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Her Way

On the day after Irene Mayer Selznick asked the M-G-M publicity department to announce her separation from producer David O. Selznick, she received baskets of flowers from the wives of three other producers, one of whom she did not even know. If the flowers indicate that being a producer’s wife can make for a hard life, that comes as no surprise, but they suggest only a portion of the difficulties with which Mrs. Selznick has had to cope in her seventy-odd years. Not merely, for a time, the wife of one producer, she was also the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, perhaps the single most powerful figure in the history of the American film industry. And after her separation, despite what many would consider a persuasive education in the dangers of such a choice, Mrs. Selznick went on to a producing career of her own. Although she became a producer in the theater rather than in films, she attained success comparable to that of her father and former husband, counting among her credits Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle, Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, and Graham Greene’s The Complaisant Lover.

A canny and respected player in the volatile theater world of the late Forties and the Fifties, a full participant in Hollywood’s social extravaganza—with strong ties to New York society—for all of her adult life, and an intimate witness while many of the styles and genres, conventions and techniques that helped define film as a narrative medium were being articulated and explored, Irene Mayer Selznick might well be expected to have a story or two to tell herself.

As her title indicates, however, she is primarily interested in reporting a personal tale—the story of how, against considerable odds, she succeeded in living a reasonably contented and productive life. Her account could serve as a model for the contemporary woman’s coming-of-age story: raised by a domineering and protective father, she escaped from him by marrying a man radically his opposite in temperament and values, but no less demanding or strong-minded; after years of struggling to make a success of their life together, she left her husband, took up a career, and finally became happy.

In doing so, fortunately, Mrs. Selznick did not also feel compelled to repudiate or denounce the two men she left behind, and she avoids the complaining tone of many similar memoirs. Her portraits of her father and exhusband are, in fact, far more generous and flattering than one might expect, especially considering the reputation for monstrous behavior that each man independently earned for himself. Heavily influenced by years of psychoanalysis, Mrs. Selznick focuses on the causes and patterns of their behavior (and of her own), and not, as she might have, on getting in a few last laughs. Which is not to say that she doesn’t adjust a few old scores (or that she doesn’t occasionally become tiresome—other people’s analyses usually do), but that, in the afterlight of such Hollywood memoirs as Mommie Dearest and Haywire, hers is a dignified exercise indeed. She also writes in an effective colloquial style, and tells her story well.

Born in 1907, Mrs. Selznick spent her first ten years in and around Boston. Her parents, she says, “attached more importance to having a baby than any other people I have yet to hear of.” Years later, it became apparent that the marriage had, in fact, been founded almost entirely on the Mayers’ shared love and concern for their children (Irene was born twenty months after a sister, Edith). Scarcely three years after the two girls married and left home—within six weeks of each other in 1930—Louis Mayer was already becoming frank about his infidelities, and his wife suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never fully recovered. Although Mrs. Selznick does not mention her father’s infidelities (they are well documented elsewhere), she makes a convincing case for her mother’s collapse owing in good part to the emptiness at home after the departure of her daughters.

When the girls were still children, though, Mayer was the commanding center of family life, and his wife trained her daughters to defer to him as she did. He, in turn, praised her as the model of good womanhood to which they should aspire. “It is no wonder that as a little girl my ultimate ambition was to be a wife,” Mrs. Selznick writes, “for surely there was no more exalted position than the one my mother held.”

Determined to raise his daughters according to distinctly old-fashioned—not to say Old World—principles, Louis Mayer ran a strict household, and carefully shielded the girls from any outside influences that might tempt them to become what he called “bums.” The category of “bums” included women who were careless of their reputations, women who lived or talked more freely than Mayer felt was proper, and most actresses.

Besides learning to “act like little ladies” before visitors, never staying overnight at other girls’ houses, and sharing everything, including a bed, until they were married, Irene and Edith were also sternly enjoined “not to trust anyone except the family,” Mrs. Selznick recalls. “Everything was private. Worse was to come: we were not to keep secrets. ‘You must tell your mother. It is a sin to keep a secret from your mother.’ ”

Edith, temperamental like her father, rebelled outright against many of her parents’ elaborate proscriptions, and warred with her father on and off throughout his life. (Not on speaking terms with Mayer for the last five years before he died, she refused to visit him even in his last days—permanently estranging her sister.) Irene, in contrast, was unwaveringly obedient. Her solution to the secrets problem is a good example: she refused to hear any other little girl’s confidences so that she wouldn’t be obliged to reciprocate with her own.

When Louis Mayer began producing his own motion pictures and moved the family to California in 1918, he added to his earlier restrictions. Afraid that they might “go Hollywood,” he permitted the family’s standard of living to change only gradually from what it had been in Massachusetts; he forbade the girls to own jewelry, to go anyplace where they might run the risk of meeting boys, or to speak to actors, male or female, if they could in any way avoid it. He also refused to let Irene attend college, advising her to fill her days after completing high school by improving her golf game; she also devoted a good deal of time to wondering how and when she would ever meet the man she was supposed to marry.

Nowhere in Mrs. Selznick’s account of her upbringing does Louis Mayer appear as the power-hungry, coarseminded tyrant—wantonly destroying careers and chasing starlets around his oversized desk—who dominates the popular histories of his era. By her description, he was a conservative, emotional family man, a little unworldly perhaps, a little tight with money (although her description of growing up unspoiled does not read quite like a hard-luck story). Most of all, she stresses, he was deeply idealistic: Louis Mayer, according to his daughter, abided in his home life by the same cornball precepts he insisted his films purvey, and believed fervently that films could educate others to do the same. He found no more willing pupil than his second daughter.

Indeed, Irene has remained loyal to her father all her life. Of the notorious political activities with which Mayer reinforced his ardent patriotism she makes no mention, merely relating, for example, that her father arranged for her to spend a night of her honeymoon at the White House as the guest of Mayer’s good friend Herbert Hoover. In other things, she actively takes her father’s part—from his well-known hatred of his own father (“grasping and tyrannical”) to the legendary feud between Mayer and Nicholas Schenck, president of M-G-M’s parent company, Loews, Inc. Mayer’s growing problems with Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” production chief of M-G-M whom Mayer claimed to love as a son, she blames entirely on Schenck’s troublemaking, and even when describing Mayer’s separation and eventual divorce from her beloved mother she cannot find it in her heart to fault him.

A few likely truths about Louis Mayer’s character as public and private man emerge from Mrs. Selznick’s testimony. Although capable of blistering vengeance when crossed (even Mrs. Selznick reports that he cut her rebellious sister Edith out of his will in a recriminatory clause that made the front pages), Mayer was too hardheaded not to look out for people who played things his way, which in his business life meant anyone who made money for M-G-M. He was famous for covering up the scandals of his favorite stars, looking after longtime employees when they were sick or dying, and even hiring their friends and relatives—in addition to scores of his own—when he was feeling munificent. Not for nothing was it joked in the Thirties that the initials M-G-M stood for “Mayer’s-Ganz-Mispocheh”—in Yiddish, “Mayer’s Whole Family.”

By the time Irene Mayer was nineteen, a childhood ambition to become her father’s secretary had developed, now that she was thinking about marriage, into a hankering to be helpmeet and support to a man as dynamic and driven, as strong-willed and full of ideals as her father. She found that man in the unlikely shape of David Selznick.

Unlikely because, in most easily apparent ways, David Selznick was as different from her father—and herself—as anyone could possibly be. The son of an early maverick film producer, David Selznick had grown up in a twenty-seven-room Park Avenue apartment filled with art treasures and expensive ornaments. Lewis J. Selznick, his father, sailed flamboyantly through both his personal and his professional life, and raised his sons to do the same. When David and his brother Myron were teenagers, their father presented them with enormous weekly allowances: $750 a week for the seventeen-year-old David and $1,000 weekly for nineteen-year-old Myron. Spend all of it, he is said to have told them—spend more. By living beyond your means you show confidence in yourselves, and besides, it will make you work that much harder.

David, like Irene, learned his father’s lessons well. Enormously confident of his abilities, he was also a manic worker, and rarely out of debt—huge debt. Where Louis Mayer was tightfisted, David Selznick was worse than extravagant; where Mayer was staid, Selznick was a hedonist. And where Irene was sheltered, careful, and precise, David was impetuous, daring, and wild. He not only introduced her to a new world of freedom, but for the first time, with him, she discovered “joy and the value of pleasure.”

The marriage began well—with a three-month romp around Europe—and continued for several years to be a splendid success. “How can two opposites be so congenial?” Mrs. Selznick asks, answering simply:

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