Loy, Myrna (1905–1993)
Loy, Myrna (1905–1993)
American film actress who starred in the popular "Thin Man" series as the sophisticated, quick-witted Nora Charles. Born Myrna Adele Williams on August 2, 1905, in Radersburg, Montana; died on December 14, 1993, in New York City; daughter of Davis and Della Williams; had one younger brother, David; married Arthur Hornblow, Jr., in 1936 (divorced 1942); married John Hertz, Jr., in 1942 (divorced 1944); married Gene Markey, in 1946 (divorced 1950); married Howland Sargeant, in 1951 (divorced 1960); no children.
Moved to Los Angeles after her father's death (1918) and began getting bit parts in silent films, eventually working her way up to larger roles; though she successfully made the transition to sound films, seemed destined to a future of studio typecasting as an exotic and often murderous siren before being offered a comedy role in the first "Thin Man" film (1934), playing opposite William Powell's Nick Charles; her popularity increased during a series of "Thin Man" sequels to such an extent that she was eventually dubbed "Queen of the Movies"; devoted much of her time during World War II to charitable and fund-raising activities, but returned to the screen after the war togreat acclaim in such films as The Best Years of Our Lives; remained active in film and television through the 1980s; made Broadway debut (1973) and was awarded a special Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement (1991).
Sporting Life (1925); Pretty Ladies (1925); Ben-Hur (1926); The Cave Man (1926); The Gilded Highway (1926); Across the Pacific (1926); Why Girls Go Back Home (1926); Don Juan (1926); The Exquisite Sinner (1926); So This Is Paris (1926); Finger Prints (1927); Ham and Eggs at the Front (1927); Bitter Apples (1927); The Heart of Maryland (1927); The Jazz Singer (1927); If I Were Single (1927); The Climbers (1927); Simple Sis (1927); A Sailor's Sweetheart (1927); The Girl from Chicago (1927); What Price Beauty (1928); Beware of Married Men (1928); Turn Back the Hours (1928); The Crimson City (1928); Pay As You Enter (1928); State Street Sadie (1928); The Midnight Taxi (1928); Noah's Ark (1929); Fancy Baggage (1929); The Desert Song (1929); The Black Watch (1929); The Squall (1929); Hardboiled Rose (1929); Evidence (1929); The Show of Shows (1929); The Great Divide (1929); Cameo Kirby (1930); Isle of Escape (1930); Under a Texas Moon (1930); Renegades (1930); The Jazz Cinderella (1930); The Truth About Youth (1930); The Devil to Pay (1930); Rogue of the Rio Grande (1930); Body and Soul (1931); The Naughty Flirt (1931); A Connecticut Yankee (1931); Hush Money (1931); Transatlantic (1931); Rebound (1931); Skyline (1931); Consolation Marriage (1931); Arrowsmith (1931); Emma (1932); The Wet Parade (1932); Vanity Fair (1932); The Woman in Room Thirteen (1932); New Morals for Old (1932); Love Me Tonight (1932); Thirteen Women (1932); The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932); The Animal Kingdom (1932); Topaze (1933); The Barbarian (1933); When Ladies Meet (1933); Penthouse (1933); Night Flight (1933); The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933); Men In White (1934); Manhattan Melodrama (1934); The Thin Man (1934); Stamboul Quest (1934); Evelyn Prentice (1934); Broadway Bill (1934); Wings in the Dark (1935); Whipsaw (1935); Wife vs. Secretary (1936); Petticoat Fever (1936); The Great Ziegfeld (1936); To Mary with Love (1936); Libeled Lady (1936); After the Thin Man (1936); Parnell (1937); Double Wedding (1937); Man-Proof (1938); Test Pilot (1938); Too Hot to Handle (1938); Lucky Night (1939); The Rains Came (1939); Another Thin Man (1939); I Love You Again (1940); Third Finger Left Hand (1940); Love Crazy (1941); Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); The Thin Man Goes Home (1944); So Goes My Love (1946); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947); The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947); Song of the Thin Man (1947); Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948); The Red Pony (1949); That Dangerous Age (If This Be Sin, 1949); Cheaper by the Dozen (1950); Belles on Their Toes (1952); The Ambassador's Daughter (1956); Lonelyhearts (1959); From the Terrace (1960); Midnight Lace (1960); The April Fools (1969); Airport 1975 (1974); The End (1978); Just Tell Me What You Want (1980).
It is an odd tribute to Myrna Loy's film career that one of America's most notorious gangsters died because of her. John Dillinger had eluded federal agents for months, but one summer afternoon in 1934 he was unable to resist the temptation to see his favorite movie star in her new film playing at Chicago's Biograph. Dillinger was gunned down by waiting G-men as he left the theater. He shared his enthusiasm for Myrna Loy with a more exalted fan, Franklin Roosevelt, who always asked for private screenings of her films at the White House and made sure to take one of them with him overseas for comfort after a hard day of international diplomacy. In between these two extremes were millions of Americans who elected Myrna Loy "Queen of the Movies" in a 1936 Ed Sullivan newspaper poll and flocked to see her in pictures with her "King," Clark Gable. The press named her "the perfect wife" for her portrayal of Nora Charles, the wise-cracking mate of William Powell's Nick Charles in a wildly successful series of "Thin Man" films during the 1930s and 1940s. It all made Loy frankly uncomfortable. "Labels limit you, because they limit your possibilities," she once wrote.
Limits had been anathema to Myrna Loy since her childhood as a farm girl in Montana's "Big Sky" country, where she had grown up surrounded by the wide open spaces of Davis and Della Williams ' cattle ranch, Crow Creek Valley, just outside tiny Radersburg. Davis had named his daughter, born in August 1905, after a town he had passed through during one of the many train trips he was required to take as a member of Montana's state legislature. After the birth of their second child, a son, Davis and Della left the ranch in the care of relatives and moved to Helena, the state capital. City life did nothing to erase young Myrna Williams' reputation as a scrappy, independent-minded roughneck with no time for sentimentality, not even toward a lovestruck neighborhood boy named Gary Cooper who had developed a crush on her. Her parents were not the doting kind. "Never once in the first few years of my life did anyone hug me or pat my head and say 'What a lovely … little girl,'" she once recalled with some satisfaction. "At least I escaped that." The seed of Loy's lifelong political liberalism may have been planted when Helena's first African-American family moved into the Williams' neighborhood. Unlike most of her neighbors, Della was quick to accept the newcomers. "My mother made no distinction at all," Loy remembered. "She welcomed them and encouraged us to play with their children." Her parents were ardent Democrats and supporters of Woodrow Wilson's pacifist policies, campaigning for Wilson's League of Nations after World War I. "When I was growing up," she told an interviewer, "it was all Democrats. We wouldn't let a Republican in the back door."
Her first exposure to show business came in 1916, when doctors advised Della to recuperate in California after a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia. The warmer climate and gentle sunshine of Los Angeles and La Jolla proved the doctors right, leaving Della fit enough to take her children on a tour of the local movie studios. Myrna was fascinated and promptly convinced her parents to enroll her in a dance academy on their return
to Helena. By 1917, the Montana Record-Herald took note of Myrna's appearance in a class recital, in which she performed "The Bluebird Dance" at Helena's Marlow Theater. "Miss Williams, who is much admired for her grace and beauty, has received many compliments upon her interpretation of the dance," the newspaper politely told its readers.
Helena did not escape the disastrous influenza pandemic that swept the world in 1918. Among its victims was Davis Williams, who died just days after Myrna had recovered from the disease. Della decided to start her new life as a widow in California, moving with her two children to Culver City. Myrna attended Venice High School, continued her dance lessons, and posed for a sculpture called "Spiritual Man" which graced the school's entrance. The publicity surrounding the sculpture's installation led to her first job in show business, as a chorine at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Loy left high school in her senior year to appear at the theater in one of its famous "prologue" dances, elaborate stage numbers with a theme matching that of the silent film to follow. In Myrna's case, the film was Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments, requiring a farm girl from rural Montana to hoof it on the Grauman stage as an Egyptian courtesan.
If you live long enough and fight long enough, a sense of comforting continuity comes.
Nonetheless, Loy's auburn hair and slightly oblique, green eyes seemed the perfect complement to the costume and attracted the attention of a photographer hired for publicity shots, who showed his work to friends Rudolph Valentino and Valentino's wife and manager, Natacha Rambova . Valentino, an Italian immigrant who had become a silent film idol by playing seductive sheiks and desert princes in sand-strewn romantic potboilers, thought that Loy might be usable in his next film and told Rambova to arrange a screen test. Myrna's first experience in front of a camera was, by her own admission, a disaster, and Valentino quickly lost interest in her. Rambova, however, was convinced Myrna had a future in pictures and cast her in a film she was herself directing, What Price Beauty, an odd and awkward fantasy film set in a beauty parlor that failed to find a distributor until four years later, in 1928, when it predictably flopped at the box office. Loy appeared merely as window dressing in a red velvet tunic and black pants, but it was enough to whet her interest in film work. Quitting her job at Grauman's Chinese, she became such a persistent inhabitant of various reception rooms at MGM that the studio finally gave her a bit part in the chorus line of its 1925 Ziegfeld Follies film Pretty Ladies, and used her as a living mannequin in a wardrobe test for its upcoming production of Ben Hur, which was to be an early experiment in color filmmaking. Makeup was unnecessary, but Loy appeared in full war paint anyway and attracted enough attention to land another bit part as one of the "hedonist handmaidens" to a Roman senator in the picture. By now, friends were suggesting that her chances might be better if she changed her name, there being too many actors called "Williams" in the business already. A writer friend much taken with the nonsensical sound poems of Gertrude Stein came up with "Loy" as a suitable complement to her first name. The headshots Myrna sent to Warner Bros. were signed with the new name, which seemed to work its magic when the studio offered Myrna Loy a contract in 1925 at $75 a week.
Loy's fear of limiting labels was amply justified for the next six years. She was condemned to a dreary series of B pictures in which she was typecast as the sensuous, mysterious, and often treacherous foreign femme fatale of vague Asian extraction with such names as Yasmini, Nubi, and Fah Lo See. She was the "native girl" who ruins the career of an innocent young American sailor in Across The Pacific; a "Hindu princess" in The Black Watch, outfitted in silk pants, a halter top, and a strange black wig that one reviewer thought made her look like "a weird cross between Cleopatra and the goddess Kali"; and a Gypsy in The Squall, in which she arouses the passions of a group of naive farmers with whom she takes refuge during a storm. (Even the film's director, a young Alexander Korda, later remembered it as "that ghastly picture.") She murdered nine sorority girls in revenge for their racial taunts in Thirteen Women, killed her exlover with a bullet to the stomach in Renegades, and tortured young men with a whip in The Mask of Fu Manchu as the evil doctor's sadistic daughter. "Those roles were fun to play, despite their unreality," Loy remembered many years later. "The characters were always so nefarious that they had to die at the end." There were a few exceptions to the rule, notably her work as a Southern belle who saves her brother from an unjust murder charge in 1927's The Girl From Chicago, a starring role that led The New York Times' normally caustic film critic Mordaunt Hall to note that "an attractive actress named Myrna Loy officiates [in the film] as Mary Carleton." Loy had a small role in the industry's first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, and had successfully made the transition to all-sound pictures by the time film critic Creighton Peel speculated that Hollywood wasn't taking full advantage of Myrna Loy, whom he thought to be the only potential rival to Greta Garbo . "Myrna Loy has intelligence, and it is high time somebody gave her a decent part. Give the girl a chance!" he suggested emphatically.
A few in Hollywood heeded Peel's suggestion. Rouben Mamoulian cast her as the Countess Valentine in Love Me Tonight, his frothy 1932 operetta with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald . Mamoulian was sure enough of Loy's talent that he created the role of Valentine especially for her, over Paramount's objections, and handed Myrna her lines, scribbled on blue sheets of paper, when she arrived on the set each morning. That same year, MGM gave her the part of Joyce Lanyon in its film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, directed by John Ford, bringing her to the attention of MGM's head of production, Irving Thalberg, who signed her to a contract. To Thalberg's embarrassment, however, it was the two pictures Loy did for RKO, to which Thalberg had loaned her, that indicated her star potential. RKO's two dramatic films, The Animal Kingdom and Topaze, gave the first hint of a range far beyond Hollywood's idea of smoldering Oriental sexpots. This inspired Thalberg to cast Loy in MGM's The Prizefighter and the Lady as a gun moll who falls for a good-hearted boxer, played by real-life pugilist Max Baer in his first film role. The film was directed by W.S. (Woody) Van Dyke, who joined the ranks of Loy converts and cast her in 1933's Penthouse, Myrna's first role in a comedy.
By now, Thalberg was willing to move Loy on to the studio's A-list. She appeared in the first of a number of films with Clark Gable, 1933's Night Flight, and the following year with Gable and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama (the film that had such disastrous consequences for John Dillinger, and the only film in which she appears with her two most popular leading men at the same time). Myrna plays a woman who reconciles two men, friends since childhood,
whose lives have taken drastically different paths—one having become an attorney (Powell) and the other a gangster (Gable). Loy, who confided many years later that she considered Gable "a terrible actor," found working with him challenging. "Clark was always trying to put me on the spot," she later said of their seven films together. "There was a constant one-upmanship. I had to play tough, independent women [opposite him]." But it was a different story with William Powell. "He was so naturally witty and outrageous that I stayed somewhat detached, always a little incredulous," she said. "We felt that particular magic between us." Woody Van Dyke, the film's director, noticed something, too. It was his next film that would make Myrna Loy a star.
A few years earlier, MGM had bought the rights to one of novelist Dashiell Hammett's mystery novels, The Thin Man, in which Hammett had first introduced his debonair if slightly dipsomaniacal sleuthing couple, Nick and Nora Charles, and their mischievous dog, Asta. Hammett had drawn on his own relationship with Lillian Hellman to create the characters of Nick, with his working knowledge of thugs, cops, rackets and molls, and Nora, from a more socially impressive and wealthy background, but with an almost anthropological interest in her husband's former milieu and a talent for quickwitted riposte. Thalberg assigned Van Dyke to what he expected to be a typical and inexpensive B picture. Called "One-Shot Woody," Van Dyke was known for his rapid and usually under-budget shooting style. But it was precisely his efficient directing style and the film's short, 12-day shooting schedule that gave the final product the breezy, informal and amusing tone that would also mark six more such films over the next 13 years. Despite the fact that Loy had over 70 films to her credit by 1934, it was the part of Nora that made her career. "It put me right up there with the public and the studio, and it inspired the press," she recalled many years later. "They called me 'the perfect wife's … but at least this wife thing came closer to my own personality." Nora Charles was such a popular figure that "Men Must Marry Myrna Clubs" appeared throughout the country and thousands of women rushed to dress shops to have copies of Nora's wardrobe made for themselves. "She was a working, collaborative wife," film director Alan Pakula, a lifetime Loy fan, said of Nora. "Young guys today … want to marry … bright women with minds of their own, careers of their own, wit, sexuality. Myrna always had that."
The fame Loy achieved came with a price. Always careful to keep her private and professional lives separate, Myrna was dismayed at the publicity that surrounded her marriage to Arthur Hornblow, Jr., in 1936. Loy had met Hornblow some years earlier on the MGM lot, where he was an assistant producer, and their affair during her pre-Nora days had drawn little attention, even though Hornblow was still a married man. The couple's plan to marry quietly in Mexico when Hornblow's divorce from his first wife became final was disrupted by a trail of photographers and reporters, leading Loy to complain, "I can't see what [the marriage] has to do with my work. All I can say is, if you're successful at something, God help you!" The public scrutiny only increased with her performance in one of the best-loved of the "screwball" comedies of the 1930s, Libeled Lady, in which she again appeared with Powell and with Jean Harlow . By the end of 1936, Loy was among MGM's highest-paid stars, earning as much as any of the studio's male stars, including Clark Gable, after waging a successful "equal pay for equal work" fight with Louis Mayer himself.
By the outbreak of World War II, Loy had amply justified her title of "Queen of the Movies" in such films as I Love You Again (once more paired with Powell, with whom she would make 13 films), Third Finger, Left Hand, and in three "Thin Man" sequels. But Loy's private life once again became tabloid news when her divorce from Arthur Hornblow in Mexico and, six days later, her marriage to millionaire John Hertz, Jr., were revealed. (Hertz was the heir to a vast business empire for which his father's rental-car company had been the catalyst.) Myrna's political activism was much reported on, too. She had spoken out publicly against Hitler as early as 1938, loudly enough that by the time of America's entry into the war, Hitler had banned from German movie screens any film in which Myrna Loy appeared. In 1941, Loy's public, to say nothing of MGM, was dismayed with her decision to quit film work altogether and devote herself to war work. "It's an astonishing thing to think that at the peak of her success, she quit acting," close friend Roddy McDowell once noted. "It was like she went into the service." Loy moved to New York and spent most of the war working full-time for the Red Cross, visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals, entertaining troops on leave, and appearing at warbond rallies. She exchanged telegrams with Franklin Roosevelt and, in later life, regretted that she never actually met him, despite several trips to the White House and a close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt . In the midst of war, the president was usually otherwise engaged; on the one occasion when FDR was actually in residence, Myrna had to decline his invitation, citing ill health. What she did not reveal was that John Hertz, whose alcoholism and mental illness she had discovered too late, had thrown a heavy Rodin sculpture at her which left her face bruised and blackened for weeks. ("John always had great taste," she noted drily.) By the end of 1944, she and Hertz were divorced.
The only film in which Loy appeared in this period was released just at the end of the war. It was the fifth "Thin Man" film, The Thin Man Goes Home, after which Myrna decided to devote her energies to postwar recovery and declined to renew her contract with MGM. In April 1945, Roosevelt invited her to attend the San Francisco conference that formally ratified the creation of the United Nations. The following year, Roosevelt named her as the U.S. delegate to the UN's new cultural arm, UNESCO, for which Loy traveled extensively in Europe. But Hollywood wanted her back, and Myrna's marriage in June 1948 to screenwriter Gene Markey drew her back to the camera. Her return to the screen was a triumphant one, with her performance as Milly Stephenson in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler's poignant story of three veterans adjusting to civilian life after wartime service. The film was awarded eight Oscars, including Best Picture, but the film's celebrity was not without political repercussions.
The anti-Communist fervor that began sweeping the nation in the late 1940s was rapidly gathering adherents, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and solidified in Capitol Hill's House Un-American Activities Committee. By 1948, Wyler's film, with its frank portrayal of the difficulties faced by returning veterans, was listed in anti-Communist literature as unpatriotic, Communistinspired propaganda. "You could feel this cold wind blow through Hollywood," Loy recalled. "A terror had seized the whole country, and in Hollywood the terror was that the Communists would take over." Myrna's liberal politics were by then well known, making her immediately suspect, but the daughter of two flinty Montana libertarians wasn't about to bow to pressure. She sued The Hollywood Reporter after an editorial accused her of Communist sympathies, forcing the magazine to print a retraction; and a telegram she sent to the House Un-American Activities Committee bluntly stated, "I dare you to call me to testify." The Committee declined her challenge.
Loy made her last appearance as Nora Charles in 1947's Song of the Thin Man. She then turned to more mature roles in what have since become classics of sophisticated comedy in which her performances, in the words of one biographer, were "as smooth as brandy-laced eggnog." She played the straight man to Cary Grant and Shirley Temple (Black) in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, appearing as the judge who sentences Grant to date her teenaged sister. MGM paired her a second time with Grant in 1948's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and starred her in Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on Their Toes, popular comedies that revolved around the lives of time-study experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their brood of 12 children.
The Ambassador's Daughter, in 1951, marked the first film in 20 years in which Loy did not take top billing. It was a deliberate decision on her part. "There's a big ego problem involved in making that transition," she said. "It was a matter of making up my mind to hang on and wait for star parts, and die of ennui or starvation, or play character roles and keep busy." She chose her roles carefully, however, refusing to take on what she called parts that "those horrible women Bette Davis and Joan Crawford accept." The result was a series of dramatically more interesting parts, including 1958's Lonelyhearts (from the Nathanael West novel "Miss Lonelyhearts"), with Robert Ryan and Montgomery Clift; and her moving portrayal of the bitter, alcoholic Martha Eaton in 1960's From the Terrace, adapted from the John O'Hara novel.
Although she was taking smaller roles on screen, Loy's off-screen life remained as active as ever. In the 1950s, she campaigned in California for equal housing opportunities for minorities, for Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign against Dwight Eisenhower, and for funding for various social programs proposed during the Roosevelt years. Along the way, she amicably divorced Gene Markey and, in 1951, married Howland Sargeant, who had accompanied her UNESCO tour through Europe several years earlier and who had become an undersecretary in the State Department under Dean Acheson. They were divorced in 1960, both Loy and Sargeant finding their careers incompatible. During the mid-1960s, Myrna watched with dismay America's growing involvement in Vietnam; by 1972, she was actively campaigning for Eugene McCarthy's antiwar candidacy. Her beliefs only hardened during the Nixon and Reagan years, Ronald Reagan in particular being a frequent target in the later sections of her autobiography, Being and Becoming, published in 1987. "Can you imagine how all of us who worked for years with Mrs. Roosevelt and her socialist programs feel now, to see them wiped off the map?" she wrote. Early in the Reagan years, Loy pointedly walked out of a formal dinner with the president's daughter and son-in-law after the conversation turned disparagingly to Adlai Stevenson.
Her vow to continue working brought Loy her first theater role in 1966, as the addled mother in a Chicago production of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. She made her Broadway debut in a 1971 revival of The Women, when she was 66 years old. She had already adapted her career to television, where she had appeared as early as 1955 on "General Electric Theater," had starred with Melvyn Douglas in an acclaimed version of "Death Takes a Holiday," and had even appeared in an episode of "Columbo" in 1971. Her final film appearance, in fact, was in a television movie, 1981's "Summer Solstice." Loy played opposite Henry Fonda (in one of his last roles before his death the following year) in a tender story of the relationship between an aging married couple.
There was no formal announcement of her retirement from films; Loy merely choose to spend more time in her modest, one-bedroom apartment on New York's Upper East Side, where she made a point of supporting Democratic causes and keeping up with current events. "It's not always pleasant," she said of her daily scrutiny of newspapers and periodicals, "but it's important." Now in her 80s and in weakening health, she gracefully accepted a special Carnegie Hall tribute in 1985 by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Kennedy Center Award in 1988 (following, ironically, a special ceremony at the White House hosted by Ronald Reagan). In 1991, Loy was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at that year's Oscar ceremonies. It was her last public appearance. On December 14, 1993, Myrna Loy died quietly at home. She was 88 years old.
The many retrospectives of Myrna Loy's work in the years since her death never fail to include her most famous role, and it was in describing Nora Charles that Loy may have unintentionally delivered her own eulogy. "She was courageous and interested in living and she enjoyed all the things she did," Myrna had said of Nora. "You understand, she had a good time, always."
Brock, Pope. "Myrna Loy, So Perfect In Her Way," in People Weekly. Vol. 29, no. 13. April 4, 1988.
Kay, Karyn. Myrna Loy. NY: Pyramid Books, 1977.
Loy, Myrna, and James Kotsilibas-Davis. Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York