The Real History of Hail Caesar! and Eddie Mannix
Hail, Caesar! is fiction. But the real Eddie Mannix was involved in decades of Hollywood scandals, including the death of George Reeves.
There is a scene early in Hail, Caesar! where Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix oils up the charm while approaching DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), Capitol Pictures’ aquatic musical star. For Mannix, Moran’s out-of-the-papers and out-of-wedlock child is a ticking time bomb waiting to happen, and the fact that he and the studio have previously set the bathing beauty up in two phony marriages with first a “small-time” mobster and then a dope fiend are immaterial. She needs to get hitched again before the trades get wind of her kid. Yet, all they can end up agreeing about is that they need to get rid of her emerald green “fish ass” for the next day’s shoot.
Welcome back to the deadpan world of Coen Brothers comedies, a strange and arbitrary land inhabited by characters that take each and every breath with equal parts jolly gregariousness and defiantly proud ignorance. They’re so beautifully dim that any sort of real world judgment or condemnation of their actions would be moot since they wouldn’t understand the larger words anyway.
But even with all the glitz and fizz of Hollywood’s Golden Age, there is a catch this time around to their deliberate dryness: Brolin’s Eddie Mannix did exist in our reality, he did often put the squeeze on movie stars, and he was nobody’s numbskull. In fact, while Hail Caesar’s Eddie Mannix works at a fictional Capitol Pictures, and slaps around fictitious movie star nitwits, the real-life Eddie Mannix was notoriously the number three guy at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the largest fiefdom in all of Hollywood during the studios’ heyday from the 1920s till the system’s collapse 40-odd years later. And during that time, Mannix assumed titles like “comptroller,” “general manager,” and “vice president.” But above all else, he was mainly the fixer.
Remaining on MGM’s payroll until his death in 1963, Mannix is an important figure in Hollywood history. His MGM ledger, which meticulously recorded the secret costs, revenues, and losses of the studio’s films from 1924 to 1948, is a treasure trove for film historians. He is also central in the mythology for the studio that once prided itself on having “More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens,” playing second fiddle only to MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and Head of Production Irving Thalberg. He also was considered extended family by a number of stars, including Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
But primarily, Mannix was the guy that made sure Mayer’s family friendly entertainment stayed “family friendly,” at least as far as the press and moviegoing public were concerned. Alongside Howard Strickling, the unflappable head of MGM publicity, Mannix had a habit for making problems go away, whether they be drunk driving incidents, unplanned pregnancies, libidinous lifestyles, or even the occasional mysterious death, be it of sex symbol Jean Harlow’s second husband or the guy on TV that bullets were supposed to bounce off from.
So without further ado, let’s examine the life of Eddie Mannix and the most infamous scandals his name still casts deep and dwarfing shadows over, including the death of The Adventures of Superman’s George Reeves…
A Fixer from The East
Eddie Mannix was born at the end of the 19th century in 1891 New Jersey. Given the initially long Christian name of “Joseph Edgar Allen John,” he had shrewdly shortened it to just “Eddie” by the time he dropped out of school as a pre-teen. By the age of 20, Mannix fell in with the famed Palisades Amusement Park, a 30-acre diversion that spent most of the 20th Century looking longingly across the Hudson River toward Manhattan. But Mannix never had to bother turning his head since he quickly made an indelible impression on the Schenck Brothers, who purchased the tourist spot in 1910.
Initially starting his career as a ticket taker, Mannix quickly rose to the role of bookkeeper while also developing a reputation for being able to “fix” any problem around the park. And during the 1910s in New Jersey, a problem often meant the encroachment of unions, teamsters, and the other sort of alleged dealings where friendliness with physical enforcers would have been an advantage.
This all impressed Nicholas Schenck, a co-owner of the park and the second-in-command at Loew’s Inc., a powerful theater chain based in New York. Thus when Loew’s took over and combined Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1924—forming the glistening myth that is MGM—and Schenck got stepped over for running the studio in favor of Louis B. Mayer, a scornful Schenck sent Mannix to Hollywood as a “comptroller” in order to keep an eye on MGM, and most especially Louis B. Mayer.
Instead, Mannix never came back. Again assigned as a bookkeeper, as well as an assistant to Irving Thalberg, Mannix was meant to keep an eye on these movie folk for the corporate office, but he ended up joining them by rising from comptroller to general manager within a year. And for every morning henceforth during the next 27 years, Mannix would begin the day with a personal meeting with Mayer (Schenck’s trusted enemy) to discuss the studio’s financials… and perhaps what problems needed to be “addressed.”
Sex, Lies, and Celluloid
During the height of Hollywood’s Golden Era, the studio system ruled Southern California, and MGM reigned higher than any other stable. Enjoying cozy relationships with the political offices, police chiefs, and other institutional luxuries, it is not hard to imagine the level of clout Louis B. Mayer carried in that town, as well as how the studio chief’s own chief fixers implemented it to harrowing effect.
Mannix and Howard Strickling, MGM’s head of publicity, would divide these duties with Strickling often leaning on the press and enticing them to not report salacious gossip about abortions or car accidents while offering up juicy scoops and privileged access as alternatives.
Mannix took on the more direct task of making sure that stars cleaned up the said problems. Whether this meant throwing actors in an early form of rehab or supposedly calling in “friends” from New Jersey (code for mobsters) to intimidate the more hard-knock cases, Mannix was known to sometimes scare the hell out of people. There’s a reason Thalberg always brought Mannix to contract disputes with unions as “the muscle,” as well why he got away with reading all incoming and outgoing telegraphs on the studio lot.
Mannix is rumored to have played a hand in all manner of studio spins, from keeping gay actor William Haines’ multiple affairs and arrests out of the papers to supposedly helping hide one of Clark Gable’s nights of drunken driving into a harmless mistake. Apparently, Mannix and Strickling even had a special procedure in place for whenver Spencer Tracy fell off the wagon and went on a bar-destroying bender every few years during the 1930s (Tracy eventually moved his bouts of alcohol-drenched self-loathing into the Beverly Hills Hotel).
But among the most famous cover-ups Mannix was involved in was the acquisition and destruction of at least one pornographic film that actress Joan Crawford appeared in during her pre-star teenage years. Titled Velvet Lips, Crawford was allegedly underage in this sleazy silent exploitation. And according to Crawford’s FBI file, the film did exist as relayed “from a high police authority.” The popular myth is that Eddie Mannix spent exhaustive years tracking down all prints of the film, and paid $100,000 out of studio coffers for the original negative.
And, as according to Tim Adler’s Hollywood and the Mob, MGM brought in gangsters to negotiate with the extortionists, bringing the price for the negative down to $25,000. Otherwise, these wiseguys “would have them all murdered.”
Whatever the price, Crawford still wrote a check herself to MGM for $50,000 after exiting her contract in 1943, an unusual amount for a mutually consented termination. Many still theorize this was in part to pay off the studio’s investment in destroying Velvet Lips.
A Stag Party Where ‘Men Are Men’
Yet, when seeking to destroy instead of save a person, the true insidiousness of Mannix’s reach is far more horrific than anything dreamed up at rival Universal’s horror factory. And its impact is best surmised in the devastating story of Patricia Douglas, whose nightmare was finally dragged into the light by David Stenn at Vanity Fair with the 2004 bombshell expose, “It Happened One Night at MGM.”
In 1937, Douglas was only 20-years-old and barely an actress, despite appearing briefly onscreen with Ginger Rogers in The Gold Diggers of 1933. But that summer was another high point for Louis B. Mayer and MGM, which overcame the recent death of Irving Thalberg with hits like 1936’s San Francisco and The Great Ziegfeld. Additionally, these successes marked MGM as the only major studio to maintain a roaring success as the Great Depression continued its double dip. This solvency was in no small part thanks to a sales strategy that allowed MGM to set prices across the country based on individual films’ performances in first-run urban markets.
In short, while 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and RKO flirted with bankruptcy, MGM’s sales strategy left them in the black. To celebrate the good times, Louis B. Mayer invited the studio’s salesmen from around the country to MGM’s Culver City for their annual sales convention (the first time it was held in Hollywood). Mayer, a puritanical man who resisted sex and promiscuity in his family friendly entertainments whenever possible, kicked off the five-day affair by having starlets greet the salesmen right off their private train, intoning, “That’s to show you how we feel about you, and the kind of good time that’s ahead of you… Anything you want.”
This celebration culminated on the fifth day with a stag party at producer Hal Roach’s ranch. Themed to be a Wild West Show, this May 5, 1937 get-together was promised to be an adventure where “men are men.”
Unfortunately, none of the women who arrived at the Hal Roach lot earlier that day knew about such promises. Patricia Douglas was one of 120 young dancers who answered a casting call in the newspaper, unaware that instead of appearing in a movie, they were to be accessories for drunkards. Dressed up as cowgirls, complete with camera-ready hair and makeup, they were shipped off to the ranch where instead of finding a location shoot, they discovered that for $7.50 each, they could get stranded in a strange place as party favors for 300 salesmen, plus MGM executives like Louis B. Mayer, Hal Roach, and, yes, Eddie Mannix.
After three hours of an open scotch and champagne bar, waiter Oscar Buddin would later testify under oath that he saw “girls get up and move from the tables, because the men were attempting to molest them.” Fellow waiter Henry Schulte would corroborate via affidavit that “they were running their hands over the girls’ bodies, and tried to force liquor on the girls.”
By this time, a Chicago-based seller named David Ross had zeroed in on Patricia Douglas, following her to the bathroom and then forced scotch down her throat with the help of a friend. When she went outside to escape, he reappeared and dragged her into the parking lot where he raped Patricia Douglas in a backseat, slapping her awake whenever she fainted. “Cooperate! I want you awake.”
A parking attendant did (at first) confirm that he heard Douglas scream in the parking lot and saw David Ross running away while she staggered to the ground with her eyes swollen shut. An MGM company car would ater retrieve her from the Culver City Community Hospital, a medical facility largely dependent on MGM’s business. She was asked to douche and, with all evidence of rape erased, sent home.
Hal Roach Studios tried to pay her $7.50 for her troubles the next day.
Eventually, Douglas took this story first to Buron Fitts, the Los Angeles District Attorney, unaware that his biggest campaign contributor was Louis B. Mayer. She then took it to the press—encroaching on Mannix and Strickling’s turf. But the LA Examiner, owned by William Randolph Hearst who up until 1935 had a sweetheart deal at MGM for his mistress Marion Davies, called the event a “studio orgy” while never using MGM’s name once. However, they were kind enough to print Douglas’ name, picture, and her home address.
Undaunted, Douglas eventually forced Fitts to take David Ross to a grand jury trial where the case was dismissed (MGM had hired the Pinkerton Agency to strong-arm other girls at the party that night to play dumb). The aforementioned parking attendant recanted his initial story about seeing David Ross, but his daughters told Vanity Fair that MGM had offered him “any job he wanted.” He stayed on the MGM payroll until his death too.
The above photo features Ross and Douglas being forced together by the press after her supposed day in court.
Douglas eventually ran out of legal options and all traces of the stag party disappeared from print. In 1963, before his death, Mannix is alleged to have said about Patricia Douglas, “We had her killed.”
Yet luckily, before her actual death in 2003, Douglas—who had relocated to Las Vegas—told Vanity Fair, “When I die, the truth dies with me, and that means those bastards win.”
Continue to the next page for Eddie Mannix’s perverse relationship with Superman’s George Reeves!
Eddie and Toni Mannix
During all of these Patricia Douglas troubles, Eddie Mannix was having problems of his own. His first wife, Bernice Mannix, had finally had enough of the husband’s many failings, and understandably so. For most marriages, it would be bad enough that he took up with Mary Nolan, a former Ziegfeld folly. But at first glance, Bernice might have been better off since during their affair, Nolan was hospitalized 15 times for abdominal surgeries following likely beatings at Mannix’s hands.
But by 1937, both were well out of the picture. Having her acting career destroyed from said beatings, Nolan had tried to sue Mannix in 1935, but as according to Karina Longworth’s wonderful podcast with Panoply and Slate Magazine, “You Must Remember This,” Mannix had the LAPD run Nolan out of town on trumped up drug charges (she had become addicted to morphine after so many surgeries). For her part, Bernice simply sought to divorce Mannix and sue him for allegedly breaking her back in one beating. It probably didn’t help that at this point, he was living with Toni Lanier, another Ziegfeld folly famed to be “The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs.”
But in 1938, all of these problems went away when Bernice Mannix died in a car accident. Also, as according to “You Must Remember This,” there was another set of tire strikes at the site, indicating her car was violently sideswiped. There was no follow-up investigation.
Mannix and Toni lived happily as man and wife until his death in 1963—but well before that both had eyes that began to wander in their open marriage. For Eddie, this meant a lovely young Japanese woman who was supposed to be their “maid” (as well as Judy Garland’s MGM publicist/Mannix spy), and for Toni, it came to mean only George Reeves.
Mad About the Boy
At six feet and two inches, George Reeves was a magnificently handsome piece of budding movie stardom. Studying acting at Pasadena Playhouse, Reeves got his stage name gift-wrapped by Jack Warner and a juicy role at MGM in David O. Selznick’s instantly iconic Gone with the Wind (1939). There, he played the ginger-haired Tarleton twins in the very first scene of the movie.
But sadly, movie stardom did not ever work out for the ambitious actor. Receiving a series of bit parts after World War II, Reeves could hardly say no to B-movie producer Robert L. Lippert when offered the lead role in Superman and the Mole Men in 1951. This of course led to The Adventures of Superman, a hit syndicated TV series that featured Reeves as the first major star to the Baby Boomer generation. However, like a forerunner to Buddy Holly, Elvis, John Lennon, and every other seeming future icon for the then (exceedingly young) “Me Generation,” Reeves’ story of celebrity ended in tragedy.
Never satisfied with playing the Man of Steel, Reeves was reported to call Kryptonite “Kryptocrap;” he would burn his Superman costume at the end of every season; and he even raised a glass to Phyllis Coates (Lois Lane) on the first day of shooting The Adventures of Superman to say, “Welcome to the bottom of the barrel, babe.”
At least he appeared less desperate in his rather unorthodox home life during this period. Around the same time he first donned a red cape, Reeves also met Toni Mannix, a woman eight-years his senior. And while she might have been married to the toughest man on the MGM lot, theirs was an untraditional marriage with the aforementioned maid and two separate bedrooms divided by a crimson carpet that Toni nicknamed, “The Red Sea.”
The truth is that Eddie Mannix’s health was failing by the 1950s, and for whatever monstrous infidelities he might have partaken in, he wished Toni to be happy, so he supported George Reeves becoming Toni’s pet project. Toni (with Eddie’s financial permission) bought George a little house at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, decorated it for him, and purchased Reeves a new car. When the Mannix couple went on vacation in first class, George Reeves and Eddie Mannix’s mistress flew coach.
While hardly representing “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” for the better part of a decade, this arrangement worked as Toni waited for Eddie to shuffle off this mortal coil. She even bought George Reeves a pocket-watch with the inscription, “Mad About the Boy.”
The Death of Superman
Yet even with national popularity for playing Superman and the clearly obsessive (and financially securing) devotion of Toni Mannix, George Reeves struggled with happiness. And on the pre-dawn morning of June 16, 1959, he was found lying on his bed nude with a bullet hole in his skull and a Luger lying beneath his feet. He was 45.
Treated as an open and shut case of suicide, the official story remains that George Reeves took his own life because he was so depressed about both playing Superman and then seeing the part vanish from his grasp (the series was cancelled in 1958). Worse still, he had even considered demeaning himself in the spectacle of professional wrestling.
Nonetheless, the longer you press your head against them, the more the facts of the case blur like the smudges of early comic book ink. And it begins with the end of his relationship with Toni Mannix.
While on a New York business trip in 1958, Reeves had a chance encounter with Leonore Lemon, a 38-year-old socialite with a scandalous reputation. She subsequently appeared at his hotel room later that night and apparently didn’t leave it for much of the next two weeks. Reeves flew back to Hollywood and ended his relationship with Toni Mannix, devastating the woman who (along with Eddie) one day expected a marriage proposal from George. More upsetting still, George moved Leonore (who later claimed to be his fiancée) into the house that Toni bought.
After weeks of Toni calling George Reeves at all hours of the night and following his car, Reeves finally had his beloved dog stolen, never to be returned. Eventually, after Toni Mannix became inconsolable, George Reeves was having a range of bad luck of his own. He was in a major accident when the fluid in his brakes ran out, causing a crash that sent Reeves through a windshield. Upon looking at the vehicle, Reeves’ mechanic said, “Somebody wanted him dead.”
And he soon was on the morning of June 16. Leonore Lemmon told the police that Reeves, after a night of heavily drinking, went to bed at 12am only to return irritated that Lemmon had over neighbors and guests that he had never met, still partying past 1am. Reeves then went upstairs whereupon Lemmon is to have said, “He is going to shoot himself” well before the actual gunshot.
Initially, there was no autopsy performed and, rather bizarrely, Reeves’ body was sent straight to a funeral home where it was embalmed before any coroner or police officer could search for powder marks (common in suicides due to the close range). But while off-duty, a police sergeant did return to the scene and discovered three bullet holes in the house, two of them hidden beneath a rug in the bedroom. Still, LA Police Chief William Parker—a personal friend of Eddie Mannix—refused to reopen the case. Besides, Leonore Lemmon later explained that two of the shots (though with no mention of a third one) were due to a drunken quarrel she and Reeves had the week before his death. She then skipped town with $4,000 in traveler’s checks that Reeves had withdrawn for their planned honeymoon.
Of course, this has also casts suspicion on Lemmon, but other facts continue to dog Hollywood speculators. For instance, Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo employed celebrity lawyer Jerry Giesler to further investigate. Yet the attorney who got an acquittal for Errol Flynn’s statutory rape charges, and who miraculously saved Busby Berkeley from a murder trial after he drunkenly plowed his car into strangers, almost immediately dropped Bessolo’s case. According to the grieving mother, he said to her, “There are some dangerous people involved.”
Also, as according to Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s book, Hollywood Kryptonite, Phyllis Coates told them years later that she received a phone call at 4:30am on that fateful morning from Toni Mannix—hours before the story would hit newsstands—to say, “The boy is dead. He’s been murdered.”
Howard Strickling seemed to think so too since he apparently told the ghostwriter of his unpublished memoirs, Samuel Marx, that “Eddie did do it, of course.”
As a case with so many moving pieces and parts—from the inexplicable bruises on Reeves’ body to Lemmon’s vanishing act—it remains a frustrating question mark to this day. It also was the subject of the underrated slice of 2006 neo noir, Hollywoodland. But that movie’s ending is no more settled on what happened in George Reeves’ bedroom than any other conspiracy theory, because like Hollywood’s best mysteries, there is no ending.
Nevertheless, Eddie Mannix met his own in 1963. Toni Mannix lived on until 1983, never remarrying. However, she did watch reruns of The Adventures of Superman after Eddie’s passing.
Apparently, there are some things you cannot fix.