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…

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