Neal Gabler: The Academy Museum, Whoopi, and the Tortured Identity of Hollywood Jews
The author of 'An Empire of Their Own' also talks Zuckerberg, Trump and how entertainment wants to "put some distance between itself and its Jewish founders"
This edition of The Ankler is from Andy Lewis of The Optionist.
In An Empire of Their Own (Crown), a 1989 collective biography about the Jews who built Hollywood, author Neal Gabler tells the larger-than-life stories of industry pioneers Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures and William Fox of Fox. It’s a world of sharp elbows, business rivalries, womanizing, gambling, labor conflicts and opulent excess. The book is also newly relevant to this moment, a time when hate crimes against all groups are on the rise, Los Angeles’ Academy Museum has been accused of consciously downplaying the role of Jews in Hollywood's founding, and The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg is currently on suspension from ABC News after saying the Holocaust was “not about race.”
I talked to Gabler, who lives outside Portland, Maine, about Hollywood’s compulsion to disassociate from its Jewish roots, how he sees themes of anti-Semitism playing out with Mark Zuckerberg, how erasure of the Holocaust helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump, and similarities between Hollywood Jews and Ted Kennedy, the subject of his newest two-part book series. An excerpt of this conversation first appeared in The Optionist.
Q. Let’s start. Should Whoopi Goldberg have been suspended?
Gabler: She showed profound ignorance. Ask any Nazi, foreign or domestic, how they regard Jews, and they will call them an inferior race. As for her suspension, if we suspended everyone for ignorance, there would be no one left.
Q. Meanwhile, the Academy Museum is under fire for ignoring the early Jewish founders of Hollywood. What's your take?
Gabler: The whole idea of the industry when these Eastern European Jews founded it was that Hollywood would be their conduit into America and that the ‘Jewishness’ would be something that they could shed. That's embedded into the very idea of Hollywood. In some ways, the notion that Hollywood wants to put some distance between itself and its Jewish founders is completely compatible with the Jewish founders themselves. When I submitted the book, it was called An Empire of Their Own and the subtitle was “How the Jews invented Hollywood.” I can’t tell you how much resistance there was. My publisher, which was run by Jews at the time, had great hesitancy in putting that on the cover. They negotiated with me to see if we could change the subtitle and remove the word ‘Jewish’ from the book. So the book itself became an object lesson in the very subject of the book. We went through virtually every permutation of the word ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Jew’ that I could possibly think of until it finally occurred to me, as they rejected all of these things, was that they didn't want the word ‘Jew’ anywhere near the book. This is all part and parcel of the process of the formation of Hollywood and the formation of American identity.
Q. The failure to include the early history of the business is such a missed opportunity.