HER FATHER founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, her husband produced "Gone With the Wind," and Charlie Chaplin, for a time, lived just across the street. Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Janet Gaynor are still her friends. When she was a little girl, she called William Randolph Hearst "Uncle William," and he gave her jewelry on her birthdays.
For 10 years, Howard Hughes sent her a dozen roses every Christmas night.
Irene Mayer Selznick, who has lived quietly among the genuinely fabulous for 73 years, isn't surprised to hear that some people think she dropped dead ages ago. "You know why?" she says, in her deep, contentious, rather growly voice. "I've been locked up doing that damned book! I have not been in evidence." She will be in evidence now, for the damned book, "A Private View," is about to be published by Alfred A. Knopf.
It is among the most fascinating, disarming and blithest Hollywood memoirs ever--it's like a trip in a balloon to another, richer world, under the breezy guidance of a sassy, tenacious woman who has an immensely privileged perspective. She tells of times that no one saw quite the way she saw them, and times that, it could go without saying (but won't here), no one will ever see again.
"Don't you think it's wonderful?" she says of her very own life. "When I went to Hollywood, and when I left? I say, 'Look at my life--how is it possible?' I didn't control it. I had nothing to do with when I came, and it was a kind of magical time to have left. This isn't all common sense. A lot of this is luck. I kept saying that I could write 20 books but I couldn't write one. I know too much."
She is asked when she was the happiest. "Oh gee. When was I the happiest? You mean periods, or moments? I have to tell you, I haven't been unhappy very much. I really haven't. You know, if you look at the book--by the first page or two, I've got it made."
Irene Mayer Selznick led three lives. The first was as daughter of Louis B. Mayer, in his time the most powerful of all the Hollywood tycoons. The second was as wife of producer David O. Selznick, a marriage that lasted from 1930 to 1948, produced two sons and "Gone With the Wind," and ended in divorce, after which Selznick married actress Jennifer Jones. And the third was as a Broadway producer who shepherded to the stage, among other works, a play originally called "Poker Night." Its temperamental young author was Tennessee Williams and the play's title was changed during rehearsal to "A Streetcar Named Desire."
A large model of said streetcar, a gift from the Jock Whitneys to celebrate the first anniversary of the play, sits in Selznick's substantially cozy residential apartment at the Hotel Pierre in New York, diggings she's occupied for 33 years. Walking briskly through the lobby toward the elevators on a chilly spring day, the tiny Selznick pauses to survey rudimentary remodeling very noisily taking place about her. She looks up at some newly installed gingerbread and exclaims sarcastically, with a wave of her arm, "The splendor! The splendor!"
On the subject of splendor she is an authority; she has seen tons of it. But when Louis B. Mayer transplanted his wife and two daughters from New England to Los Angeles in the early '20s, he was determined, Selznick writes, that they would not "go Hollywood," not any of them; he was strict and conservative, and the book is set among those who became the town cliffdwellers--the solid citizens, not the racy flaky types. Traditionally, Mayer is portrayed as the archetypal Hollywood tyrant; "A Private View" offers a gentler view of the man who founded MGM and ran it for 27 incredibly productive years.
"My father had a lot of shortcomings," Selznick says. "They're right there in the book; you can't miss them. But I haven't made him any better or worse than he was." She deplores various published portraits and blames some of them on her sister, Edith, a Beverly Hills socialite whom Selznick has not spoken to in years. "She rewrote her life, my life, my father's life, the whole thing, as she continues to rewrite," Selznick sputters. "It's crazy! Wishful thinking! Fortunately she has less and less of an audience, so it makes no difference."
After detailing, over a lunch of mushrooms and tortellini at Quo Vadis, a number of grievances against her sister and against Bosley Crowther, the former film critic and Mayer biographer, Selznick begins a series of threats to her interviewer. "I'll kill you, I'll kill you," she keeps saying, by way of subtly discouraging the interviewer from printing some of the things she has related. At the very end of the interview, she asks coquettishly, "Did I surprise you?" and, told she is much as the book makes her sound, she says disappointedly, "No surprises?"
Her portrait of Louis B. Mayer is an endearing one. "I'm not sure I always liked my father," she writes, "but I admired him and loved him. And I wanted desperately to please him." She describes him as a man of "extraordinary reflexes, mental and physical," although his chronic low blood pressure "would occasionally cause him to faint without warning." He was "volatile and impatient," had a "terrifying" temper, "puritanical instincts" and such a heightened sense of moral indignation that, in separate incidents, he decked both Charlie Chaplin and John Gilbert--flattened each of them with one blow apiece--after taking offense at something they had said. "He was a very unsophisticated man threatened by a sea of iniquity," his daughter writes. And he loved to waltz.
When she was a child, her father seemed to her "not only omnipotent, he was omniscient. In a curious way, I got him mixed up with God." Mayer may have occasionally suffered from the same confusion. But among the most touching passages in the book is a daughter's description of her father's devotion to his mother: "No kind of emotion in his life ever matched the grief he felt at her death. He was totally devastated and mourned her passing the rest of his days. From that time on until he died, a large portrait of her hung over his bed. Every victory of his brought with it a pang that she was not there to share it . . ."
Louis B. Mayer's obituaries--he died Oct. 29, 1957--give his birth date as July 4, 1885. But he was born in Minsk, Russia, and like many naturalized citizens of that period, his daughter writes, had no birth records. He himself chose the Fourth of July as the date of his birth. First-generation Hollywood movies were often made by, or under the supervision of, immigrants whose love for America was unbounded.
IN AT LEAST one respect, Louis B. Mayer and the man who became his son-in-law, David O. Selznick, were similar. Mayer really had a professional credo and it was, his daughter writes, "You can educate the public. Give them quality and they will learn about better things." Later she writes of Selznick's "striving for perfection" and recalls, "Movies were like a great cause to us; to be pretentious, you could call it a sense of mission. I reinforced his aspirations. We had one romance with each other and another with the movies."
Hollywood studios are owned now by conglomerates, and the moguls with their credos and senses of mission are all dead.
When she first met Selznick, "I liked him and I didn't like him," his ex-wife writes. But the liking won out. She describes her husband, famous for composing voluminous memorandums signed with the initials "D.O.S.," as an obsessed workaholic (driven by Benzedrine as well as ambition), an incurably free-spending hedonist, an obsessive gambler (nearly to his ruin), a chronic procrastinator, a borderline narcoleptic, a man feared by servants for his domestic tyrannies, "extravagant, disorganized, and the tardiest man in town." As she got to know him, he impressed her as "a big strong fascinating man," she writes. "His ideas were high-minded but not highfalutin. He was then, and for many years thereafter, filled with the aspiration of which heroes are made. I thought that man was marvelous. I still do."
Selznick produced "King Kong" (nearly forgetting to put his name on the screen during the credits), "David Copperfield," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Dinner at Eight," "Anna Karenina" and many more. He brought Ingrid Bergman to America to star in "Intermezzo" and imported Alfred Hitchcock to direct "Rebecca." He always feared, however, that his obits would identify him only as the man who had produced "Gone With the Wind," and in their first paragraphs, they did.
Irene Mayer Selznick doesn't hog any credit for her husband's work in the book, but she reveals to a greater degree than has been known how closely she worked with him at home, and how often he brought his work home with him. One of the few times she describes herself as having ever been hysterical was at the first sneak preview of "Gone With the Wind." She rode with her husband and Jock Whitney in an auto caravan out of Los Angeles, one of the cars filled with the cans of film, until Selznick found a theater in suburban Riverside, Calif., that seemed to strike his fancy.
The people inside were then told by a breathlessly grateful management that the film advertised on the marquee was about to be interrupted and replaced with another feature.
"When the main title came on, the house went mad," she writes. "I couldn't bear to see the first scenes." She crouched behind a seat; D.O.S. and Jock Whitney covered her with their coats.
"It was sink or swim," she recalls now. "And thinking of the power that this one preview had on our lives, our future, all the years invested--and these few hours could make a shambles of everything." Even now she has trouble watching the film.
When it was televised recently on CBS, she says, "I saw only a little bit of it. I think it's seen to such a disadvantage on television." The opening title music still gives her goosebumps, but she can recall getting sick of it when Max Steiner, who composed it, lived across the street from her in Beverly Hills and drove her "right up the wall" playing it on his elaborate sound system.
Selznick was 63 when he died in 1965. Irene Selznick does not buy the theory that, given his addiction to razzle and dazzle, he was better off leaving a little early; life would not have gotten more spectacular for him. "It would not have gotten more spectacular," she says, "but he may have gotten more philosophical, because he was already quite philosophical. No, I think he would have been a darling old man."
She did not attend his funeral. She has never once visited his grave at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. "I'm not a great one for graves or cemeteries," she says. "It doesn't make much sense to me."
"A Private View" is refreshing for an absence of malice; it isn't part of the trash-Hollywood trend of recent years, particularly in books by the offspring of stars. Her book can be seen as something of an antidote; Irene Selznick isn't fond of all the previous books about her husband and father and friends, though she praises, highly, Rudy Behlmer's 1981 "Memo from David O. Selznick"; "It's first-class."
Otherwise, she says, "So much that has been written is untrue. Particularly when it gets borrowed. They don't know, they pad it to make it more interesting. And the truth is always more interesting. Invariably. They don't know the truth so they retell it and they fake it. I mean, when I read stuff about David, his home, books about Hollywood splendor and luxury, the size of the dining room, the number of guests at the table, the number of servants--I say, 'Who? Little me???' " She coughs, angrily it seems. "Nobody knows. They were never there."
Irene Selznick being a tough cookie, however, the book is not without unkind words. She deplores, for instance, the way Elia Kazan, who directed "Streetcar," caved in to the House Un-American Activities Committee after boasting of his refusal to do so in the early '50s. She seems to have shared her father's dislike for Samuel Goldwyn and once kicked him in the shins during a game of hearts. Also, Selznick seems never to have forgiven her old Beverly Hills neighbor Paulette Goddard, then living with Chaplin, for borrowing one of her favorite bathing suits and repeatedly refusing to return it.
Of the late director George Cukor, whom her husband fired from "Gone With the Wind," Selznick says bluntly, "He should have checked out earlier. George had been a man of great energy, he used to be wonderful company, in demand professionally and socially. But as the years went on he seemed to take increasing credit for 'Gone With the Wind.' And he didn't need it." There were stories that Cukor was fired at Clark Gable's insistence, that Gable resented being called "darling" by him. "That's not true," Selznick says. "That's an easy out for George. I was there, and I kept seeing those opening sequences over and over again, and it just didn't have the quality."
When asked how long it took her to write her book, she snaps, "I don't care to say." Later, in the hallway leading to her apartment, she confesses in a whisper that it took 7 1/2 years. During that time, she says, she would occasionally show pages to friends "to prove to them that it wasn't a mirage."
Cary Grant, with whom Selznick once took an airplane joy ride piloted by a sleepy Howard Hughes, wanted to know if he would be making an appearance among the anecdotes. "He said to me a few years ago, 'Listen, I hope I'm not going to be in your book.' I said, 'You do? What if I'm indiscreet?' I said, 'I'm going to say that we took in one another's washing did each other favors over the years . He said, 'Oh really? Well that's all right. You can say that!' " She laughs. "But then, I found I couldn't quite get that in.
"Cary was by last week. He wears well. His last wife has made him so happy. He's having increasingly happy years. He's really living the most golden old age I ever saw."
Katharine Hepburn hasn't read it yet. "She's not sure she wants to. Oh, she's pulling my leg. She's going to have a hard time if she doesn't read it. I think she's going to look kind of ridiculous." Though they are longtime friends, and D.O.S. put Hepburn in her first movie, "A Bill of Divorcement," Selznick recalls in the book her first impression of Hepburn: "Her behavior was not only unconventional, it was slightly wacky."
All kinds of stellar names parade through the book. Oscar Levant turns out to have been a second cousin. Irene Selznick once spent part of a dinner party in a room with Henry R. Luce, where they made the mutual discovery that both suffered from stuttering when agitated. In the '20s, she went to a party at the Jesse Laskys that was given "to introduce a radio man named William Paley to Hollywood." Paley founded and until this year was chairman of CBS Inc., and has remained one of Selznick's lifelong friends.
After 376 pages of relative candor, including the revelation that she had an abortion while married to D.O.S. (they had two sons, one of whom, Daniel, produced the current TV mini-series "Blood Feud"), Selznick suddenly gets coy. She mentions a previously unmentioned male friend and says, "For close to 25 years he and I managed to be together and yet escape attention." She won't reveal his name. Nor even if he is still alive. "I don't think that matters," she says imperially.
After all, she is still guarded and private, a proper girl from Boston who says "ahfter" and "eye-ther" and "thea-tuh" and, after polishing off a truffle or two, declares of lunch, "This is so satisfactory, isn't it?" The book begins with the sentence "I had dreams of glory." They came true in a measure she hadn't expected. Although her marriage to Selznick ended in a traumatic divorce, she survived it and asserted her own emphatic identity. Throughout the book, her memories are interrupted for expressions of gratitude and amazement: "I always had got more than was coming to me"; "I'd had more than anyone deserved"; and, most disarmingly: "I'd have settled for so much less."
She says she was perfectly sincere about that. "Oh, down the line, down the line! Remarkable things happened to me. Excitement, reward, fulfillment--I didn't ask for all of this. I hadn't demanded or expected an exciting personal life myself. Of course I'd have settled for less and--I started to say, 'Wouldn't everyone?' but that's not true. I think of other people as the other way, that they expect a lot. I didn't."
THE ENDING of this story is a prologue. It is part of the prologue to the greatest movie Irene Selznick's husband ever made, a few lines that appeared on the screen after the opening credits and which were written by Ben Hecht, not Sidney Howard, who wrote most of the screenplay. The lines were meant to refer to the Old South, but seeing the picture now, and reading "Private View," and hearing Irene Selznick reminisce about her father and her husband, and realizing how few of the great movie pioneers are left, and remembering Old Hollywood as a land built on illusion and celebrating illusion, a place where magicians and geniuses, gods and goddesses thrived, one could almost say the lines are about that world, the one in which Irene Mayer Selznick grew up, the world that shaped and enriched the fantasy lives of more people than had ever been done before:
"Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered . . . a Civilization gone with the wind . . ." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, Irene Mayer Selznick, from "A Private View,"; David O. Selznick in the 1950s; Irene Selznick today, (Copyright (c) 1983, by Jarry Lang) and Louis B. Mayer in 1948.