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.