Being and Becoming Myrna Loy

On my most recent drive to Miami, I listened to Myrna Loy’s biography, Being and Becoming, which she wrote in 1988. The book is a candid recounting of her life and career as one of the most popular stars of the golden age of Hollywood. Loy was voted the “Queen of Hollywood” in 1936 for the wit and elegance she brought to her over 120 roles. This is in her memory on her birthday.

Myrna Loy was born Myrna Adele Williams in Helena, Montana on August 2, 1905, to a long line of ranchers. Her younger brother David followed a few years later. Myrna admired the strength of her pioneering foremothers greatly as she did her parents, David and Adele Williams, who instilled in her personal integrity and encouraged artistic growth. She also loved growing up in Montana surrounded by animals and trees, close to her grandmother Johnson, whom she adored, and near Judge Cooper and his son Gary.

Myrna Loy in 1931

Grandmother Johnson would take Myrna to see plays when something appropriate played in town. It was a production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird that stayed with the red-headed, freckle-faced little girl and the play she said “finally got me” arousing a taste for performing. Anything but being on the stage suddenly seemed inconceivable to Myrna. She made her theatrical debut playing the prince in Sleeping Beauty before an audience of family and friends. Myrna continued to perform, appearing in the paper several times, which did not thrill David who thought the theater meant one thing, burlesque. Still, his daughter took every opportunity presented her to act and dance and you name it. Show business had seeped into the fiber of her being and there was little David could do about it.

Both of Myrna’s parents were involved in politics, another interest they nurtured in their daughter. To them, and later to Myrna, being an American meant voicing your opinion and standing up for what you believed. Her mother Adele, a liberal, belonged to as many local organizations as she could and was often at odds with her Republican husband. Myrna learned both points of view early, however, which served her future interests well. Both her father and uncle were involved in the Montana State Legislature.

In the fall of 1918, David Williams planned to enlist in the First World War at the age of 39, but influenza arrived in Helena and the Williams family members were stricken. Adele, Myrna and little David made it through, but Myrna’s father did not. She worshipped him and he had died leaving her feeling responsible for her mother and brother at the age of 13.

After David Williams’ death, the family moved to California where Myrna continued to stage dance recitals while longing to be at one of the nearby movie studios. Myrna attended Venice High School after an unsuccessful stint at a snooty school for girls. She thrived at Venice High and their arts programs and when the school developed their annual speech and drama awards thirty years later, they named them ‘Myrnas’. The lily pond that adorns the front of the school was graced with a statue symbolizing aspiration, which is a beautiful statue of Myrna Loy.

The Myrna Loy sculpture at Venice HS

While in high school, Myrna taught dance to young children. Of all the performing arts, Myrna held dance closest to her heart. Her salary as a dance instructor, forty dollars a month, went to her mother for the house. Myrna also filled in as a splicer at Hal Roach Studios. In 1923 Myrna was hired for thirty-five dollars a week working at Grauman’s and Egyptian Theatres with a brother-sister prologue dance act. Her first dance was to open the screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. At this point in her life Myrna was having so much fun she didn’t care about the movies, but one day a photographer was taking pictures of the troupe and focused on the photogenic Myrna. Her pictures were so good the photographer put one of her portraits on his wall, which got Rudolph Valentino’s attention. “Could she come to the studio?” Valentino asked, “I want my wife to see her.” Valentino and his wife, Natasha Rambova, were looking for a leading lady for Cobra, their first independent picture. Myrna went to Paramount, did the test, but was not chosen for Cobra. Gertrude Olmstead got the part instead. Still, the possibility of something different stayed with Myrna who decided before long to leave the routines at Grauman’s in search of something new and hoped to find it at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) where she went every single day to sit on a wooden bench in front of the casting office. Then one day a concerned casting director walked over and gave her a bit part as a mistress in Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur (1925). Just like that Myrna was in the movies as an exotic mistress, a role she would play for the better part of a decade.

As would be the case everywhere Myrna Loy went, everyone at MGM liked her, which resulted in a part in Monta Bell’s Pretty Ladies (1925) starring ZaSu Pitts and Tom Moore. During the making of Pretty Ladies Myrna met Lucille LeSueur and the two became life-long friends. After Pretty Ladies MGM held a contest to find Lucille a new name. The winner was Joan Crawford.

Myrna Loy would spend a good part of her career at MGM, but not quite yet. It was Natasha Rambova who came calling after Pretty Ladies to offer Myrna a small, but showy part as a vamp in What Price Beauty (1925). Although What Price Beauty was not released for three years, pictures of Myrna Williams in exotic costumes appeared in fan magazines, which led to a contract and a new last name. In 1925 she signed ‘Myrna Loy’ on those pictures and on a contract with Warner Bros. after making James Flood’s Satan in Sables (1925), which garnered her great reviews. The exotic vamp role was Myrna’s in movies, on ads, in magazines, you name it.

Her roles may not have been great, but Myrna was having a great time forgetting about her stage dreams while working with great artists like Michael Curtiz and Ernst Lubitsch at Warner’s. When movies transitioned to sound, Myrna was one of the lucky ones who made the leap successfully admitting “even for those of us who could talk, the process was awkward.”

Myrna continued playing exotic women from several nations and varied ethnicities at Warner’s until production chief Darryl Zanuck told her there weren’t enough of “those parts” left for her to play. Myrna was fired. Although devastated, she picked herself up and went to see talent agent Minna Wallis who is credited with discovering Clark Gable and helping the careers of many other notables. Under Wallis’ guidance, Myrna got the opportunity to work freelance in many types of pictures. That is, until Fox gave her a long-term contract and returned her to vamp status. They even marketed her as the “re-vamped vamp,” limiting Myrna’s chances for growth. The highlight at Fox, according to Loy, was Transatlantic (1931) directed by William K. Howard, but one picture wasn’t enough to satisfy her, so she told Fox she wanted out of her contract, and they released her.

Myrna (right) with Greta Nissen and John Halliday in Transatlantic (1931)

Myrna’s boundless energy served her well during the freelance years, a good thing because the work was long and hard at a time before unions. She did a terrific job in several memorable movies during the time including John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931) at Sam Goldwyn’s.

By all accounts everyone who worked with Myrna wanted to work with her again. Minna simply sent her to a producer and Myrna got the job. What Myrna was missing was a studio behind her so Minna Wallis sent Irving Thalberg a clip and Thalberg signed her immediately. What he had in mind, however, was odd. Thalberg wanted Myrna Loy to play the part Olga Baclanova ended up playing in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Can you imagine? Luckily, that did not pan out. Instead, after several years in the picture business and after appearing in sixty movies, Myrna Loy was slated for ingenue roles at the burgeoning lion of studios.

One picture made during this time that Myrna Loy was particularly fond of was Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) made at Paramount starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald. She described this one as the movie in which she realized she could be funny. Critics loved her in it too with several noting she stole the picture. There’s a terrific backstory associated with Love Me Tonight in Being and Becoming about Jeanette MacDonald getting upset because Myrna looked so beautiful in the dresses she was given to wear in the movie. Yes, no one would look at anyone but Myrna in a pink ensemble designed by Travis Banton. MacDonald took one look and demanded the dress be fitted for her. It was, of course since MacDonald was the star of the picture. But when Myrna showed up in the replacement gown everyone’s jaw dropped. Jeannette was none too happy, but Myrna made a splash. Despite that and the fact that Rouben Mamoulian was impressed with Myrna Loy, MGM assigned her more exotic roles like the Javanese murderer she plays in George Archainbaud’s Thirteen Women (1932) and Karloff’s daughter, Fah Lo See, in Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Myrna had had enough. Fah Lo See was her last exotic role.

Myrna in Love Me Tonight (1932)

During the making of Love Me Tonight, Myrna Loy fell in love with lawyer-turned-producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. who would become the first of her four husbands in 1936. Myrna is frank about her relationships in Being and Becoming, personal and otherwise.She talks at length about some of difficulties women encountered with the men who were always on the make like John Barrymore and Clark Gable, although she became friends with them. And she talked about how close she came to losing her virtue with Leslie Howard whom she adored. But the love of her life, it seems to this reader, was Arthur Hornblow though their marriage dissolved in 1942. Myrna admitted she was not good at marriage although she always longed to be the perfect wife. Still, she gave her all in each relationship and admitted not to be one for affairs. If Myrna loved someone, she married that person. Unfortunately, it takes both parties to make a commitment work. In 1944 she married advertising executive John Hertz, Jr. In 1946 Myrna and writer-producer Gene Markey tied the knot, and in 1951, she wed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, Howland Sargeant.

MGM worked Myrna Loy to the bone as was the practice at the time. She made fifteen pictures in two years. Things would change for her in 1934, a banner year in her career as it changed her image for good, introduced her to her most popular co-star, and made her a box office champ. Myrna Loy of exotica was done with for good when she was cast in Woody Van Dyke’s Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with Clark Gable and William Powell, the movie John Dillinger went to see the night he was shot dead. Studio publicists wrote that Dillinger risked capture that night because he was a big Myrna Loy fan. When Myrna Loy heard about Dillinger’s demise, her reaction was, “Oh, that poor man.” Anyway, Manhattan Melodrama is the first of fourteen movies Loy and Powell made together, the first of three in 1934 alone. For the record, Loy and Gable made seven or eight movies together depending on whether one counts their work as extras early in their careers. Manhattan Melodrama is good. You can read a full commentary on that movie here. But it is Powell and Loy’s next pairing, Van Dyke’s The Thin Man, based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, that cemented them as one of the screen’s greatest couples, Nick and Nora Charles.

Louis B. Mayer, the powerful head of MGM, did not want Myrna Loy for The Thin Man, but Woody Van Dyke threatened to walk off the picture, so Mayer gave in. “Only if you make it in three weeks,” Mayer told Van Dyke and the director delivered The Thin Man in sixteen days. Notoriously fast, Woody was famous for his one takes, which Myrna Loy credited with the success of The Thin Man saying it was Woody’s pacing that made the picture. Well, Myrna was extremely modest. She was the one who did the fall that introduces Nora Charles as she enters the Ritz in one perfect take. Further, she and Bill Powell partnered to make a timeless, witty, sophisticated, martini-loving, sequel spawning, husband-and-wife detective team audiences could not get enough of. “There had been romantic couples before, but Loy and Powell were something new and original,” director George Cukor said. “They actually made marital comedy palatable … Myrna gave the wit to the whole thing. They hit that wonderful note because he always did a wee bit too much and she underdid it, creating a grace, a charm, a chemistry.”

The Thin Man made Myrna Loy the perfect wife, “beautiful, funny and never nagged a guy” to paraphrase William Powell. That is perfect and together they defined a modern marriage in 1934. They were so believable as a couple that everyone thought they were married in real life. In fact, the two often received letters from fans seeking marital advice. A favorite story in Being and Becoming takes place during the making of Van Dyke’s After the Thin Man (1936) the first and best of the Thin Man sequels. William Powell and Jean Harlow were engaged at the time. Powell, Loy and Harlow travelled together to San Francisco where some of the exteriors were shot. When they arrived at the hotel, they were told the best suite in the house was reserved for Powell and Loy. Surely the real-life Mr. and Mrs. Charles would want the best room in the place. When they explained the dilemma to the clerk, he apologetically explained there was a conference in house and the only other room available was a tiny one with a small bed in the hotel’s basement. Without missing a beat Jean said, “Bill will have to take the room in the basement” putting Myrna at ease. Bill, on the other hand, complained bitterly all weekend while the girls stayed up all night talking and becoming good friends.

The Thin Man is the best remembered picture of Loy’s career. “Not one day passed that someone did not ask about Bill Powell or Asta,” she said. The miracle of the entire thing was that the chemistry, the trust and understanding, the humor between she and Powell was not conscious. The rhythm between them was instant and remains legendary.

Myrna Loy was at the top. In Late 1936 she was named America’s most popular female star, “the Queen of the movies” in a poll of fans and exhibitors with Clark Gable taking the top male spot. That year Loy appeared in Wife vs. Secretary, The Great Ziegfeld, the delightful Libeled Lady, and After the Thin Man among others. And perhaps her best work was yet to come in standouts like Test Pilot (1938), The Rains Came (1939), I Love You Again (1940), and Love Crazy (1941) before she dedicated herself to the war effort.

Ed Sullivan corwning Gable and Loy King and Queen of Hollywood in 1936

When Myrna Loy did something she put her whole being into it. That’s true of her personal life and it’s true of her career. It is also true of matters of right and wrong, the former held to high esteem. When Myrna became a box office star on par with William Powell with whom she created the admired Charleses, she insisted she should be paid the same as he was, not a fraction. Myrna pushed MGM and eventually went on strike until the studio relented. Loy dedicated the same type of energy and will to helping as much as she could during World War II.

Myrna Loy spent the War years in New York and Washington serving as assistant to the director of military and naval welfare for the Red Cross. Her roles for that organization were varied. Loy also coordinated other star visits to hospitals to visit wounded soldiers. Selling War bonds and volunteering where needed were also frequent actions taken by one whose commitment to activism ran deep. She’d learned the importance of getting involved early in her life and took it seriously. Loy became a representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an officer and adviser of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing and was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, a group of prominent Hollywood actors who protested the actions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Political causes played an important role in Myrna Loy’s life as did her role as American citizen. She was vocal and opinionated about all of it all her life. When The Hollywood Reporter, accused Myrna of being a communist she sued for libel and the paper retracted the charges. Myrna campaigned vigorously for political candidates she believed in and worked for Eleanor Roosevelt whom she admired greatly. Some of the more interesting commentary in her book is related to the dark days of the McCarthy era where she names names of actors who took one side or the other without a second thought to the lives destroyed. Years later when Myrna found herself on Richard Nixon’s White House enemies list it was a matter of pride. Nearly every discussion of Myrna Loy mentions the fact that she was never nominated for an Academy Award, an astounding fact given the variety and popularity of her work. One interesting write-up considers Loy’s political activism as one reason why she was snubbed by Oscar. Politics shaded every aspect of Hollywood thinking and most, if not all, power players were staunch conservatives. While there’s really no way to say whether her liberal political views affected award nominations, it is interesting to think about.

Myrna Loy’s career hardly stalled after the Second World War. She turned in an excellent performance in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), considered by many one of the greatest films ever made. Loy’s performance opposite Fredric March yields several unforgettable, deeply touching movie moments. Here she strengthens the perfect wife role while adding perfect mother to the mix. That is the only way to explain why she was cast in Walter Lang’s Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) opposite Clifton Webb. In this Myrna plays an efficiency expert with twelve children and an extremely fussy husband. In this fan’s opinion, Irving Reis’ The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) is a better fit. Here Myrna plays a sober judge who balances the craziness between Cary Grant (the bachelor) and her younger sister (the bobby soxer) played by Shirley Temple. Similarly, Loy is terrific in H. C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) opposite Cary Grant and Melvyn Douglas. The scene where Mrs. Blandings (Loy) is choosing paint colors is a lesson in brilliant, understated, comedy. That is basically how Myrna described her acting, understated. She never missed a beat with the little things – a twitch of that famous upturned nose, a look, a shrug. In the paint scene it’s the way she waits for the painter to show he understands her very specific instructions when she describes the white color for the kitchen, the way she looks at the piece of yarn. It’s the little things she excelled at that made all the difference. Loy was also pliable depending on who she was playing against, which is a gift even some of the most lauded actors did not possess.

Cary Grant and Myrna Loy are in over their heads in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

I’d be remiss not to mention a few final films in Myrna Loy’s impressive filmography. First, the memorable dramatic performance she delivered as Paul Newman’s shattered alcoholic mother in Mark Robson’s From the Terrace (1960). Then there is her stint as Mrs. Devaney alongside an all-star cast in Jack Smight’s Airport ’75. Finally, Myrna’s final theatrical film appearance in Sidney Lumet’s Just Tell Me What You Want (1980) in which she steals every scene she’s in.

When movie roles stopped coming her way on a regular basis, Myrna Loy made a seamless transition to television and the stage. She appeared on all types of television programs from the 1950s to the early eighties. Her TV career deserves its own dedicated entry as it is substantial. On stage she enjoyed success in such plays as Barefoot in the Park and a revival of The Women. Just imagine seeing her on stage in those.

Myrna Loy died in 1993 at the age of 88. She is buried in her birthplace, Helena, Montana where a center for the arts called The Myrna Loy sits. While Myrna did not receive a competitive Oscar for her work, she was honored both by the Kennedy Center (in 1988) and by the Academy of Arts and Sciences (in 1993) for her life’s work.

There is so much to admire about Myrna Loy: Her absolute refusal to play the Hollywood game. The fact that she possessed an innate will to do right. Her talent. Her beauty. Her grace. Her wisdom and her sophistication, a lethal combination and reasons why Myrna appealed to both men and women. Her genius in playing the perfect wife, but never the subservient spouse. And her compassion. Myrna Loy was always being present and becoming a woman of substance and one of the most enduring movie stars to ever grace the silver screen. I loved spending this time with her and wish we’d been friends.

Myrna Loy  (August 2, 1905 – December 14, 1993) in the 1950s

8 thoughts

  1. Great review. Amazing to think of all those early roles before she became the glamorous, sophisticated star .

  2. This is my favorite autobiography, memoir, in fact one of my favorite books overall; It stayed with me for a long time. Myrna Loy is such an inspiration. Aurora, this is a great overview of an amazing woman.

  3. A marvelous tribute to Myrna, Aurora. Thank you. Her powerful work in “Best Years of Their Lives” has always stayed with me.
    Your article caused me to look for a copy of “Being and Becoming” online. Yikes! Amazon has a copy for $719 while Ebay copies are much cheaper but still average around $100. I think I will have to resort to my local library to track down a copy.

    1. Thanks so much, Charles. I saw the prices online so decided to buy the audio version for now. I have a copy of the book, but in a box somewhere.

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