Harry Morris Warner (December 12, 1881 – July 25, 1958) was a Polish-born American studio executive, one of the founders of Warner Bros., and a major contributor to the development of the film industry.
Along with his three brothers (Albert, Sam and Jack) Warner played a crucial role in the film business and played a key role in establishing Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc, serving as the company president until 1956.
Warner was born Hirsch Moses “Wonsal” or “Wonskolaser” to a family of Jewish Poles from the village of Krasnosielc. The village was a short distance from Warsaw in the part of Poland that had been subjugated to the Russian Empire following the 18th-century partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was the son of Benjamin Wonsal, a shoemaker born in Krasnosielc, and Pearl Leah Eichelbaum. His given name was Moses but he was called Hirsch in the United States.
In October 1889, he came to Baltimore, Maryland with his mother and siblings on the steamship Hermann from Bremen, Germany. Their father had preceded them, immigrating to Baltimore in 1883 or 1885 in order to pursue his trade in shoes and shoe repair. It was at that time that he changed the family name to Warner which was used thereafter. As in many Jewish immigrant families, some of the children gradually acquired anglicized versions of their Yiddish-sounding names. Hirsch became Harry, and his middle name Morris was likely a version of Moses.
In Baltimore, the money Benjamin Warner earned in the shoe repair business was not enough to provide for his growing household. He and Pearl had another daughter, Fannie, not long after they arrived. Benjamin moved the family to Canada, inspired by a friend’s advice that he could make an excellent living bartering tin wares with trappers in exchange for furs. Sons Jacob and David Warner were born in London, Ontario. After two arduous years in Canada, the Warners returned to Baltimore.
Two more children, Sadie and Milton, were added to the household there. In 1896, the family relocated to Youngstown, Ohio, following the lead of Harry, who had established a shoe repair shop in the heart of the emerging industrial town. Benjamin worked with Harry in the shoe repair shop until he secured a loan to open a meat counter and grocery store in the city’s downtown area.
In 1899, Harry opened a bicycle shop in Youngstown with his brother, Abraham.
Eventually, Harry and Abe also opened a bowling alley together. The bowling alley failed and closed shortly after it opened. Harry eventually accepted an offer to become a salesman for a local meat franchise, and sold meat in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, by his nineteenth birthday, Harry was reduced to living in his parents crowded household.
On August 23, 1907, Warner married his girlfriend, Rea Levinson. It has been reported by family members that Harry dedicated a huge chunk of his life to make Rea happy. Together, the couple also had three children: Lewis (b. October 10, 1908), Doris (b. September 13, 1913), and Betty (b. May 4, 1920). Harry and his family were also very faithful to Jewish customs and traditions.
On April 5, 1931, Warner’s son Lewis, whom he appointed as head of Warner Bros. Music, died when an infected, impacted wisdom tooth was extracted, which led to septicemia and then double pneumonia. Following Lewis’ death, Warner, who was now left without a recognized heir to his empire- landed into an extreme state of depression. The following year, the Warners donated a theater in Lewis’ honor to Worcester Academy, Lewis’ alma mater.
Warner also felt his brother Sam’s widow, actress Lina Basquette, was a tramp and not worthy of raising a child with the last name Warner. While Jack didn’t mind that Lina was Catholic, Harry and the rest of the Warner family did. They refused to have any part in Lina’s life, and did not acknowledge her as a member of the Warner clan.
In 1930, Basquette went broke and Warner decided to file for guardianship over Sam and Lina’s daughter, Lita. On March 19, 1930, Warner and his wife Rea became the legal guardians of Lita through a 300,000.00 settlement in Lita’s trust fund. Basquette was never financially able to take care of or regain custody of Lita and in 1931, she tried to commit suicide by poison. Following her suicide attempt, Basquette would only see her daughter on two occasions in the next twenty years.
In 1947, Basquette filed for a large share of Sam’s estate, which was by now worth $15,000,000.00 in stocks alone. Basquette claimed that the Warner brothers reorganized Sam’s will under New York statues, while Sam died while living in the state of California, where, at the time of Sam’s death in 1927, laws gave widows a larger share in their husband’s wills. The lawsuit eventually ended when Basquette settled for a $100,000.00 trust fund from Harry’s fortune.
Warner’s daughter, Doris, was married to director Mervyn LeRoy on January 3, 1934. Because of their wedding, Warner, with no male heir to his studio after Lewis died, made LeRoy his new heir to the Warner Bros. studio. Together, the couple gave Harry two grandchildren, Warner Lewis LeRoy (b. 1936) and Linda LeRoy (b. 1939).
On one occasion, in the late 1930s, Doris read a copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and became interested making a film adaption of the book for the studio as well; Doris then offered Mitchell $50,000.00 for the book’s screen rights. However, Uncle Jack refused to allow the deal to take place, after seeing how expensive the film’s budget would have been for the studio.
The couple would later divorce on August 12, 1945, and Warner was left without an heir again. Two months after her divorce from LeRoy, Doris would marry director Charles Vidor. Together the couple had two sons, Brian and Quentin. The two remained married until Vidor’s death in 1959.
In 1936, Betty Warner began an affair with one of Darryl F. Zanuck’s assistants Milton Sperling. The two would marry on July 13, 1939. Through this marriage, the couple would also give Warner four more grandchildren, Susan (b. December 4, 1941), Karen (b. April 8, 1945), and Cass (b. March 8, 1948), and Matthew. The two remained married for twenty-four years. His great-grandson, through Betty, is actor Cole Hauser.
Warner died on July 27, 1958 from a cerebral occlusion. Some people close to Harry, however, believed he died of a broken heart; Harry’s wife Rea even stated, after Harry’s funeral took place, that “he didn’t die, Jack killed him.” He was entombed at Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California. For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Harry Warner has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6441 Hollywood Boulevard.