On Friday, Amazon Prime Video continued its play to rival Netflix when it comes to prestige streaming-only series. The mega-company premiered The Last Tycoon, an old Hollywood drama starring Matt Bomer as Monroe Stahr, an insanely handsome widower and movie producer with the golden touch. While the series could have been spun out of some modern-day writer’s art deco fever dream, it’s actually based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished manuscript of the same name, which was published posthumously. The legendary author was in the middle of writing the story when he died. Fitzgerald’s final project wasn’t his art deco fever dream either. Instead, The Last Tycoon was modeled after Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — a.k.a. MGM Studios of roaring lion fame — producer Irving Thalberg, who was a handsome, young, Jewish Tinsel Town boy wonder, just like Bomer’s Monroe. So, if Monroe has his roots in a real-life Hollywood legend, the question begs: is the story of the character’s tragic dead actress wife Minna Davis (Jessica De Gouw) real, too?
It just so happens the fictional Minna and Thalberg’s actual wife, Norma Shearer, share a lot in common. Both women were born internationally — Minna to an impoverished family in Ireland, Shearer in the well-off suburbs of Canada — and went on to become actresses. Throughout The Last Tycoon, it’s made clear Minna was the biggest star of Thalberg’s Brady-American Pictures, and, apparently, America’s sweetheart. Yet, with Monroe still chasing an elusive Academy Award during season 1, it seems Minna never took home acting’s top honors before her abrupt death. On the other hand, Shearer won Best Actress in 1930 for her pioneering performance in The Divorcee, where her character cheats on her husband with his best friend after learning of his own affair. She achieved this against the likes of screen queen Greta Garbo. Interestingly, Shearer’s competition in the race was also technically herself, as she was also nominated for 1929’s equally racy Their Own Desire, which also featured a ton of cheating, divorce, and romantic upheaval. Just like Minna, Shearer was obviously one of the biggest stars in her husband’s studio, with a rabid, dedicated fan base to prove it.
However, Shearer did not cut the same tragic figure as her televised counterpart. While Minna died in a bizarre fire in 1934, Shearer went on to live until 1983, when she died of bronchial pneumonia at 80. In fact, during the year Minna dies in The Last Tycoon, Shearer released two movies and received yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination for one of them, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. While the award-winning actress didn’t die in the 1930s, her husband, and The Last Tycoon’s inspiration, did. Irving Thalberg died of pneumonia in September 1936, the same year Tycoon takes place. He had suffered a debilitating heart attack four years prior. At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported Shearer was the one who was "prostrated with grief," as opposed to the weepy, haunted, and child-free Monroe we see wandering around his home in Tycoon. Following her husband’s death, Shearer, who shared two young children with the late Thalberg, went on to star in a few more movies and remarry. Her second husband was Martin Arrouge, a ski instructor 12 years her junior.
Since Shearer was very much alive throughout the 1930s, Tycoon author Fitzgerald needed to get inspiration for Minna’s death, and the tragic aftermath, from somewhere. Although actress Jean Harlow didn’t die in a violent and horrific manner, her unexpected 1937 death did shock Hollywood in much the same way Monroe’s wife’s passing does in the Amazon series. Original blonde bombshell Harlow succumbed to acute kidney failure, slipped into a coma, and never managed to recover. The uraemic poisoning, as it was called at the time, spread to the Saratoga actress’ brain, killing her at just 26 years old. While Harlow’s death troubled Hollywood, a lesser-known actress’ passing has a similarly strange, fiery end.
In 1923, a silent film actress named Martha Mansfield was filming Civil War drama The Warrens of Virginia in San Antonio, Texas. Although the 23-year-old had finished her takes, she stayed on set to watch the rest of the action with a group of friends. One of her friends lit a match, which ended up igniting Mansfield’s massive, material-heavy costume. Although co-star Wilfred Lytell attempted to save Mansfield by covering her with his overcoat, effectively choking the flames of oxygen, she later died in the hospital. It’s possible Fitzgerald, who was still writing Last Tycoon at the time of his 1940 death, had both of these freak La La Land-associated deaths in mind when he began formulating the novel’s plot.
So, no, you'll never find "Minna Davis" among the credits of Hollywood's Golden Age, but you can find her inspiration hiding throughout the ruins.
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