Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood

Emily W. Leider
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 424
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppqr5
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  • Book Info
    Myrna Loy
    Book Description:

    From the beginning, Myrna Loy's screen image conjured mystery, a sense of something withheld. "Who is she?" was a question posed in the first fan magazine article published about her in 1925. This first ever biography of the wry and sophisticated actress best known for her role as Nora Charles, wife to dapper detective William Powell inThe Thin Man, offers an unprecedented picture of her life and an extraordinary movie career that spanned six decades. Opening with Loy's rough-and-tumble upbringing in Montana, the book takes us to Los Angeles in the 1920s, where Loy's striking looks caught the eye of Valentino, through the silent and early sound era to her films of the thirties, when Loy became a top box office draw, and to her robust post-World War II career. Throughout, Emily W. Leider illuminates the actress's friendships with luminaries such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford and her collaborations with the likes of John Barrymore, David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn, and William Wyler, among many others. This highly engaging biography offers a fascinating slice of studio era history and gives us the first full picture of a very private woman who has often been overlooked despite her tremendous star power.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94963-8
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Plates
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Myrna Loy’s grace and slender elegance, her ease before the camera, and her arresting face had a lot to do with her success on film, but she claimed that stardom entailed more sweat than glamour. In her early days at Warner Bros. she worked nonstop, sometimes moving from set to set in multiple films being shot at the same time. In 1927 alone she played in eleven movies, and she took no vacation until she had been a screen actress nearly ten years. During her six-decade career she appeared in a staggering 124 films, beginning with her debut at age...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Climb
    (pp. 6-17)

    In the spring of 1905 Della Mae Williams, pregnant with the baby girl she and her husband, David, would name Myrna Adele, decided to take a hike. While David journeyed by rail to Chicago to sell cattle, she set out with friends from her home on theWilliams family’s ranch in south-western Montana’s Crow Creek Valley, traveling south, probably in a wagon pulled by a team of ranch horses. She packed a knapsack, donned sturdy boots and a sunbonnet, tied a rope around her thickening waist, and joined a group of climbers determined to scale the highest peak in the southern...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Not Your Typical Helena Girl
    (pp. 18-27)

    When Myrna was five, her parents decided they’d had enough of ranch life. They pulled up stakes and moved to Helena, a former mining camp that had burgeoned into a thriving commercial center and, as Montana’s capital, a political hub. Pitched against Mount Helena and Mount Ascension, with the Big Belt Mountains to the east and spurs of the Rockies poking the sky to the north and west, Helena offered sweeping mountain views and bracing air plus city amenities. Its clanging streetcars, bustling shops, imposing civic buildings, flourishing public library, and lively theater scene must have made it seem like...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Life without Father
    (pp. 28-42)

    In asking Myrna to take responsibility for the family if he died, her father had cast a kind of spell, one that could not be broken. Myrna began to think like a parent instead of a child.

    David’s will reveals that despite his plea to Myrna, he had made other, more hardheaded provisions for the future of his wife and children, plans he hadn’t shared with either Myrna or Della. The last will and testament that David Franklin Williams wrote, or at least put on public record, in Los Angeles in February of 1918 designated his married older sister, Nettie...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Enter Myrna Loy
    (pp. 43-55)

    You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but at eighteen Myrna Williams was a walking battlefield. Opposing impulses tugged at her. The wistful-eyed dreamer contended with the practical, levelheaded miss who learned to drive during her teens and could change a flat tire with dispatch. The withdrawn poetry lover did battle with the striking beauty with fierce ambition to succeed, a need to express herself artistically, and an urge to show off onstage. Her friend Betty Berger, two years younger and still in high school when Myrna began her first professional dancing job, found it remarkable that Myrna felt...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Warner Bros.’ Exotic Vixen
    (pp. 56-76)

    There are at least two versions of the story explaining how Myrna Loy came to be signed by Warner Bros. Myrna’s autobiography credits her first contract as the coup of Minna Wallis, older sister of the studio’s publicist and future producer Hal B. Wallis. Minna, a single woman who got around in social Hollywood, served at the time as private secretary to Jack Warner but would soon become a talent agent representing Myrna Loy, as well as Clark Gable and George Brent. She had an office on Sunset near Bronson, close to Henry Waxman’s photography studio, and Waxman eagerly showed...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Breakthrough
    (pp. 77-88)

    Myrna began the 1930s at a low ebb. At age twenty-five she still lived in a modest Beverly Hills home with her mother, brother, and aunt, and she remained very much under Della’s thumb. Although Myrna supplied the money to buy it, the house they lived in legally belonged to Mother, not Myrna. Clinging to her maternal identity, Della had turned down a marriage proposal because she wanted to “devote herself to her children,” but Myrna had begun to wish that some of her mother’s devotion would find other outlets. Balking at the tightness of Della’s grip, Myrna tried to...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Cutting the Veil
    (pp. 89-111)

    Out of the blue one day Irving Thalberg summoned Myrna to his office. She’d been at MGM for about a year, and she knew that Thalberg, the most powerful and respected producer in Hollywood, didn’t give away his time lightly. She barely knew him, having met him only in group situations, but realized this private meeting had to be about something important. Her anxiety, mounting while Thalberg kept her waiting, escalated into anger when he finally showed up and from behind his massive desk, which was raised on a platform as a way of compensating for his slight stature, addressed...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man
    (pp. 112-131)

    “Myrna Loy and William Powell are the ham and eggs, the peaches and cream, the salt and pepper of the movies,” an MGM scribe commented as their fourth of sixThin Manfilms was being released. “They go together naturally as night and day.” The screen marriage of this matched pair of lithe bodies and insouciant spirits outlasted any of Myrna’s off-screen couplings and for their fans has never lost its luster. Powell and Loy made fourteen films together between 1934 (the year they first worked together, inManhattan Melodrama, and also the year ofThe Thin Man) and 1947....

  13. CHAPTER 9 Myrna Loy vs. MGM
    (pp. 132-148)

    A Hollywood columnist named Robbin Coons visited the set ofAfter the Thin Manin November of 1936. By then, Myrna Loy was nearing the peak of her popularity. AMotion Picture Heraldsurvey had placed her box-office drawing power above that of Irene Dunne, Marlene Dietrich, and John Barrymore but well behind the likes of Garbo and Mae West.¹

    At the time of Coons’s MGM visit the press kept whispering that William Powell and his constant companion, Jean Harlow, might be tying the knot sometime soon. Because of Harlow’s closeness to Powell, Myrna had gotten to know her well....

  14. CHAPTER 10 Mrs. Arthur Hornblow Jr.
    (pp. 149-163)

    “The Arthur Hornblows represent one of the happiest, most devoted couples in Hollywood,” readers of the fan magazineMotion Picturelearned in the fall of 1936, a few months after Myrna Loy and Arthur Hornblow Jr. tied the knot. And that “happiest, most devoted” label was just for starters. The picture-book newlyweds—a busy Paramount producer clad in Savile Row suits, and his charming movie star wife—were building a dream house. “While awaiting completion of the grand new house,” the article continued,“they are spending their honeymoon at Palos Verdes, the swank colony at the shore.”¹

    After years of nail-biting...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Wife vs. Mistress
    (pp. 164-185)

    Asked in 1960 to survey past movie trends, Myrna zeroed in on the changing ways Hollywood had pictured married couples over the decades. “When I began playing leads,” she told the columnist Dorothy Manners,“ the troubles and pleasures of the hero and heroine took them right up to marriage, but never into it. Then there was the phase, which lasted a number of years, in which the theme of many pictures was that it was possible to be happy and content, though married. I thinkThe Thin Manestablished this school of thought. Now we seem to be in a...

  16. Plates
    (pp. None)
  17. CHAPTER 12 Trouble
    (pp. 186-210)

    Jean Harlow’s death in June 1937 came as a blow, to Myrna and to just about the entire American film community. The sudden demise of any twenty-six-year-old jolts survivors, but Harlow wasn’t just anyone. She was Myrna’s dear friend and MGM colleague, the screen’s embodiment of youthful lusciousness. In life Harlow had a childlike quality, an unaffected niceness that clashed with her dangerous bombshell image. Her mother called her “The Baby,” and the words “Our Baby” are inscribed on her tomb. Babies aren’t supposed to die.

    Jean had been Bill Powell’s lover and would-be fiancée for close to three years,...

  18. CHAPTER 13 Things Fall Apart
    (pp. 211-231)

    Myrna never stopped thinking of Arthur as the love of her life. “Of all the men I’ve known, he was the one,” she confessed in the autobiography she published in her eighty-second year (BB, 165). During her later years in New York, decades removed from the break with him, her eyes would fill with tears if she heard a song she associated with Arthur. But Arthur’s feelings for her were another story. His emotional skittishness, need to control every detail, and tendency to hold back had dogged their relationship. Getting married had been Myrna’s dream, not his. As the 1930s...

  19. CHAPTER 14 Rebound
    (pp. 232-247)

    There it was for all to see, in every daily newspaper in the States, even the soberNew York Times: “Myrna Loy Bride of John Hertz Jr.”¹

    Myrna had known John Daniel Hertz Jr. for only a short time when they wed. They met on Hidden Valley Road at a dinner party hosted by Arthur and Myrna in their waning days as a married couple. John’s father, John Hertz Sr., founder of Hertz Car Rental and Yellow Cab, was a hard-driving, rags-to-riches Chicagoan born in Austro-Hungary. A partner at Lehman Brothers and owner of prize racehorses, he had extensive ties...

  20. CHAPTER 15 Postwar
    (pp. 248-263)

    After an association of thirteen years, Myrna Loy and MGM parted company without ceremony soon after she returned to the Los Angeles area in 1945. Already nursing a bundle of grievances from the past, she protested loudly when Louis B. Mayer refused to let her go to England on loan to Noel Coward to appear as Elvira in a David Lean–directed screen version ofBlithe Spirit. Myrna believed she had been born to play Elvira, the ghost wife who haunts her husband’s second marriage. She charged that Mayer was holding her back, chaining her to MGM when he had...

  21. CHAPTER 16 Breaking Away
    (pp. 264-276)

    Even though she received no Oscar or nomination for her work inThe Best Years of Our Lives, Myrna’s participation in the much-honored, widely distributed picture garnished her prestige, jacked up her salary, and boosted demand for her presence onscreen.

    But she could still take a role that did nothing for her status. For the fun of it, rather than as a career move, she made a cameo appearance inThe Senator Was Indiscreet, a farcical political satire directed by George S. Kaufman and featuring white-haired William Powell playing a dim-witted, philandering, blowhard U.S. senator who runs for president but...

  22. CHAPTER 17 Mrs. Howland Sargeant
    (pp. 277-289)

    As the pace of her film career slackened, Myrna took tentative steps into the burgeoning world of television, hoping for a lead role in a series. She never landed one, although she starred in a few pilots made with the hope that a series would ensue. Instead, she appeared several times in filmedGeneral Electric Theaterproductions and on live variety shows hosted by Perry Como and George Gobel. She was Walter Pidgeon’s wife and the mother of Jane Powell, Jeanne Crain, and Patty Duke in a live, made-for-TV remake of the MGM musicalMeet Me in St. Louis. Since...

  23. CHAPTER 18 New York Ending
    (pp. 290-312)

    Over a period of months, work, activism, and friends pulled Myrna out of her depression. It dawned on her, after some extended wallowing, that she needed to get out of her own skin, to get busy and to be around other people.

    Before her fourth divorce was final, she returned to 20th Century–Fox at the end of 1959 to play Paul Newman’s alcoholic and adulterous mother inFrom the Terrace. The role was similar to her battered wife inLonely-hearts, except that this film is in CinemaScope and color, with posh sets providing background for hard-driving East Coast business...

  24. APPENDIX: Myrna Loy’s Film, Television, and Theater Credits
    (pp. 313-340)
  25. Notes
    (pp. 341-364)
  26. Bibliography
    (pp. 365-376)
  27. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 377-380)
  28. Index
    (pp. 381-411)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 412-412)