The 2006 film Hollywoodland speculates that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive E.J. Mannix, famed as “The Fixer” for handling problems at the studio, may have had George Reeves, TV’s Superman, killed for having an affair with his wife, Toni Lanier. In the wee small hours of the morning of June 16, 1959, the man who was Superman to millions of Baby Boom generation children shuffled off his mortal coil, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. His death was ruled a suicide by the coroner. Unlike his televised doppelgänger who was only vulnerable to kryptonite, George Reeves was not impervious to bullets.
Edgar Joseph “Eddie” Mannix was a long-serving studio executive at M-G-M, where he served as Vice President and General Manager under studio chiefs Louis B. Mayer and Mayer’s successor, Dore Schary. (Mayer was ousted from the studio he founded by Loew’s Inc. President Nicholas Schenck; Loew’s was M-G-M’s corporate parent. During the Schary-era, Mannix also served on Loew’s executive board.)
The Irish-American Eddie Mannix began his association with Loew’s founder Marcus Loew and his partners, the Schenck brothers, Nicholas and Joe (later of United Artists and 20th Century-Fox), when Nick Schenck hired the teenage Mannix and his gang of young hoods to provide “security” at an amusement parks in New Jersey Loew and the brothers owned in New Jersey. Up until being hired by Schenck, the gang had been harassing and robbing the amusement park’s customers, plus stealing from the grounds. For the Schencks, it was either co-opt Eddie Mannix or go out of business. They opted to co-opt him.
The amusement park job was a turning point in Mannix’s life, the first rung of his climb up the ladder of respectability. He would eventually outlast Nick Schenck in the corporation, although in his nearly 50 years with Loew’s, he never entirely shed his unsavory reputation as a street-savvy scoundrel. It is important to note that anti-Irish Catholic prejudice was so widespread before the 1960 election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as President of the United States that the Protestant Ronald Reagan, who was ethnically Irish, changed the pronunciation of his name from REE-gun to RAY-gun so it would sound less Irish in order to avoid prejudice.
The Irish once had a reputation for being gangsters, akin to the knock on Italian-Americans after the rise of Al Capone and the mafia in the 1920s and ’30s. The Irish had so dominated organized crime at the end of the 19th-/beginning of the 20th-Century, that many Italian-Americans, such as Capone’s bodyguard “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, née Vincent Gebhardi, adopted Irish names as their nomme de guerre, as the Irish-American community at the time produced many noted gangsters and boxers. To think of Eddie Mannix as a rogue might be a reflection of the bigotry against “urban ethnics” that flourished from the ante-bellum period of the 19th Century through to the mid-20th Century.
The stereotypical Irishman, the hard-drinking, tough-as-nails Mannix became known as “The Fixer” at M-G-M, as he had a reputation as someone who could “handle a hot stove”. After Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was cobbled together from Metro Pictures, Sam Goldwyn’s production company (Goldwyn was quickly ousted from the new entity), and Louis B. Mayer’s production and distribution operation, Nick Schenck sent Eddie Mannix to Culver City, California, the site of the M-G-M studio complex, to watch over Loew’s investment. (Loew’s handled the financing, distribution and exhibition of the product. Nick Schenck was L.B. Mayer’s boss. Mayer, vice president in charge of production, annually was the highest paid corporate executive in America during the 1930s and ’40s. Mannix, as L.B.’s chief lieutenant in managing the day-to-day operations of the studio, also was very well paid.)
It was Eddie Mannix would took care of any problems caused by studio employees, including the above-the-line acting talent, and any attempted shakedowns of the studio by blackmailers, gangsters, or troublesome unions. If a scrappy superstar like Mannix’s fellow Irish-American Spencer Tracy had a habit of getting boozed up and trying to pick fights during his lunch hour in barrooms in Culver City, Mannix had it arranged so that the bars would call the M-G-M police and have Tracy delivered unmolested, if dead drunk, to the studio to be sobered up and put back in front of the cameras at the movie mill.
When a situation called for toughness, such as dealing with the Mob or militant unions, it was Mannix who typically got the call. He also was detailed so-called suicides, drug addictions, manslaughter, and other typical happenstances in the lives of the pampered Hollywood elite, who typically lived beyond the law due to the machinations of men like Mannix. In addition to being a hard man, Eddie Mannix was well-connected, and discrete, and thus was trusted by both Schenck and Mayer. He was an indispensable cog at the “Tiffany” of Hollywood movie studios.
The intellectual and highly literate Dore Schary, in his 1979 autobiography Heyday, remembered Mannix as a rather crude character, albeit, someone who was an honorable man with moral courage and a great deal of backbone. Schary, a great liberal, was impressed that Mannix, very much a conservative if not downright reactionary, defended the rights of communists to be employed by the studios when most of the industry bigwigs were ready to throw them all out without any due process in order to pacify the resurgent, reactionary right-wing in Congress.
(Mannix, who had a dossier on everyone employed by M-G-M, knew who was a communist and who wasn’t, and felt he could trust the Reds. It wasn’t so much an issue of They were not going to slip any overt commie propaganda into M-G-M films on Eddie Mannix’s watch as the fact that they weren’t using their jobs for such a purpose. The Hollywood studio system essentially was a factory using an industrial production paradigm, and no one person, not even a producer, could wield enough influence over the final product to make an overt propaganda film. Mannix knew that the political threat from “Reds” was negligible. In fact, Walt Disney, well known as a right-winger, generally felt the same way, personally, according to blacklisted screenwriter Maurice Rapf, the son of M-G-M supervising producer Harry Rapf, who headed the studio’s B-pictures unit. Rapf wrote the screenplay for Disney’s Song of the South, hardly a piece of propaganda, let alone a progressive film.)
Writing about the “Waldorf Conference” of 1947, in which Hollywood studio bosses agreed to fire and blacklist the Hollywood Ten and other “Reds”, Schary wrote of the M-G-M General Manager, “The biggest surprise comment came from Eddie Mannix…. Eddie was once a bouncer for the Schenck brothers’ enterprise at Palisades Park. He was a tough man, physically and emotionally, had a rugged temper, iron fists, and an enormous appetite for liquor and women. (Years later, following a series of ten heart attacks, after which he still kept up his drinking, cigar smoking, and womanizing, he said to me, ‘When I go, I want to be in the saddle humping, with a glass of booze in one hand and a cigar in my mouth.’ It was a complicated image of indulgence that I have never quite assembled in my mind.) Eddie was one of those who believed it would have been sensible for the Allies to turn on Russia after Hitler was wiped out and finish them off while they were in a position to be had. Therefore, none of us expected Eddie to say that he opposed firing the [Hollywood Ten]. But Eddie argued that there was a state law in California that prohibited an employer from firing anyone because of his political ideas, and Eddie added that he would not break the law.”
There were rumors circulating around Hollywood that Eddie Mannix had killed his first wife by staging a phony automobile accident. (She had died in a high speed car wreck in 1937.) As he didn’t need the life insurance money, and divorces were pretty standard fare in Lotus Land, the truth of the rumor likely is just that: a rumor. Like in the immediate post-World War II period that saw the birth of the blacklist, Hollywood in the mid-1930s experienced egregious labor pains, as the Screen Writers Guild (headed by future Hollywood 10 member John Howard Lawson, a Communist Party USA member and the CPUSA’s chief cultural apparatchik in the movie colony), the Screen Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the other guilds fought for recognition as the collective bargaining representatives of their respective crafts.
It was Louis B. Mayer’s idea, as the most powerful executive in Hollywood, to create the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as a company union to hold down wages and stifle the craftsmen’s demands for more artistic control. But AMPAS had failed in that task by 1937. (The previous year, screenwriter Dudley Nichols had been the first person to turn down an Oscar, as a protest of AMPAS’ labor policies. The SWG was onstrike during the Oscar ceremony.) A “fixer” like Eddie Mannix, who would have been called in to handle labor troubles, was not popular among the creative members of the community , and such a situation is fertile soil for rumors to sprout up like mushrooms.
Mannix also was suspected of being involved in the cover-up of (and maybe even the cause of) the death by gunshot of M-G-M executive Paul Bern, the husband of M-G-M resident superstar Jean Harlow. The 1932 death was ruled a suicide. Bern quite likely was homosexual, and unable to handle Harlow emotionally and physically. More than likely, he was killed by the woman who claimed to be his first wife, who was mentally unstable and killed herself soon after Bern’s death. Why Mannix would kill Bern, a protégé and close collaborator of M-G-M production chief Irving Thalberg, is never explained. It is known that M-G-M’s other “fixer”, Howard Strickling, was the main force handling police and public relations over Bern’s death, trying to deflect any bad publicity that could tarnish the young Harlow personally, and professionally.
Fixers like Mannix and Strickling were not just heartless monsters looking at the bottom line. While preserving a star’s bankability was important, as there were always pressure groups like the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency ready to launch a new Crusade against the Sodom & Gomorrah that was Tinsel Town, the star system as perfected at M-G-M also was a kind of surrogate family. Jean Harlow was family, and her emotional health –losing her husband in such awful circumstances that have yet to be satisfactorily explained — was an important factor in the alleged “cover-up” of Paul Bern’s death.
Beyond that, the idea that Eddie Mannix would kill a valued producer like Bern, and risk destroying one of M-G-M’s top properties, is absurd. Mannix, like many Lotus Land Maharajas, enjoyed the ladies, but there is no evidence he ever had an affair with Harlow. There were too many gals in the secretarial pool, as well as legions of wanna-be actresses, to satisfy the lusts of movie industry management to necessitate moving in on the above-the-line talent. 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck used to block out 4-5:00 PM, daily, for his casting couch sessions.
Another rumor about Bad Boy Eddie Mannix concerns the December 21, 1937 death of comedian Ted Healy in a barroom brawl. The rumor has it that Mannix, as the studio’s chief “fixer”, had covered up M-G-M superstar Wallace Beery’s hand in Healey’s death. Allegedly, Beery had beaten Healy, the highest paid comedian at the studio, to death, then was sent to Europe by Mannix until the brouhaha was over. The death of Healy, who was out drinking to celebrate the birth of his first child, was blamed on college students, whom Ted allegedly had insulted and then challenged to a fight. The story by bar patrons was that the three students ganged up on Healy, beat him to the ground, then finished him off with kicks to the body and head. The story has never been contradicted, officially.
There is no evidence that Wallace Beery ever beat up Ted Healy, on the night of his death, or before. Moe Howard, who had known Healy since they were teenagers in Brooklyn and had come to Hollywood as one of Healey’s “Stooges”, said in his 1975 autobiography that he was saddened but not surprised by the death of Healey in such circumstances, as Healey was prone to violence when he was drunk. When he didn’t drink, Moe said, Ted was a model of refinement. Healy’s drinking and resulting emotional instability had forced Moe’s older brother Shemp, one of the original Stooges, to abandon the act. He was replaced by their brother Jerome, who billed himself as Curly. Finally, the Stooges Moe, Larry and Curly couldn’t tolerate Ted’s behavior anymore, and left M-G-M, winding up at Columbia, where they became legends.
The story is that police on both the East and Left Coasts entertained suspicions that Mannix had connections to organized crime. That said, it is highly unlikely that anyone engaged in business in the 1920s through the early ’60s would not, at some time, have to deal with the “Mob” or “Syndicate”, as it was known.
The Chicago “Outfit”, the successor to the Capone Gang , had invaded Hollywood through its control of the International Alliance of Theatrical & Stage Employees union. IATSE represented movie projectionists, and thus had the power to prevent a film from being shown. It began moving into areas controlled by the other craft guilds.
Two hoods connected with the Outfit, George Browne and Willie Bioff, controlled IATSE and proceeded to shake down the studio with various protection rackets, raking in over $1 million, big bucks during the early ’40s. Paying off IATSE under-the-table became a regular cost of doing business, and that task may have been delegated to Eddie Mannix. (IATSE, allegedly purged of its Mafia element, would later be at the center of the post-World War II labor troubles, as it fought with unions headed by more progressive and militant trade unionists who despised IATSE as a pro-management, “sweetheart” union. IATSE and the Hollywood bosses fought back by tarring the progressives as “Reds”.)
The Hollywood moguls’ fondness for horse racing also engendered involvement with organized crime, as the mobsters liked to know the outcome of a race beforehand, so as to direct their betting monies. L.B. Mayer owned one of the finest racing stables in the country, and Jock Whitney, one of the investors in Technicolor and the producing partner of L.B.’s son-in-law, David O. Selznick, also owned one of the top stables in America with his sister, Joan Whitney Payne. Loew’s President Nick Schenck listed horse-racing as one of his three favorite things, after running his company and his family.
There are plausible rumors that L.B. Mayer was betrayed by his own son-in-law, William Goetz of 20th Century-Fox (and later Universal-International), who had become “mobbed up”. The story goes that Goetz, whom L.B. never liked, fixed it so that Mayer’s top horse would not be in condition to win the Kentucky Derby. L.B.’s horse was the favorite, but Goetz inexplicably entered the horse, at the last minute, in a race held just before the Derby, which tired the nag. The horse lost the Run for the Roses, and L.B. was mortified.
Allegedly, L.B. Mayer was told in no uncertain terms that horse-racing was no business for a Jew, the surface meaning being a religious appeal that gambling was uncomely to someone of the “Jewish persuasion”, who stuck in exile among gentiles, had to be more upstanding than the goyim, lest they stir up anti-Semitism. The unspoken message was for him to get out of horse-racing, as it was a game that the rather staid and conservative L.B., who had achieved assimilation with High Society, could not win at, being vulnerable to Mob pressure, unlike the centimillionaire WASPs Jock Whitney and Joan Payne, two of the richest people in the country. A broken-hearted L.B. did quit horse racing, his relationship with his son-in-law Goetz fractured beyond repair. In such a climate, an Eddie Mannix, who was afraid of no man, was a necessary component of doing business.
More importantly than his unsavory reputation, the extremely well-liked Mannix was known throughout Hollywood as a man of his word . When asked whether he had signed a new contract with M-G-M, Clark Gable, “The King” of Hollywood, replied, “I don’t need a contract. I shook Eddie Mannix’s hand.”
Mannix was never well-known outside of Tinsel Town, and he is remembered if at all for two things: for being the inspiration for the studio boss Pat Brady (Monroe Starr’s nemesis) in “The Last Tycoon” (he was played by Big Bob Mitchum in the 1976 film directed by Elia Kazan, produced by Sam Spiegel, and adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel by Harold Pinter), and for his alleged role in the death of Superman, which has been elucidated by the movie Hollywoodland.
The movie picks up on speculation that Eddie Mannix or his wife, the B-movie actress Toni Lanier, might have murdered actor George Reeves, who had recently terminated a seven-year-long affair with Toni Mannix in order to get married to his new finance, Lenore Lemmon, who was once thrown out of New York’s Stork Club for a cat fight. Reeves, of course, was the star of the recently cancelled TV series The Adventures of Superman, a staple of the Baby Boom generation that had been born glued to the Boob Tube.
The standard story that circulated for two generations after Reeves’ 1959 death by gunshot wound to the head was that he was distraught about the show being cancelled, and even more so about being typecast, which precluded his getting a new acting gif. Accounts of the final day of his life have a drunken Reeves, during a late night revel, shouting that he had been Superman to millions of children, and he now was nothing: Then, he raced upstairs and shot himself.
A new generation of crime writers in the 1990s began to question this scenario. However, their conclusions are not definitive, as the movie Hollywoodland carefully makes apparent. Certain facts are indisputable.
Reeves had recently terminated his long-term affair with the eight-years-older Lanier, an affair that allegedly had Eddie Mannix’s blessing. A great womanizer, like many of the top studio brass, Mannix not only had a Japanese mistress, but many dalliances on the side. As he told Dore Schary, his dream was to die in the saddle.
Crime writers who believe that Reeves was murdered do not go along with the perception that Reeves was distraught over the cancellation of Superman. They point to the fact that not only was Reeves going to get married in several days time, but he was scheduled to box Archie Moore in an exhibition match the following day, going into the ring dressed in Superman drag to take on the reigning world’s light-heavyweight champion. (Reeves had been an amateur boxer before turning to acting.) The spectacle, which would be televised, was dreamed up to appeal to the kiddies who loved the fictional Man of Steel.
Furthermore, Reeves had been rehired to film more episodes of Superman, for syndication in the 1960-61 season. Thus, there was no reason for Reeves to feel despondent, which they believe casts doubt on the “theory” that he committed suicide. (This ignores the well established fact that many suicidal people take their own lives during a high-point in their cycle of depression, as it is during the “high” that they have the strength and frame of mind to consummate the act.)
The fact is, George Reeves had recently been involved in car crash, which the He was murdered crowd blames on Eddie Mannix, hearkening back to the stories of his first wife’s death. (Reeves didn’t believe there any foul play, despite the brakes of his car having lost their brake fluid.) In the crash, Reeves suffered a concussion and injuries that necessitated the use of prescription pain killers. It is now known that concussions are very serious injuries, with the ability to cause mood changes, including severe depression. At the time of Reeves’ death, he had a blood alcohol content of .27, which is nearly 3 and ½ times what is now the legal limit in California. The combination of a head trauma, pain killers and intoxication may fairly be considered to be contributing factors to Reeves’ suicide.
The most obvious question ignored by the new scenario is this: Why would Eddie Mannix have Reeves killed for terminating an affair with his wife? The answer floated by the murder crowd is that Reeves’ dumping his wife humiliated Mannix in Hollywood, but this doesn’t fly unless Eddie Mannix was some kind of pervert who got off on being cuckolded.
There is nothing to indicate that the tough mick Mannix was a patsy. He had been involved in an “open marriage” that was known in Hollywood, a place where there was a great deal of experimentation in couplings, a place where many innovative living arrangements occurred and were tolerated. If he was not humiliated by the game of musical chairs that was the bedroom etiquette of Tinsel Town, how would he be upset that Reeves — by all accounts, a thoroughly decent fellow who, like Mannix, was extremely well-liked, and was liked by Mannix himself — had terminated his affair with the menopausal Toni to marry a younger woman and start a family? Everyone, from Toni to Reeves to Mannix to everyone in Hollywood knew there was no future in Superman’s relationship with the movie mogul’s moll.
The party that would be humiliated was Toni Mannix. However, the idea that Mannix would jeopardize his freedom and career just to “get” Reeves for dumping a woman he, like Superman, was no longer interested in sexually, must be considered far-fetched.
Eddie Mannix was never indicted for any crime, despite the plethora of rumors and suspicions. When he died in Beverly Hills in 1963, his pallbearers included two former M-G-M contract players who had enjoyed superstar careers: James Stewart and Robert Taylor. Clearly, the coin of his reputation was still current among the Hollywood elite.
Did Eddie Mannix kill Superman? While Hollywoodland hedges its bets and brings in a verdict of “Not Proven”, the alternative verdict from Scotland’s legal system that says, in essence, We think you did it but we can’t prove it, “Not Guilty” would be the better finding.