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.
I’d like to preface today’s post by saying that while I *wish* this were some sort of April Fool’s Day joke, it is not.
A friend just sent me this article about a controversial art installation in Germany. In this installation, now informally dubbed “Jew in a Box,” visitors can see, encased in glass, a living person of Jewish descent. They can ask that person questions about what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany, about Jewish beliefs – anything they have ever wanted to ask a Jewish person, they can pose the question to a Jew in a box.
When my friend (who is not Jewish) sent me this article, her email asked me just one question: “How do you feel about this?”
My immediate response to her, after reading the article, was “SO FREAKING WEIRD.”
There is something deeply unsettling to me about this exhibit – this stark presentation of “us” and “them”; a venue where people are literally put in boxes. I read the curator’s rationale, about how this will catch folks’ attention, and be in their face, and give Germans a chance to interact with a real, live Jew.
But is this the sort of interaction we want?
Why not actual interaction? Something more organic, and less disparate? Jewish docents, perhaps? Moderated conversations? An exchange, even if it’s still in-your-face? As an educator, it seems counter-intuitive to me to humanize someone, or some group, by putting an actual wall between people. It seems to me that this does not emphasize unique-ness, but other-ness. And isn’t that the problem Germany is still painfully recovering from, decades later?
I also had to wonder why on earth someone would get in the box. Who would volunteer? Luckily, the article covers this, with a volunteer Jew-in-a-box describing why he is participating in the installation:
“With so few of us, you almost inevitably feel like an exhibition piece,” volunteer Leeor Englander said. “Once you’ve been `outed’ as a Jew, you always have to be the expert and answer all questions regarding anything related to religion, Israel, the Holocaust and so on.”
I considered this. After all, I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I have been several people’s FJF (First Jewish Friend, y’all). I’ve had to answer questions about Jewish culture and religion, although I’m quick to point out that I can’t speak for all Jews. In other words, yes. I do understand what it’s like to feel ‘outed’ as a Jew in a place where we are so few. I do understand what it means to “feel inevitably like an exhibition piece,” as the installation volunteer puts it – but that doesn’t mean I would want to actually be an exhibition piece.
Still – this exhibition is resonating with some folks, even as it irks others. And here’s the real kicker, in case you didn’t already click on the link and read the whole article already – what museum is hosting this exhibit?
The Jewish Museum. And the curator, Miriam Goldmann, is Jewish.
By the way, the actual name of the exhibit is “The Whole Truth: Everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” and in addition to live people in boxes, it includes installation such as a wall posing the question How Can You Recognize a Jew?, with hats and yarmulkes and “traditional Jewish garb” on display in front of the wall.
The whole truth? How can you recognize a Jew? It reminds me of the last time I went to a zoo, and the various species of birds and monkeys were being described. The more I read about it and the more I thought about it, the more my initial reaction seems to sum it up: SO. FREAKING. WEIRD.
And more than that – a little frightening.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below…
On a recent pit stop I made in a rural part of Tennessee, I found an unexpected statement. There, in the “middle-of-somewhere,” I came across a plastic toilet-paper dispenser with the words “The Jew Was Here” scrawled across it. Seeing this scrawl, a question barked at me.
But “ Why in the world…?!” was not the question I heard.
After all, when you see a simple message like that, why ask why? It seems human enough to want to leave a lasting mark on this world, so that when our finite lives come to their inescapable end, something of us will remain, something that says: “I was here. I mattered.”
However, a statement like “The Jew Was Here,” left on a roadside toilet-paper dispenser may not be the lasting message we desire. Those who come later will undoubtedly question: “What does it say about the person who was here, some person now gone?”
Does it say that his/her life was as fragile as single-ply or simply went round and round until it finally went down?
Clearly, not! And the reason I’m dead certain of this is because the entirety of anyone’s life cannot be captured in such a quick scribble as “I was here.” Rather, to adequately gain a glimpse of our existence, one must look to things more lasting. We must look to the children we teach, and the love we share, and the lessons we impart. We must look to our communities strengthened and our contributions made. Those places are where the impression of us remains, and will – God willing – continue to be seen for generations to come.
So, in the public restroom in Tennessee, the question I walked out of the stall with was not “why” but “what?”
What shall be the mark we will leave? Shall it be a scrawled graffiti scar, which time (and a little elbow-grease) will eventually erase? Or, will it be a work of art, celebrated throughout the ages?
That is up to you. After all, your life is a pen, moving over the living, breathing text known as the world. So, please, step right up and leave your mark, because you are here… and you matter!