1884: Louis B. Mayer Is Born, Will 'Worship... Honorable Men and Saintly Mothers'

Son of impoverished immigrants fixed up a wreck of a theatre, then led MGM to pure gold.

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Actress Joan Crawford on the arm of Louis B Mayer at the "Torch Song" movie premiere in Los Angeles, Calif., 19 November, 1953.
Actress Joan Crawford on the arm of Louis B Mayer at the "Torch Song" movie premiere in Los Angeles, Calif., 19 November, 1953.Credit: Los Angeles Times/Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

July 12, 1884, is the birthday of Louis B. Mayer, the longtime head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the premier American movie studio of the mid-20th century. As an adoptive citizen, who bought the entire package of supposedly American values (he told screenwriter Frances Marion that, “I worship good women, honorable men and saintly mothers”), Mayer used his position to purvey an idealized vision of his country onscreen, and went so far as to claim July 4, 1885, America’s Independence Day, as his own date of birth. The earlier date, however, is the one that Mayer’s father gave to Canadian census authorities in 1901.

Mayer was also imprecise about his place of birth, but it was apparently the town of Dumier, about 25 miles north of Kiev, in present-day Ukraine.

His original name was Lazar Meier, and he was the third of the five children of Jacob Meier and Sarah Meltzer. Jacob was an apparently cruel and dictatorial father, whose temperament was not helped by the difficulties he faced in eking out a living.

The family left pogrom-ridden, czarist Russia in 1886, and, after a brief stop in England, settled in Rhode Island, before finally moving, in 1892, to St. John, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

Jacob had a modest scrap-metal business, and after Louis, as he now called himself (he added the “B.” later, saying it stood for “Burt”), turned 12 and left school, his father gave him responsibility for organizing such huge operations as salvaging the metal of sunken ships from the Bay of Fundy.

In 1904, Mayer headed south to Boston where, within six months, he had married Margaret Shenberg, after persuading her parents – her father was a kosher butcher and cantor – that he was good enough for her. He started a scrap-metal business, but when that failed, he followed a tip from a friend and bought and renovated a run-down burlesque theater, which he refitted as a cinema in the town of Haverhill, north of Boston.

Thus began Mayer’s steady march to the pinnacle of the show-business pyramid, every step of which was taken with typical extravagance and showmanship. From that single cinema, the Orpheum, Mayer went to owning all the theaters in town, and then, with a partner, New England’s largest movie chain.  

Within several years, Mayer had become a distributor as well, striking gold when he offered $50,000 for the right to distribute D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and earned back an estimated $500,000 from it. By 1918, he had relocated to Hollywood, and become a producer.

MGM was created in 1924, when Marcus Loew, a theater owner who had recently bought two troubled studios – Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures – merged them with Mayer’s studio. Loew remained the owner, but he named Mayer his chief of operations, the position he held until his resignation in 1951.

During a decade in which MGM’s production head was the brilliant Irving Thalberg, he and Mayer made it into Hollywood’s most successful and admired studio. At its peak, MGM employed 6000 people, and sprawled over a 185-acre campus that was served by its own rail line, in Culver City, CA.

Photo of Thalberg (l) with wife, Norma Shearer, and Louis B. MayerCredit: Lion of Hollywood, by Scott Eyman/Wikimedia Commons

Under Mayer's leadership, the studio released such classics as “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Ninotchka.”

Mayer was paternalistic, managing and manipulating the lives of his company’s greatest assets – including stars like Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Hedy Lamarr. Some, including his daughters, found his interference insufferable, but to most of his employees, he was generous and caring, and he let them get on with their work, even allowing them to lose the studio money. In the nine years following 1937, he was the highest-paid executive in the United States, with an annual salary of $1,300,000.

Following World War II, however, with television on the rise, and a new generation of moviemakers and viewers who were unwilling to accept Mr. Mayer’s political and social values wholesale, MGM begin to slide. In 1951, Mayer quarreled with his boss and longtime nemesis Nicholas Schenck, who had taken control of MGM after Loew's death, and when he lost the fight he tendered his resignation.

In his final years, he made an attempt to establish an independent studio, but it was short-lived.

Mayer died of leukemia on October 29, 1957. He was 73.

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