If These Walls Could Talk |by Pam Munter (Part 1)

It’s true. I’m not what I used to be. But, in spite of the years and the disheartening changes, I still stand proudly. Wouldn’t you? It’s not merely that I’ve been in daily use for 80 years. You can’t help but be impressed when you’ve watched all the famous and infamous people who have walked through my doors and the rich Hollywood history that was made here. And, oh, the secrets I could tell.

I never met the man whose name graced my front portal for so many decades. I heard stories, of course, people speaking in awe about Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder,” the legendary and much-admired head of production at MGM. The man had a nonpareil reputation for making quality pictures and was a classy guy in every sense. Later, I overheard stories in the hall about the rivalry between Thalberg and his tyrannical boss, studio head, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer had been his mentor for a few years but backpedaled when Thalberg’s growing reputation began to upstage him. Thalberg was considered a one-of-a-kind elite auteur while Mayer was seen as a ruthless, crude administrator. From what I could see, Mayer wasn’t exactly devastated when Thalberg died at the young age of 37 in 1936. But Mayer knew the importance of imagery, so when he commissioned this marble temple, he wisely named it after his former nemesis.

Yes, I am the Irving Thalberg Building, still the most beautiful edifice on the legendary MGM lot.

My architect-father was Claud Bellman, who also designed many Beaux-Arts and Art Deco buildings throughout Los Angeles. Though I’m just a 115,000 cubic foot serviceable administration building nestled in a studio known for its creativity, I am the undisputed nerve center. Nothing happens around here without my knowing about it.

My birth came long after the MGM family had been established. The company had been named in 1924, following several mergers with other movie studios. When Louis B. Mayer’s power became indisputable after Thalberg’s death, he authorized my construction, a four-story stone palace, complete with a basement. He supervised the plans, consulting with his art director Cecil Beaton to make sure his office on the third floor was the biggest, the most opulent of any of them.

For almost two years, there were hundreds of men working on me, laboring even on weekends. I loved feeling the changes every day— the pulsating of the hammers, the whoosh of the painters, the delicate installation of all my fine imported marble. When I finally saw my growing façade towering over the entire lot, I knew I would be something really special, the very first multimillion dollar building here at the studio. My name would forever be synonymous with power and the halcyon days of MGM.

The year of my creation, 1938, coincided with the pinnacle of MGM’s success, so no expense was spared. There were over 200 offices within, a gymnasium, chiropractors’ offices, and a posh projection room, with Mr. Mayer’s private dining room situated on the fourth floor. Mayer made sure his building had all the modern conveniences, too, including an early version of air conditioning. That’s one reason some referred to me as the “Iron Lung.”

My favorite place in the entire building was Mayer’s office. It was enormous, all done in dazzling white, with thick matching carpeting. Maybe he hoped it would tamp down the screaming that often emanated from inside. That little guy could pump out window-shuddering volume like no one else in the studio. It was a long walk from the elevators to his office, likely designed that way on purpose, intended to accelerate fear in his supplicants. His desk was an enormous round disk, resembling something out of a futuristic movie. The matching white desk was elevated well above his visitor, affording Mayer unquestionable physical dominance. I overheard a director wonder if the “great and powerful Wizard of Oz” was, in fact, a satire of Mr. Mayer. He was only 5’5” but, sitting behind the desk, he was a giant and a formidable adversary. He nurtured, cajoled, some would say tortured many actors over the years. I always trembled when I saw a famous actor tentatively walk through the front entrance because I knew the voluble Mr. Mayer would likely rattle my walls before the conversation ended.

And I won’t go into all the assignations I witnessed in that room. Let’s just say it was part of his daily routine, even with the younger actors. Still, my heart went out to Judy Garland. She was just a kid, really, but when Mayer complimented her on her singing, he would say, “My darling, you sing right from the heart,” while cupping his hand over her left breast. Eventually, of course, he’d want more than that. She knew it was coming, but, what could she do? If she protested, he’d launch into one of his storied theatrical scenes, cooed that he felt like a father to her, then turn on his copious tears. I wondered if she was glad she had been chosen for a contract over her rival Deanna Durbin a few years earlier. He was a skilled and well-practiced manipulator. He knew he owned all of them. They had sold their souls for fame.

A few fought back, especially after their stardom was well established. I loved it when Joan Crawford marched into his office in 1933, loudly demanding a raise. This was during the Great Depression, mind you, and she was already making $3000 a week, more than many earned in an entire year. But she could see her star ascending, so she shamelessly declared that she wanted $4500 a week.

“Mr. Mayer, I’m the biggest star here. You and I both know that. I deserve to make as much as that dike Greta Garbo. And I’m a lot prettier, too.”

“Joan, my darling.”

“Don’t give me that. Let me be clear. If I don’t get a raise, I won’t finish the picture.”

“You have another week of shooting.”

“I’m leaving now. I expect that raise in my paycheck on Monday—if you want me back on the set after the weekend.”

I was afraid he would blow my fortified roof off.

“You have a lot of nerve. After all I’ve done for you. I made you a star. You were nothing. You’re just an ungrateful, overpaid housemaid. And I can throw you right back there.”

When she started to leave without responding, he unleashed a line of curses that nearly stripped the paint off my walls. She ignored him and stalked out.

My Freon stopped flowing for a minute or two during that one. No one blackmailed Mr. Mayer and got away with it. I was sure her career was over. But then I heard him on the phone the next morning, telling payroll,

“Miss Crawford will be receiving a check for $4000 each week. Be sure it’s in her pay envelope Monday morning. Without fail.”

After that, I always relished seeing her walk through my front door. She gave as good as she got.

The stars under contract knew they had to get Mayer’s approval for most anything, from getting married or divorced to even having children. Nothing escaped his notice. Among the incessant stream of people in and out of his office, my favorites were Howard Strickling, who handled all the publicity for MGM, and Eddie Mannix. Mannix was listed on the building directory as a vice president but, having heard the conversations between him and Mayer, I knew him to be “the fixer.” When they would confer in Mayer’s white shrine, I knew something juicy was about to unfold. I heard many conferences between Mayer, Strickling and Mannix as they brainstormed about keeping some big star’s problems out of the papers. They never had to worry about Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons spilling the beans; those gossip mavens were part of the team. It was the big city dailies who might boldly report on Clark Gable’s drunk driving accidents or Spencer Tracy falling down dead drunk as he was leaving Chasen’s. Most worrisome to them were the sexual peccadillos. All the stars had a “morals clause” in their contracts but the studio was far more concerned about bad press, which could affect the bottom line. They worried about Mickey Rooney’s prolific bedding lacking any sense of propriety. Oh, did Mayer hit the roof when Mickey wanted to marry Ava Gardner! The screaming went on for over an hour. But even Mayer couldn’t stop it. They never would have gotten away with it if they were just contract players.

The negotiations and power manipulations were legion. When Robert Taylor was reportedly frequenting a gay bar in Hollywood, Strickling alibied him at a big party somewhere else. When Jean Harlow’s new husband was found murdered, the scandal could tarnish one of MGM’s brightest stars. I heard Strickling and Mayer concoct a story that the guy had actually killed himself because he felt he wasn’t good enough for her.

During World War II, Clark Gable’s wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a DC3 plane crash. Gable, obviously bereft and sobbing in Mayer’s office, was heading downtown to enlist.

“I don’t care if I die. Maybe I can do some good before it’s over.”

“Don’t do it, Clark. I’ve already lost one of my stars. I don’t want to lose another. I forbid you.”

But Gable did it, anyway. I heard grousing about it the whole time he was gone. Wordsmith Strickling painted him as a hero to his adoring public, like he did all the other male stars who had been drafted or enlisted.

It was easier to cover up plastic surgeries, abortions, reconstructive dental work than it was to obscure the frequent moral code violations. Physicians could be paid off with a quick and generous check. I saw and heard it all while standing quietly around the chaos.

I often saw men in police uniforms enter the building, likely there to negotiate the erasure of some star’s arrest or illegal behavior from police records before anything was leaked to the papers. They’d always detour into Mannix’s office first. Mayer might have been vulgar and powerful, but Mannix was said to be “connected.” Going against what he wanted could be dangerous—hazardous to your health, if you know what I mean. Both Mannix and Mayer had offices with a back door. If someone was ushered in there, I knew it had to be top secret stuff. By the way, Mannix is the only one I ever heard call him “Lou.” Even the big stars deferred to him, calling him “Mr. Mayer,” at least to his face until they were well out of his earshot.

***To be continued

Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a former clinical psychologist, performer and film historian. Recently, her essays, book reviews and short stories have recently appeared in more than 130 publications. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, her sixth college degree. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published in 2018.