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Meet the sleezebag agent who inspired the new Coen Bros movie
By Michael Riedel
February 1, 2016
“Hail, Caesar!” — Joel and Ethan Coen’s screwball comedy about the movie business, opening Friday — revolves around a deadly serious man. His name is Eddie Mannix, and his job is to make Hollywood scandals go away.
As played by Josh Brolin, Mannix rescues a matinee idol (George Clooney) from the clutches of a communist cell, arranges a quickie marriage for a pregnant ingénue (Scarlett Johansson) and prevents a starlet from posing for some pictures that wouldn’t get past the censors. He’ll slap an actor who steps out of line, but he’s also a family man who makes it home for dinner.
The Eddie Mannix of “Hail, Caesar!” has dirty work to do, but he does it with dignity.
That’s a fantasy.
The real Eddie Mannix was a thug from New Jersey who bribed cops, bedded hundreds of would-be actresses, ran with the mob and may have ordered the killing of “Superman” George Reeves.Though Louis B. Mayer’s name was on the MGM logo, Mannix (as general manager and later a vice-president) ran the studio from the 1930s through the ’50s, according to E.J. Fleming, author of “The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine.”The real Eddie Mannix bribed cops, bedded would-be actresses, ran with the mob and may have ordered the killing of “Superman” George Reeves.
Mannix and Strickling, the studio publicist, had enormous power over MGM’s stars. The two knew all the sordid secrets, which they could bury to head off a scandal, or leak to ruin a career.
Spencer Tracy bedded Judy Garland when she was just 14. Mannix used that information to keep the alcoholic Tracy in line. Joan Crawford made a lesbian porno before she became famous. Mannix locked it in a vault. A drunk-driving Clark Gable probably killed a pedestrian in 1933. Mannix managed to pin the accident on a low-level studio employee.
“Once Mannix took care of a problem, [he] ‘owned’ the actor,” Fleming writes.
Mannix’s most celebrated “fix” was the murder of MGM director Paul Bern in 1932.
Modal Trigger[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]Mannix and Clark Gable celebrate Gable’s birthday in 1938. When a drunk Gable hit and (likely) killed a pedestrian in 1933, Mannix pinned it to a studio employee—once he “fixed’ a problem, he owned the actor.Photo: Everett Collection
Bern had recently married the studio’s biggest star, Jean Harlow. But he also had a wife back in New York. One night, neighbors heard a man and woman arguing by Bern’s pool in the Hollywood Hills. There was a sound of breaking glass. And then a gun shot. Bern lay dead in his bathroom, a bullet through his head. Mannix arrived and knew instantly what had happened: Bern’s New York wife was in town. They argued, and she killed him. The scandal would have soiled Harlow and the studio.
With the help of police (who were on his payroll), he rearranged the scene to look like a suicide.
Mannix probably would have ended up a low-level mobster buried in the Meadowlands had he not gone to work for Nick Schenck in 1919. Schenck owned amusement parks and movie houses. Mannix became his right-hand man. When Schenck acquired MGM in a deal, he dispatched Mannix to Los Angeles to keep tabs on the studio, and Mayer in particular. The legendary movie producer may not have known it at the time, but a copy of every telegram he wrote wound up on Mannix’s desk.
And so did scandals.
When starlet Thelma Todd was (probably) killed by one of Mannix’s mobster friends, he made her death look like accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning — though how a cloud of gas managed to break her nose and knock out a few teeth was never explained.
Modal Trigger[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]Mannix’s most famous “fix” was manipulating the murder of MGM director Paul Bern in 1932 to look like a suicide, in order to save the studio’s reputation.
His power was on the wane by the late ’50s, when the studio system was coming to an end. But he had one last job to do. His common-law wife, Toni, was having an affair with actor George Reeves, TV’s Superman. Mannix didn’t seem to mind; he was old and tired and was happy to drink his days away.
Things got ugly when Reeves fell in love with a socialite and broke Toni’s heart. There was a party at Reeves’ house one night. By morning, he was dead — shot in the head. It was ruled a suicide, though many books (including Fleming’s) posit it was almost certainly a murder. Some have fingered Mannix. Fleming argues that it was the socialite. In any case, Mannix didn’t want Toni mixed up with a murder. So he painted another suicide.
Rearranged body. Missing crime-scene photos. Shoddy police work. Slapdash autopsy. The death of George Reeves had all the hallmarks of another sordid production by Eddie Mannix.
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