Irving G. Thalberg.
The name may sound familiar, but if you aren't a student of movie history you'll have trouble placing the man. The Thalberg's an award, isn't it, something they dish out on Oscar night? Yes--the governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences give it now and then to someone "whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production." It's gone to Cecil B. De Mille, Darryl F. Zanuck, Walt Disney, Ingmar Bergman, Mervyn LeRoy . . . This year they honored Billy Wilder, who created Stalag 17 and Some Like It Hot.
In 1987, when the Thalberg was given to Steven Spielberg, the academy chose to remind the public who Irving G. Thalberg was. Richard Dreyfuss introduced a snappy visual biography that recalled Thalberg as a "wunderkind" who became head of production at MGM in his mid-20s, and in the 1920s and 30s brought out a string of memorable movies and created countless stars. One of them, Norma Shearer, was his wife. F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled the title character of The Last Tycoon, his final novel, after the mogul. By then, though, Thalberg was dead at age 37.
Spielberg was 39 when he stood on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and accepted the Thalberg. Though the honor was generally considered a sop to another wunderkind who had not even been nominated a year earlier for The Color Purple, Spielberg was gracious in his remarks. He welcomed the Thalberg as "a great honor for me" and called for movies to return to "our romance with the word." Backstage, however, he qualified his sentiments. He wanted his own movies, at least, to be made from "entertaining screenplays of substance," he said. "I am not going to change and start doing arty films."
Members of the Thalberg family had been invited to attend Oscar night, and at one point a TV camera panned them all in their seats: the great man's daughter, a granddaughter, others. The one person notably absent was Irving Thalberg Jr. In his eyes--or so his widow says today--the Academy Awards were "bullshit." He would later say that he did appreciate the film clips of his--father, but the choice of Spielberg would not have been his own. Spielberg was too commercial a filmmaker for the son's taste. "Irving never went to see a single Spielberg film," says Deborah Pellow, who was his second wife, "because he thought they were a waste of time."
Yet it was not this disdain that kept the junior Thalberg from the ceremony. "If he had been well I would have beaten him into going," says Pellow, who attended in his stead. In fact Irving Thalberg Jr. was hopelessly sick and dying at his house in Aspen, Colorado.
The two Thalbergs--father and son--were a study in contrasts. Senior was a field marshal of moviemaking, a man of action who transformed an industry. Junior was a professor of philosophy whose particular field, called "action theory," had him pondering nuances of decision making. Senior, conservative politically, flaunted his wealth; Junior concealed his, except in his silent support of a number of leftish causes. Senior set himself above other people; Junior made it a point of honor to maintain equal footing with his fellow academics and anyone who happened his way. Junior led an aggressively physical life; Senior was burdened with a weak constitution and rheumatic heart.
That power boldly exercised can build an industry is the lesson that flows from the father's life. The lessons of his son's are to be found in small, private acts of grace and in wholehearted devotion to a life of the mind.
"I never knew much about Irving's discipline," says Junior's friend Lance Haddix, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who represented plaintiffs a decade ago in the seven-year-long "Red Squad" suit against the Police Department. "I know that Irving was one of the foremost teachers of philosophy nowadays, but then philosophy is right up there with the snowy egret as an endangered species, and to me, what can I say? Irving wrote books that I tried to read but never could.
"There was something else about him, though. If you were his friend, if your academic career was flagging or your personal life was in disarray, he would appear and quietly make some good points. He would tell you not to give up the faith. There were times when [the Red Squad] lawsuit was not going well at all, for instance. In legal circles I was kind of a laughingstock, and it was difficult to get funding or support from established lawyers. I remember Irving saying to me 'This is important, and I'll be there for you, at your benefits or whatever. Keep at it.' This sort of thing sustained me in large part."
This is typical of the memories that arise when Irving Thalberg Jr.'s name is raised among his intimates. He may not have made household names of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable, which his papa did, but so what? "Irving was an exceptional scholar and an exceptional human being," reflects Ruth Marcus, the friend who brought him to Chicago, "and that combination is quite rare."
Irving Thalberg Jr. moved to Chicago in February of 1965. The previous year he had been a visiting professor at the University of Washington, but he was looking for a permanent spot, and Ruth Marcus, then establishing a philosophy department at the newly built Circle campus--now the University of Illinois at Chicago--admired Thalberg's writings and wanted him. Irving and his then wife, Suzanne McCormick, and their two daughters (a third would be born in 1968) settled into an old apartment on Astor Street and he began his career in earnest.
He was 34 years old, a thin, muscular man who stood five-foot-eight. He had more of his mother's face than his father's--Norma Shearer's small eyes and arching brows and mouth. His body was small-boned like Irving Sr.'s, though with broad, well-developed shoulders. His hair was strawberry blond. He was a handsome man, even if he did little to draw attention to his looks. "This was not a peacock," says a friend. He dressed in blue jeans, tweed jackets, and open-necked shirts, which--in his one concession to his origins--he sometimes accented with an ascot. To colleagues, a first sign of spring was Thalberg's appearance in sandals; as the days warmed he shed his socks. The warm weather found him riding around campus on his bicycle, carrying his books and papers in a backpack.
At Circle, where Thalberg was first an associate and then a full professor, he taught courses on ethics, free will, action theory, and more. The classes were small, and Thalberg, whom most people took to be painfully shy, did little to galvanize them. "He was definitely not charismatic," remembers Sandra Bartky, a longtime associate. He could be described, rather, as polite, scrupulous, and altogether nonauthoritarian. Student papers were returned precisely on time, and marked with carefully constructed, invariably helpful comments. He never talked down to his students. "He simply appreciated what students did," says Vivian Weil, who now teaches philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology but was once Thalberg's graduate student.
He had received his own doctorate from Stanford University, where his dissertation adviser was a philosopher named Donald Davidson. Davidson was a seminal force in action theory, a modern speciality with roots in Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the law. Action theory concerns "your doings," in Vivian Weil's words; Davidson, in his classic essay, "Reasons, Actions and Causes," ponders the movement a person might make that simultaneously flips a switch, turns on a light, illuminates a room, and--unbeknownst to the switch flipper--alerts a prowler. These activities, although they all happened at once, do not stand on equal footing with one another and are not equally explained by the person's desire to turn a light on. If they were, Davidson observes, the sentence "My reason for flipping the switch was that I wanted to turn on the light" would be no more true than "My reason for alerting the prowler was that I wanted to turn on the light."
Such is the corner of philosophy Thalberg made his own.
Beginning in 1962, Thalberg wrote three books and some 80 papers. Friends delighted in the quality of the prose. "His style was so clear, so graceful," says Sandra Bartky. "You know, so much of philosophy is muddy with technical jargon, but Irving was careful about style. His stuff was gemlike."
Thalberg's most noteworthy volume, published in 1977, was Perception, Emotion and Action. He argued for the division of actions into their "constituent parts," much as one could do with a running engine: "The event of the motor's operating consists of the spark plug's firing, the combustion of air and gas inside the cylinder, the movement of pistons, valves and so forth. No sub-event by itself constitutes the engine's operating; nor is the latter an additional occurrence, over and above the sub-events which compose it."
Reviewers, while flattering in the main, felt that Thalberg the philosopher was being too nice. Wrote David Pears in the Times Literary Supplement: "[Thalberg's] method is therapeutic, and in each case his idea is intended to release us from a dilemma by showing us how to combine the advantages of thesis and anti-thesis without their disadvantages--Hegel in Freudian clothes by Wittgenstein."
His most famous work was a 1972 paper titled "Visceral Racism." "We see black violence," Thalberg wrote, "and overlook the history of official lawlessness toward blacks." The Watts riot should properly be called "a rebellion," he argued, comparable to the uprising in Prague against the Soviet occupation in 1968. Violence perpetrated by the Black Panther Party is self-defense, he seemed to say at one point. Finally he sounded a trumpet: "Visceral racists like ourselves, once we have stopped misperceiving things, have strong professed reasons for immediate and drastic change."
This incendiary prose emerged from the most amiable of firebrands. Neal Grossman, a fellow professor, remembers Thalberg as being generous to the extreme on most subjects: "We'd have these meetings to evaluate grad students, for instance, and Irving'd never say anything negative, even about a kid everyone agreed was no good. No matter what, he would find a positive aspect. He was always looking for what was right in a person." When the issue of faculty pay came up, Thalberg was forthright (and nearly alone) in asserting that raises should be across-the-board rather than based on merit, which university policy dictated. The idea of Thalberg becoming his philosophy department's chairman brought a sigh from one friend. "Oh, God," said the man, "he couldn't be an administrator. He was too egalitarian."
The issues of race and affirmative action found Thalberg resolute. In 1970 he hosted a colloquium on philosophy and blacks. "Blacks never perceived of philosophy as an area open to them," reflects Howard McGary, who was a black philosophy major at the University of Minnesota when he encountered Thalberg at the colloquium. "The field has traditionally seen itself as being above the problems of ethnicity and culture, which minorities tend to think are vital to them." Thalberg felt that vitality, and he began to criticize his department for being entirely white and almost entirely male. He crusaded for a hiring policy that would correct the situation. "But most of the department said 'We should hire the best candidate, not just a woman or a black,'" says Grossman. "Finally, as Irving saw he wasn't going to win on this one, he sort of gave up."
Today the department, which has been ranked by academic panels as among the top 20 philosophy departments nationally, contains 17 male and 4 female tenured professors, and come fall there will be three more women. There is no black professor (McGary came to UIC as an instructor, but he would receive an offer from Rutgers that UIC chose not to match), although there is an Indian.
Thalberg made himself helpful to many young minority and female philosophers. Howard McGary relied on him as an unofficial thesis adviser while McGary was still at Minnesota, and during the three years McGary taught at UIC in the mid-70s they had lunch together two or three times a week. "Of all the people who had a hand in my career," says McGary, now an associate professor at Rutgers, "Irving Thalberg played a major, major role." Lawrence Thomas met Thalberg in 1978 when Thomas delivered a paper at a conference in Greensboro, North Carolina. Out of the blue Irving approached Thomas, then in his late 20s, and flattered him on his work. They remained in touch. "When I was young and really green," says Thomas, a professor at Oberlin, "this guy gave me enormous amounts of time. You expect that from your mentors, but, God, we had just met."
According to both McGary and Thomas, Thalberg helped many other blacks, sometimes with an unseen hand. When the Tuskegee Institute sponsored a conference on black philosophy, Thalberg underwrote the participation of several graduate students. "But he didn't want them to know," says Thomas. "The organizers of the conference unwittingly told them, and Irving was livid. He didn't want a widespread public show." What he did want was more black philosophers. If, as McGary reports, 40 of the 7,500 members of the American Philosophical Association today are black, Thalberg deserves a good portion of the credit.
In 1974 he spoke at a three-day philosophy colloquium at Oberlin. A philosophy major named Marcia Baron whose mother's maiden name was Thalberg approached him. "He was so friendly," Baron recalls. "He was interested in the names of my great-aunts and -uncles. He said he was going to see his mother soon, and he would see if we had common ancestors. Then he asked if I might send him my work. I did, and we sent things back and forth for the next few years. He encouraged me to go to grad school and offered other advice. I don't know if you realize how unusual that was, because in those days female students weren't encouraged to go on." Today Baron is an assistant philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She never did figure out if she and Thalberg were related.
The senior Irving Thalberg was born in Brooklyn in 1899. His father, a German immigrant, was a lace importer, his mother the daughter of a department store owner. Thalberg suffered from rheumatic fever as a teenager, but the disease did not constrain him. A self-taught typist who'd taken some business courses, he toiled as a stenographer for an exporting firm before hiring on as secretary to Carl Laemmle, the powerful head of Universal Pictures, then located in New York. Soon he was Laemmle's general manager. In the next turn of the page, Louis B. Mayer lured Thalberg out to California as his production assistant. He was 23. By 25 he was head of production at MGM, which had absorbed Mayer's firm.
For eight years he ruled the roost at MGM, and even after 1933, when he was bumped down to house producer, he delivered hit movies like no other figure of his generation. His signature graced the original Ben Hur (made on Catalina Island with Ramon Novarro), The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the Charles Laughton Mutiny on the Bounty, The Good Earth, and the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. In this era, creative talent was held in thrall to the studios, which could make or break their slaves. Thalberg did well by his, who were some of the best. A Free Soul introduced Gable; Anna Christie made a star of Garbo. George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Charles MacArthur, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all wrote scripts for Irving Thalberg.
"I, more than any other person in Hollywood, have my finger on the pulse of America," Thalberg once said. It wasn't held there by intuition. Thalberg pioneered the movie preview; if test audiences in places like San Bernardino hated what they saw, Thalberg ordered retakes more to the public's liking. (As a consequence, an inordinate number of MGM films of the era ended happily.)
Thalberg was a short, bony man who "was totally incapable of small talk," in the words of his biographer, Bob Thomas. He went about in a dark suit and tie and white shirt, and as conservative as his dress were his politics. In 1933 Thalberg intimidated the Screen Writers Guild into calling off the strike they'd planned. The next year, when socialist writer Upton Sinclair won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California, Thalberg made anti-Sinclair shorts that were shown in movie theaters.
But politics were a sideline. "Irving was a motion picture man utterly," Lionel Barrymore once said. "He was also extremely young. I used to go into his office with the feeling I was addressing a boy. In a moment, I would be the one who felt young and inexperienced. I could feel he was not one but all the 40 disciples."
In 1927, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a screenplay for a movie that would be called Lipstick and feature Constance Talmadge, whom Thalberg was dating. The two men met for lunch in the MGM commissary, and Thalberg explained himself.
"Scottie, supposing there's got to be a road through a mountain--a railroad, and two or three surveyors, and people come to you and you believe some of them and some of them you don't believe, but all in all, there seem to be half a dozen possible roads through those mountains, each one of which, so far as you can determine, is as good as the other.
"Now suppose you happen to be the top man. There's a point where you don't exercise the faculty of judgment in the ordinary way, but simply the faculty of arbitrary decision. You say 'Well, I think we will put a road there' and you trace it with your finger and you know in your secret heart and no one else knows that you have no reason for putting the road there rather than in several other different courses, but you're the only person that knows that you don't know why you're doing it and you've got to stick to that and you've got to pretend that you know and that you did it for specific reasons, even though you're utterly assailed by doubts at the time as to the wisdom of your decision, because all these other possible decisions keep echoing in your ear.
"But when you're planning a new enterprise on a grand scale, the people under you mustn't ever know or guess that you're in any doubt, because they've got to have something to look up to and they mustn't ever dream that you're in doubt about any decision. Those things keep occurring."
Thalberg didn't like Fitzgerald's screenplay for Talmadge and the film never got made, but Fitzgerald remained enamored of the producer. As a novel based on his years in Hollywood began to take shape in his head, Fitzgerald laid out his feelings in a letter to the editor of Collier's: "Thalberg has always fascinated me," Fitzgerald admitted, acknowledging the producer's "peculiar charm, his extraordinary good looks, his bountiful success . . ." Monroe Stahr, the benevolent producer-director of The Last Tycoon, was modeled on Thalberg. Fitzgerald was three-quarters done with the book when he died in 1940.
Norma Shearer first met Thalberg in 1923, when she migrated from New York to California as a young actress under contract to Louis B. Mayer. Born in Montreal, Shearer had dropped out of school at 16, moved to New York with her mother and sister to take a stab at show business, and become "Miss Lottie Miles," symbol of Kelly-Springfield tires. On arriving in Los Angeles she walked into Mayer's office, saw Mayer and Thalberg standing there, and mistook the younger man, then 24, for an office boy.
By 1927 Shearer "had now reached a pinnacle of success," her biographers Jack Jacobs and Myron Braun would write, "though she was still considered second-grade." No matter; Thalberg was in love with her. They announced their engagement in January of 1927 and were married by a rabbi that September, Shearer having converted to Judaism. They honeymooned in Europe. Thalberg's wedding gift to his wife was a dressing room on wheels shaped like a stagecoach and equipped with a refrigerator.
Irving Jr. was born on August 24, 1930, and soon the family moved from a house Thalberg had been renting with his mother to a huge French provincial "cottage" in Santa Monica by the sea. For the sake of Thalberg's weak heart, the mansion was outfitted with a crude air-conditioning system that consisted of air blown over blocks of ice. Daily rushes and the latest movies were viewed on a screen that rose out of the floor in the middle of the living room. A daughter, Katherine, was born to the Thalbergs in 1935, by which time her mother was a major star. She had captured an Academy Award in 1930 for The Divorcee and won critical acclaim four years later as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. In 1936 George Cukor directed her in Romeo and Juliet opposite Leslie Howard.
That movie opened in August. Over the Labor Day weekend, Thalberg caught a cold at a resort on the Monterey peninsula. Pneumonia developed, and though a lung specialist was flown from New York to treat him, Thalberg died at home on September 14. He had weathered a bout with influenza in 1933 and had been taking nitroglycerin tablets against a possible heart attack, and yet his death shocked the film colony. "I have lost a great friend," said director Frank Capra. Producer David O. Selznick said, "Irving Thalberg was beyond any question the greatest individual force for fine pictures."
The funeral two days later began at the Synagogue B'nai B'rith at 10 AM, at which time all work stopped at the Hollywood studios for ten minutes (MGM observed a 24-hour respite). Flowers crowded the bema. Among the ushers were Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Moss Hart, and Fredric March; among the mourners Ramon Novarro, Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Nelson Eddy, and Freddie Bartholomew, dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy. Norma Shearer, in a heavy black veil, leaned on the arm of her brotherin-law, the director Howard Hawks, as Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin read letters of condolence from President Roosevelt and other dignitaries. The rabbi, who'd married Thalberg and Shearer, praised Thalberg for his labors for worthy causes, and remarked of the union, "Their life together stands as a demonstration to the world that Hollywood is not as careless in these matters as it is usually painted."
The funeral procession that made its way to Forest Lawn Cemetery contained a dozen limousines and three truckloads of flowers. On one truck was a chair composed of white gardenias and topped with a dove; it was from Louis Mayer. At Forest Lawn the copper casket bearing the body of Irving G. Thalberg was laid into a marble crypt.
After taxes, the bulk of Thalberg's estate, amounting to several million dollars, passed to his widow. Irving Jr. received benefits from a trust fund of $100,000, in addition to which other money was "safeguarded" for him, the New York Times reported. He was six years old.
Irving Jr. could remember his father's "big cigars and limousines," says his wife Deborah. "Irving never talked a lot about his father. I don't know how much he saw of him, since he was a busy man."
Norma Shearer and her children continued to reside in the large house in Santa Monica, attended by a nanny and servants. Norma was a glamorous, controlling woman given to white satin dresses and a feeling of constriction. "Claustrophobia is a very real psychosis," she told Motion Picture Magazine in 1934. "There is nothing imaginary about it. I know--because I am a claustrophobic. This phobia, or fear, or whatever you choose to name it, is responsible for my whole life--for everything I have ever done or wanted to do. Without this phobia I would be a small-town woman, living in a small house, doing the family marketing, etc. I had to marry a man bigger and more important in every way than I was myself. Only in such a marriage could I live without a sense of being cramped and compressed." She claimed to have harnessed her phobia to positive effect. It "has become an inspiring motivating force working in my blood and brain to drive me on ceaselessly," she insisted, "to force me to grow in time and space, to breathe and work more spaciously."
After Thalberg died, however, Shearer was not driven so successfully. She conducted a well-publicized affair with actor George Raft (a photograph survives that shows the dashing and married actor with young Irving at a baseball game), and in 1942 married a Sun Valley ski instructor named Martin Arrouye who was 14 years her junior. That same year George Cukor directed Shearer in Her Cardboard Lover, a flop that turned out to be her swan song. For a time she played a casual role as talent scout in Hollywood, helping to discover Janet Leigh and Robert Evans, who was an actor before he rose to production chief at Paramount. Eventually, Norma Shearer became a recluse.
Irving's childhood had its uncommon elements. He infrequently visited his mother on the set, but he happened to be at the studio one day as The Wizard of Oz was being shot. "That was really fascinating," he told the Syracuse Herald-Journal in 1986, in what might be the only interview he ever gave. "The day I was there, the only thing I can remember is 500 dwarfs running all over the place." And Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was a next-door neighbor: "He used to jump out the window on the second floor of his house, bounce off the first floor awning, do a flip, and then go into his pool."
Irving was sent to a public school in Santa Monica because his mother believed in public education. The Depression was on, and Santa Monica was populated by its fair share of the dispossessed. "This was a place where many of the Okies came," says his widow, Deborah Pellow. Thalberg told the Herald-Journal, "I was intimidated because I was driven to school by a uniformed chauffeur with a cap and everything. I used to get a lot of threats and jeers from the other kids, so finally I persuaded him to let me off a couple of blocks from school and I walked the rest of the way. But it was a strange feeling to be growing up so wealthy during the Depression, when other kids seemed so deprived."
Briefly he attended a military academy ("It was his idea, not his mother's," insists Pellow), then a public high school, and finally the Institut Le Rosey, on the shores of Lake Geneva in Rolle, Switzerland. Founded in 1880, Le Rosey is the world's most expensive boarding school, with tuition now at $25,000 annually. In winter the institution relocates to Gstaad for the skiing. Alumni include Prince Rainier, the present Aga Khan, and the offspring of Elizabeth Taylor. But Irving was less enamored of the high life than of a particular English teacher who encouraged his love of literature. After graduation he lived in Paris for a while, fraternizing with some intellectuals he had come to know.
Back in the states, Thalberg entered Stanford University and studied languages; at his death he was fluent in French, German, and Russian and he could get by in Spanish and Portuguese. He read a lot of poetry and drifted into the field of philosophy. After a farcical tour in Germany as an Army counterintelligence officer (at least a farce as Pellow tells it), Thalberg returned to Stanford in 1956 to pursue a doctorate in philosophy; it was then he fell under the tutelage of Donald Davidson.
When he was 18, Thalberg had spent a summer internship as a film editor at MGM. It left him with mixed feelings. "It struck me as weird that I should go into a job situation at the top, over at least ten other people who were more experienced than I was," he told the Syracuse paper. "It was much too easy for a member of a famous Hollywood family to make it in the movie business. I really did like the moviemaker life, but I just didn't feel too comfortable in that position."
In 1956, Thalberg and Suzanne McCormick, a fellow philosophy student, were married in Reno. "He was incredibly devoted to philosophy," she remembers. "He felt it was important. He certainly didn't want an industry life for himself. He was interested in film, all right, but he approached it from the vantage point of what he was--an intellectual." Philosophy appears to have been something of a harbor for Thalberg. "He was comfortable with his chosen career as he wasn't comfortable with most other things," says Deborah Pellow. "After all, philosophy is an activity you can do absolutely alone, without another living body around, and Irving felt safe with this."
By 1960 Thalberg was teaching at Oberlin College. In 1963 he and McCormick went west, teaching at Stanford and the University of Washington before Ruth Marcus hired him at UIC in 1965.
The marriage to McCormick lasted five more years. Afterward, McCormick went on to become executive director of the Chicago Film Festival. Remarried now and living in San Diego, she describes the breakup as "amicable." Says a mutual friend, "Well, they were on speaking terms."
Thalberg met Deborah Pellow in the spring of 1973. Employed by a social service agency, Pellow had joined a women's group organized by McCormick, and they were meeting at McCormick's house when her shy ex-husband dropped by to pick up their youngest daughter, Elana. Pellow and Thalberg knew each other for a decade before they married. By then, Pellow, whose field is West African anthropology, was teaching at Syracuse University. So the couple maintained a commuter marriage and three residences--her house in Syracuse, his apartment near UIC, and a place in Aspen that he'd owned for years. He liked to take the winter quarter off to write and ski, and he'd find time to go out there in the summer, too.
"In many respects he was not an easy man," says Pellow. "He didn't consider himself a member of society, which is to say he thought he was different from society. He was raised as a loner, which he remained to a great extent." She loved her husband deeply, and credits him with encouraging her career and improving her writing immeasurably. Yet she describes him as "a very fragile personality who was highly defended."
He thought of marriage "as a corrupt institution," says Pellow, and paled at the thought of more children. "We talked about children," she says, "but that was not a point of negotiation; that was something I gave up." Otherwise, she says, they had a wonderful relationship; his wife was both his "pain in the ass" and his "window on the world."
Physically, he favored the simplest surroundings. "He was somebody for whom function was the most important thing," says Pellow. "Appearances meant nothing to him--he had had all that with his mother--and much of his life was spent in repudiating what he thought was a wasteful existence."
The house in Aspen, for example, was a simple A-frame with two wings and few furnishings (that is, before Deborah warmed up the place with a stuffed crocodile among other things). The apartment on Ashland consisted of a black vinyl couch, a foldout bed, a table, bookshelves, and some posters and lithographs. The family called the flat "Joliet East."
Thalberg prepared his papers on a portable Olivetti typewriter that had been given to his wife, who is now 43, when she graduated from high school. When the return bar broke, Thalberg was undaunted--at the end of every line, he moved the paper up manually.
Thalberg rarely dressed up, and when he skied he dressed down. He wore a pair of green overalls that he patched with silver duct tape, and eventually gave them up for stretch pants with glued-on pockets. He carried a large pouch with a rope in case he had to shimmy down from a broken ski lift, tools for adjusting his bindings, Vaseline for his nose, sunscreen ointment, and an extra set of pants. "He was always prepared for any eventuality when he skied," says Pellow. "He never wanted to be dependent on anybody."
In everyday wear, his standard wardrobe of jeans and a sport jacket sufficed even when it shouldn't have. "Sometimes we'd go to a nicer restaurant, like the Rosebud," recalls Lance Haddix, "and clearly his dress wasn't right for the occasion. But Irving would come in with such bearing that the headwaiter would seat him immediately." In November of 1984, Haddix married radio personality Mikki Stewart in a black-tie affair at the Ritz-Carlton; in walked Irving Thalberg in a tuxedo with ruby studs. Haddix was flabbergasted--he had never seen his friend gussied up. "And I took it as a great compliment."
The only other time anyone can recall Thalberg turned out was at a costume party he and Suzanne threw. They asked their friends to come as their favorite fantasies. The host materialized as Fidel Castro.
He trundled around Chicago in a Chevy Chevette. "It rattled and it rolled," says Pellow. "We'd be on the expressway and it would pop out of gear." Yet on behalf of what Haddix calls his "ascetic existence," Thalberg drove himself physically. In Chicago, he swam a mile a day in the UIC pool. In Aspen, he skied several hours each day, often beginning with the first lift up in the morning. His form was admirable and his daring extraordinary. When Aspen became too slight a challenge he turned to helicopter ski excursions in British Columbia.
Donald Davidson had introduced Thalberg to surfing back at Stanford. They'd take trips to nearby Santa Cruz and the Marine base at San Onofre. "We would sneak in," Davidson remembers, "going out on our boards when the Marines would chase us. Irving became a good surfer, and when California became too crowded he started surfing during the summers in Biarritz and environs." Then Biarritz filled up, and Thalberg pushed on in his Volkswagen camper to a small fishing village north of Lisbon called Peniche. Fearing the sun, he went about with a hat on, and coated his nose with zinc oxide. The camper, outfitted with a typewriter, fold-up table, and chair, was where Thalberg bunked. To Norma Shearer, who believed so strongly in appearances, the idea of her son knocking about in the camper was maddening. "At the mention of it," says Pellow, "she would go into paroxysms."
Eventually, Thalberg abandoned surfing. "Irving decided surfing was too sedentary--too much sitting and waiting for a good wave," says Donald Davidson. "The decision was typical of his determination to rationalize his life."
Thalberg was intent on putting every second to its most productive use. He once chided his first wife for trying to remember the phone numbers of friends. "Don't clutter up your mind with those," he told her.
Even a chair-lift ride was not to be wasted. He liked to go up alone, reading philosophy during the trip. "When I was skiing with him," says Davidson, "we often discussed philosophy going up, left off in mid-argument to descend, and took up where we had stopped on the next ride up."
"There was a curiosity about everything that was encyclopedic," Lance Haddix remembers. "Mikki and I had a series at the Lyric Opera, and on some nights Irving would come along. It was an amazing experience. He not only absorbed the music and the lyrics, but he'd have gone out beforehand and read the libretto. Maybe he'd have done some research on how the opera had come to be. The approach was to treat operagoing as a research project." Thalberg attacked jazz and theater the same way.
He made a science of going to movies. Pellow used to fly into Chicago on Friday evenings; he'd meet her at the airport armed with film schedules from the daily papers, the Reader, the Art Institute, and Facets Multimedia, and off they'd bound from film to film. "Say it was an Indian film festival at the Art Institute," Pellow remembers. "He not only went, but unlike me he remembered the name of the director."
The only film Thalberg ever balked at seeing was The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro and released in 1976. "I suggested it, and as soon as I began to talk about the arrangements I saw him withdrawing," says Haddix. "I didn't think it was appropriate to press it further."
Philosophy dominated his reading, but political issues fascinated him, and Thalberg's literary diet also included what Deborah Pellow calls "the pinko journals"--the Nation, In These Times, the New York Review of Books. He held a lifetime subscription to Ramparts. Pellow could occasionally persuade her husband to read a novel.
Thalberg was once typing in his Aspen living room when Pellow tried to give him a hug. "Don't bother me," he snapped. "I'm working on a paper on emotions!"
He'd had some psychiatric therapy, "but he felt those things get in the way of life," says Pellow. "He used to say we spend so much time preparing to live instead of living." The scope of his problems, he claimed, was dwarfed by society's, and to dwell on himself would be self-indulgent.
Thalberg talked little about his past. Of course, strangers remarked about the name, and sometimes the son would acknowledge the father. At other times he'd only concede to being a relative. And as the years wore on, the name Irving G. Thalberg meant less and less to the public, especially to the collegiate public Irving Jr. taught. People who knew the name assumed he was rich; and although he had "enough that he could live very comfortably," says Pellow, "he gave a lot of money away."
"He didn't espouse any particular cause," says Lance Haddix, "except that he was repulsed by the right wing. I'd have been surprised to have found him in a picket line, though. See, he had a high sense of what was acceptable behavior and what was showmanship. Anything that detracted from gentlemanliness he wouldn't be a part of. Irving was usually behind the scenes, contributing a few dollars and giving good advice to people who were up against it."
During the Chicago Seven trial in 1969 and '70, Thalberg's old apartment on Astor Street turned into a hideaway. Various defendants, including Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, bunked in the flat for short periods; so did defense attorney William Kunstler. "We were deep in the trenches," remembers Kunstler, "and it was terrific to have a refuge away from the flashbulbs."
Kunstler had found another place to live, but he liked to spend weekends on Astor Street: "I could watch TV, be above the street, and eat regularly." The defendants conducted their meetings at Thalberg's; they felt free from surveillance there.
Meeting Irving G. Thalberg Jr. put Kunstler "in touch with the films of my childhood," the lawyer says. "It was funny. I wanted to hear all about Irving's mother, and he wanted to hear all about the civil rights movement."
Lance Haddix first met Thalberg in 1974, when the philosopher showed up at a fund-raiser at the Playboy mansion on behalf of the Red Squad suit. Thalberg supported the legal fight from then on, according to Haddix. He also gave to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a public interest law firm created by Kunstler, and a similar firm, the Christic Institute.
In 1970, the coordinator of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, was looking for a way to transport relatives of Chicago convicts to downstate prisons on Sunday, visiting day. Rush met Thalberg and convinced him to buy a reconditioned Greyhound bus. In the process, the two men became close; Thalberg encouraged the future alderman to enroll at UIC, where Rush is currently 12 hours short of a master's in political science.
Then there was Thalberg's friendship with Ruchell Magee, a forgotten player in the 1970 shootout at the San Rafael, California, courthouse to free George Jackson and two other inmates--the "Soledad brothers." Magee pleaded guilty to kidnapping in the affair, in which the abducted judge, Jackson's brother Jonathan, and two bystanders died, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Inside Folsom State Prison, Magee became a jailhouse lawyer, and he fell into a correspondence with Thalberg, who, among other acts of sustenance, paid a couple of hundred dollars to have key parts of Magee's court transcripts copied. (Deborah Pellow continues to correspond with Magee, although she doesn't understand what exactly the inmate is after at this point.)
Thalberg wrote a lot of poetry between 1950 and 1970 that he later collected into a bundle of typed sheets and put a name to: "Shards of Two Decades." The poems are full of images of death and lost love. Suzanne McCormick, his first wife, says there was a favorite passage of Thalberg's in Macbeth:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
"Perhaps his was just the feeling a person has when a parent dies young, this portent of tragedy," says McCormick. "But Irving was not an optimist. He tended to see life as defeating."
In August of 1985 Irving and Deborah traveled to Shanghai to teach at Fudan University. "It was a wonderful time," she remembers, "except Irving got sick." The illness was characterized by coughing and a low-grade fever. Thalberg assumed he had the flu. But the symptoms persisted.
Because he felt too sick to teach when they came back, Thalberg moved to Syracuse to be with his wife and began visiting doctors, notably Sheldon Wolff, a celebrated specialist in infectious diseases at Boston's New England Medical Center. But an exact diagnosis eluded everyone. There was the fever; and bruiselike inflammations--what's called granulomatous hepatitis--were spotted on Thalberg's liver. The most any doctor could say, however, was that he suffered from "a fever of unknown origin."
Wolff advised exploratory surgery to study his liver, but Thalberg, who was terrified, refused. He settled for treatment with the steroid prednisone to suppress the fever, which was now and then spiking as high as 104 degrees. By 1987 there was a tremor in his right hand, and the fever persisted. An examination of his cranium discovered a buildup of spinal fluid that was diagnosed as noninfectious meningitis. That May a shunt was implanted to drain fluid off his brain.
"We dealt with the medical establishment through this," says Pellow, "and as an anthropologist I can tell you it was like dealing with a primitive tribe. It's unbelievable how incompetent doctors can be. Irving was really tortured. Just consider what it was like for a man who was an analytical philosopher--who wants to know why--and the doctors are constantly obfuscating." Thalberg's frustration at knowing so little about his health was compounded by a lifelong hypochondria and his inability to work. "He was so worried that he wouldn't work again," says Ruth Marcus, who was particularly close to Thalberg during this time.
He tried. He went out to Aspen for a while (he was there during the '87 Oscars that reminded the world who his father had been), and on the way back to Syracuse he stopped off to visit Lance Haddix and Mikki Stewart, who were new parents. Haddix was struck by how feeble Thalberg was. "He was walking with great difficulty," says Haddix. "It must have taken incredible effort for him to have come. We were very touched."
Last August Thalberg finally underwent a liver biopsy in Syracuse, and they discovered the cancer. "Everybody was left with their mouths hanging open," Deborah Pellow remembers. He died at home in Syracuse a few days later. He was a few days shy of turning 57.
While she'd been in Los Angeles the previous spring for the Oscars, Pellow had visited the Thalberg family crypt in Forest Lawn. Irving Thalberg Sr. lies there, as does Norma Shearer, who died in 1983 an isolated 80-year-old woman that her son's children could remember seeing just once in their lives.
"I was amazed and appalled by the crypt," says Pellow. "It was marble and garish. I took photographs, and when I got back Irving just looked at them with contempt, as a classic example of wasteful behavior."
Irving Thalberg Jr. was cremated. There were memorial services in Syracuse, in Aspen, and in Chicago. In Syracuse, friends and family gathered outside his house one windy day, and a friend recited Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," a favorite poem of Thalberg's. The memorial in Aspen was arranged by his sister Katherine, who owns a bookstore there.
The service here was held in the oak-paneled conference room of UIC's University Hall. Seventy-five mourners squeezed into the room, surprising even themselves. "He was such a quiet person," marvels Sandra Bartky. "I didn't realize he had so many friends."
The format of this memorial was designed to have pleased Thalberg, who hated ritual. A few people--Ruth Marcus, Vivian Weil, Dorothy Grover, and Lance Haddix--first talked about Thalberg as a colleague, teacher, and friend. Then the service opened up, Quaker style, and anyone who wanted to could talk. George Rosen, an economics professor, spoke of the issues Thalberg valued. Someone else rose to say, "Every day I used to swim with Irving Thalberg in the pool. Today I was there swimming, and Irving Thalberg was not."
Deborah Pellow intends to scatter her husband's ashes one day across Aspen Mountain.
Thalberg's friends and family have endowed an annual philosophy lecture in his name at UIC, the first of which was held last month. Howard McGary flew in from Rutgers to speak on "forgiveness," arguing that the act of forgiving primarily serves the needs of the forgiver. The lecture attracted several dozen persons, with the family represented by Thalberg's eldest daughter Shoshana, 26, a clerk at the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society and the child with whom he was closest. The question-and-answer session was spirited and altogether esoteric. "It was exactly what you would have wanted to hear Irving contribute to," remarked Vivian Weil afterward.
Beyond the lecture, Thalberg's legacy to philosophy is what he wrote. "He did very important work," says Lawrence Thomas of Oberlin, "though he wasn't a Donald Davidson, who defined the debate. But he was at the very, very top. He was a philosopher of enormous stature; people read and discussed his work." Says Arthur Fine of Northwestern, "In our field as in any other, you can count on one hand the number of people who change the direction of things. Irving was not at that level. But he did very, very good work, and he wrote with unusual clarity."
Thalberg also lives on in his personal example, and here his friends grow stirring in their testimony. "Here was somebody conscious of his own good fortune, but so often good fortune can blind you to the pain of others," says Larry Thomas. "Irving just became more sensitive. Usually intelligence, good will, and wealth don't come together in one person, but here they did." Vivian Weil remembers Thalberg as a "graceful, extremely generous, very nurturing person."
"What I am struck by was his unassuming quality," says George Rosen. "I don't want to use the terms modesty or humbleness, which might give the wrong impression. He knew what he was, and what he had achieved. There was this sense of his own independence, of his being his own man."
"Irving's death is a tremendous loss," says Bobby Rush. "The loss is to peace and justice. He left his mark, that's for sure, and on lots of folk who never knew who Irving Thalberg was."
Deborah Pellow received a letter from Ruchell Magee just a day or two ago. "Irving remains much a source of my strength in court, where judges tremble at the lips," Magee wrote. "Anybody with Irving's spirit at heart is sincerely a friend."
Among Thalberg's bequests was one to the American Philosophical Association. It's to support the advancement of minority students in philosophy.
"He was an odd duck," is how one chum put it, "but when all is said and done he waddled right."
Deborah Thalberg, the middle daughter, is 22. For a year she has been trying her hand at acting in Los Angeles. A blue-eyed woman with her father's strawberry-blond hair who describes herself as "not your typical television beauty," she has yet to stand Hollywood on its ear, though there have been bit parts on television shows. Her most recent gig was as a rock groupie in a theatrical revue set in the 1970s.
"My father basically thought the business was pretty silly," says Deborah, who attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London before heading for LA. "It was a life he left, but he never said 'Don't do it.' He supported me in his quiet way."
The name Thalberg? "A lot of people don't even know it," replies Deborah. "But with some people who have been around or know the history of the business--or work at MGM--it rings a bell."