William Powell

Proper and Patient

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William Powell – next to Myrna Loy – is the other half of the most prolific pairing in Hollywood history. 

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Beginnings

William Powell was born William Horatio Powell on July 29, 1892 in Pittsburgh. As a 15 year-old teenager Powell relocated with his family to Kansas City, Missouri and graduated from high school at age 19. He initially enrolled at the University of Kansas to study law. But after only one week he decided to quit and move to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a year he left the academy and began to work in vaudeville and stock companies. It would be ten years before he would start his Hollywood career.

Start in Hollywood

William Powell got his break in Hollywood in 1922 at age 30 as Professor Moriarty in the silent mystery film Sherlock Holmes opposite John Barrymore and followed it up with the Marion Davies movie When Knighthood Was in Flower. 

His first starring role came only after six years in Hollywood in the 1928 movie The Canary Murder Case opposite Louise Brooks. 

Hollywood Stardom

His real success only started in 1934, when William Powell was already 42 years old and had been acting in Hollywood for 12 long years. It was when he got the role of Nick Charles in The Thin Man opposite Myrna Loy as Nora Charles with whom he had already worked in Manhattan Melodrama. The two would star together in 14 movies and – as I already mentioned – became the most prolific pairing in Hollywood history. He would not only star with her in The Thin Man series, but also in The Great Ziegfeld, in which William Powell took on the role of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and Myrna Loy the role of his wife Billie Burke. 

All in all William Powell received three Academy Award nominations: the first was for his portrayal of Nick Charles in The Thin Man,  his second nomination for My Man Godfrey opposite ex-wife Carole Lombard and the third for his role in Life with Father in 1947. Unfortunately, he did not win any of the coveted statues. His last screen appearance was in 1955 for Mister Roberts as part of the all-star cast. 

Health and Death

In 1938, when William Powell was only 46 years old, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and had to undergo surgery and received experimental radium treatment – his cancer went into full remission. Because of the treatment as well as the death of Jean Harlow the year prior, William Powell did not take on any movie roles for over a year. He died at age 91 from pneumonia on March 5, 1984 in Palm Springs, California. 

Romance

Eileen Wilson (Wife #1) – 23 year-old William Powell married Eileen Wilson, who was four years his junior,  on April 15, 1915. They had one son, William David Powell ten years into their marriage and divorced five years later in 1930. Unfortunately, William David Powell, who would became an American television writer and associate producer, died from suicide at age 43 after suffering from depression, hepatitis and kidney problems. Father and son had a close bond and William jr would leave a four page letter addressed to his father closing with the two sentences: “Things aren’t so good here. I’m going where it’s better.“ Father and son are buried close to each other at Cathedral City’s Desert Memorial Park in Riverside County, California. 

Carole Lombard (Wife #2) – One year after his divorce from Eileen, William Powell married Hollywood star Carole Lombard. Their marriage lasted for only two years – their story though is sweet. How did they meet? As already lined out in the episode on Carole Lombard, they met during the filming of Man of the World in 1931. Paramount first was hesitant to pair these two on set as they had quite opposite tempers and natures. But, their on-screen chemistry was palpable for everyone and William Powell himself admitted: “The day I met Carole I had the same feeling as a 16-year-old boy on his first date. I was embarrassed and fidgety. I worried over whether or not I was making a good impression on her.” But Lombard was not won over easily and even when they starred together again in Ladies’ Man, nothing happened. Even though Powell would report that “I think I asked Carole to marry me on average of every half hour.“ The reason basically was that Powell wanted Lombard to stop acting, to stop working and become the wife that he longed for. Lombard of course did not want to do anything of that kind and was quite happy with her career. It was only when Powell changed his opinion and wanted to fully support her career that Lombard agree to marry him. So, they married in 1931. But, they were simply not compatible or as Lombard would say: “We couldn’t make each other happy because there was never complete contact between our minds and our natures… And even though we were devoted to each other and still are, our marriage was doomed to failure.” It was directly after their divorce that their respective careers really took of – Powell found success with Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man series, and Carole Lombard starred in Twentieth Century that showcased her comedic talents in one of the finest and earliest screwball comedies. These two stayed close platonic friends despite the divorce, they valued each other highly. And Powell would only accept his successful role in My Man Godfrey when Lombard was cast opposite him. Powell would grieve Lombard’s early death greatly. 

Jean Harlow – In 1935, William Powell was cast opposite Jean Harlow in Reckless and they would become romantically involved for the next two years. Powell would gift her a ring, but not ask her to marry him – so she called the ring „her un-engagement ring“. Powell’s hesitance to marry Harlow was probably based on his previous experience with Carole Lombard – who was also young and natural, beautiful and an early sex symbol. Powell was 19 years older than Harlow. Maybe he feared that Harlow and he would also start to realise they were quite unalike. I found a passage from Myrna Loy’s autobiography especially touching when it comes to Harlow’s love for Powell: „(She had)… a total childlike love, full of the exuberance and wonder that characterized her. She wanted marriage but he was afraid to marry her [he was , she was 2]. He loved her, but he’d been married twice… and both marriages had gone bust.“

Diana Lewis (Wife #3)  – William Powell mourned the death of Jean Harlow for an extensive time. 3 years to be exact. It was then, in 1940, that 48 year-old Powell met Diana Lewis, a fellow MGM contract actress that mostly appeared in minor roles. One month after meeting, they got married and stayed married for 44 years until William Powell’s death in 1984. Lewis retired from acting and became a full-time wife to Powell. They shared a love for golf as Diana Lewis was an active member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and would set up the William and Mousie Powell Award in 1986, which was renamed to Founders Award in 2019.

Friendships

Clark Gable – William Powell was great friends with Clark Gable after filming Manhattan Melodrama together until Gable’s death. They both were married to Carole Lombard but that did not take away from their friendship. 

Myrna Loy – William Powell and Myrna Loy were never romantically linked – albeit the perfect couple on-screen as Nick and Nora Charles. They were great friends, supported and valued each other and were there for each other  – whether it was on screen or off. 

Style

When it comes to William Powell, style is – once again – the whole package. There is no particular style associated with him. He wore suits the best and – to me – always gave off this air of an English nobleman, distinguished and gentleman-ly. His whole demeanor was one of humbleness, humor, lightness, high education and great wits. It is hard to distinguish the real William Powell from the man that he became on screen. As with many Old Hollywood stars, the image and the person merged into one. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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