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. So debonair, moments later bantering with Powell over drinks. So soignée the next morning, wearing a mink and an ice bag. After The Thin Man, she was enshrined in the nation’s heart as “the perfect wife.”
“I hate that label,” says Loy, 82.
A lady full of soft humor, Myrna Loy doesn’t hate much else. Oysters maybe.
“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.
Élan 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 Von 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 done?”
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 ail-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. Barry-more 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 time.
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. Outré 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 capitulated.
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 about frogs.”