One of seven children, Schenck was born to a Jewish household in Rybinsk, a Volga River town in Tsarist Russia. He and his family, including his older brother Joseph Schenck, emigrated to the United States in 1893, whereupon they settled in a tenement on New York's Lower East Side. Subsequently they relocated to Harlem, the population of which at that time consisted primarily of Jewish and Italian immigrants. Upon their arrival in the United States, Joe and Nick, as they came to be known, worked as a team hawking newspapers and subsequently in a drugstore. Within two years' time, they had saved up enough money to buy out the drugstore's owner and begin casting about for other business ventures.
One summer day, the Schencks took a trolley ride to Fort George, in uptown Manhattan, and noticed that thousands of people were milling around idly waiting for the return trains. The brothers rented a beer concession and also provided some vaudeville entertainment. It was at this time that the Schencks made the acquaintance of Marcus Loew, a theater operator. Loew, having noted the brothers' success, advanced them capital, permitting them to establish Palisades Amusement Park in Bergen County, New Jersey, directly across the river from Manhattan, in 1908. It remained in operation until 1971, although the brothers sold their own interest in 1934.
Subsequently, Nicholas Schenck and his brother worked with Loew in the theater business. Between approximately 1907 and 1919, they reinvested in real estate for nickelodeons, vaudeville, and eventually motion pictures. In 1919, Loew acquired a movie studio. At this time, Nicholas Schenck was spending more time with Loew's, Inc., so it was Joseph who relocated to Hollywood, eventually becoming president of United Artists Corporation.
Schenck eventually became Loew's right-hand man, helping him manage what rapidly grew into a vast theater chain. He also helped shepherd Loew's acquisition of Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures to keep the theaters supplied with product. Loew soon realized he needed someone in Hollywood to run his studio interests. Schenck seemed like the obvious choice, but Loew concluded that he needed Schenck in New York to help run the theaters. He bought a studio headed by independent producer Louis B. Mayer in 1924, merging the Loew's Hollywood interests into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with Mayer as studio chief. For reasons that remain unknown, Mayer and Schenck disliked each other intensely; Mayer reportedly called Schenck "Mr. Skunk" in private. It was the start of a testy relationship that would last for almost four decades.
However, in 1927, Marcus Loew died suddenly, leaving control of Loew's to Schenck. In 1929, William Fox, head of rival studio Fox Film Corporation, arranged to buy controlling interest from Schenck. When Mayer found out about the sale, he was outraged; although he was a Loews vice president, he was not a shareholder and had no say in the deal. Mayer went to the Justice Department and, through his political connections, managed to get the deal stalled on antitrust grounds. Shortly afterward, Fox was seriously injured in the summer of 1929 in a car accident. By the time he'd recovered, the stock market crash had nearly wiped out his fortune. Schenck blamed Mayer for costing him millions, and this made an already icy relationship even worse. However, due to the stock market crash, the Loew's-Fox deal would have been dead even if the Justice Department had given the deal its blessing.
By 1932, Schenck was running an entertainment empire that consisted of a thriving theater circuit and MGM. The conglomerate, which Schenck continued to manage closely from New York City, employed 12,000 people. Schenck, by demanding a tight production schedule, created tension with Mayer and Irving Thalberg, who was production chief until his early death in 1936. Nonetheless, thanks to Schenck's stringent management, MGM was successful, becoming the only film company that continued to pay dividends during the Great Depression.
Under Schenck's leadership, the studio produced a great quantity of films, and the studio system allowed it to retain a wide array of talent under its roof: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy team and countless others. Schenck's adroit business sense made him a wealthy man. In 1927, he and Joseph were reported to be worth about $20 million (approximately $500 million in today's money, possibly more), with a combined yearly income of at least a million. By some estimates, Nicholas Schenck was the eighth richest individual in the United States during the 1930s.
After World War II
Although Schenck's power and prestige were at their peak after World War II, times were changing, as television loomed on the horizon. Like many in the motion picture industry, Schenck, however, adamantly refused to get involved with the new medium. In 1951, Louis B. Mayer had a falling out with Schenck over Dore Schary and Mayer was forced out of MGM.
By the middle of the decade, the price of MGM shares were sagging and stockholders were growing restive. On December 14, 1955, Arthur M. Loew, the son of Marcus Loew, succeeded Nicholas Schenck as the company's president, although Schenck remained Chairman of the Board. The following year, when Arthur Loew resigned for health reasons, Schenck defied the other directors in the efforts to secure a new president. When Joseph R. Vogel became president, Schenck was named honorary chairman, but retired altogether later that same year.
Nicholas Schenck divided his last years between his estates at Sands Point, Long Island, and Miami Beach. The former, which had purchased in 1942, consisted of a 20 acre (81,000 m²) property with a main house of 30 rooms, luxuriously appointed. It included a private movie theater and a 200-foot dock.
Schenck's first marriage ended in divorce. He was survived by his second wife, Pansy Wilcox, whose brother was director Fred M. Wilcox. The Schencks had three daughters, including Nicola Schenck (born c. 1934), who married Helmut Dantine, had two children with Dantine, and acted under the name Niki Dantine.