Wednesday, September 15, 2021

She Damned Near Ran the Studio: The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman

She Damned Near Ran the Studio
The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman

by Jacqueline R. Braitman
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496806192
352 pages
October 2020

"Koverman was a magnetic, centrifugal force; a powerful dark energy that charged the MGM star machine."

Ida Koverman was MGM executive Louis B. Mayer's right-hand woman during the studio's heyday. Serving as his executive assistant and trusted adviser, the movie mogul came to lean on Koverman for her political connections, her ability to keep secrets, her eye for new talent and her business savvy that kept MGM running like a well-oiled machine.

Koverman was no stranger to scandal having endured one of her own. An active member of the New York City social scene, she was thrust further into the public eye with her involvement in an embezzlement scandal pertaining to one of the big railroad companies of the early 1900s. Koverman married for convenience to Oscar Koverman, taking on his surname and essentially giving herself a new identity. Once her transformation was complete, she started a new life in California. She was deeply ensconced in that state's Republican party and became an ally to many conservative bigwigs. Koverman was a force to be reckoned with and helped Herbert Hoover with his two presidential campaigns. It's during this time that she met Mayer. She was the middle man between MGM and the Republican party, something Mayer valued greatly.

When she was eventually hired as Mayer's executive assistant she went right to work helping her new boss with some fairly delicate matters including promoting new stars, minimizing scandals, dealing with the aftermath of celebrity deaths and keeping MGM the prestige studio it was known to be. She became a friend and confidante for some of the biggest stars including Esther Williams, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, George Murphy, Irene Dunne, and Jeannette MacDonald. She also discovered future stars like Jean Parker, Robert Taylor, Judy Garland, Janis Page, Hedda Hopper, etc. Koverman threw parties, groomed talent for stardom, lobbied for legislation that suited the studio's best interest, assuaged male egos, planted media stories, championed musicals, facilitated connections, and much more.

She Damned Near Ran the Studio: The Extraordinary Lives of Ida R. Koverman is a bit of a misleading title. We only get to Koverman's career at MGM about 120 pages in. Prior to that the book focuses primarily on her scandal and her political career. The subtitle is a bit more spot on since Koverman did indeed have several stages in her career and would transform herself with each. 

If you find Louis B. Mayer to be an unlikable character from Hollywood history, you may have the same feelings for Ida Koverman. She did some despicable things that left a bad taste in my mouth. While I recognize that some of her actions were not uncommon for the time that doesn't make them any less awful. 

Koverman's life story as an independent and career minded woman in a conservative space is quite interesting. She was dedicated to her work and was truly unflappable. She wielded a lot of power which the author effectively demonstrates throughout the book. But in the end, Koverman was an enabler of studio system toxicity.

As a biography, this book was thoroughly researched, relatively chronological with thematic chapters and very thorough. The writing is engaging but is inevitably weighed down by its subject matter. The second half of the book I found to be much more interested than the first half. The author offers lots of great observations about the studio system and Mayer and Koverman's functions within it.

This is my fourth review for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge

Thank you to the University Press of Mississippi for sending me a copy for review.

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