Despite their poverty, Melvyn N. Klein's parents were hardworking and dedicated to their children. During union strikes, his father did whatever he could, including repairing lamps, to provide for his family. Thus, young Klein became economically self-sufficient at an early age. At age nine had a paper route, which he operated seven days a week until he was 13.
Raised on Horatio Alger stories, Klein was fascinated with the idea that through hard work and determination, he could fulfill his goals and dreams. He became a dedicated student, graduated second in his high school class, and entered Colgate University in 1959. He worked his way through college. In his junior year, Klein led his debate team to the New York state college championship, and was recognized as one of the best college debaters in the nation. He also studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science, graduating in 1963 with the highest honors in economics.
Klein then received a law degree from Columbia University, which named him an international fellow; he also won the Edward John Noble Leadership Award. He worked throughout law school at two insurance companies, C. V. Starr & Co. and American International Group. After graduation, he became a legislative assistant to Rep. Sidney Yates (D-IL), an international economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce assigned to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and an associate at McKinsey & Co. He was the first to join Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign staff, later becoming treasurer of the National Businessmen's Committee for Humphrey-Muskie.
While senior partner at the Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette investment bank, Klein originated the idea of creating capital pools for principal investing, and he was the first to propose the structure that was to become one of the earliest direct equity investment funds to precede leveraged buyout funds. His vision transformed a key element of the U.S. free-enterprise system.
In 1988, Klein organized GKH Partners LP, an equity investment partnership with Dan W. Lufkin as well as Tom and Jay Pritzker, owner of the Hyatt hotel chain. GKH, with Klein as managing general partner, successfully closed the last, large-leveraged buyout of that era, a $3.3 billion takeover of American Medical International (AMI), in 1989. GKH subsequently merged AMI to create Tenet Healthcare. Klein co-founded two independent feature film production companies that went on to make a number of movies including A Bronx Tale, Shadowlands, and Sophie's Choice.
Klein belonged to the Grace Commission after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Under President Bill Clinton, he advised the secretary of state about international economic policy. Since 1990, Klein has been a member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors; he currently chairs that board. Klein is also a former adjunct professor at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, and he belongs to the Philosophical Society of Texas.