A Biography / A. Scott Berg

Goldwyn | Synopsis

A. Scott Berg’s first book since his widely acclaimed American Book Award-winning life of Maxwell Perkins tells the story of a man whose name is synonymous with the American movie, from its beginnings through its golden age. Samuel Goldwyn’s story is a pioneer story, a folk story, a movie fantasy that came true; it is a story about creativity, ambition, money, drive . . . about a time in America when there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

It begins in 1895, as the sixteen-year-old Schmuel Gelbfisz crosses Europe on foot—walking hundreds of miles from his native Poland toward his dream of America, making his way via Hamburg, London, transatlantic steerage, and the ill-guarded Canadian border to Gloversville, New York. At nineteen (then called Goldfish), he is a floor sweeper in a glove factory; three years later, Gloversville’s star salesman; in 1913, at thirty-four, he joins forces with a well-known vaudevillian, Jesse Lasky, and the unknown Cecil B. DeMille—a collaboration that resulted in The Squaw Man (the first feature-length film made in a “place called Hollywood”).

We follow Sam (now legally renamed Goldwyn) from one exploding partnership to another, building and leaving companies that became Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and United Artists, emerging inevitably as the industry’s “great independent”—a lone-wolf survivor; signing and falling in love with the exquisite, alcoholic, drug-addicted Mabel Normand, the greatest comedienne of the silent screen; befriending (and betraying) Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. We see how he developed “the Goldwyn touch”: hiring the most accomplished writers of his time, from Sidney Howard and Ben Hecht to Robert Sherwood and Lillian Hellman; launching or nurturing such actors as Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky, Gary Cooper, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Barbara Stanwyck, Laurence Olivier, Danny Kaye, Sylvia Sidney, and his great discovery who became his celebrated disaster, Anna Sten; battling and supporting the greatest directors of his day, from John Ford, King Vidor, and Howard Hawks to Rouben Mamoulian and William Wyler; making such unforgettable movies as Wuthering Heights, Stella Dallas, The Little Foxes, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Guys and Dolls, and his greatest triumph, The Best Years of Our Lives (which won for him his first Academy Award and grossed almost $10 million its first year out—an astronomical sum in 1947).

We see Goldwyn’s fascinating and complicated marriage to the beautiful, ambitious, and much younger Frances Howard and his tangled relationship with his two children. And we see the lonely tyrant whom the most talented people in Hollywood wanted—and hated—to work for; the uneducated man who selected the most accomplished artists of his day to translate his often ill-defined but always driving hunger for excellence into the specifics of motion pictures; the powerful man who, throughout his life, thought of “Samuel Goldwyn” as a suit of armor, as the supremely confident face that an unsure Schmuel Gelbfisz showed the world.

A. Scott Berg’s life of Goldwyn, eight years in work, is based on a feat of research: he has interviewed 250 men and women crucial to the history of the movies, and has made brilliant use of his exclusive access to the massive Goldwyn archives. Berg brings to his writing the narrative energy, the understanding of character, the sense of place and time, and the ability to make us see and know a man and his society, that constitute the true biographical gift.

A rich, illuminating portrait of a man who fled the old world bringing with him strengths perfectly suited to the new world to which he aspired . . . an often astonishing portrait of a paradoxical man and the wildly paradoxical kingdom in which he was a central figure—Hollywood, from the time it invented itself, through its greatest days, to the twilight of the golden Goldwyn years.

Goldwyn | A Photographic Timeline

The founders of Famous Players-Lasky (which became Paramount Pictures). Left to right: Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldfish, Cecil B. DeMille, and Zukor’s brother-in-law, Al Kaufman. Goldfish was born Schmuel Gelbfisz in 1879 in Warsaw. A teenage runaway, he walked across Europe, stole money for passage to England, where he had relatives (and changed his name to Samuel Goldfish), and then crossed in steerage to Canada in 1898. He walked across the American border the following January first. After working in the glove business in Gloversville, New York—first making the product and then selling it—he decided to make the leap into the young motion picture industry. Goldfish would be kicked out of Paramount and would start another company with Archibald and Edgar Selwyn, which they named after combining a syllable from each of their names: Gold + wyn. A few years later, Goldfish went to court, petitioning to change his own name to that of his company. The judge ruled that "A self-made man is entitled to a self-made name."


1916

Goldwyn watches Busby Berkeley rehearse the Goldwyn Girls in a number from Roman Scandals. The eager blonde (lower right) is Lucille Ball.


1933

Goldwyn with Gary Cooper


1935

George Gershwin and music director Alfred Newman await Goldwyn’s approval as he listens to music for The Goldwyn Follies. Some weeks later, after writing “Love Walked In” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” Gershwin died.


1937

Eleanor Roosevelt on the Goldwyn lot with Goldwyn and her son, James, then vice president of Goldwyn’s company, 1939. Goldwyn was fond of saying, “The son of the President of the United States works for me.”


1939

Wuthering Heights—starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.


1939

The Little Foxes—starring Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, and Bette Davis, who Goldwyn managed to spring from her contract with Warner Bros. because of a poker debt Jack Warner could not pay.


1941

Goldwyn and his star Danny Kaye, whom he hailed as “the new Chaplin,” with the original Chaplin.


1945

The Best Years of Our Lives—(photographed by Gregg Toland), with Hoagy Carmichael (playing piano), and Oscar winners Harold Russell and Frederic March. Dana Andrews is in the telephone booth in the background.


1946

Guys and Dolls, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine, Jean Simmons, Marlon Brando, and Stubby Kaye. Goldwyn—famous for his malapropisms, called "Goldwynisms"—called him "Stubby Toe."


1955

Goldwyn and Marlon Brando in 1955 after the making of Guys and Dolls. The Thunderbird was Goldwyn’s gift to Brando for his model behavior during the production.


1955

Richard Nixon, then President, awards Goldwyn the Medal of Freedom. His wife, Frances, sits on the couch. His children, Ruth and Sam junior, stand behind Goldwyn, March 27, 1971.


1971

Goldwyn | Archives

Goldwyn | Excerpt

Samuel Goldwyn was not born on August 27, 1882. For most of his life he swore it was his day of birth, but both the name and the date were fabrications. He promulgated other distortions of the truth

as well, liberties he took for dramatic effect. He spent years covering his tracks, erasing those details of his origins that embarrassed him. The reason, he revealed to a psychotherapist at the pinnacle of his career, was that ever since childhood he “wanted to be somebody.” Starting at an early age, Samuel Goldwyn invented himself.

Schmuel Gelbfisz was born in Warsaw, probably in July 1879. Records vary, and Jews were known to falsify their sons’ birth dates to protect them from future conscription in the czar’s army. He was the eldest child of Hannah and Aaron David Gelbfisz, Hasidic Jews. The family had lived in Poland for generations, but their surname was new. Not until 1797 were the Jews of Warsaw ordered to adopt patronymics. Many fashioned names from house signs, which were often hieroglyphs painted in a single color. The picture of an animal might refer to part of a family’s history or simply represent a family member’s trade. In Poland, the spellings of these names were often a mixture of languages. “I’m sure there was a fishmonger somewhere back there,” said one Gelbfisz descendant; and his house sign, as the German first syllable indicates, was painted yellow.

Aaron had been a rabbinical student in his youth but went to work at an early age to support his new family. A sickly and gentle man, he had a handsome face with fine, even features. He liked to read. Goldwyn remembered him as “a sensitive fella.” He struggled with a small store that sold “antiques”—mostly secondhand goods and junk. Fluent in several languages, he supplemented his measly income by reading and writing letters for his neighbors.

Goldwyn | Press

NEW YORK TIMES - MAR 26, 1989

These days God forbid an independent producer in Beverly Hills should be caught actually strolling down from his dacha on the heights to take his meeting in the Polo Lounge or dine at Spago. The morning jog aside, bankables don't stir without benefit of a Rolls-Royce, Mercedes or Jaguar. But the original independent, the behemoth who produced the first feature-length film made in Hollywood, walked. I speak of Schmuel Gelbfisz, a k a Sam Goldfish, but celebrated as Samuel Goldwyn. In 1895, this tall, skinny, virtually penniless 16-year-old, the firstborn son of Hasidic Jews, walked out of Warsaw 300 miles to the Oder River, crossed and then hiked another 200 miles to Hamburg, where a kindly glovemaker named Liebglid raised the 18 shillings required to put him on the boat train to London.

From there Schmuel tramped on to Birmingham, and in 1898 sailed steerage to Halifax, Nova Scotia, continuing on to Gloversville, N.Y., where he found work as a glovemaker. Only a year later Goldfish, who would be a compulsive gambler all his life, cheating at the poker table and croquet, was sufficiently at home to bet $2 that Harvard would beat Yale in a football game. He had also absorbed the copybook maxims that would pepper his speech for the rest of his days - ''Haste makes waste,'' ''Early to bed and early to rise.'' Then, in 1923, clipping the ''wyn'' off a former partner's name, he was born again as Goldwyn, with Judge Learned Hand ordaining, ''A self-made man may prefer a self-made name.''

Samuel Goldwyn was a coarse man of daunting drive and appetite, a wayward husband and sadly inadequate father, but he was also one of a truly astonishing generation. The inspired ruffians who put the shtetls behind them to become czars of a sort. Seizing the day. Inventing Hollywood. ''Between 1880 and 1910,'' A. Scott Berg writes in ''Goldwyn,'' a highly entertaining biography, ''one and a half million Jews joined wagon trains of pushcarts leaving Eastern Europe. In the 1880s alone, the family of Louis B. Mayer left Demre, near Vilna, in Lithuania; Lewis Zeleznick (later Selznick) ran away from Kiev; William Fox (formerly Fuchs) emigrated from Tulcheva, Hungary; the Warner family uprooted itself from Krasnashiltz, Poland, near the Russian border; Adolph Zukor abandoned Ricse, Hungary; and Carl Laemmle left Wurttemberg, Germany - gamblers with nothing to lose, all from within a five-hundred-mile radius of Warsaw.'' To each his own eureka. One day in 1913, Goldwyn, now 34 years old, the star drummer for Elite Fitwell Gloves, slipped out of the sales office on Fifth Avenue and drifted into the Herald Square Theater on 34th Street to catch a ''flicker.'' He saw a cowboy on horseback, Broncho Billy, jump onto a moving train, and within months Goldwyn was in the saddle himself. He formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, Jesse Lasky, a former vaudevillian, and hired one Cecil B. DeMille to write and direct the film version of ''The Squaw Man,'' a hit play of a few seasons back. DeMille was to shoot the film in Flagstaff, Ariz., but didn't care for what he saw and continued west on the train, finally cabling Lasky: ''FLAGSTAFF NO GOOD FOR OUR PURPOSE. HAVE PROCEEDED TO CALIFORNIA. WANT AUTHORITY TO RENT BARN IN PLACE CALLED HOLLYWOOD FOR $75 A MONTH. REGARDS TO SAM.'' When Goldwyn saw the print of what would become a Hollywood legend, as well as his first success, he adjudged the lighting awful. The people wouldn't be able to see what was going on. ''Tell them it's Rembrandt lighting,'' DeMille said. ''For Rembrandt lighting,'' Goldwyn said, ''they pay double.'' Goldwyn's short-lived marriage to Blanche Lasky, which would yield a shamefully neglected child named Ruth, ended acrimoniously in 1915, and Goldwyn, who had many affairs throughout his long life, became known as a ''chaser.'' A producer with a casting couch. The model for Ivor Llewellyn in P. G. Wodehouse's ''Luck of the Bodkins'' and Tepperman in Norman Mailer's ''Deer Park'' - two cases of bruised writers who had worked for Goldwyn getting their own back.

According to Mr. Berg, who won an American Book Award for his biography ''Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,'' the Hollywood moguls were almost all Jewish - which, in the days before affirmative action, made difficulties for some who weren't part of the mishpachah. Darryl Zanuck, for instance, quit Warner Brothers when it became obvious he would never be a partner. ''If only you were one of us,'' Jack Warner said, sighing.

The Jewish moguls had problems as well. Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, who presided for 70 years over the spiritual life of the Beverly Hills yeshiva - where Variety took precedence over the Talmud and Louella Parsons rather than Rashi was read for subtexts - once said: ''They were men who made all that money and realized that they were still a bunch of Goddamned Jews. . . . Sleeping with a pretty Gentile girl made them feel, if only for a few minutes, 'I'm half Gentile.' No wonder they made idols out of shiksa goddesses.'' One of them, Mary Pickford, would not let her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, forget that he had Jewish blood. When he defended one of the moguls, she reproached him: ''That's the Jew in you that's saying that.'' She called Goldwyn Shylock.

The insecure moguls not only anglicized their names; the wife of one of them, Mr. Berg writes, used to wash their daughter's hair with eggs and lemon to lighten it, and scrub her skin with bleach. Goldwyn's second and enduring wife, Frances Howard, a slim redhead out of Nebraska and a Roman Catholic, was the daughter of a lady who could not even bring herself to say the word ''Jew.'' She called them ''Orientals.'' When Sam flew into a rage, Frances learned to silence him in Yiddish: ''Schmuel, shveig.'' (''Shut up!'') She had their only son baptized and, according to Sam Goldwyn Jr., she was more than a tad disconcerted when she discovered in 1938 that so far as the rest of the world was concerned she was considered a Jew.

Then, in 1940, Joseph P. Kennedy, having survived a few months of the blitz in London, descended on Hollywood, addressing 50 power brokers at lunch, among them Goldwyn. ''Stop making anti-Nazi pictures,'' he said, ''or using the film medium to promote or show sympathy to the cause of the 'democracies' versus the 'dictators.' '' Instead of pounding Kennedy over the head with the nearest blunt instrument to hand, the moguls continued to sit there, mute. Kennedy went on to say that the Jews were already being blamed for the war. Hitler liked movies, he observed, and would want America to go on producing them, but ''you're going to have to get those Jewish names off the screen.''

Mind you, Yiddishkeit has its own rewards. Barred from the most exclusive country clubs in Los Angeles, the moguls founded one of their own, Hillcrest, and shortly thereafter struck oil on the fairways. Years later Goldwyn came out of the closet, as it were, becoming president of the United Jewish Welfare Fund. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Israel. But he was dismayed when Edward G. Robinson asked him to help Israel start its own film industry. ''My God,'' he said, ''there are enough rotten Jews in Hollywood.'' Possibly he had the notorious Harry Cohn, who ran Columbia Pictures, in mind. When Cohn died in 1958 a member of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple asked Rabbi Magnin if he could think of one good thing to say about the deceased. The rabbi paused and said, ''He's dead.'' Ah, Hollywood. Frances Goldwyn, after attending the premiere of ''The Jazz Singer,'' the first talkie, in 1927, called that night ''the most important event in cultural history since Martin Luther nailed his theses on the church door.'' A point of view, certainly, but one that overlooks, among other cultural ripples, Einstein doodling E - mc#2 on his pad, Freud thinking twice about our dream life, and the price we are still paying for Marx sitting on his piles in the British Museum.

Goldwynisms abound in A. Scott Berg's biography. Yes, stomping out of a producers' meeting, he did shout, ''Include me out!'' Reminiscing about dire financial straits, he recalled, ''I was on the brink of an abscess.'' He wanted to shoot ''Whoopie!,'' a Western, in Arizona because ''you need Indians and there you get 'em right from the reservoir.'' In a quarrel with Joel McCrea during the making of ''These Three,'' he protested, ''I'm having more trouble with you stars than Mussolini is with Utopia!'' Appearing at the head of a staircase in his bathrobe for a meeting at his house with the Gershwins and George Balanchine, he called down, ''Hold on, fellas. I'll be right there. And then we'll get into a cuddle.'' Warned by his story editor that ''The Little Foxes'' was a caustic play, he shot back, ''I don't give a damn how much it costs. Buy it!'' And he once invited somebody to his house to see his Toujours Lautrec.

Goldwyn, who never churned out more films than he could handle personally (among his productions were ''The Squaw Man,'' two versions of ''Stella Dallas,'' the Eddie Cantor musicals, ''Wuthering Heights,'' ''The Little Foxes,'' ''Pride of the Yankees,'' ''The Best Years of Our Lives,'' ''Up in Arms'' and ''Guys and Dolls'') picked up the concept of ''making fewer, better'' as the star salesman for Elite Fitwell Gloves. He worked with some of the best talent of his time: DeMille, William Wyler again and again, Billy Wilder, Greg Toland, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Robert Sherwood and the immortal Busby Berkeley. He signed the first of his contract players, Mabel Normand, to a five-year deal after she fled Mack Sennett. Over the years his other contract players included Ronald Colman (one of the few to manage the leap from silents to talkies), Eddie Cantor, a disgruntled Gary Cooper (who resented the quality of the scripts imposed on him), David Niven, Dana Andrews and Danny Kaye. But his quest for another Garbo yielded only the long-forgotten Vilma Banky and Anna Sten, whom Goldwyn took to saying ''had the face of a spink.''

Following enormous difficulties, Goldwyn signed Laurence Olivier for what he unfailingly called ''Withering Heights,'' which was to be shot by Greg Toland and directed by William Wyler. Olivier never got on with his co-star, Merle Oberon, whom he considered ''a little pick-up by [ Alexander ] Korda.'' The feeling was mutual. Oberon protested once too often that drops of Olivier's saliva were hitting her in the face during the shooting of a tense scene. Olivier shouted, ''Why you amateur little bitch, what's a spit for Christsake between actors.''

After three weeks of shooting, with the movie badly behind schedule, Goldwyn appeared on the set. ''Willy,'' Goldwyn said to Wyler, ''if this - this actor goes on playing the way he is, I close up the picture. Will you look at that actor's ugly face. He's dirty, his performance is rotten, it's stagey, it's just nothing. . . . I won't have it and if he doesn't improve, I'm gonna close up the picture.''

''Right, Mr. Goldwyn,'' Wyler said, and from that moment, Olivier later allowed, ''I was obedience itself.''

Goldwyn, an appalling father, alternately wrote his daughter Ruth maudlin letters and ignored her brutally. Sammy Jr. does not recall ever eating a single meal with his parents in their elegant dining room. Instead, he took his meals in the kitchen, alone with the cook. When he was about to complete his boarding school education his father wrote him, ''Your graduation means everything to me as I have only one son and I love him very much,'' but of course he didn't show up. ''While I am not present,'' he wrote, ''I am with you in spirit and pray for you every minute.''

Goldwyn finally won the Academy Award he coveted in 1947, for ''The Best Years of Our Lives.'' After the ceremonies, Frances found him sitting on a couch in their darkened living room, holding his Oscar, his head bowed, sobbing.

He lived to the age of 94, confined to his bed in his house on Laurel Lane for several years. In 1971, three years before Goldwyn died, President Richard M. Nixon came to visit the ailing mogul.

Mr. Berg writes: ''He had come to present Samuel Goldwyn with the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. The President made a speech before hanging the medal around Goldwyn's neck, and the hollow rhetoric about the wholesomeness of the recipient's films made Sam junior suspicious. It rang of an old speech written for the late Walt Disney, and he guessed that Nixon was just doing some early electioneering, trying to win the support of the motion picture industry. Goldwyn's head nodded forward. In raising it, he tugged at the President's coat. The President bowed, putting his ear close enough to Goldwyn to hear him whisper, 'You'll have to do better than that if you want to carry California.'

''The President jerked upright, hastily closed the ceremonies, and exited. Sam junior showed him to the door. In the foyer, Nixon asked, 'Did you hear what your father said?' Sammy had, but to avoid any embarrassment, said he had not. The President's shoulders dropped in relief. 'He said,' Nixon boomed, 'I want you to go out there and beat those bastards!' ''

Happily, A. Scott Berg's absorbing biography, thick with amusing anecdote, is largely nonjudgmental and eschews psychobabble. It has the uncommon good sense to trust in the tale of the skinny boy who hiked 500 miles and then some to freedom and fame and fortune. This story of a grabby but imaginative man would make a more telling movie about America, America than Goldwyn ever produced himself. UP FROM THE SEWER

[ King ] Vidor had protested to Goldwyn that there was ''too much dialogue for Miss [ Anna ] Sten's capabilities.'' . . . The challenge proved greatest in the scene in which Anna Sten was supposed to recite a few lines of Browning, which [ Gary ] Cooper had inscribed in a book for her: ''Earth's returns / For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!'' No matter how much she practiced, she tripped between the first two words every time. Her tongue got twisted further when Goldwyn chose the moment they were rehearsing that scene to inspect the set. ''He plunked into an empty chair close to the camera and peered anxiously at the two embarrassed lovers,'' recalled Vidor. Both actors gave all they had, but with Cooper's natural reticence and Sten's facial contortions as she spat out the words ''Earse returzs,'' Goldwyn could not help interrupting the scene. He respectfully asked Vidor if he could have a word with the actors, then begged them to cooperate and concentrate. Goldwyn worked himself up over ''the dwindling receipts at the box office'' and said his whole career was staked on the success of this picture. ''And I tell you,'' he said, reaching the climax of his speech, ''that if this scene isn't the greatest love scene ever put on film the whole goddamned picture will go right up out of the sewer.'' From ''Goldwyn: A Biography.'' THEY REALLY BELIEVED IN ANDY HARDY

''I wasn't interested in writing a Hollywood biography,'' A. Scott Berg said in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles. When he was approached more than a decade ago by Samuel Goldwyn Jr. to write the story of his father's life, Mr. Berg said, he was initially reluctant, but he became enthusiastic when he began his research. ''I realized that if I could piece together the jigsaw of this man, I could tell the entire life of Hollywood through his eyes.''

Goldwyn was driven to earn the respect of the industry, a yearning evident throughout ''Goldwyn: A Biography.'' ''The first element of the 'Goldwyn touch' was promotion,'' Mr. Berg said. ''Above all, image was the most important thing; for him that had to do with how seriously he was regarded. In the 20's, he was this striving guy, something of a joke. Then he was taken more and more seriously. By the late 30's - hiring James Roosevelt [ as a vice president of his company ] - my God, it was brilliant. Of course, he got rid of him after a year, but that was enough. By the 40's, Sam Goldwyn is a very serious man. By the 50's, he's the dean of American producers. To the end, he was Hollywood's gray eminence.''

''I realized how much of themselves these men invested in the movies,'' Mr. Berg continued. ''They really believed in that Andy Hardy world. For Goldwyn, America provided a place where everything could be clean.''

The story of Sam Goldwyn, Mr. Berg said, was less a film-industry saga than a metaphor for the self-transformation that is a familiar part of the immigrant experience in America. ''The most interesting part of the book has nothing to do with the movies,'' he said. ''It has to do with the teen-age runaway, the alien, the immigrant who came to this country without knowing a soul, the husband, the father - the incredibly powerful stories of these people are the stuff of opera. They were all glovemakers and furriers who became gods.'' JEREMY GERARD

 

LOS ANGELES TIMES - MAR 26, 1989

Sam Goldwyn, one of Hollywood's last founding fathers, was a hard, arrogant and ruthless man. He was a chronic liar, and compulsively rude. He cheated at cards. He cheated at croquet. He cheated on his wives. He may not have actually said the notorious "Goldwynism" that "a verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on," but it expressed his general view of ethics in business. He also reneged on alimony payments to his first wife and child-support payments for his daughter. He refused his dying sister's request to visit her in the hospital. And of all his quarrels with his partners and employees, F. Scott Fitzgerald summed up everything when he wrote in his notes for "The Last Tycoon," "You always knew where you stood with Goldwyn--nowhere."

Despite this appalling personality, or perhaps because of it, Goldwyn was central to the history of Hollywood. Indeed, this family-sponsored biography, which is cruelly thorough but nonetheless fair, reminds us how central he was. He put up half the money and most of the managerial skill to create the company--eventually to become Paramount--that produced one of Hollywood's first features, "The Squaw Man," back in 1913. Originally, Schmuel Gelbfisz, then Goldfish, he merged with a partner named Selwyn to provide the middle name in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and it was the Goldwyn Co. that contributed the MGM lion and the unworldly slogan, \o7 Ars Gratia Artis\f7 . After the inevitable quarrel with Louis B. Mayer, Goldwyn became the major producer in United Artists, and from then on all his movies were his own. That was his maverick trademark. Of the 79 movies he made over the next half a century, Goldwyn, unlike all the famous studio bosses, financed every one himself and owned the finished films outright. In every way the classic independent, he was also one of the few producers who resisted the blacklist. And when he died in his early 90s (he lied about his age too), this one-time glove salesman left an estate worth not less than $20 million and potentially a lot more.

A. Scott Berg, known primarily for his prize-winning biography of the Scribner's editor, Max Perkins, retells this fascinating though somewhat familiar history with a diligence worthy of a biography of Napoleon. In a generally workmanlike prose that only occasionally lapses into Hollywood phrases like \o7 one of the most auspicious debuts in motion picture history,\f7 Berg reports on virtually every Goldwyn movie, every lawsuit, every quarrel with every contract player. Not content with that, he periodically inserts sections on how the rest of Hollywood was faring, as though a biography of Napoleon were to include activities in all the capitals of Europe. The moguls may have stood tall, but not that tall.

There are continuing arguments about these Hollywood founding fathers: Goldwyn and Mayer, the Warner brothers and the Cohn brothers, all the impoverished and semiliterate Jewish immigrants who created and dominated the most important American art form of this century. Were they, as they themselves liked to think, geniuses of finance and showmanship, or were they primarily bruisers and boors, monopolists, throat-cutters? Goldwyn's long and turbulent life, as Berg's biography makes clear in sometimes wearying detail, demonstrates that there is no contradiction between these differing verdicts. Billy Wilder, whom Goldwyn cheated out of $1,000, called him "a titan with an empty head."

Goldwyn, like the others, made his share of dumb mistakes. He rejected, for example, both "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Grapes of Wrath." He rejected Betty Grable, for that matter, but wasted a fortune trying to make a star out of Anna Sten, a handsome Russian who could speak no English. Indeed, if you ask anybody what the famous Sam Goldwyn actually \o7 did\f7 , many people remember that his unschooled English supposedly resulted in pronouncements like "Include me out," but very few can actually name the movies that he produced.

This is unfair. Goldwyn's collection of four score films included lots of rubbish, and his constant boasting about "quality" was mostly boasting, but still he did make, for example, "Wuthering Heights" (which he always called "Withering Heights") and "The Little Foxes" (which he always called "The Three Little Foxes") and finally "The Best Years of Our Lives." But that is not quite true either. It was Robert Sherwood who wrote "Best Years," and Gregg Toland who filmed it, and William Wyler who directed it, just as he had directed both "Wuthering Heights" and "The Little Foxes" (from fine scripts by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and Lillian Hellman). "Tell me," Wyler once asked an interviewer who was inquiring about the so-called "Goldwyn touch," "which pictures have 'the Goldwyn touch' that I didn't direct?"

THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD -

“Moving, funny, compassionate and richly entertaining… Berg tries to pin down the secret of Goldwyn’s crude charm: ‘His boundless enthusiasm created a sense of excitement, which made people want to be around him.’ Those people ranged from Vilma Banky to Marlon Brando, from Gary Cooper to Sidney Poitier, from Lucille Ball to Frances Farmer…George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells…A. Scott Berg’s big, rich, graceful biography of Sam Goldwyn brings the ‘movie book’ to a new rarefied plateau…The book proves worthy of what would be, in context, the highest praise of all: It has The Goldwyn Touch.” 

“It’s a great place to start reading about the movies…Cukor said of the gregarious mogul, ‘He acted as though every part were given just for him.’ Thus does his dominate Berg’s big, rich, graceful biography. One hates to close it for the last time as one hates to see Goldwyn and his larger-than-life moviemaking come to an end again. Berg’s achievement is spectacularly rewarding.”

THE NEW YORK TIMES -

“Carefully researched, gracefully written…as much about an industry as it is about a man…He was his own man in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system.”

COSMOPOLITAN -

“Fascinating…Behind-the-scene stories any tabloid would lunge at, a fabulous feeling of history, and, most of all, a brilliant account of a very complicated man.” 

“Berg has done a painstaking job of re-creating this epic life…We see Goldwyn-the-lonely-tyrant-of-tinsel-town working with the most brilliant writers, directors, and stars.” 

CHICAGO TRIBUNE -

“A thorough job of research…interesting but little-known facts are brought to light… How this boy of the ghetto transformed himself into that film-baron fashion plate is the real meat of the story… One is left to wonder if, fame and riches aside, Goldwyn wasn’t motivated not so much by the mere will to survive, which exists everywhere, as by the iron-and-granite will to be great, to reach for and possess power.” 

VOGUE -

“Richly detailed, at once a biography of Samuel Goldwyn and a business history of Hollywood—Berg is especially good on the backgrounds of film deals. It is also a biography of the inner dreams that energized the great era of Hollywood.” 

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY -

“Thoroughly engrossing…The book is peppered with hundreds of Goldwyn’s famous and infamous malapropisms, dozens of anecdotes about his critical and commercial failures as well as his outstanding successes, and details of his relationships with, among scores of others, Eddie Cantor, Ronald Colman, Merle Oberon, Gary Cooper, George Cukor, William Wyler, Billy Wilder.” 

HARPER’S BAZAAR -

“Meticulously researched…Besides discovering stars like Gary Cooper, David Niven and Ronald Colman…Goldwyn invented the ‘package’: He was the first to buy the book, hire the screenwriter, stars, crew and director. His fifty-year career established the model for today’s independent producer.” 

MANHATTAN INC. -

“Does something no other Hollywood history has ever accomplished: this book explains Hollywood, is the best single-volume education in the movie business. In the long run, Berg’s book, meticulous, restrained, yet passionately empathetic to Goldwyn and the contract players of his life will certainly take the cake among Hollywood histories of the age.” 

GQ -

“Whether you own a thousand film books or nary a one, room ought to be made for Goldwyn…The films we watch now, with either gritted teeth or contented smiles, are the products of an industry that ended up taking its shape from the psyche of this tumultuous man.”

PLAYBOY -

“Superb…a complex portrait of a man and an era. There has never before been a Hollywood biography as profound as this.” 

PEOPLE -

“As meticulous, as sterling in quality and as large in scope as independent movie producer Samuel Goldwyn always (but not always very accurately) claimed his movies were.”