So perfect in her way, it almost seems we imagined her
by Pope Brock
People Magazine April 4, 1988 page 47
Chicago, 1934: John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1, goes down full
of bullets outside the Biograph Theater. The papers say he was betrayed
by a "lady in red." Actually he was betrayed by Myrna Loy. Dillinger,
a big fan of hers, had crept out of hiding to see her latest picture, Manhattan
Melodrama. As he was leaving the theater, G-men got him. Cause of death:
love of Loy. Interesting that Dillinger, bank robber and killer, was also
a bellwether of popular taste. Myrna Loy wasn't even a big star then. She
didn't become one until several months later when she bewitched America
in The Thin Man, in which she and William
Powell played the jaunty husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora
Charles. What an entrance she makes: hauled into a nightclub by a dog on
a leash, spilling Christmas presents, sprawling, sliding across the floor.
Sodebonair, moments later bantering with Powell
over drinks. So soignee the next morning, wearing a mink and an ice bag.
After The Thin Man, she was enshrined in the nation's heart as "the
"I hate that label," says Loy, 82.
A lady full of soft humor, Myrna Loy doesn't hate much else. Oysters
"The climax of The Thin Man," she says, "the
dinner table scene where Bill
unravels the plot, took a long time to shoot. Bill
had trouble with all those lines. Well, they kept serving the same oysters
over and over again, and finally under those hot lights they putrefied.
I couldn't look at an oyster for ages after that."
She is sitting in her pleasant Manhattan apartment overlooking the
East River, a blond-wood cane beside her. Her autobiography has recently
been published -- Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. Co-author James
Kotsilibas-Davis is seated nearby. As she tells the oyster story, you're
struck by her hearty chuckle.
And distracted by her nose. There it is, the most famous nose of
the '30s, the sleek, sassy nose that sent hordes of women to plastic surgeons
for copies. Elan fills her films of the '30s and '40s, the ones with Gable,
Tracy and Cary
Grant, but especially the ones with Powell.
The two starred together 13 times, more than any other team on the screen.
Throughout, Myrna Loy is as smooth as a brandy-laced eggnog. Very sexy
too, with her marvelous voice, like a hoarse flute. She has a way of eyeing
leading men with a gravely elfin look. No wonder that after The Thin
Man, Men Must Marry Myrna clubs popped up all over the country. Nick
and Nora Charles! There hadn't been a marriage like it since the Hotspurs,
certainly not in a Hollywood film.
Today, Loy's movies are popular all over again because the kind of
wife she played all her career -- the spirited equal -- is an '80s ideal.
As director Alan Pakula (Klute, Sophie's Choice) says: "She
didn't do the dominant woman alone, the Bette
Davis- Joan Crawford thing.
But she was certainly postfeminist in terms of the characters she played.
In the Powell-Loy pictures,
the relationship between those two was as deep and as alive and as true
as in any complicated story about a marriage I think you can have. And
she was a working, collaborative wife. To young guys today, that's the
fantasy American woman. They want to marry bright women with minds of their
own, careers of their own, wit, sexuality. Women who are a match. Myrna
always had that. At the same time you always felt she really cared about
her man in some very simple way.
"But there's nobody like her in the movies today. I wrote a
screenplay recently, about marriage, and when I finished I thought, 'Well,
Myrna Loy in 1940, she'd be wonderful. I wish. . . .' I'm still looking
for Myrna Loy." "Storm's coming," says Loy, pointing to
a couple of bruise-colored clouds over the river.
No rain is forecast.
"I'd believe her," says her biographer, Kotsilibas-Davis.
"She's from Montana. She knows the sky." A mountain girl, she
was born Myrna Williams in 1905 and reared on a ranch. Myrna was the name
of a whistle-stop her father noticed from a train. Loy was a noise suggested
20 years later by a Russian she knew who liked the sound poems of Gertrude
Stein. When Loy was a youngster, her family moved to Helena, where one
of the neighbors was a kid named Gary
Cooper. Some 75 years later, Loy recalls how they once grubbed around
in a cellar looking for a jar of apple jelly. Kotsilibas-Davis says it's
too bad she and Cooper never
did a film together.
"Oh, I don't know," says Loy. "Gary
wasn't funny enough, and I wasn't serious enough. So what could we have
After her father died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, her mother
moved the family to California, outside Hollywood. By now Myrna was turning
into a quaint, copper-haired beauty, mad for the dance. Her first job out
of high school was cavorting in pageants at Grauman's Egyptian Theater.
Then Rudolph Valentino plucked her out of the chorus and gave her a screen
test; since life doesn't imitate 42nd Street, she failed it.
Soon, though, her beauty began to get her parts. Little parts, like
"a hedonist" in Ben-Hur. Producers were both entranced
and baffled by her. Something about the tilt of her eyes. . . . The future
symbol of all-American womanhood served a zany apprenticeship: nine years
playing mostly Asian vamps.
Fah Lo See, Nubi, Yasmini, Narita -- Myrna played them all. So expert
did she become playing ladies of the Sino-sinuous sinful sort that Irving
Thalberg tried to cast her as an evil trapeze star who marries and
murders a midget for money in the still-notorious shock film Freaks.
That she managed to avoid.
Sprinkled here and there were better roles, such as Ronald Colman's
mistress in Arrowsmith (1931). At last director W.S. Van Dyke, spying
in her a saucy Caucasian, cast her in The Thin Man. She had made
more than 80 films. In her autobiography, Loy tells tangy tales of her
glory years as a movie star, after her first marriage to producer Arthur
Hornblow in 1936, living in the Hollywood Hills. Lots of chic escapades:
capturing and feasting on her landlord's peacock; attending a famous full-dress
Mozart party; pulling diminutive composer Jerome Kern out of a pot on her
porch (he had climbed inside to hide and got stuck). She discusses the
films too, including her several hits with Clark
Gable, such as Wife vs. Secretary and Too Hot to Handle.
In 1936, after a nationwide poll, columnist Ed Sullivan of the New York
Daily News crowned Gable and
Loy king and queen of the movies. Today she likes to recall romancing Gable
on a farmhouse porch in Test Pilot -- an especially charged love
scene, she says, because they never touch. Still, Loy doesn't mind admitting
the king's shortcomings.
"Oh, Clark was a
terrible actor," she says. "He couldn't act his way out of a
bag." Aside from one provocative remark -- "A lot of girls who
later became stars used to slip over the border for wild weekends with
the President of Mexico" -- there's not much sex in Loy's book. Unless
you count thwarted passion. Her relationship with Powell
was devoted and platonic, but she fended off quite a few others. Barrymore
wanted her. Gable, Tracy.
Even art historian Bernard Berenson ("Come into the garden and hear
my nightingales. . . .").
Loy didn't do all the rejecting. "I had a big crush on Tyrone
Power," she says. "It didn't do me any good." And she had
a thing for a man she never met: FDR.
She was Roosevelt's favorite actress. "We carried on a long-distance
infatuation throughout World War II," Myrna Loy remembers, as light
rain patters at the window. "He was always sending me telegrams, trying
to get me to come to Washington. But I could never go when he was there.
The times I did get there, he was gone. It's a very sad story." She
thinks it over. "Probably very lucky." After the war came what
was perhaps Loy's finest work, in William
Wyler's Academy Award-sweeping The
Best Years of Our Lives (1946). In this one, Loy brings dark new melodies
to "the perfect wife." First, her soldier husband, played by
Fredric March, arrives home
in a poignant reunion scene. Later, Teresa
Wright, as their daughter, accuses her parents of never having "had
any trouble of any kind." Turning to her husband, Loy responds:
"We never had any trouble. How many times have I told you I
hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you
were sick and tired of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have
we had to fall in love all over again?"
In real life, Loy has been four times married -- to Hornblow, tycoon
John Hertz, writer Gene Markey and diplomat Howland Sargeant -- and four
times divorced. Having grown up believing a wife should be not just perfect
but "Oriental," as she puts it, she was caught between trying
to excel in that role and pursuing a major career. She had a talent for
love but not for marriage -- at least marriage as it was viewed at the
An actor friend tells the story of discovering her at a luncheon
talking to Elizabeth Taylor and Ava
Gardner. Those two were lucky, Loy was telling them, to have been born
in a generation that didn't stigmatize unmarried women. They should consider
the single life. She was there all the way, no defecting to Bobby Kennedy
or anything," says former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, recalling his 1968
presidential campaign. "Myrna was there all the time, bearing witness,
testifying, showing up." Loy worked hard for McCarthy, to stop the
Vietnam war, and before that, in '52 and '56, for Adlai Stevenson. A granddaughter
of pioneers, with a flinty libertarian streak, she has been a lifelong
activist. Outre behavior in a star of her day. But as Burt Reynolds, who
directed her in his 1978 black comedy, The End, says: "The
world has been more important to Myrna than her career. She could always
see beyond Hollywood's city limits."
In the '30s she feared Hitler early. While dining on peacocks, she
was reading Mein Kampf. When she wondered aloud why blacks were always
given servants' roles -- Why not, she suggested, show a black man carrying
a briefcase up courthouse steps? -- she created a hubbub in Hollywood.
She was the first major star to buck the studios in a contract dispute.
The issue: equal pay for equal work. She was making half what William
Powell was, didn't like it and quit work for nearly a year until MGM
During World War II she worked full-time for the Red Cross. "It's
astonishing to think," says Roddy
McDowall, a close friend, "that at the peak of her success, she
quit acting. She made only one film during World War II, devoted her entire
time to the war effort. It was like she went into the service."
In the late '40s, her film career rekindled, she made two fine comedies
with Cary Grant (The Bachelor
and the Bobby Soxer, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) and
became the perfect mother in Cheaper by the Dozen with Clifton
Webb. But political action was filling her life. She fought the Communist
witch-hunt in Hollywood. Then she became deeply involved in UNESCO, giving
speeches for world peace. When her film career wound down (in the '50s
she was playing two-scene alcoholics, dotty aunts), she found success touring
in plays. In 1960 she campaigned for John Kennedy ("His staff said
I got Syracuse for him almost single-handedly"). Later, in California,
she did battle with Gov. Ronald
Reagan over open-housing legislation and for years afterward was a
vigorous member of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing.
The Reagan revolution
sits on her like an anvil. "It's a mystery to me why a lot of people
don't want Democrats. When I was growing up, it was all Democrats. We wouldn't
let a Republican in the back door."
Another mystery: how, like Vanessa Redgrave, she always managed to
keep the hard angles of politics out of her work. How many social reformers
could say they regret never having worked with Fred
Astaire "because we were so much alike"?
Now luminous activist Loy is the latest thing. Recently a big new
revival house opened on 57th Street in New York. It's called (shades of
Dillinger) the Biograph, perfect showcase for her fatal fascination. The
theater's inaugural program, now running, is the films of Powell
and Loy. Maybe the screen romance endures because, devoted as they are
to each other, they always treat their love wryly, as a strange enthusiasm.
The same way Loy confides in Libeled Lady (1936), "I'm mad
© 1988 People Magazine