Last week, I had the unique experience of driving to Demopolis, Alabama, (the recent subject of a Forward article about disappearing Jewish communities—read my response as well) to speak about the history of one prominent Jew who was born there: Arthur Mayer. An important film industry innovator, Arthur didn’t spend very long in Demopolis. His father died just three months after his birth in 1886, and his mother moved with her infant to New York City. Yet the Southern Literary Trail, based in Alabama, claims Mayer as a native son, and they asked me to come speak about his career in the movie business and his roots in Demopolis.
Arthur’s uncle Morris Mayer came to the small Alabama town just after the Civil War in 1866. Like so many other Jewish immigrants who came South during that era, Mayer opened a dry goods store. Morris’s brothers Simon and Ludwig joined him in Demopolis in the 1870s. By one historian’s account, the Mayer brothers owned the most successful retail business in West Alabama. In 1897, they constructed a magnificent three-story brick building to house their thriving business. Tragically, Simon never saw this grand edifice, dying in 1886. Soon after Simon’s death, his wife and children left Alabama, leaving their relatives to run the business. Arthur Mayer grew up with his grandparents in New York City, and later said, “the smartest thing I ever did in my life was I left Demopolis at the age of three months.”
Mayer ended up working in the burgeoning film industry during the early 20th century. While he worked for such moguls as Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor, Mayer came from a very different background. The men who created the modern film industry were almost to a man immigrant Jews. Men like Goldwyn, Zukor, Louis B. Mayer (no relation to Arthur), and the Warner Brothers craved respectability, and wanted to leave their immigrant past behind. According to Neil Gabler, in his book An Empire of Their Own, “they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews. They wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.” They left any vestiges of the old world behind. The best example of this was Louis B. Mayer, who was born in Russia, though he claimed he had forgotten where and when. Later, he would embrace the 4th of July as his birthday.
Arthur Mayer was different. He was American born (albeit to immigrant parents). He didn’t enter the film industry after working in the glove or fur business. Mayer went to Harvard, where he majored in history and English literature at a time when Jewish students were subject to a restrictive quota. After graduating, he used his connections to get a meeting with a leading banker in New York, who sent a letter of introduction to Sam Goldwyn, who hired Mayer right away. It’s somewhat ironic that Mayer used his elite, Harvard network to get a job in the upstart Jewish film industry.
The most famous book about southern Jews is entitled The Provincials, written by Eli Evans. The idea of the southern Jew as provincial is a powerful one, and has helped mark southern Jews as distinct from Jews who lived in a place like New York. But the term “provincial” did not apply to Arthur Mayer, though perhaps it did to men like Zukor and Goldwyn, who came from Europe and often spoke in accented English. In his memoir, Merely Colossal, Mayer relates several wonderful stories about these men, playing up their malapropism, or as Mayer wittily calls it, their “trenchant misstatements.” Goldwyn was known for saying things like “include me out,” or “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Mayer tells the story of how Goldwyn was trying to produce a film based on the play “The Captive,” but was warned it would be controversial because one its main characters was a lesbian. Goldwyn retorted, “we’ll get around that, we’ll just make her an American.”
Mayer later went to work as head of publicity, advertising, and promotion for Adolph Zukor at Paramount. Mayer was a great salesman, though he sometimes got into trouble with his boss for his advertising campaigns. Once, Mayer tried to advertise the first film starring Mae West by using the word “lusty” on the poster. His efforts to convince Zukor that he meant the word in terms of “lust for life” not its sexual connotations were unsuccessful, even though English was not Zukor’s native language. Perhaps the alluring picture of Mae West on the poster undercut Mayer’s argument.
Later, Mayer became the operator of the Rialto Theater in Times Square in New York City, where he specialized in showing what he called the “three M’s”: mystery, mayhem, and murder. They were called “B Movies,” because they didn’t have A-level stars or directors. When Mayer got the film reels at the Rialto, he couldn’t change the cast or the movie itself, but, using his salesman instincts, he could change the name of the movie on the outside marquee to attract more customers. To the bland title “A Son Comes Home,” Mayer added the phrase “From Gangland.” “Fit for a King,” became “Murder Fit For a King.”
Mayer is an interesting figure. He was not just the king of B movies, but he also became one of the first and most important importers of fine European films. Most notable was the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, which was recently ranked as the 6th greatest film of all time by the film magazine Sight and Sound. Although he often lost money on these foreign films, Mayer believed in them as art and continued to bring them over, helping to create the American market for foreign films.
Arthur Mayer was a hybrid of lowbrow and highbrow culture. He was also native southerner who epitomized northeastern, Ivy League educated sophistication. And yet, Mayer was a Jew working in an overwhelmingly Jewish industry. While his story differs from those of the more famous men he worked for, people like Goldwyn and Zukor, Arthur Mayer is an important figure in his own right, who deserves to be remembered.
Last week, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train over eighty years ago. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
For seven years, The Scottsboro Boys endured a series of trials they could not win. All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries.The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding African Americans from juries.
According to the LA Times, “Advocates believe the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.”
This gesture by a community of legislators in 2013 is an important step for reconciliation, but I’d like to also bring attention to a community leader who showed bravery at the time of the trial: Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood apart from the crowd and stood up for his beliefs about the mistreatment of the boys.
He was the only white clergyman to visit the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” in prison and was instrumental in connecting them to a team of lawyers from International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party, for the appeal trial. Upon seeing the northern Jewish lawyers, the prosecuting attorney exclaimed: “Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” On Yom Kippur in 1932, Goldstein defied intimidation and defended the Scottsboro boys in his sermon.
Words like those spoken by the prosecuting attorney and Goldstein’s persistence deeply troubled Beth Or’s board of trustees. Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gunter informed board members that if Goldstein did any more to assist in the Scottsboro trials, the Ku Klux Klan would organize a boycott of Jewish businesses in the city. Without permission, Rabbi Goldstein spoke publicly at a rally for the Scottsboro Boys. In April of 1933, Beth Or’s president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he either had to quit his political activities or leave. Though two board members defended Goldstein, he presented his letter of resignation to the board the following day. Some confessed anonymously to the Montgomery Advertiser that they secretly sided with Goldstein. Nevertheless, Beth Or’s board published a press release declaring the congregation’s commitment to segregation.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal team fought hard for many years to free the innocent men, but in the end could not overcome the systemic racism of the courts or the pervasive bigotry of the culture.
Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, even his inevitable defeat, should remind us not to accept the status quo in our communities. These pardons, eighty years in the making, come too late for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, and injustices persist in our judicial and penal systems to this day. May the actions of Rabbi Goldstein and all of those who fight for justice inspire us to struggle for equality and freedom, both for others and for ourselves.
Had you heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Did you know about Rabbi Goldstein’s outspoken defense of them?
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on oral history techniques at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. While there, I met Ruth Frenkel, who has lived in Conway since 1958. (Full disclosure: her daughter, Ellen Kirsch, heads up Hendrix’s Crain-Maling Center of Jewish Culture and had coordinated my visit). When Ruth told me that her family had escaped from Germany in 1937 and settled in McGehee, Arkansas, I had to hear more. Fortunately, I had my equipment with me on the trip.
So, the next morning, I went over to Ruth’s house and conducted a short oral history interview.
Here is an excerpt:
Ruth’s uncle Adolph was not only in contact with his family, but he managed to visit Germany in advance of the coming war. According to Ruth’s telling, he already knew enough about conditions there to secure visas for the family before his trip.
Even with years of experience in the culture and history of Southern Jews, I have trouble shaking the assumption that rural Jewish communities were cut off from international news and the families they had left in the Old Country, whatever it might be. Stories like Ruth’s constantly remind me that many Jews in the American South, even in the years before television, were keenly aware of the challenges that Jews faced in Europe. While Jewish life in McGehee and other southern towns was marked by geographical isolation, the families who settled there participated in transnational Jewish networks, whether through international aid organizations, the Jewish press or, in this case, family connections.