everything. I start fresh. I am cleansed. If she loves me, I’m a good man.” Perhaps his conscience did smite him…but not enough to stop him. In 1947, after forty years of marriage, he kicked his long-suffering wife to the curb after driving her to physical and mental illness. Finally, he was free to openly chase the starlets he’d been secretly chasing all along.
The hypocrite finally came out of the closet. But it wasn’t as rosy as he expected. In 1947, he lost his first wife. In 1951, he lost his studio. In 1957 he lost his life.
The sight of Leo the roaring lion framed in the MGM logo, “Ars gratia artis” (Latin: “Art for Art’s sake”) at the beginning of every MGM movie is a promise: you’ll be treated to a great performance. As it turns out, the greatest performances on the MGM lot were acted out by its Narcissist-and-Hypocrite-In-Chief, Louis B. Mayer.