Mayer was born Lazar Meir to a Jewish family in Minsk, then in the Russian Empire and now in Belarus. Probably his date of birth was July 12, 1884. His parents were Jacob Meir and Sarah Meltzer, and he had two sisters—Yetta, born in 1878, and Ida, born in 1883. Mayer first moved with his family to Rhode Island, where they lived from 1887 to 1892 and where his two brothers were born—Rubin, in April 1888, and Jeremiah, in April 1891. Then, they moved to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada where Mayer attended school.
His father started a scrap metal business, J. Mayer & Son. An immigrant unskilled in any trade, he struggled to earn a living. Young Louis quit school at age twelve to work with his father and help support his family. He roamed the streets with a cart that said "Junk Dealer", and collected any scrap metal he came across. When the owner of a tin business, John Wilson, saw him with his cart, he began giving him copper trimmings which were of no use. "Mr Wilson was my best friend", Mayer would later say, "my first partner". Wilson remembered that he was impressed with the boy's good manners and bright personality. Whenever he visited Saint John in later years, he placed flowers on Wilson's grave, just as he did on his mother's.
"It was a crappy childhood", said Mayer's nephew Gerald. "They were poor. My grandfather barely spoke English, and he hadn't been trained to do anything at all." It was Louis's ambition and drive that supported the family. With his family speaking mostly Yiddish at home, it made his goal of self-education when he quit school more difficult.
In his spare time, he hung around the York theatre, sometimes paying to watch the live vaudeville shows. "All he wants to do is hang around that new Opera House every chance he gets", said his father. He became enamoured of the entertainment business. Actress Ann Rutherford, also from Canada, would later reflect on Mayer's childhood and the studio he built: "I had been to his hometown. I knew from whence he sprang. He taught himself grammar. He taught himself manners. If anybody on earth ever created himself, Louis B. Mayer did."
In 1904, the 19-year-old Mayer left Saint John for Boston, where he continued for a time in the scrap metal business, married, and took a variety of odd jobs to support his family when his junk business lagged.
Mayer renovated the Gem Theater, a rundown, 600 seat burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which he reopened on November 28, 1907 as the Orpheum, his first movie theater. To overcome an unfavorable reputation that the building had, Mayer opened with a religious film at his new Orpheum, From the Manger to the Cross, in 1912. Within a few years, he owned all five of Haverhill's theaters, and, with Nathan H. Gordon, created the Gordon-Mayer partnership that controlled the largest theater chain in New England.
In 1914, the partners organized their own film distribution agency in Boston. Mayer paid D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to show The Birth of a Nation (1915) in New England. Although Mayer made the bid on a film that one of his scouts had seen, but he had not, his decision netted him over $100,000. Mayer partnered with Richard A. Rowland in 1916 to create Metro Pictures Corporation, a talent booking agency, in New York City.
Two years later, Mayer moved to Los Angeles and formed his own production company, Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. The first production was 1918's Virtuous Wives. A partnership was set up with B. P. Schulberg to make the Mayer-Schulberg Studio. Mayer's big breakthrough, however, was in April 1924 when Marcus Loew, owner of the Loew's chain, merged Metro Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn's Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Mayer Pictures into Metro-Goldwyn. Loew had bought Metro and Goldwyn some months before, but could not find anyone to oversee his new holdings on the West Coast. Mayer, with his proven success as a producer, was an obvious choice. He was named head of studio operations and a Loew's vice president, based in Los Angeles, reporting to Loew's longtime right-hand man Nicholas Schenck. He would hold this post for the next 27 years. Before the year was out, Mayer added his name to the studio with Loew's blessing, renaming it Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Loew died in 1927, and Schenck became president of Loew's. Mayer and Schenck hated each other intensely; Mayer reportedly referred to his boss, whose name was pronounced "Skenk", as "Mr. Skunk" in private. Two years later, Schenck agreed to sell Loew's – and MGM – to William Fox, which angered Mayer. But despite his important role in MGM, Mayer was not a shareholder, and had no standing to challenge the sale. So he instead used his Washington connections to persuade the Justice Department to delay the merger on antitrust grounds. During the summer of 1929, Fox was severely injured in an auto accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash had wiped out his fortune, destroying any chance of the deal going through even if the Justice Department had lifted its objections. Nonetheless, Schenck believed Mayer had cost him a fortune and never forgave him, causing an already frigid relationship to get even worse.
In late 1922, Mayer was introduced to Irving Thalberg, then working for Universal Pictures. Mayer was searching for someone to help him manage his small, but dynamic and fast-growing studio. At that first meeting, Thalberg "made a deep, immediate impression on Mayer", writes biographer Roland Flamini. Later that evening, after Thalberg had left, Mayer said to studio attorney Edwin Loeb: "Tell him if he comes to work for me, I'll look after him as though he were my son."
Although their personalities were in many ways opposite, Mayer being more outspoken and nearly twice the younger man's age, Thalberg was hired as vice president in charge of production at Louis B. Mayer Productions. Years later, Mayer's daughter, Irene Mayer Selznick, recalled that "it was hard to believe anyone that boyish could be so important." According to Flamini, Thalberg was hired because, although Mayer was an astute businessman, "what he lacked was Thalberg's almost unerring ability to combine quality with commercial success, to bring artistic aspiration in line with the demands of the box office."
Mayer's company subsequently merged with two others to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), with the 24-year-old Thalberg made part-owner and accorded the same position as vice president in charge of production. Three years after the merger, MGM became the most successful studio in Hollywood.
Mayer and Thalberg were a brilliant team that worked well together. They relied on each other, and neither operated unilaterally. Mayer took charge of the business part of running the studio, such as setting budgets and approving new productions. Thalberg, eventually called the "boy wonder", took charge of all MGM productions. Director Joseph Newman said that "Mayer and Thalberg complemented each other. Thalberg had a great story mind, and Mayer had a great business ability.
They became a great combination. Their guiding philosophy was "to make good pictures, the best motion pictures they could, even if they had to reshoot the entire picture." More important than showing a consistent profit with their films, was for them to see MGM become a high quality "class act" studio. That goal began with their early silent films, when stars such as Greta Garbo, Mayer's discovery, acted on lush settings with spectacular camera work.
Although they initially got along well, their relationship frayed over philosophical differences. Thalberg preferred literary works over the crowd-pleasers Mayer wanted. He ousted Thalberg as production chief in 1932, while Thalberg was recovering from a heart attack, and replaced him with producer David O. Selznick.
MGM received a blow when Thalberg died suddenly on September 14, 1936, at age 37. His death came as a shock to Mayer and everyone at MGM and the other studios. Mayer issued a statement to the press: "I have lost my associate of the past fourteen years, and the finest friend a man could ever have ... He was the guiding inspiration behind the artistic progress on the screen." His funeral was a major event in Los Angeles. All studios observed five minutes of silence, and MGM closed its studio for the entire day.
Mayer dedicated MGM's front office building and christened it the Thalberg Building. He had the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences establish the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given to producers to recognize their exceptional careers, and is considered one of the most prestigious awards in the Hollywood film industry.
After Thalberg died, people in Hollywood expected Mayer to "stumble and fall.". Director Joseph M. Newman saw the studio start to change for the worse. Some actors were affected, such as Luise Rainer, winner of Hollywood's first back-to-back Oscars, who felt that the death of Thalberg marked the death of her career: "Had it not been that he died, I think I may have stayed much longer in films." Joan Crawford was also concerned: "Thalberg was dead and the concept of the quality 'big' picture pretty much went out the window."
However, MGM under Mayer's leadership continued to produce successful movies. Mayer was made head of production as well as studio chief. For the next ten years, MGM grew and thrived. 1939 was an especially "golden" year: besides distributing Gone with the Wind, they released The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, The Marx Brothers at the Circus, and The Women. Garbo sang and laughed in Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips won an Oscar, and nominated for seven, and Hedy Lamarr, another of Mayer's personal discoveries, made her film debut.
Mayer became the first person in American history to earn a million-dollar salary. For nine years from 1937, when he earned $1,300,000—equivalent to $21,398,843 today,Mayer was the highest-paid man in the United States.
In his overall management skills, "Mayer was a great executive and could have run General Motors as successfully as MGM", claimed producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. He worked at the studio all the time, and decisively, without any fixed schedule, but didn't like paperwork. Some who knew them said Mayer had a lot in common with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had financed various MGM pictures, and MGM benefited by having film reviews included nationwide in the Hearst newspapers.
Hearst, 20 years Mayer's senior, affectionately often referred to Mayer as "son". As director Clarence Brown pointed out, "when Hearst got his first newspapers, he wasn't an editor or a reporter, and he didn't know shit about the newspaper business. But he had ideas and this inborn sense of what the American public wanted to read. He was also smart enough to know that there were some things he didn't know, so he hired the best newspaper corps in America. Mayer did exactly the same thing. ... Like Hearst and Henry Ford, he was an executive genius", states Brown.
As Mayer's studio grew, Hearst gave Mayer suggestions, as when he told him to build himself a bungalow on the MGM lot, which was appropriate for a studio head. Hearst explained to him, "Gosh man, don't you realize that you are one of the big fellows of the country making a product that more people are interested in than in anything else presented to the public? Everybody of distinction from all over the world comes to Los Angeles and everybody who comes wants to see your studio and they all want to meet you and do meet you, so put on a few airs son, and provide the atmosphere."
Mayer's temper was widely known, but most people knew that his sudden bursts of anger faded quickly. With those working underneath him, he was usually patient and preferred to leave department heads alone, and would fire executives if they failed to produce successful films over a long period.
At its peak in the 1940s, MGM employed six thousand people, had three entrances, and covered 185 acres in Culver City, California, outside of Los Angeles. It had forty cameras and sixty sound machines, used on its six separate lots, and connected with its own rail line. About 2,700 people ate in the commissary every day. Power was supplied by an in-house electrical plant which could light a town of 25,000. MGM also maintained a police force of fifty officers—larger than that of Culver City itself.
Anywhere from sixteen to eighteen pictures were being shot at one time", remembers actress Ann Rutherford. "They were either shooting or preparing to shoot on every sound stage.
Mayer helped create what is termed the "Star system". At one point he explained the process he went through in creating a star:
The idea of a star being born is bush-wah. A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was face. If someone looked good to me, I'd have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. ... We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting."
During MGM's growth period, Mayer traveled often, and among his personal discoveries were Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Norma Shearer and Greer Garson. He also signed up dancing team Marge and Gower Champion and discovered Mario Lanza, then a young tenor from Philadelphia, who Mayer hoped to turn into a "singing Clark Gable".
When hiring new actors, he typically wanted them to agree to stay with the studio for either three or seven years, during which time they would become one of the MGM "family." The studio usually succeeded in hiring those it wanted since they offered the highest salaries. With executives, Mayer took more time before taking them, wanting to know them first on a personal level. "He respected brains [and] talent", said manager Joe Cohn. "One time he said to me, 'Never be afraid of hiring a fellow smarter than you are. You'll only learn from them.'"
He prided his ability to pick good people, and once hired, he let them alone to do their job: "Mayer's involvement with individuals was always the same. He put an individual into a job because his judgment was that this fellow was ideal for the job, and after that he didn't interfere with them. It didn't matter whether he was a producer or a department head or a janitor. He was left entirely to his own devices", said Robert Vogel. As a result, while other studios went through continuous upheavals or reorganizations, MGM did not. "Mayer kept the place stable and sound, and jobs were secure."
When meeting a new employee, he always told them to come to him personally for help with any problems. Some, like Barbara Stanwyck, considered this attitude to be "pompous" however, since he used his position to meddle into people's lives. Similarly, Edward G. Robinson at first treated such invitations with suspicion. However, after he met Mayer in his office, his suspicions disappeared and were replaced with respect: "I found him to be a man of truth ... Behind his gutta-percha face and roly-poly figure, it was evident there was a man of steel—but well-mannered steel." Whereas British director Victor Saville remembers him as being "the best listener. He wanted to know. He was the devil's advocate. He would prod you and question you and suck you dry of any knowledge."
His attitude and conversational style was both professional and animated, sometimes "theatrical", observed June Caldwell, Eddie Mannix's secretary. "Bombastic and colorful, but I never heard him use nasty language ... he had a great loyalty to everybody, and everybody respected him. And he would listen. He wasn't like the Warners or [Harry] Cohn. You could work with him." While his manners were considered "impeccable." Actress Esther Williams said that "L.B. wasn't crude at all. Super-intelligent people might have found him common or crass", she said. "He may have been an immigrant with a good suit of clothes, but never forget that this was a man working hard to be an American."
With MGM's film output as high as one film each week, he never panicked over a bad picture. If somebody suggested canceling a movie and cutting the studio's losses, when a film had consistent production problems, Mayer would typically refuse. Fortunately, he had "wonderful intuition", said Williams. "He worked purely from instinct. He didn't read scripts, he couldn't really create from scratch, but give him the framework, and he could assemble the pieces like his life depended on it."
Occasionally, when producers, directors, writers or actors were deadlocked over how to handle a problem in a film, he would mediate. On Rosalie, for instance, when Nelson Eddy refused to sing a song he thought was too melodramatic, its songwriter, Cole Porter, went to Mayer and played it for him. Mayer was moved to tears by the song, and told Eddy to sing it. "Imagine making Louis B. Mayer cry", Porter later told friends.
With many of his actors, Mayer was like an overprotective mother, notes biographer Scott Eyman. "He would anxiously take over anybody's life, telling someone where to shop, what to order at which restaurant, what doctor to see, always suggesting ways others could take care of themselves." He sometimes arranged marriages, and coping with occupational hazards like alcoholism, suicide, and eccentric sexual habits were as much a part of his job as negotiating contracts with stars and directors. When he learned that June Allyson was dating David Rose, for instance, he told her to stop seeing him: "If you care about your reputation, you cannot be seen with a married man." Not everyone minded his protective attitude. Joan Crawford, later in her career, explained: "To me, L.B. Mayer was my father, my father confessor, the best friend I ever had."
Stories about his sobbing or rages that have often been repeated in books, but few employees ever saw that part of him. "Mr. Mayer was to me like a father", said Ricardo Montalban. "He really thought of the people under contract as his boys and girls." Mayer's paternalism could extend to productions, once revising the Dr. Kildare stories in order to keep an ailing Lionel Barrymore, who was then wheelchair bound, on the job.
Young starlet Elizabeth Taylor didn't like Mayer overseeing her life, and called him a "monster." Although Mickey Rooney, another young actor, who co-starred with Elizabeth in National Velvet when she was 12, came away with the opposite impression:
"There have been things written and said about Mr. Mayer that were not kind, that he was a tyrant, etc. Not so. He was the daddy of everybody and vitally interested in everybody. They always talk badly about Mayer, but he was really a wonderful guy. Everybody butted heads with him, but he listened and you listened." Rooney, in fact, had his own confrontations with Mayer, especially when he starred in the Andy Hardy series of films. Rooney was in real life a "hyperactive girl-crazy teenager", requiring Mayer to become like a father to him. Historian Jane Ellen Wayne writes that Mayer sometimes found it necessary to discipline Rooney about his public image, especially about dating new stars:
Mayer naturally tried to keep all his child actors in line, like any father figure. After one such episode, Mickey Rooney replied, "I won't do it. You're asking the impossible." Mayer then grabbed young Rooney by his lapels and said, "Listen to me! I don't care what you do in private. Just don't do it in public. In public, behave. Your fans expect it. You're Andy Hardy! You're the United States! You're the Stars and Stripes. Behave yourself! You're a symbol!" Mickey nodded. "I'll be good, Mr. Mayer. I promise you that." Mayer let go of his lapels, "All right", he said.
One of Rooney's repeat costars in Andy Hardy and other films was Judy Garland, with whom he made nine films. In the late 1940s she began having personal problems which affected her acting, and Mayer tried his best to protect her star reputation. She suffered from overwork, various prescription drugs, weight problems, and domestic strains. When her absences caused the production of Summer Stock to go far over budget, producer Joe Pasternack suggested that Mayer cut his losses and cancel the picture. Mayer refused, telling him, "Judy Garland has made this studio a fortune in the good days, and the least we can do is to giver her one more chance. If you stop production now, it'll finish her." She completed the film, but during her next one, Annie Get Your Gun, the studio finally ran out of patience. Costar Howard Keel recalls that "she began to fall apart."
After the studio fired her, she attempted suicide. Mayer visited her during her recuperation, found out about her mounting financial troubles, and personally began paying her medical expenses, knowing she would likely never make another film. "She loved L.B. Mayer to the end of her life", wrote her daughter Lorna Luft.
Mayer wanted the studio to develop a number of child stars, necessary for producing family-oriented stories. Jackie Coogan, then 11, marked the studio's debut using child stars with his role in The Rag Man in 1925. During Hollywood's golden age, MGM had more child actors than any other studio, including Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Margaret O'Brien, Elizabeth Taylor, and Roddy McDowall.
The studio provided essential services, such as formal education and medical care. They were given acting or dancing tutors. Mayer loved children, writes biographer Kitty Kelley: "They provided the magic that brought millions of people stampeding into theaters every week for movies of laughter and music and patriotism. It was the children who wove the spell of innocence and hope. They were the good, clean, wholesome elements of the folksy entertainment that was MGM's specialty."
While MGM's films during the 1920s and 1930s were often notable for having adult themes and strong female stars, such as Greta Garbo, after Thalberg's early death in 1936, he promoted a change in emphasis to more male leads, family themes, and child stars. And unusual for a movie mogul, he took moral positions in his movies, especially when it came to portraying family values—as in the Andy Hardy series. One of Mayer's proudest moments came when Mickey Rooney, who starred as Andy Hardy, was given a special award by the Academy in 1942 for "furthering the American way of life."
Mayer tried to express an idealized vision of men, women, and families in the real world they lived in. He also believed in beauty, glamour, and the "star system." In MGM films, "marriage was sacrosanct and mothers were objects of veneration." Author Peter Hay states that Mayer "cherished the Puritan values of family and hard work." When he hired writers, he made those objectives clear at the outset, once telling screenwriter Frances Marion that he never wanted his own daughters or his wife to be embarrassed when watching an MGM movie. "I worship good women, honorable men, and saintly mothers", he told her. Mayer was serious about that, once coming from behind his desk and knocking director Erich von Stroheim to the floor when he said that all women were whores.
Mayer knew that formula in his themes and stories usually works. He felt that the general public, especially Americans, like to see stars, spectacle, and optimism on screen, and if possible, with a little sentiment attached. They don't like to be challenged or instructed, but comforted and entertained.
Therefore, having messages was less important to Mayer than giving his audience pure entertainment and escapism. In his screen dramas, he wanted them to be melodramatic, whereas in comedies, he often laced them with a strong doses of sentimentality. "He loved swaggering, charismatic hams like Lionel Barrymore and Marie Dressler", writes Eyman.
Musicals were high on his list of preferred themes. Anxious to make more of them, on a hunch, he asked songwriter Arthur Freed to be associate producer for The Wizard of Oz. As Mayer hoped, Freed went on to produce a number of films considered among the best musicals ever made: For Me and My Gal, Girl Crazy, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, On the Town, An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Gigi. Mayer's greatest contributions to posterity are said to be his musicals.
Unlike Charlie Chaplin, who produced The Great Dictator, the other, much larger Hollywood studios lacked the freedom to make such independent films. Mayer understood that the Germans could ban or boycott Hollywood films throughout much of Europe, with serious economic implications, since 30 to 40 percent of Hollywood's income came from Europe's audiences.
Nevertheless, MGM produced Three Comrades in 1938, even after censors tried to convince Mayer to cancel the politically-themed film. Movie censor Joseph Breen wrote Mayer, warning him that the film was "a serious indictment of the German nation and people and is certain to be violently resented by the present government in that country."
After the war erupted in Europe in September 1939, Mayer authorized the production of two anti-Nazi films, The Mortal Storm and Escape. At the same time, Warner Brothers produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy. The German government informed the studios that "those films would be remembered by Germany when — not if — they won the war", writes Eyman. Warners had to post guards to protect the family of actor Edward G. Robinson, and the Germans threatened Mayer with a boycott of all MGM films.
From September, 1939, until January, 1940, all films that could be considered anti-Nazi were banned by the Hays Office. U.S. ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy, also told the studios to stop making pro-British and anti-German films. Kennedy felt that "British defeat was imminent and there was no point in America holding out alone: 'With England licked, the party's over,' said Kennedy."
MGM did decide to produce Mrs. Miniver, a simple story about a British family trying to get by during the bombing blitz in London. Eddie Mannix, Mayer's assistant, said that "someone should salute England. And even if we lose $100,000, that'll be okay."
Mayer wanted British actress Greer Garson, his personal discovery, to star, but she refused to play a matronly role. Mayer implored her "to have the same faith in me" that he had in her. He read from the script, having her visualize the image she would present to the world, "a woman who survives and endures. She was London. No, more than that, she was ... England!" Garson accepted the role, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress. Mrs. Miniver won six Academy Awards and became the top box office hit of 1942.
President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill both loved the film, said historian Emily Yellin, and Roosevelt wanted prints rushed to theaters nationwide. The Voice of America radio network broadcast the minister's speech from the film, magazines reprinted it, and it was copied onto leaflets and dropped over German-occupied countries. Churchill sent Mayer a telegram claiming that "Mrs. Miniver is propaganda worth 100 battleships." Bosley Crowther (1960 biographer of Mayer, below), wrote in his New York Times review:
It is hard to believe that a picture could be made within the heat of present strife which would clearly, but without a cry for vengeance, crystallize the cruel effect of total war upon a civilized people. Yet this is what has been magnificently done in Metro's Mrs. Miniver. It is the finest film yet made about the present war, and a most exalting tribute to the British.
The following year, 1943, saw the release of another Oscar-winning film, this one aimed at supporting the home front, entitled The Human Comedy. It was Mayer's personal favorite and the favorite of its director, Clarence Brown. Mayer also assisted the U.S. government by producing a number of short films related to the war, and helped produce pro-democracy films such as Joe Smith, American, in 1942.
The post-war years saw a gradual decline in profits for MGM and the other studios. The number of high-grossing films in 1947 dwindled to six, compared to twenty-two a year earlier. MGM had to let go many of its top producers and other executives. Mayer was pressured to tighten expenses by the studio's parent company, although Mayer's reputation as a "big-picture man" would make that difficult. They began looking for someone, another Thalberg, to redo the studio system.
In the interim, Mayer kept making "big pictures." When RKO turned down financing of Frank Capra's State of the Union in 1948 because of its expensive budget, Mayer took on the project. He filled the cast with MGM stars including Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, Adolphe Menjou and Angela Lansbury, but the film only broke even. Nicholas Schenck called Mayer and insisted that he "cut, cut", recalls director George Sidney. Mayer replied, "A studio isn't salami, Nick." "L.B. would ask only one question: 'Can you make it better?' It was all he cared about", said Sidney.
As pressure built to find a new Thalberg-style manager to handle production, Dore Schary was brought in from RKO, and began work in July 14, 1948, as vice president in charge of production, working under Mayer's direction.
Some long-time studio executives saw this change as a sign of the eventual downfall of MGM. Lillian Burns Sidney, George Sidney's wife, when she heard the news, marched into Mayer's office, "Now you've done it", she announced. "You've ruined everything." When Mayer asked why, what's wrong with Schary?, she told him that she was afraid he would eliminate all future musicals, comedies and adventure movies, and replace them with mostly "message" movies. She expressed her fear: "They won't have need for anybody around here. Even you! You'll see."
By mutual consent with Loews, Mayer permanently resigned from MGM in August 1951. On his final day, as he walked down a red carpet laid out in front of the Thalberg Building, executives, actors, and staff lined the path and applauded him for his contributions."He was so respected", said June Caldwell, Eddie Mannix's secretary. Many assumed that his leaving meant the end of an era. Actor Turhan Bey said, "In every meaningful way, it was the end of Hollywood."
Mayer, for a period after he left MGM, tried to finance and assemble a new group of film stars and directors to produce his own films as an independent. He told the press that his films would carry on in the tradition of MGM's previous style of film subjects:
I am going to make pictures you can take your mother and your children to see. I am not going to make pictures for the sake of awards or for the critics. I want to make pictures for Americans and for all people to enjoy. When I send my pictures abroad, I want them to show America in the right light—and not that we are a nation chiefly of drunks, gangsters and prostitutes. ... I am going to make my pictures where I will have the right to make the 'right' pictures—wholesome American entertainment."
In 1952 he became chairman of the board and the single largest shareholder in Cinerama, and had hoped to produce a property he owned, Paint Your Wagon, in the widescreen process, but without success. He left Cinerama in 1954 when the company was sold.
Mayer had two daughters from his first marriage to Margaret Shenberg. The eldest, Edith (Edie) Mayer (August 14, 1905 – 1987), whom he would later become estranged from and disinherit, married producer William Goetz (who served as vice president for Twentieth-Century Fox and later became president of Universal Pictures). The younger daughter, Irene Gladys Mayer (1907–1990), married producer David O. Selznick and became a successful theatrical producer.
At home, Mayer was boss. "In our family, all the basic decisions were made by him", remembers his nephew, Gerald Mayer. "He was a giant. ... Were we afraid of him? Jesus Christ, yes!" And although he never spoke Yiddish at the office, he sometimes spoke Yiddish with "some of the relatives", said his daughter Irene.
Mayer's activities for the Jewish Home for the Aged led to a strong friendship with Edgar Magnin, the rabbi at the Wilshire Temple in Los Angeles. "Edgar and Louis B. virtually built that temple", said Herbert Brin.
At his home on Saint Cloud Road in the East Gate Bel Air, Sundays were reserved for brunches in what was an open house, which often included visiting statesmen or former Presidents, along with various producers, directors or stars. There would be a buffet supper, drinks, and later a movie. Mayer drank almost no alcohol, cared nothing for fine cuisine, and didn't gamble, but might play penny-ante card games for fun.
For leisure activities, he liked going to the Hollywood Bowl, especially the annual John Philip Sousa concert. Sousa's patriotic-style music built up his pride in America, and he "would be stoked with extra exuberance for days afterward", states Eyman. Mayer also enjoyed ballet and opera, and concerts where violinist Jascha Heifetz or pianist Arthur Rubinstein performed.
While Mayer seldom discussed his early life, his partiality towards Canada would sometimes be revealed, especially after Canada and America entered World War II. On one occasion in 1943, Mary Pickford called to tell him she met a movie-struck Royal Canadian Air Force pilot from New Brunswick, where Mayer grew up. Mayer asked her to have him drop by the studio. The pilot, Charles Foster, recalled his visit: "Mary's driver took me through the gates, and I saw this little man come running down the steps of the Thalberg Building. I thought, 'Oh, he's sent a man to greet me.' And I got out of the car, and this man threw his arms around me and said, 'Welcome to my studio.' "
Mayer took him on a personal tour of the studio, and Foster remembers that "everybody waved to him and he waved back. He spoke to people and knew them by name. I was shocked." Mayer invited him back for lunch the next day. But before Foster arrived, Mayer had invited every Canadian in Hollywood to meet the flier, including Fay Wray, Walter Pidgeon, Jack Carson, Rod Cameron, Deanna Durbin, Walter Huston, Ann Rutherford, and even his main competitor, Jack Warner. Mayer told him, "When this war is over, if you want to come back here, I'll find a job for you." Foster said "It was like he was the father I never knew."
Active in Republican Party politics, Mayer served as the vice chairman of the California Republican Party from 1931 to 1932, and as its state chairman between 1932 and 1933. As a delegate to the 1928 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Louis B. Mayer supported Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover of California. Mayer became friends with Joseph R. Knowland, Marshall Hale, and James Rolph, Jr. Joseph Schenck was an alternate delegate at the convention. L.B. was a delegate to the 1932 Republican National Convention with fellow California Republicans Joseph R. Knowland, James Rolph, Jr. and Earl Warren. Mayer endorsed the second term of President Herbert Hoover.
Mayer owned or bred a number of successful thoroughbred racehorses at his 504-acre (2.0 km2) ranch in Perris, California, 72 miles (116 km) east of Los Angeles.
In the 2005 biography, Lion of Hollywood, author Scott Eyman wrote that: "Mayer built one of the finest racing stables in the United States" and that he "almost single-handedly raised the standards of the California racing business to a point where the Eastern thoroughbred establishment had to pay attention." Among his horses was Your Host, sire of Kelso, the 1945 U.S. Horse of the Year, Busher, and the 1959 Preakness Stakes winner, Royal Orbit. Eventually Mayer sold off the stable, partly to finance his divorce in 1947. His 248 horses brought more than $4.4 million. In 1976, Thoroughbred of California magazine named him "California Breeder of the Century".
Louis B. Mayer died of leukemia on October 29, 1957. He was interred in the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California. His sister, Ida Mayer Cummings, and brothers Jerry and Rubin are also interred there.
Mayer and his lieutenants built a company that was regarded by the public and his peers alike as the pinnacle of the movie industry. "Louis B. Mayer defined MGM, just as MGM defined Hollywood, and Hollywood defined America", writes biographer Scott Eyman.
In 1951 he was given an honorary Oscar for heading MGM for over 25 years. At the event, screenwriter Charles Brackett presented the award and thanked him for guiding MGM's "production policy with foresight, aggressiveness and with a real desire for taste and quality." Mayer was also thanked for founding and developing new personalities and for bringing the Hollywood "star system into full flower." Variety magazine wrote that "placed in his proper perspective, he was probably the greatest single force in the development of the motion picture industry who brought it to the heights of prosperity and influence it finally attained.
"Mayer was a man born for success", said producer Armand Deutsch, who adds:
He was a fierce man, beneath a variety of exteriors. Sometimes his eyes would just blaze. The thing that distinguished him and that made MGM the greatest was his insistence on being the best. He was a showman. And the engine that drove this factor, that sent forty or fifty films a year into the marketplace, was Louis B. Mayer."
Mayer was often not liked or feared by many in the studio and industry, but liked by many others. Editor Sam Marx explains that "Mayer is an overly maligned man, [and] his reputation is far worse than it should be. He had to be strong to do his job, and he couldn't do that without making enemies." While Director Clarence Brown compared him to newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst:
Louis B. Mayer ... made more stars than all the rest of the producers in Hollywood put together. ... He knew how to handle talent; he knew that to be successful, he had to have the most successful people in the business working for him. He was like Hearst in the newspaper business. ... He made an empire out of the thing."
Mayer never wrote or directed movies, and never pretended to tell writers what to write or art directors what to design. But he understood movies and their audience. "His supreme gift was his understanding of the nature of stardom and the needs of the audience, bred by his years of being an exhibitor." According to Eyman, "Mayer's view of America became America's view of itself." Because of the stars, the stories, the glamour, the music, and the way they were presented, audiences the world over would often applaud the moment they saw the MGM lion. Mayer was the constant at MGM who set the tone.
Today, the words Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer "still resonate with the glory of Old Hollywood—a town that wouldn't have achieved half the renown it did without Louis B. Mayer." At Mayer's funeral in 1957, Spencer Tracy expressed Mayer's ambitions:
The story he wanted to tell was the story of America, the land for which he had an almost furious love, born of gratitude—and of contrast with the hatred in the dark land of his boyhood across the seas. It was this love of America that made him an authority on America."The primary screening facility for Loyola Marymount University's School of Film and Television—the Mayer Theatre—is named after him. Mayer permitted the university's sports teams to use the MGM lion as their mascot.
The main theatre at Santa Clara University bears his name.
Mayer was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1990.
A street in Laval, Quebec a suburb of Montreal, Quebec holds the name of Louis-B-Mayer.
The Louis B. Mayer Research Laboratories building at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston opened in 1988.
Former MGM Studio Lot in Culver City, is now Sony Pictures Studios.
Mayer has been portrayed numerous times in film and television including:Mommie Dearest (by Howard Da Silva)
RKO 281 (by David Suchet)
De-Lovely (by Peter Polycarpou)
The Aviator (by Stanley DeSantis)
The Last Tycoon (by Robert Mitchum)
Rainbow (by Martin Balsam)
Barton Fink (by Michael Lerner as Jack Lipnick)
Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (by Al Waxman)
Cats Don't Dance (by George Kennedy as the voice of L.B. Mammoth)
Harlow (by Jack Kruschen)
Gable and Lombard (by Allen Garfield)
The Big Knife
Moviola: The Silent Lovers and The Scarlet O'Hara War (by Harold Gould)
The Three Stooges (2000) (by David Baldwin)
Golden Dreams (2001) (by Richard Balin)
Trumbo (2015) (by Richard Portnow)
Jacqueline Susann portrayed Mayer in Valley of the Dolls as Cyril H. Bean, referred to by his employees as "The Head".
Mayer has a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.