charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my five-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier. There are five categories on the Walk of Fame: motion pictures, television, radio, music and theater but Charlie tends to favor the movies. 

charlie-mayer2I was surprised this week when Charlie made a beeline for the star of MGM head honcho, Louis B. Mayer. Surprised because I didn’t even realize that the studio heads had stars on the Walk of Fame, and also because I have recently become addicted to the radio show Hollywood Time Machine, hosted by Louis B. Mayer’s grand-niece, Alicia Mayer. Currently a resident of Sydney, Australia, Alicia writes in an excellent blog called Hollywood Essays and started the Internet broadcast (which can be heard live on Saturdays at 6 pm PST/9pm EST on Channel 2 of earlier this fall with New York-based classic movie maven and writer Will McKinley as her co-host. I had just communicated with Alicia (who uses her family name of Mayer as a nom de plume) about this week’s show which, among other fascinating guests, featured Angela Cartwright, my long-time childhood crush (aka Penny Robinson in Lost in Space and Brigitta von Trapp in The Sound of Music) and her writing partner Tom McLaren talking about their gorgeous new book, Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth Century Fox Archive.

louis_b_mayerLouis B. Mayer was born Lazar Meir on July 12, 1884 in Minsk, Russia, to Jacob and Sarah Meir. When he was very young the family made the arduous trip to America to seek a better life, spending a few years in Rhode Island and then settiling in Canada where his father started a scrap metal business. Mayer was only 19 when he moved on his own to Boston where, in 1907, he refurbished the Orpheum movie theater and began his lifelong career in the industry that he loved. Mayer moved to Los Angeles in 1918 where he started the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation which eventually led, in the early 1920s, to the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, which, of course, would produce some of the most beloved motion pictures of all time under Mayer’s long watch. In those golden years, MGM was said to have had “more stars than there are in the heavens.” Louis B. Mayer was also one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the group that doles out the Oscars and, based on the many books that have written about him, was either an endearing father figure, a brilliant businessman and visionary, a ruthless tyrant and control freak, or some combination of the above. He ruled supreme over MGM for 27 years, at which point the movie industry was changing and he was forced out of the company. Louis B. Mayer largely retired after that and died in Los Angeles on October 29, 1957, at the age of 73.

But instead of rehashing the volumes of material written about this man, at one time the highest-paid executive in the United States, I thought I’d go to his family member, Alicia, ask her a few questions about her famous grand-uncle. Alicia’s great-grandmother was L.B.s older sister, Ida Mayer Cummings. But the connections to Hollywood royalty don’t stop there. Alicia’s uncle, Jack Cummings, was a director and producer of such great movies as Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, as well as many Elvis musicals. She is also related, through the Mayer line, to the descendants of Oscar-winning Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick (who was married to Louis B. Mayer’s youngest daughter, Irene, a respected theatrical producer in her own right) as well as other prominent individuals who played an important role in movie history such as 20th Century Fox’s Bill Goetz (who married L.B.’s oldest daughter, Edie).

Thanks for answering some questions about your illustrious family, Alicia! I’m happy to see that you’ve taken up the family torch with your love of classic movies. Which of the older generation did you know as a child?

I spent many summers with my grandparents Sol Baer Fielding and Mitzi Cummings Fielding. Mitzi was the daughter of Ida Mayer Cummings, Uncle Louis’ sister. My grandfather had also been involved in the film industry (among other films he produced Jeopardy and Trooper Hook with Barbara Stanwyck and Bright Road which was Harry Belafonte’s debut) but he was also a fine artist, cartoonist, and graphic artist. He took me everywhere, often with my grandmother’s brother, Jack Cummings. I remember a lot of Academy screenings and endless meals at Nate n’Al’s in Beverly Hills with many of their filmmaker friends. They’d talk for hours and I’d just listen to these extraordinarily talented older men! My strategy to stay out with them as long as possible was to try to blend in and be quiet as a mouse. It seems I left plenty of places carried out like a sack of potatoes.


I’ve seen you defend Louis B. Mayer online from time to time. Do you feel he’s been unfairly vilified by some people over the years?

Yes, and I do often defend L.B. Sadly, many people prefer the adversarial accounts of his life rather than the praise he’s received from so many quarters. Bosley Crowther’s 1960 bio of him has been widely read — it still is, unfortunately — and it’s a hateful, agenda-filled crock. Three days ago, I saw a well-known columnist refer to L.B. and Harry Cohn (the head of Columbia Pictures) as “monstrous dictators.” Now where do you think that came from? Luckily, some of the urban myths that have been floating around for decades are now carefully being busted by good writers like Eve Golden in her recent book John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars.

gilbertWhat were the rumors about your uncle and John Gilbert?

That L.B. hated John Gilbert so much that he fiddled with the sound knobs to make sure he sounded terrible when talkies first came in. Can you imagine? Why would a visionary businessman running a multi-million dollar corporation with incredibly talented people all around him sneak into a sound booth to do something like that? It’s just comical. And yet if you’re going to go look for these tasty Internet morsels instead of reading well-researched biographies, that’s what you’re going to spew out.

judy-garland-and-louis-mayerI remember Judy Garland used to go on talk shows and regale people with tales from her MGM days in sometimes less than flattering terms but she was a great raconteur and I think that made a better story.

Judy’s own daughters have spoken about how grateful she was to Louis B. Mayer for all he did for her — and that he treated her like a daughter. Of course back then drugs were viewed as cure-all panaceas with no side effects. All of that is far better understood today. The studio’s doctor probably prescribed what he felt would help her but the end result, we all know, was terribly sad. We also know that most child actors struggled to have anything even resembling a normal life — before, during, and after their time on the top. And yet, for the L.B. haters out there, they’re going to hang on to the story that he was a groping drug pusher!

Then there was that book last year that all but accused Mayer and some of the other Jewish studio heads of collaborating with the Nazis. I know you spoke out against that book which was largely discredited.

Yes, I fought back very hard, but I needn’t have done anything because dozens of eminent historians wrote lengthy rebuttals and negative book reviews because it simply wasn’t true. And yet that grimy layer will take years to remove.


What would you like people to know about your uncle?

I’m not saying he was a saint or an angel. I’m sure he could be fierce, ruthless, tough, and so on. He could also be melodramatic and theatrical — one of the best actors that MGM never signed! But he was also an absolute visionary who knew that success lay in surrounding himself with the best of the best. The most accurate biography is certainly Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.

LA-Talk-Radio-HTM-promo-picI’m a huge fan of your new radio show, Hollywood Time Machine. Why did you decide to start that show and what are your hopes for the future?

I started Hollywood Time Machine because I love sharing with the classic Hollywood movie community. They’re a fun, talented, knowledgeable, and passionate group of people and basically “my gang” so this is one way of pulling us all together. We do it as a live show for that added kick of showbiz fun — and because I’m a Mayer. That kind of approach runs in the blood, it seems!

By day, I am a mild-mannered book editor living in Sydney with three kids — on the far fringes of the classic Hollywood epicenter. But on Saturday, for 50 minutes, I get to pull the world to me and speak to the best and brightest and we all have fun. I hope it will grow to something even bigger. I’d like to find sponsorship or advertising as this project does have weekly costs. And I’m very excited about the upcoming Google+ Hangouts on Air (click here for descriptions of some of the sessions that are planned) which will have top-notch panelists and are all free. Anyone who can’t watch live can catch up later on my YouTube channel. I love the idea that via this format, we can hear from the best and the brightest and rise above the limitations of actual physical events. There is technology that can help us come together as a huge global community to talk about our favorite topics and the movies that we love. I know my uncle would have loved that!