[James T. Aubrey] meant that he doesn't generally look back (or up, as [Lucille Ball] put it) but there's no other way to tell this saga. Aubrey was the man, the monarch, on the 20th floor of CBS at a time in the early '60s when CBS could be compared to J.F.K.'s Camelot. ("It was [Bill Paley]'s company but Aubrey's network," the saying went.) In those days, Aubrey was as assured and, it seemed, as secure as John F. Kennedy himself. "Legends are built on myths and myths aren't always true," says producer Sherry Lansing, who in the late '70s was in a near-crippling auto accident with Aubrey. "But how many show business executives have had novels written about them? Or the covers of magazines? He was bigger than life when executives weren't bigger than life."
The same was true at MGM. Four years after exiting CBS (and developing projects that mostly didn't happen), Aubrey was the Comeback Kid. In 1969, he signed on as the first president of MGM under new owner [Kirk Kerkorian]. Aubrey took a salary of $4,000 a week, but wanted no contract. ("I wanted Kirk to be able to say, `Get lost, Jim,' without obligation if it didn't work.") It worked: Kerkorian and Aubrey reduced MGM's $80-million bank debt to $22.5 million. The heat was turned off (literally) on the top floor of the Thalberg Building, 3,500 employees were fired and 12 projected films were canceled (including Fred Zinnemann's "Man's Fate," just days before production was to begin). Largely due to the success of the Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, MGM went back into the black before Aubrey left in 1973.
Otherwise, as Aubrey states now, "There would be no MGM today. But I was silhouetted against a garish horizon." In other words, Aubrey was once again newsworthy, if not hugely popular. This time it was the public who got angry at Aubrey over the auctioning of MGM nostalgia. "The buck had to stop somewhere, and it was with me," he says now, without apparent regret. "Nostalgia runs strong out here, so we were criticized for selling Judy Garland's red shoes. To us they had no value, and they had no intrinsic value." (Spencer Tracy's suit from "Inherit the Wind," which went for $5, later turned up on a district attorney in the Charles Manson trial.) Reiterates Aubrey: "In all honesty, I don't think anyone-Kirk, [Greg Bautzer], myself-knew just what it was going to take to save MGM. We really had to claw our way back."