Irving Thalberg on leadership and decision-making – as told to F. Scott Fitzgerald

MGM-Studio-Entrance

The following is excerpted from Matthew J. Bruccoli’s preface to Fitzgerald’s last and unfinished novel The Love of the Last Tycoon. Monroe Stahr, he principal character in this Hollywood story, was based clearly on Irving Thalberg, the Boy Wonder movie producer, and main architect of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Fitzgerald did not know Thalberg well, having worked for him – but not with him – briefly and unsatisfactorily. However, the impression that Thalberg made on him at their first encounter in 19276 is preserved in one of Fitzgerald’s working notes:

We sat in the old commissary at Metro and he said, “Scottie, supposing there’s got to he 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, t here seem to be half a dozen possible roads through the 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 judgement in the ordinary way, but simply the faculty of arbitrary decision. You say, “Well, I think we will put the road there” and 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 tehre 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 at times 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 all 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.” 

At that point, some other people came into the commissary and sat down and the first thing I knew there was a group of four and the intimacy of the conversation was broken, but I was very much impressed by the shrewdness of what he said – something more than shrewdness – by the largeness of what he thought and how reached it at the age of 26, which he was then.

F.Scott Fitzgerald. The Love of the Last Tycoon. The Authorized Text Edited with notes by Matthew J. Bruccoli.

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