Thalberg’s story began on May 30, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. William, his father, was a passive man who imported lace and often gave in to his ambitious wife, Henrietta, whose family owned a store in New York. Disappointed in her husband’s laid-back attitude, Henrietta focused on her son hoping to transfer some of her drive onto him. When doctors diagnosed the baby with a serious congenital heart defect, they warned that Irving probably wouldn’t live much past his 30th birthday. William resigned himself to Irving’s poor health, but Henrietta had other ideas. Her son would not be an invalid.The young lad spent his first seven years in bed while his mother took charge. She bathed, massaged, and encouraged him with the intent that one day he’d actually go to school. When that day finally came, doctors cautioned against it, but Henrietta wouldn’t listen. She firmly believed that her son had a special purpose and needed a formal education to propel him into the future.
Henrietta was right. Despite his physical shortcomings, Thalberg excelled intellectually. A fervent reader, he devoured books and came to understand the makings of a good story. After a bout of rheumatic fever, which further damaged his already weak heart, Thalberg graduated from high school and enrolled in secretarial classes, which eventually gave him a one-way ticket to Hollywood.After completing his classes, Thalberg hired in as a secretary at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company founded by Carl Laemmle. Before long, Thalberg was promoted to the prestigious position of Laemmle’s own secretary. In between taking care of his boss, scheduling appointments and handling correspondence, Thalberg previewed movies along with Laemmle who came to value his assistant’s opinions.
With trouble brewing in the California studio, Laemmle and Thalberg headed west to settle the matter. With three middle-aged executives in charge of the company, Universal’s bottom line was suffering. Laemmle gave Thalberg the job of fixing it. After six months, Thalberg’s answer was simple—have one man in charge, not three. Laemmle gave Thalberg the job. At the tender of age of 20, Irving Grant Thalberg was running Universal Studio. Not yet of legal age, this sickly boy from New York who was still dependent on his mother was about to change the way Hollywood worked and create a filmmaking legend that has yet to be equaled.