Myrna Loy

Hollywood's Perfect Wife

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Myrna Loy acted in 129 movies, formed with co-star William Powell the most prolific pairing in Hollywood history and received an Honorary Academy Award in 1991 for her career achievements. She also appeared in four Hollywood firsts: in the first European-American co-production (the silent film Ben Hur); the first film with a score (Don Juan); the first talkie (The Jazz Singer); and, the first filmed operetta (The Desert Song).  

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Beginnings

Myrna Loy was actually born Myrna Adele Williams on August 2, 1905 in Helena, Montana. She grew up with her six year younger brother David Frederick Williams and her parents in Montana, Her father worked different jobs – from banker and real estate developer to farmland appraiser and he would become the youngest man to ever be selected to serve in the Montana state legislature. 

When Myrna was nine years old, her mother nearly died from pneumonia and in search for warmer climate, Myrna’s father sent them to La Jolla in California. Myrna’s mother was instantly taken by Southern California and convinced her husband to buy real estate there. And he did. One piece of land he would later sell to Charlie Chaplin to build the Charlie Chaplin studios on. Although Myrna’s father tried to persuade her husband to relocate to California, he persisted and the family moved back home to Montana. When her mother needed a hysterectomy though soon after, she went back to LA with her kids – considering the procedure safer there. But the three returned back to the ranch again – until when Myrna was only 13 years old, her father died during the 1918 flu pandemic. And the mother moved her little family to LA permanently. 

Myrna had started dancing lessons during her last short stay in LA and continued her training in Montana. She made her stage debut at Helena’s Marlow Theatre at the age of 12 with a dance she had choreographed herself. She continued her dance studies when she relocated to LA permanently and even changed from the Westlake School for Girls to Venice High School to be able to attend her classes in downtown LA. At age 15, she began to appear in local stage productions. 

Venice High School

Myrna Loy is closely connected to Venice High School and basically its mascot. Why? Because she posed for the  school’s sculpture teacher Harry Fielding Winebrenner when he designed his allegorical sculpture group Fountain of Education. Loy’s likeness and full-length figure was used for the central character and was described by Los Angeles Times as a „vision of purity, grace, youthful vigor and aspiration – with Myrna Loy’s name attached to the sculpture. The first time her name would appear in a newspaper. The statue is still there today, although made of bronze as the original concrete one had been damaged throughout the year by the elements as much as by vandalism. 

Start in the Movies

At age 18, Loy left school to help earn money for the family. She secured her first job at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre; here, she was dancing in the prologues, little musical numbers that entertained the audience before the actual movie started. It was at very job that she got noticed by photographer Henry Waxman. Waxman took pictures of her and those attracted the interest of none other than Rudolph Valentino. At that point, Valention had already married his second wife, Natasha Rambova and they were in the midst of producing their first independent project and – fittingly – looking for a leading lady. So, subsequently, Loy tested for the role, but it went to Gertrude Olmstead instead. But, now, Loy had a foot in the door and was cast soon after as an extra for the movie Pretty Ladies starring ZaSu Pitts dangling amongst other chorus girls from a chandelier. Next, Natacha Rambova did cast Myrna Loy for her movie What Price Beauty? opposite the movie’s star Nita Naldi. Photographs of Loy in her exotic costume and make-up from this particular movie were published in Motion Picture magazine and got the attention of Warner Bros. – who would sign Loy on the spot. It was also at Warner Bros. That the original name of Myrna Williams was changed to Myrna Loy by screenwriter Peter Rurick. Loy would change from Warner Bros. to MGM in 1932 when her 7 year contract expired.

Loy first acted in silent movies and was almost always cast as a vamp or femme fatale, mostly of Asian or Eurasian background – most famously in The Mask of Fu Manchu in 1932 opposite Boris Karloff. About the role as a depraved sardistic daughter of Fu Manchu, Loy is reported to have said on set: „I can’t do this… I’ve done a lot of terrible things in film, but this girl’s a sadistic nymphomaniac.“ But in spite of this typecasting. Loy also got small roles in other movies like The Jazz Singer and Technicolor musicals. But when musicals started to lose drawing power with audiences, Loy’s career got into a slump. But the 1934 movie Manhattan Melodrama opposite Clark Gable and William Powell put her back on the scene. Unfortunately not because of Loy’s superior performance, but because gangster John Dillinger got shot after attending a screening of the movie. Thus, the movie received outstanding publicity – and Loy especially, as some newspaper spread the rumor that Loy had been Dillinger’s favorite actress. Now, Loy was back in the game, back in the audience’s favor. 

Stardom

But what propelled her into stardom was not a movie, but the plunge into a swimming pool. It was during a Hollywood party that director W.S. Van Dyke sensed Loy’s sense of humor and extraordinary wit. In order to test her, he pushed her into the swimming pool. She handled the situation with such grace, nonchalance and humor that he was convinced that she was the perfect Nora Charles. And thus, Myrna Loy’s ascend to stardom started being cast as Nora Charles opposite William Powell in 1934’s The Thin Man. It was actually Louis B. Mayer who initially opposed this casting, believing Loy to only be a dramatic actress. But luckily, Van Dyke insisted and so Loy did indeed play the part of Norma Charles – and the rest, as they say, is history. 

They filmed The Thin Man within three weeks as Loy was supposed to start working on Stamboul Quest shortly after. The Thin Man became a raging success, one of 1934’s biggest hits and got a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Myrna Loy was finally lauded for her comedic skills – and her on-screen chemistry with William Powell got into the annals of Hollywood history as one of the most prolific pairings, with 14 films together. Myrna Loy would later say about The Thin Man that it was the movie „that finally made me … after more than 80 films.“ Powell and Loy would perform the movies also for the Lux Radio Theatre. The Thin Man marked a turning point in Loy’s career and she received better offers and would film many high-profile movies with great co-stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. After garnering great reviews and success as a comedian she would look for more dramatic roles she could work with and was cast opposite Tyrone Power in The Rains Came – the first movie to ever receive an Academy Award for Special Effects.

World War II

During WWII, Myrna Loy hardly worked in the movies but focused on the war effort. Her former co-star Clark Gable enlisted the help of Loy in the Screen Actors Division of the Hollywood Victory Campaign to coordinate entertainers and talent for camp shows, bond rallies and hospital tours. Loy would also appear in several benefit shows to raise money, one of them at Madison Square Garden with some twenty-thousand people, which raised $10 million in bonds. She also helped run a Naval Auxiliary canteen.

She then devoted her time to working with the Red Cross that had asked her to set up entertainment programs for military hospitals and rest centers. She basically became un un-paid full-time assistant to the director of the Military and Naval Welfare Service for the North Atlantic Area. In this role she acted as a bridge between entertainers and military hospitals, setting up visits by performers to wounded members of the armed forces. 

Loy was publicly outspoken against Adolf Hitler – so much so that he banned all her movies from being shown in Germany.  

Later years

After WWII, Myrna Loy would act in several high-profile movies like Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on Their Toes, The Ambassador’s Daughter opposite John Forsythe and Olivia de Haviland, Lonelyhearts opposite Montgomery Clift and Robert Ryan, Midnight Lace opposite Doris Day, From the Terrace opposite Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and 1969’s The April Fools opposite Catherine Deneuve and Jack Lemmon.  She had a supporting part in Airport 1975 and played the mother of Burt Reynolds in the 1978 movie The End. Her last movie role was in the 1980 Sidney Lumet movie Just Tell Me What You Want. 

Later Years - Theater and TV

As many of her fellow movie stars, Myrna Loy also embraced the old medium of theatre as well as the new medium of TV to broaden her options. In 1965, Loy received the Sarah Siddons Awards for her work in Chicago theatre, appeared in Barefoot in the Par at Denver’s Elite Theatre in 1967 and in Janus in 1969. In 1973, Loy made her Broadway debut in a short-lived revival of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women and would tour in a 1978 production of Relatively Speaking. 

Her first appearance on TV was in The Virginian in 1967 and Loy followed it up with appearances on Family Affair, Columbo and Love, Sidney as well as opposite Henry Fonda in the television drama Summer Solstice in 1981. 

In 1985, Myrna Loy was honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special salute at Carnegie Hall which was attended by 2800 guests. But Loy had never received an Academy Award and would only receive an Honorary Award for her career achievement in 1991 after an extensive campaign and and years of lobbying by her friend and colleagues. As she was already frail and in failing health, Loy was not able to attend the Academy Awards and send her thank you note via camera from her New York City home – it was: “You’ve made me very happy. Thank you very much.” It was her last public appearance in any medium. 

Myrna Loy battled breast cancer when being diagnosed with the disease in 1975. She would get two mastectomies but never revealed the disease to the public until the publication of her autobiography. She died on December 14, 1993 in Manhattan during surgery following an unspecified illness. She was cremated in New York and her ashes interred in her hometown of Helena, Montana.  

Political Activities

But Myrna Loy was not only a successful and active actress, she was also politically active and engaged. She also opposed the hypocrisy and racial system of Hollywood in general and MGM in particular and is quoted to have said: “Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant? How about a black person walking up the steps of a court house carrying a briefcase?“ She would later follow this route of social conscience when assuming the influential role of co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing in the 1950s. 

Myrna Loy was very much interested in the United Nations upon its conception in 1945 and visited its temporary headquarters in Lake Success. About this visit, Loy would write in her autobiography: „“I still recall the impact of the proud circle of international flags flying outside those temporary headquarters. A vague concept of world peace had engaged me since my childhood support of Wilson’s League of Nations. Firsthand exposure to the wags of war in burn centers and psychiatric wards intensified it. The founding of the United Nations in 1945 gave it direction, a sense of commitment that my picture career had never inspired.“ But, this feeling and interest came with some challenges. Because, in the beginning, the United Nations was listed as subversive and communist by the US Department of Justice. Thus, Loy was pulled into the workings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She publicly opposed the HUAC and used her promotional movie tours for her quite political statements, which drove her studio insane. Loy, together with screenwriter Philip Dunne and directors John Huston and William Wyler founded the Committee for the First Amendment in the living room of Ira Gershwin. The group described itself as a “non-political organization campaigning only for honesty, fairness and the accepted rights of any American citizen.” The committee rallied several hundred Hollywood actors and actresses together and sponsored their public statements via nationwide radio broadcasts and personal appearances in Washington. Amongst those contributing, apart from the founding members, were Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, William holden, Peter Lorre, Burt Lancaster, Vincent Price, Paulette Goddard, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. 

By 1948, Myrna Loy would also devote her time and energy to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). That very year it also happened that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. invited Myrna Loy to  be his guest at a dinner in New York City for Trygve Lie, the United Nations Secretary General. There, she met Estelle Linzer, a friend of Eleonor Roosevelt who worked as a program director for the American Association for the United Nations (AAUN). They became fast and close friends and Linzer would get Loy on board to actively participate in the AAUN and Loy would make appearances on behalf of the United Nations and give keynotes to women’s groups. She would become part of the board of directors of the AAUN in 1949 

But it went even further. 

When she went to the 1948 UNESCO Pacific Regional Conference, she met and impressed George V. Allen, US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Allen was very much interested in getting the movie industry on board and appointed Loy chairman of what would become the Hollywood Film Committee. Its mission was to nurture international cooperation and understanding.In 1949, Loy accompanied Allen to Paris as a consultant on mass communications to the American delegation at UNESCO’s Conference. She would work tirelessly for the two weeks of the conference and was highly regarded and valued by everyone present for her contributions. 

She was a lifelong Democrat and supported JFK in 1960 and would endorse Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern.

Friendships

Joan Crawford – 20 year-old Myrna Loy and 17 year-old Joan Crawford got to know each other in 1925 as extras in the movie Pretty Ladies. 

William Powell – Myrna Loy and William Powell became great friends during their frequent on-screen appearances and enjoyed their time together. As Powell would later say: “Even my best friends never fail to tell me that the smartest thing I ever did was to marry Myrna Loy on the screen.”

Jean Harlow – Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow starred in a couple of movies, but their friendship started not because of their joint on-screen appearance in the two movies Wife vs. Secretary in Libeled Lady, but because of William Powell. Powell had been Myrna Loy’s partner in crime in the „Thin Man“ movies, which were outrageously successful and he was romantically involved with Harlow after his two failed marriages. It was Powell that introduced these two ladies and these three would share a train ride to San Francisco for shooting exteriors for After the Thin Man. They had booked two rooms at the hotel – but the hotel made an error in assuming that Loy and Powell were married. Obviously their on-screen chemistry as Nora and Charles had clouded their judgement. So, there was a huge suite reserved for them and only one very small hall bedroom. What to do? It was Jean Harlow that would say – according to Myrna Loy’s autobiography: „There’s nothing for you to do,” Jean said, “We’ll just have to put Bill downstairs.“ So, Loy and Harlow shared the big suite and had the grandest of fun there. I quote from Myrna Loy’s book: „That mix-up brought me one of my most cherished friendships. You would have thought Jean and I were in boarding school we had so much fun. We’d stay up half the night talking and sipping gin, sometimes laughing, sometimes discussing more serious things…  Jean was always very cheerful, full of fun, but she also happened to be a sensitive woman with a great deal of self-respect. All that other stuff – that was all put on. She wasn’t like that at all. She just happened to be a good actress who created a lively characterization that exuded sex appeal.“ They really became close friends and Loy was thoroughly devastated after Harlow’s death. She even blamed herself for not getting Harlow away from her mother, who was a practicing Christian scientist and therefore refused proper diagnosis. 

Eleonor Roosevelt – Although Myrna Loy never met President Franklin D. Roosevelt in person, one of her most avid admirers, she formed a close and lasting friendship with his wife Eleanor Roosevelt. Loy would visit the White House many times in her many political functions for the United Nations, UNESCO and in her opposition to HUAC. But, she would also write letters with FDR, and these two would indulge in a long-distance infatuation. 

Estelle Linzer – These two met at a dinner in New York for Trygve Lie, the United Nations Secretary General. There, she met Estelle Linzer, a friend of Eleonor Roosevelt who worked as a program director for the American Association for the United Nations (AAUN).

Jan Masaryk – In 1938, Czech leader Jan Masaryk went onto the radio and gave a speech after the Munich Agreement bemoaning the sell-out of his country. Myrna Loy was the first one to cable him a telegram expressing her sympathy towards him and his country. He cabled back and told the press about Loy’s message. This got to the attention of Hitler and he put her on the blacklist and banned all her movies from being shown in Germany. Their friendships would become one of Loy’s most cherished friendships and Masaryk would later say about her: “Myrna Loy, whose words of encouragement in the darkest hour of my life and the history of my nation helped to give me courage during the seven long years that followed.” Masaryk would die in 1948 and his death moved Loy towards increased activism as Masaryk had served as the Czech United Nations delegate and headed the World Federation of United Nations Associations. 

Romance

When Loy was in her twenties, she got pregnant and opted for an abortion. Unfortunately, the procedure went wrong and Loy would never be able to have children. 

Arthur Hornblow Jr.  (husband #1)– 27 year-old Myrna Loy started dating Arthur Hornblow Jr. who was 12 years her senior while he was still married to his first wife Juliette Crosby. Crosby by the way is best known for originating the role of Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago in 1926. At that time, Hornblow who had served in counter-intelligence in WWII was production supervisor at Paramount. Loy and Hornblow got married in 1936, the year that Loy’s success really took off. Six years into the marriage, in 1942, Loy divorced Hornblow citing mental cruelty. She would later saythat Hornblow was one of the loves of her life, but she would also say “Of course, he just about wrecked my life, too.”

Spencer Tracy – Myrna Loy has been rumored to have had an affair with co-star Spencer Tracy in 1935 and 1936 during the filming of Whipsaw and Libeled Lady respectively. In her autobiography, Loy would recount that Tracy indeed had been chasing after her but met Katherine Hepburn and would tell her „I’ve found the woman I want.“ Apparently, Loy was a bit saddened by this – having someone chasing after you is quite nice after all. 

John D. Hertz Jr. (husband #2) – Myrna Loy married John D. Hertz Jr., advertising executive and the founder of Hertz Rent a Car, only five days after her divorce from Arthur Hornblow Jr. was finalized. After only two years, in 1944, they divorced with Loy – again – citing mental cruelty. Apparently, Hertz was not only mentally abusive to her, but also physically. One time he supposedly hit her so hard that Loy sported a black eye. 

Gene Markey (husband #3) – In 1945, Myrna Loy started to date screenwriter and producer Gene Markey, who had previously been married to movie stars Joan Bennet and Hedy Lamarr. They married in January 1946 and divorced four years later in 1950. 

Howland H. Sargeant (husband #4) – One year later, in 1951, Loy married Howland H. Sergeant, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and president or Radio Liberty. They had gotten to know each other through Myrna Loy’s work with UNESCO and her role at the Hollywood Film Committee. But this marriage also ended in divorce in 1960. 

Style

Myrna Loy’s style of fashion on-screen can be called whimsy simplicity. She wore the fashion of the day, but never over the top. There was usually one particular detail that stood out, but everything else would be subtle and simple to contrast. 

Miscellaneous

  • Myrna Loy was a natural red-head
  • Eleonora Duse was a major influence on Loy, and  – throughout her career – she would try to use and bring to life the simple acting techniques that Duse also applied. 
  • Gangster John Dillinger was shot after a screening of the movie Manhattan Melodrama, in which Loy had a role opposite Clark Gable and William Powell. Some newspapers claimed Dillinger took the risk of going to the screening as Loy was his favorite actress. 
  • One of Loy’s trademarks was her pert, upturned nose. Film critics called it “a wonder of nature” and “a plastic surgeon’s paragon.” In the 1930s, scores of young women begged their doctors to give them Loy’s profile.
  • Myrna Loy’s common nickname was „The Perfect Wife“ as
  • In 1936, Clark Gable was voted by the public the „King of the Movies“ whilst Myrna Loy was voted „The Queen of the Movies“. 
  • Apparently, her closest friends called Myrna Loy „Minnie“. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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