Thursday, October 20, 2022

Recent reading: "The Fixers"

The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine
by E.J. Fleming
Starting with a history of the motion picture industry, The Fixers tells the story of how MGM executives Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling ended up in positions of massive and corrupt power during the golden age of Hollywood, and how they wielded it to protect the studio's valuable talent.  
Though both are largely forgotten today, the kind of power they had to control public exposure of their stars bad behavior during their heyday is almost incomprehensible. Their power and corruption extended well beyond MGM's Culver City lot to local law enforcement, the DA's office, and the courts. Fatal drunk driving accidents and beatings were covered up and went unreported by the media and unpunished by the law. Murders were made to look like suicides. Romances and marriages were arranged to cover the homosexuality of bankable stars. Abortions were arranged on a regular basis. Bizarre, often destructive behavior was tolerated and managed, and all of it was to protect the juggernaut that was MGM.
The final chapter covers one of the few things responsible for Eddie Mannix still being remembered today, mainly thanks to the 2006 film Hollywoodland. Somewhere around 1950-51, Mannix's wife Toni met George Reeves, a handsome and personable actor whose career had never really succeeded beyond B-flicks after a promising start in Gone With the Wind. Despite their age difference - Reeves was in his mid-thirties when they met, while Toni was still extremely attractive despite being in her mid-forties - they embarked on the proverbial passionate affair that eventually became a deep love. It was around this time that Reeves finally became a huge star thanks to scoring the title role in the TV series The Adventures of Superman.

This led to an unconventional understanding for everyone involved. The affair was conducted out in the open. Both Toni and Eddie had numerous affairs, but loved each other and accepted each other's philandering. Eddie was also twenty years her senior and by the time Toni met George, was having health problems and his career at MGM was winding down. He also had a mistress during this time and this setup seemed to work just fine for everyone involved. According to The Fixers, Eddie actually liked Reeves and the two couples would often socialize. But given Eddie's age and health, Toni was also planning for the future. Her intention was to stick with her husband 'til death did them part, then she and Reeves could marry, and for a while it looked like that's how things would play out.

However, by 1958, Toni was in her fifties and showing her age. A Superman cast member described her as "matronly" at this point. During a publicity trip to New York Reeves met Leonore Lemmon, a high-spirited, temperamental Manhattan socialite, and Reeves had a new passionate affair. According to the book, Reeves was taken by her wealth, wildness, disrespect for authority, and probably most by her nymphomania. Toni was in trouble; Leonore was a shapely 38 while she was a matronly 53.
Reeves returned to L.A. with plans to marry Lemmon. He broke the bad news to Toni and to say she didn't take it well would be a major understatement. She threatened, she stalked, she hounded, and generally behaved like a madwoman, and neither Reeves nor Mannix was happy about it. She would never recover.
Reeves died June 16, 1959 from a single gunshot wound to the head. While his death was ruled a suicide, over the years stories have circulated that Eddie Mannix had him killed. The impetus behind these stories is that either Toni, incensed at being dumped, asked Mannix to have it done, or that Mannix, unhappy that Reeves had devastated Toni, took it upon himself to order the execution. Mannix had mob ties and could have made it happened. However, Fleming looks at a number of facts that have fallen by the wayside over the years and comes to the conclusion that Reeves was shot by Lemmon, but that Mannix and Strickling used their legendary influence to push the suicide angle not to save her skin, but so that Reeves's relationship with Toni and Eddie's acceptance of it - an unusual situation even by Hollywood standards - would not be exposed.

One thing about this book that can be annoying is Fleming's non-stop claims that pretty much every performer in Hollywood had same-sex relationships - even those who were definitely straight - to the point of overkill. It seems like an obsession that warrants its own book. But I did like The Fixers a lot for the Hollywood history and the in depth examination of George Reeves's death (Hollywoodland is one of my favorite films and that makes the Reeves angle alone worth reading up on). 

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