Review of The Golden Girls of MGM

by Jane Ellen Wayne

Carroll & Graf January 2003  432 pp. 26.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

Early on in The Golden Girls of MGM, author Jane Ellen Wayne says that “there were two prime interests in Hollywood: movies and gossip.” The same can be said of this tattle-fest about the more sordid events in the lives of Jeanette MacDonald, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and other stars of the studio era in Hollywood.

Golden Girls devotes a chapter each to these ladies, tracing their unhappy poor-and-anonymous origins to their unhappy wealth and fame, which they achieved primarily either through their spectacular appearance or the skill of MGM's beauty technicians and lighting directors.

            Two men loom large in these stories, Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer.  They developed MGM into the premiere Hollywood studio that for decades controlled the lives of their stars and, perhaps equally important, the local police.

             Wayne notes that “In its prime, MGM's empire consisted of 117 acres, 6 miles of road for their 4,000 employees, 25 sound stages, a police force, hospital, fire department, and their own telephone exchange. It was a kingdom with its own rules and morals.”

One assumes Wayne is using the term “morals” ironically.

Consider Ava Gardner's defense of her own love life: “I married three exciting men, all very talented, and fascinating to the ladies, and, I might add, vice versa. But it’s not all entirely my fault, when you consider that my three husbands have had a collection of twenty wives.”

Why the level of activity that would make a colony of rabbits blush? The men wanted sex, and the women wanted a Daddy. “How many MGM starlets were looking for a father figure? Lana, Ava, Grace, Liz and Joan.” Indeed, it's depressing to read chapter after chapter of young girls abused, abandoned, and otherwise mistreated by their biological fathers, whose only refuge is a mother intent on turning the child into a meal ticket.

The fear of and need for a father may also account for the remarkable number of these gorgeous women who married gay or bisexual men. L. B. Mayer himself sought to limit the number of gay actors at MGM, given the difficulty of covering up their sexual orientation. The most famous and well-liked, Billy Haines, was given a choice between his career and his boyfriend. Haines chose love.

In addition to sex, alcohol and drugs are on parade. Judy Garland's manager and beau, Sid Luft, “was fairly successful in limiting her pill intake that had escalated to 25 amphetamines and 45 Ritalin a day.” Elizabeth Taylor's physical problems, many brought on by substance abuse, resulted in health problems. By the time she hooked up with Burton, she had had 27 operations “with more to follow.”

For anyone acquainted with Hollywood and its stars, these stories will have the slightly tedious ring of familiarity. Most everything in this volume, it seems, comes from already published sources, but it's often difficult to tell. For example, Wayne claims “Legend has it that Tracy did not divorce Louise because they were Catholic, but the real reason was blaming himself for [their son] John's deafness.” This important correction to the Tracy-Hepburn relationship may be true, but no evidence is offered.

It's amusing to hear about Richard Burton's romantic references to Liz immediately prior to their first wedding (“Where is that fat little tart?”) and to discover that Katherine Hepburn “took up to eight showers a day” However, 400 pages of questionably sourced dirt on people not around to defend themselves grows tiresome.

In addition, the book is oddly repetitive, suggesting that the chapters were written separately and never compared. Here are two quotes, from two separate chapters. “L. B. Mayer was busy with his racehorses and the courtship of a new young wife. Dore Schary was brought in as production head to put MGM in the black again after a $6,500,000 deficit.” “L. B. Mayer … who was paying more attention to his racehorses and the courting of his new young wife than MGM's $6,500,000 deficit.” This happens too often, suggesting that either a revision or a more attentive editor would have helped. (For comparison, look at Jeanine Basinger's excellent Silent Stars.)

Maybe this is mere carping to those seeking deep dish. As Esther Williams said, “Romances with beautiful leading men don't last forever, but don't knock it until you've had one.” For those of us unlikely bed a movie star, The Golden Girls of MGM might be diverting for an evening or three.