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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:

The thing was, right there in the middle where it counts, there was a big chunk of overlap. We had curiosity and we had appetite and an undue amount of energy…. I discovered that underneath David’s caustic tone there lurked an abashed idealism. All this and an idealist too—that was beyond my fondest hopes. His ideas were high-minded but not highfalutin. He was then, and for many years thereafter, filled with the aspiration of which heroes are made. I thought that man was marvelous. I still do.

David’s idealism took the specific form of wanting to make better pictures than Hollywood traditionally turned out, and to make them enormously successful. Personal glory and unselfish devotion to quality were not David’s only motives. He also wanted to avenge his father’s ultimate ruin in the film world, which he blamed on a conspiracy of the other moguls, by making films so well that the Selznick name would once again be famous and admired. Irene says she shared his belief that “every film made a difference,” and loved him especially for this dream of raising the standards of American film making. “Movies were like a great cause to us,” she writes. “To be pretentious, you could call it a sense of mission. I reinforced his aspirations. We had one romance with each other and another with the movies.”

David’s pursuit of his goals was vigorous, untiring, obsessive. Throughout the busy decade from 1930 to 1940, in which he dashed to the peak of his success, he devoted single-minded attention to each job he took on, each film he produced. In doing so, he created chaos around him. He kept desperately irregular hours, was chronically two or three hours late, carried no keys and no cash, refused to remember telephone numbers, and made a habit of “holding” trains. He insisted that they move seven times in the first four years of their marriage, and drove away servants by the dozens. (Once, in the office of Hollywood’s leading domestic help agency, Irene accidentally came across an overflowing box packed with cards in which applicants had marked their preference in advance: They all read “Not Selznick.”)

Irene, who had wanted the hardest job of wifing imaginable, threw herself into the task of organizing their household with an energy that matched his own, and with her sturdily behind him, David’s career accelerated rapidly. In the first half of the Thirties, progressing through ever more powerful jobs at three studios, he directly supervised more than thirty-five pictures, and personally produced over a dozen “prestige” films, most of them money-makers, and several huge successes. These included Street of Chance for Paramount in 1930, What Price Hollywood? and A Bill of Divorcement (in which he “discovered” Katharine Hepburn) for RKO in 1932, and Dinner at Eight, Viva Villa!, Manhattan Melodrama, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities for M-G-M between 1933 and 1935.

In 1935, fulfilling a long-held ambition, Selznick left M-G-M and, with his good friend John Hay Whitney as principal backer and chairman of the board, set up his own studio, Selznick International Pictures. Fully in command at last, he turned out a string of “hits”: A Star is Born (based on a story conceived by Selznick and largely written by him), The Prisoner of Zenda with Ronald Colman, Nothing Sacred, one of Carole Lombard’s more memorable and most frequently copied “screwball” comedies, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Young in Heart, Made for Each Other, and Intermezzo, for which he brought Ingrid Bergman to America. This fever of activity culminated with Gone with the Wind and then Rebecca (for this one he brought Hitchcock to Hollywood), which won successive Best Picture Academy Awards in 1939 and 1940.

The films among these that seem most representative of Selznick’s distinctive style and sensibility (and of which he was most proud) are about serious subjects—professional gambling, hereditary mental illness, the pressures of fame, the fates of individuals in historical cataclysms. All eschew the traditional Hollywood “happy ending.” During the same period, Louis Mayer, who was given to intoning “Isn’t God good to me?” began guiding M-G-M into production of the sort of films that became its specialty—glitzy musicals and fables of overnight stardom and good fortune rewarding the righteous. Despite Selznick’s greater apparent optimism, his imagination proved to be darker than his father-in-law’s. Inclined toward a kind of grandiose cynicism—tragedy for the masses—the typical Selznick film from the Thirties was a tidily constructed, stylishly decorated morality play, melodramatic without quite being a melodrama, with heightened emotional turnabouts, broadly signaled symbolism, and jokes that sit somewhat uneasily upon the whole (the jokes thinned out and disappeared in the later films).

Similarly, in his own life, Selznick’s ostentatious love of fun seems to have masked a deep-seated dread of failure—failure on a grand scale—a subject that he treated in What Price Hollywood?, Dinner at Eight, and A Star is Born, and that can probably be traced to his father’s abrupt plummet from power and prominence. The colossal number of films David Selznick produced—fifty-six between 1926 and 1940, and another ten from 1940 to his death—is a staggering indicator of the prodigious energy he dedicated to being the very opposite of a failure. The number of them still shown regularly (it is a rare week in New York when at least one of his films is not showing at a revival house or on a local television station) demonstrates the technical and narrative virtuosity and the continuing power of what has been called his “shallow genius.”* Eventually, however, his many compulsions wore him out.

Early on, he began taking huge doses of Benzedrine to combat a thyroid deficiency and keep him going at his breakneck pace. Much to her dismay, Irene also discovered that he was a compulsive, and incompetent, gambler, chronically losing tens of thousands of dollars at a sitting. Despite Louis Mayer’s warnings during her childhood that she should be prepared to marry a poor man, financial insecurity was something Irene had failed to imagine for herself, and it dogged her throughout most of her marriage because of David’s gambling. “He was a very poor man with a very big salary,” she writes. “There were times…that home, health, and children were being sacrificed to the business. But the business itself was jeopardized by gambling.”

David’s persistent jealousy toward the first of their two sons, Jeffrey, drove another fissure between husband and wife. But the long and notorious ordeal of Gone with the Wind truly started the marriage on its final decline. The film took three grueling years to complete, and the strain on both David and Irene was immense. David wrote a substantial amount of the script himself, while also overseeing (and, one by one, firing) at least eight other writers (some historians put the actual count at sixteen). He went through three directors, and had five units working simultaneously at the conclusion of filming. He then turned his attention to planning what may still be the most famous and lavish film première in history—the Atlanta opening of Gone with the Wind.

After completing Rebecca a few months later, David was so thoroughly exhausted that he and Jock Whitney elected to dissolve Selznick International, get their money out of it, and decide where to go from there. This move effectively ended that part of David Selznick’s life in which he was constantly engaged in hands-on picture making. During the next twenty-five years, he made relatively few films, and compulsively reworked those few he did produce—turning even the most modest setting into a massive, extras-crowded spectacle. Unable to remember how to make things better, he simply made them bigger, apparently believing that this was the key to Gone with the Wind‘s epochal success. To Irene, it appeared that his position in the industry and before the public had begun to take precedence over the internal requirements of any scene or story.

Shortly after closing down Selznick International, David established David O. Selznick Productions, a private company financed out of his, and the family’s, pocket. During the early Forties, he spent most of his time “renting out” the stars whose contracts he had personally retained and marketing one-time-only packages of directors, actors, and writers (or scripts). In each case, he exacted a steep fee for himself. This was not “nice money,” Irene objected; the “old David” would have been above such “flesh-peddling.” In her eyes, he had irrevocably changed from her idealistic David to “DOS,” memo-writing mogul.

Eventually, in 1943, David suffered a nervous breakdown. Irene persuaded him to see an analyst, Dr. May Romm, and Romm quickly got David back on his feet. He promptly began treating his analyst as he treated everyone else—highhandedly—and in the end, she refused to continue treating him. Irene began seeing Romm in her husband’s place, and soon was going five times a week for double sessions. In the spring of 1945, after years of painful insomnia, she announced to David in the middle of one night—completely without premeditation, she maintains—that she wanted “out,” and fell sound asleep.

In August of that year, she took her sons East, and during the course of a prolonged visit to New York discovered her desire to help young playwrights get their work produced for the Broadway stage. Her first attempt, Arthur Laurents’s Heartsong, closed out of town, but when Tennessee Williams’s agent, Audrey Wood, presented her with the script of A Streetcar Named Desire, her career was launched in earnest, and spectacularly.

Her experience in running David Selznick’s household proved to be excellent preparation for her new career—after David, no administrative tangle or logistical “impossibility” could faze her. She also had rich friends and money of her own, which made finding backing relatively easy. And years of dealing with all sorts of “types” in Hollywood, from servants to recalcitrant stars, had equipped her to handle everyone from the tough boss of the theater musicians’ union to moody, distrustful Elia Kazan. Her victory over Kazan, who she claims “had it in for producers as a class,” is a particularly good example. During the final stages of rehearsing Streetcar, she noticed a growing tension between the producing staff and everyone else and traced its cause to Kazan. Near the end of the show’s two-week run in Boston, she was in a severe car accident, and that night called Kazan to her hotel room. Flat on her back and swathed in bandages, she quietly forgave him. “I’ve survived Louis B. Mayer and I’ve survived David O. Selznick,” she admonished him. “It’s no use. You better lay off.”

She and Kazan remained friends for several years—until Kazan’s famous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which occurred during the run of a show he and Mrs. Selznick did together, George Tabori’s Flight into Egypt. In addition to her outrage at Kazan’s naming of friends and colleagues before a private session of the congressional committee, Mrs. Selznick had a more pragmatic reason for her displeasure with Kazan: he had ruined her play. In his fear of McCarthy and the redbaiters, Kazan had permitted his wife Molly to cut Tabori’s play, excising anything that might be “misinterpreted,” until, Mrs. Selznick says, it was almost unrecognizable. Although she delayed the show’s opening for five days in order to restore the cut material, Kazan used the time to polish performances, but did not return to Tabori’s original script. Mrs. Selznick doesn’t claim the play would have succeeded if produced as written, but as it was, Flight into Egypt was a resounding flop.

Mrs. Selznick mounted several more profitable shows, however, and continued to ply her trade until 1964, when she became convinced she no longer understood the theater after passing up several properties that went on to great success for other producers. She and David remained devoted to each other until the end of his life. (It is, in fact, extremely important to her to convey that he always loved her and only her; his much-publicized adoration of Jennifer Jones, which dominated the last twenty-five years of his life, goes almost unremarked by Mrs. Selznick.) Selznick took great pride in his former wife’s career, and continued showering presents on her, even after he remarried in 1948. He died of a coronary occlusion in 1965.

Although Mrs. Selznick presents herself as thoroughly modest (implying that her success was entirely due to irrepressible ability), a considerable shrewdness—which she is at some pains to conceal—must account in large part for both her professional and personal achievements. Her parents’ obsessive involvement in her life when she was a child may also be partly responsible—it bred in her an almost pathological need for privacy in her own life, and a natural discretion about the lives of others. Except for a few well-aimed barbs at Kazan and her sister, she says very little in A Private View that could be construed as damaging or critical of anyone still alive. In the worlds she inhabited—societies of misbehavers and prying eyes—such discretion is undoubtedly highly prized, and indeed her friends have included some of the more public members of her generation, from Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, George Cukor, and Clifford Odets to Howard Hughes, Henry Luce, and William Paley. Her hunger for personal privacy is demonstrated by her having kept secret even from her children and her maids (one wonders who was being naive here) an intimate relationship she conducted—with a man she declines to name even now—for twenty-five years.

Despite a quiet note of self-congratulation that sounds throughout her narrative, Mrs. Selznick seems to be genuinely admirable and likable; although she may have invited some of the trials that she describes, she nevertheless met them all with notable grace and an unshakable will to do the right thing. Her memories, on the whole, also seem to be a pleasure to her, which contributes substantially to the pleasure she conveys in recalling them. Along the way, she paints vivid pictures of Hollywood in the Thirties and of the backstage theater world at mid-century, and provides a few clues to the qualities it takes to produce good (as distinct from merely profitable) movies. Most important, perhaps, she demonstrates that it is possible to avoid the worst side effects of prolonged exposure to that deadly radiation we call “the limelight.”

  1. *

    David Thomson, in a review of A Private View in Film Comment (Summer 1983).

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