Saint John, New Brunswick

The Mogul who got away
This article was taken from the Times Globe Thursday, March 19/98

Loius B. Mayer

   LEGENDS OF HOLLYWOOD: A documentary airing on A&E Sunday celebrates men like Louis B. Mayer, who spent his formative years in Saint John.

By Marni Weisz
Times Globe staff writer

   If you missed CBC's broadcast of Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream, you have another chance to catch it this Sunday when it will be, rebroadcast on A&E.

    The provocative documentary tells the story of the Jews that came from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century to become Hollywood's movie moguls. Not only did these immigrants live the American dream, they also created it through the visions they chose to commit to film.

   It is also a documentary that holds special interest for Saint Johners. That's because Louis B. Mayer, the Hollywood magnate who was born in Russia but raised in the Port City, is one of the charismatic figures explored in the film.

   And despite the fact that Mayer was so devoted to the United States that he claimed July 4th as his birthday, his grandson says he never forgot his link to Saint John.

    "Oh yes, he was very much aware of it," says Daniel Selznick, theatre producer, director and critic. "He used to keep a photo up in his home of a large group of people from Saint John."

    Selznick says that photo was taken in 1950 when Mayer came back to Saint John for the 50th anniversary of some event - Selznick can't remember exactly what it was. The Telegraph Journal's files show that Mayer was involved, in a Saint John event in 1950, but only from afar. A new memorial chapel at Shaarei Zedek Cemetery was being dedicated to Mayer's mother, Sarah Mayer. The Telegraph reported that Louis B. Mayer donated money for the construction of the chapel, but did not attend the event because of "pressure of business and poor health."

    He did, however, visit Saint John on a couple of other occasions before his death in 1957.

    Aside from being the grandson of Louis B. Mayer, Selznick is also the son of David O. Selznick, a leader in the next generation of movie moguls and the, director of Gone With the Wind. Daniel Selznick now lives in New York City, where he works with The Ensemble Studio Theatre, and writes reviews for the publication Theater Scope. Until recently, he was the national theatre critic for the Cristian Science Monitor.

    Selznick appears briefly in the documentary that was produced by the award-winning filmmaking team of Simcha Jacobovici and Elliott Halpern. The documentary links a group of about half a dozen of the men who dominated Hollywood from the 1920s through the McCarthy years.

    All of them were Jewish, and all were born within 500 miles of each other in Eastern Europe. Aside from Mayer, the group includes Paramount's Adolph Zukor, Universal's Carl Laemmle, Columbia's Harry Cohn, and the Warner brothers.

    Looking as dapper as a true creature of the theatre and sporting a bow tie, Selznick discusses his grandfather's infatuation with America for the camera: "Patriotism was an important theme in his life, so he selected Independence Day as his birthday. He wrapped himself in the American flag and said, 'That's me.' "

    But over the phone from New York, Selznick explains that, to a degree, his grandfather included Canada in his concept of the United States.

   "To him, North America was America."

    Mayer was born in Minsk (now Belarus) in 1885. At the age of three he moved, with his parents, to Saint John, where his father became a scrap metal dealer.

    By the age of 20, he'd moved to Boston and soon after bought a small, rundown movie theatre in Haverhill, Mass. In 1916 he moved to Los Angeles and formed his own production company which eventually became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM.

   "Once he got to Boston he thought, 'Now I'm really in America'. It was as if he became more American in stages," says Selznick.

    Selznick says Mayer wasn't the type of grandfather to sit his grandson on his knee and tell stories about the good old days in Saint John. When he did talk about the place that shaped his youth, it was with warmth, but an overall air of realism.

    "He said it was a very arduous life; it was very difficult to earn a living. His father was a scrap dealer and he had my grandfather and his brother working for him by the time they were nine and 11."

    Selznick was already a young adult when his grandfather died. He has vivid memories of Mayer and describes him as a squat, muscular man with a fabulous sense of humour. "He used to bite down on my upper arms and say, 'I'm gonna take a piece out of you,'" Selznick says with a laugh.

   However, that's not how everyone remembers Mayer. He was plagued with the reputation of being a ruthless, quick-tempered tyrant who rewarded obedience and punished insubordination.

   But in many people's eyes, Mayer's darkest moment came during the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s. That's when he, along with most of the other moguls, cooperated wholeheartedly with the anti-Communist witch hunt, pointing fingers at many of the actors and writers who had worked for their studios.

   The documentary explains that they were terrified of being labeled un-American after having spent so many years trying to shed their European and Jewish identities and be embraced by the country they called home.

    Selznick was a student at Harvard at the time of the hearings and says he didn't know about his grandfather's complicity with Senator Joe McCarthy until after Mayer's death.

   "Had I known, I would have been horrified," he says. He says he's still disturbed that he didn't have the chance to talk to him about his views.

   Selznick has never been to Saint John but has always wanted to make the trip, "just to walk around the town and see if there are any buildings left from the time my grandfather was there." But, given his knowledge of the region, it may be tough for him to find us.

    When asked why a man as busy as him was taking time out to promote this documentary, he said, "Well, I've only done two interviews and I was specifically touched by the idea of speaking to someone from a St. John's newspaper. Nova Scotia played such a large part in my grandfather's life.

    Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream airs this Sunday at 10 p.m. on A&E.

  • 1888 His parents, Jacob and Sarah Mayer, packed up the children and sailed to America. They then moved on to Saint. John, New Brunswick, Canada, where they settled down.
  • 1895 WINTER STREET SCHOOL - NEW BRUNSWICK Attended elementary school here
  • 1899 - 1902 425 MAIN STREET - PORTLAND, NEW BRUNSWICK (The Northern part of town) The Mayer family moved into this home for a short time before moving to another house several blocks away.
  • 28 ACADIA STREET From 425 Main Street they moved into this house.
  • 705 MAIN STREET Jacob Mayer's scrap iron business
  • 1902 74 SMYTHE STREET Jacob Mayer moved his business to this location
  • 675 MAIN STREET RUBIN AND RIEDER - LADIES AND GENTLEMEN'S CLOTHES STORE Owned by Mayer's sister and brother - in - law
  • SAINT JOHN HIGH SCHOOL Mayer attened and graduated from this school