Louis B. Mayer began his business career buying and selling leftover fluff from New England cotton mills, but he soon moved on to higher fluff. By the 1930s the man who had been born Lazar Meir in Ukraine in 1885 was the highest-paid man in America and chief custodian of the nation’s fantasy life. As head of MGM he supplied luminous pagan gods and goddesses for the screen and had them dispense the pieties he believed in. He was, as Charles Higham makes abundantly clear, a ”profoundly sentimental” man who disliked realism in movies, and also in press releases and police reports.
When a drunken Clark Gable drove around a curve too fast one day in 1933 and struck a pedestrian, killing her instantly, Mayer actually got an MGM executive to take the rap. He had a cozy relationship with the Los Angeles DA and knew where to send the money that kept things out of newspapers, all of which helped when the young John Huston also ran down and killed a woman later the same year.
Higham’s thick biography, in fact, is largely a chronicle of scrapes and scandals and Mayer’s strenuous efforts to sweep them under MGM’s plush and lumpy carpet. But while dishing the dirt, Higham also dusts off Mayer’s own image: crude sometimes, ferocious usually, cigar-chomping always, but no ungrammatical ogre. Still, the pillar of propriety had feet of clay. He used his position to seduce aspiring actresses. His affairs helped drive his wife to institutionalized distraction, and the man who said a prayer to the picture of his mother every morning perversely quarreled with his own daughters. But hypocrisy is, as La Rochefoucauld would put it, the tribute vice pays to virtue, and Mayer’s celluloid tributes were often better than he knew and better than we get today. Our Hollywood has more realism but not much more reality and a lot less wit, grammar, and glamour. Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood sometimes lapses into hackery, but Higham, who devoted previous books to Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, knows the soiled linen of Hollywood well, and he puts you in a mood to spend the next weeks watching the stars that Mayer badgered in the movies that he fathered. B+