April 2, 1907, is the birthdate of Irene Mayer Selznick, famed mainly for being the daughter of a Hollywood mega-mogul, and wife of a man who aspired to similar heights. But Irene Selznick made a life and a career of her own, among other things as a theatrical producer on Broadway.
Irene Gladys Mayer was born in Brooklyn, the second of the two daughters of Louis B. Mayer and the former Margaret Shenberg. The Ukraine-born Louis B. had emigrated with his family to North America as a child, and followed his father into the scrap-metal business. Margaret was American-born, but her parents had come from Poland.
By the time Irene was born, Mayer owned all of the theaters in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
By 1918, L.B. Mayer had started his own film production company, and moved his family out to California, where his Mayer Pictures evolved into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which for much of the next half century was America’s leading movie studio.
Mayer was determined that his daughters not “go Hollywood,” and sent Irene and her sister Edith to the private Hollywood School for Girls (actually a coed school), with the children of other industry players. Still, he attempted to shelter the girls from life: He wouldn’t allow them to attend overnight camp or college, and he warned them both against dating men in the movie business.
Naturally, Edie married William Goetz, one of the founders of Twentieth Century Pictures, and Irene fell in love with David O. Selznick, after meeting him at a dance. (She told him that he appeared to be drunk, and he responded, “Not drunk enough.” That should have alerted her to a possible substance-abuse problem.)
Keep away from that schnook
Selznick, at the time a story editor at MGM, was the son of Lewis J. Selznick, himself a movie producer, who was neither liked nor respected by Louis B. Mayer. When Irene showed interest in the younger Selznick, her father warned her to “keep away from that schnook,” telling her that David would end up “a bum, just like his father.”
Irene and Selznick, nonetheless, married in 1930, by which time the groom was a producer at Paramount Pictures. A few years later, he opened his own Selznick International Pictures, where he produced, most famously, “Gone with the Wind,” in 1939.
Irene worked briefly at Selznick’s company, and was known for her discerning eye as a film viewer. During World War II, she volunteered as a juvenile probation officer in Los Angeles, under the pseudonym of “Irene Sells.”
She also went through psychoanalysis, which may explain in part how she summoned up the strength to leave Selznick, in 1945, telling him, “I must leave you while I love you,” and moving to New York.
There, with the encouragement of playwright and director Moss Hart, Selznick ventured into the field of theatrical production. Her career was short, but distinguished. Her first play, “Heartsong,” written by Arthur Laurents, closed before reaching Broadway, but her second production was a spectacular success: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan.
Selznick produced only another three plays after that, and retired in 1961. She felt, she told the Los Angeles Times in 1983, that “I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of the times.”
In her last years, Selznick was president of the charitable foundation named for her father, and was responsible for the decision to grant $5 million to the Dana-Farber Cancer Center, in Boston, whose founder, Sidney Farber was the pioneer of cancer research who cared for Louis B. Mayer at the end of his life.
She was known for her incisive intelligence and taste, her wide-ranging network of friends, and for her own voluminous and intimate knowledge of Hollywood history. Selznick’s memoir, “A Private View,” was highly acclaimed on publication for the author’s high degree of self-awareness but also for her unwillingness to use it as a vehicle for avenging past hurts and slights.
Irene Mayer Selznick died of cancer, at her home in New York’s Pierre Hotel, on October 10, 1990. She was 83.