Secret torment of the Hollywood queen.
But what no one had taken into consideration during the summer of 1927 was that Norma Shearer did not believe in taking no for an answer. Already she had worked out a plan of campaign which included getting a contract with MGM, eventually becoming queen of the studio, and finally sealing her absolute power and authority by marrying the boss.
And, as in all Hollywood fairy stories, it all came true. In three years Norma Shearer was MGM's most popular and powerful star, married to company vice-president, 27-year-old Irving Thalberg. It was then that the classic Hollywood dream became a chilling nightmare. For the next ten years Hollywood's most powerful and glamorous couple shared a deadly secret: the handsome sports-loving Thalberg had been ill for years with a chest condition which could kill him suddenly at any time.
When Irving was only five a doctor had told his mother that the child would not live to see 30. Even a chest cold could kill him. Norma confided her deadly secret only to her diary. She wrote: "I try not to think of it but to enjoy to the full every day we have together. People think he is vibrant and energetic. In fact he is often so exhausted that he sleeps so deeply I think he is dead..."
Her fear came near to reality when Thalberg was 31. He suffered a massive heart attack and hovered near death for ten days. When he recovered, doctors ordered a long rest and Norma took him on a tour of Europe from which he returned apparently cured to produce some of MGM's biggest-ever box-office hits, several starring his wife, for which she was paid an unprecedented $200,000 a picture. What promised to be her biggest hit was Thalberg's $2 million production of Romeo and Juliet, in which she played Juliet to Leslie Howard's Romeo.
But before the movie was finished the tragedy which had hung over the couple for so long finally struck. While supervising the famous balcony scene on MGM's back lot, Irving Thalberg came down with a cold, collapsed and was rushed home. At first it looked as though he would survive but the cold developed into a severe form of pneumonia and a few days later Irving Thalberg died two days before his 37th birthday.
His death tore Hollywood apart. So many wanted to attend his funeral that MGM had to issue tickets. After the burial, Norma Shearer returned to their luxury beach house at Santa Monica and refused to take calls. Most of them were from MGM boss Louis B. Mayer who had spent $500,000 on Norma's next movie and was frantic to know when she was returning to work. But Norma was in no hurry. Technically Irving Thalberg had left over $6 million, most of it in MGM stock, which Mayer was now trying to claim back for the company. "Irving wanted me to be well taken care of," Norma said.
"Now Mayer is reneging on all the agreements. I will never go back to that studio again, even if it means ending up in the gutter." Soon MGM was in turmoil over the rift. Almost every actor director and technician lined up behind Norma Shearer to brand their boss as a heartless cheat.
It took a week for the studio to capitulate: under a new pact the Thalberg estate got stock and profits which would give Norma a yearly income of over $2 million. Next day she went back to work. A new generation of actresses was snapping at her heels, but Norma Shearer still considered herself queen of Hollywood. She expected the best dressing rooms, the biggest limousines, and the sort of deference she now regarded as a divine right. Under Thalberg's protection she had all these, plus MGM's most expensive films, her pick of co-stars, and paid holidays which lasted for months.
But now he had gone, and the new girls moved in ... particularly Joan Crawford, who had seethed in Norma's shadow for nearly 15 years, complaining: "How can I compete with someone who sleeps with the boss " Now she could. Within a year, Hollywood had a new queen - Joan Crawford - and Norma Shearer, angry and bitter, but still very rich, left Hollywood to run her business empire and devote herself to charity work. She died in 1983.
"People have always said that I married Irving to become a movie star," she said shortly before her death. "That was absolutely untrue. I married Irving because I loved him and he loved me. I would have become a movie star anyway..."
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