Actress Myrna Loy might be better remembered today if she’d been as eager to cultivate her Tinseltown fame as actresses Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, and if she hadn’t taken time off to help during World War II. But Loy had other ambitions. “She never thought Hollywood was the whole world,” says Emily Wortis Leider ’59, author of the first biography of the star of The Thin Man and The Best Years of Our Lives.
Slender, graceful, and nuanced, Loy catapulted to fame in the 1930s and appeared in more than 100 films, but ultimately found happiness in activist work, including campaigning for Democratic presidential candidates, working with Eleanor Roosevelt, and serving as a UNESCO delegate.
Loy, who died in 1993, had written an autobiography, but until Leider’s book, she had not been the subject of a biography. Leider, who has authored biographies of star Mae West and heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, was surprised to find herself charmed by the actress. Her book, Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, restores the spotlight to the Montana native whose appealing screen presence made her a celebrated Hollywood idol and gave her star billing with Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and William Powell.
“Myrna Loy is the only one of my subjects I liked better when I finished than when I started,” says Leider, who majored in English literature. “The brilliant [Mae] West was ahead of her time as a writer, comedian, and actress, but she was a narcissist. Valentino’s sudden death at age 31 prematurely ended
the career of a star ‘who never grew up.’”
But Loy was “a well-rounded and lovely human being” with “a charming sense of humor,” says Leider. Loy also had the keen ability to play off her co-stars’ emotions and reactions. “Extremely modern in her minimalist technique, she remains our contemporary in her ability to grow, to stay in the game and continue evolving,” Leider writes.
Loy began her career as a dancer in Hollywood and hit the jackpot in 1934 with MGM, playing the smart socialite Nora Charles in The Thin Man with Powell as her detective husband, Nick. The film struck a chord with Depression-era audiences hungry for humor and diversion. “You might not be living like that, but while you were at the movies, you could dream,” says the author. And Loy, who had star-quality looks and radiated warmth, appealed to both sexes.
She shone in The Best Years of Our Lives, a William Wyler directed movie about the post-World War II lives of servicemen. To play the wife of a veteran, Loy tapped the affecting experiences she had visiting wounded soldiers in military hospitals and nursing homes. “Some were blind,” Leider says, “and they would touch her face and feel her famous upturned nose and say, ‘Yes, this is Myrna Loy.’” Then she would go into the ladies room and cry.
The Best Years of Our Lives won the 1946 Academy Award for Best Picture, but Loy was overlooked when the Oscars were handed out. “She was robbed,” states the San Francisco-based Leider, who spent six years painstakingly researching and writing Loy’s biography. Leider also had the support of Loy’s stepson, John Terry Hornblow (and his daughter, Deborah). Terry was the child of her first husband, director Arthur Hornblow, Jr. The actress, who had no children, sustained a lifelong relationship with Terry and left her estate to his family.
Though her movie roles led her to be tagged with the moniker “The Perfect Wife,” she fared poorly in her private life. She had “terrible judgment” in men, Leider says, and was “a bit of a martyr.” She married and divorced four times. “After the fourth failure, she stopped thinking a man would be the answer to her prayers,” Leider says. “That was a good thing. If it had happened earlier, it would have saved her a lot of grief.”
She found fewer acceptable roles as she aged, although she performed in the nationally touring production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park in the 1960s and appeared on Broadway in a 1973 revival of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women. In 1991 she received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement at the Academy Awards.
“Marital happiness eluded her,” Leider says, “but as an independent woman at the end of her life, she was quite content.”
-by June Bell