Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood by Emily W. Leider
From the beginning, Myrna Loy’s screen image conjured mystery, a sense of something withheld. "Who is she?" was a question posed in the first fan magazine article published about her in 1925. This first ever biography of the wry and sophisticated actress best known for her role as Nora Charles, wife to dapper detective William Powell in The Thin Man, offers an unprecedented picture of her life and an extraordinary movie career that spanned six decades. Opening with Loy’s rough-and-tumble upbringing in Montana, the book takes us to Los Angeles in the 1920s, where Loy’s striking looks caught the eye of Valentino, through the silent and early sound era to her films of the thirties, when Loy became a top box office draw, and to her robust post–World War II career. Throughout, Emily W. Leider illuminates the actress’s friendships with luminaries such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford and her collaborations with the likes of John Barrymore, David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn, and William Wyler, among many others. This highly engaging biography offers a fascinating slice of studio era history and gives us the first full picture of a very private woman who has often been overlooked despite her tremendous star power.
In the spring of 1905 Della Mae Williams, pregnant with the baby girl she and her husband, David, would name Myrna Adele, decided to take a hike. While David journeyed by rail to Chicago to sell cattle, she set out with friends from her home on the Williams family's ranch in southwestern Montana's Crow Creek Valley, traveling south, probably in a wagon pulled by a team of ranch horses. She packed a knapsack, donned sturdy boots and a sunbonnet, tied a rope around her thickening waist, and joined a group of climbers determined to scale the highest peak in the southern Rocky Mountains. Della climbed all the way to the top, a triumph that someone in the party not only recorded with a Kodak but also made public. A photograph of Mrs. Della Williams, the first white woman known to have packed through to the mountain's summit, would soon adorn the cover of Field and Stream (BB, 10).
When he saw his wife's picture smiling from the front of a popular magazine, David exploded. Although a genial man, and a free thinker when it came to religion—after being elected to the Montana state legislature in his early twenties, he wrote "none" when asked to name his church—"Honest Dave" 's ideas about womenfolk had always been more conservative than those of his strong-minded, high-spirited wife. He never did come to terms with Della's habit of taking off without him every now and then, a tendency she would indulge periodically during their fourteen years as man and wife. Her love affair with California would one day threaten the stability of their marriage. This spring he soon got over his pique. An openhearted man, he rarely held a grudge.
On August 2, 1905, several months after Della's audacious hike, she and David welcomed their first-born, a child who would share Della's spunk and David's concern for others. The robust infant came into the world in the city of Helena, not at the ranch, and the facts that she was born in a hospital and "attended by a physician" hint of her family's relative prosperity. Doctors were scarce in sparsely populated Montana.
The baby's Celtic good looks immediately commanded attention. She had a well-knit, long-limbed body, gray-green almond-shaped eyes, wide cheeks, a rosebud mouth, fair skin that would freckle easily, and abundant carrot-colored hair. Her pert nose tilted up, like the nose of her Welch-born paternal grandmother, Ann Williams, who also had red hair. Della's Scottish mother, Isabella Johnson, who lived four miles from the ranch in the tiny town of Radersburg, used to press down on that up-tilting nose every time she rocked the baby to sleep, trying in vain to flatten it and make it more like the noses in her side of the family. The nose would one day become a movie star's signature, coveted by many women and even copied by some with access to plastic surgery. Though David would never have approved, had he survived to see it, his daughter's adult face would be recognized around the world, adorning the covers of countless popular magazines.
Della and her mother, Isabella, wanted to name the baby Annabel, combining Isabella's name with "Ann," the name of David's recently deceased mother, but the women lost out this time, to David. On one of his frequent trips by railroad to sell livestock, he'd taken a fancy to "Myrna," the name of a whistle-stop town his train clamored through. He insisted that his daughter be called Myrna. There was consensus about the baby's middle name, Adele, a version of "Della." Being named after a train station would turn out to fit the restless Myrna, who would travel widely and change her address often. "I don't like to stay very long in one place," she once told a reporter.
Wanderlust ran in both the Johnson and Williams families. Seeking a better life, all four of Myrna's grandparents had crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the United States in the 1850s or 1860s: two came from Wales, one from Scotland, and one from Sweden. Myrna's personality, a writer for a fan magazine would claim, mingled the national traits of her forebears. "She has the reserve of the Welsh, and a good deal of the canniness of the Scot. Didn't Sweden produce Garbo, the exotic?"
Myrna's wayfaring grandparents, ever on the move as they sought abundance on the western frontier, traveled by ocean steamer, covered wagon, stagecoach, freight wagon, ox train, horseback, riverboat, railroad, and even by foot before all four landed forty miles southeast of Helena, where the Bozeman-to-Helena stage road crossed Crow Creek at the gold-rush mining town of Radersburg. At the time they arrived, the sprawling Montana Territory—559 miles long along the Canadian border—was both isolated and "practically uninhabited. One could travel for miles without seeing so much as a trapper's bivouac. Thousands of buffalo darkened the rolling plains. There were deer, antelope, elk, wolves and coyotes on every hill." Before the 1883 arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the railroad station nearest to Radersburg was more than six hundred miles distant, in Corinne, Utah, a stopping place for stagecoaches and freight teams.
The population of Radersburg, located on the plains in the shadow of the snowcapped Big Belt and Bitterroot mountains, never amounted to much. At the peak of the gold rush, in 1869, it reached its high point: one thousand residents. This was the period when Myrna's grandparents arrived, joining other settlers descending on the boomtown from all over the map. The number of citizens in Radersburg had dwindled to 169 by 1880, the year Della was born, compared to three thousand in Helena. With a population of seventy in the 2000 Census, it seems well on its way to becoming a ghost town.
To get to Montana Territory, Myrna's pioneer grandparents braved blizzards, rockslides, wind, rain, insects, sleet, and dust storms. They forded streams, coaxed rickety wagon wheels out of muddy ruts, and urged fly-plagued mule trains and recalcitrant livestock over makeshift bridges. They ascended mountain passes on treacherous trails, camped out on the open prairie, nursed sick children, and left behind injured or dead horses and cattle. On the overland trail they encountered Indians, both friendly and not. On a freighting trip to Montana Myrna's grandfather D. T. Williams "met friendly Indians at Campbell's Creek; they showed many scalps of white men on long poles." Williams and his party bowed their heads in prayer as they drove past gravesites marking recent burials. By the end of their journey each weathered immigrant surely knew, if he or she hadn't known before starting out, how to skin a buck, tan a hide, hitch a wagon, dress a wound, and fire a gun. Among the family treasures that Myrna still owned in the 1940s was a pair of pistols and a flintlock rifle.
The adversity the new settlers faced once they arrived in Montana Territory began with the struggle to get water, which had to be hauled from Crow Creek, "unless there came a drifting snow and one went to the work of melting it." They quickly built houses made of logs, with sod roofs and dirt floors. Eventually they constructed more substantial dwellings, where kerosene lamps or candles supplied light after the sun went down. Wood served as fuel and cost six dollars a cord, unless you felled the trees yourself. Chamber pots or the outhouse—not a friendly place when the temperature plunged below zero—made do as bathrooms. Unless you were a fearless rider with a good horse, or commanded your own buckboard, getting out of town could present a challenge. Roads were few, unpaved, and for many months in the year were buried under snowdrifts. The stagecoach from Bozeman to Helena stopped in Radersburg only three times a week. Hiring a livery to Helena would cost you a day's time and set you back thirty-eight dollars.
Della's father, John Johnson, was a carpenter who hailed from Göteborg, Sweden. His first stopping place in America had been Chicago. In 1867, at age twenty-seven, he had walked the 150 miles to Radersburg from Fort Benton, where the Missouri River steamer from St. Louis had deposited him. He and his friend Albert W. Sederburg, also a Swede and a carpenter, gallantly gave up their seats on the stagecoach to two ladies in need; hence the long hike (BB, 7). John Johnson headed for Radersburg after gold had been discovered at the Keating and East Pacific mines, hoping for a lucky strike at a time when fortunes could be made with a flash in the proverbial pan.
John Johnson and A. W. Sederburg tried their luck in the gold-rich streams and quartz mines but soon settled for a surer way to survive. As partners they opened a cabinet shop in town, on the ground floor of a two-story log building they constructed, which also housed the Masonic temple. There they built and sold tables, dressers, bedsteads, washstands, chairs, and cedar caskets. John Johnson continued placer mining, too, during the warmer months and, when Della was only eight, made a habit of taking her along to the diggings.
Myrna's paternal grandfather, David Thomas Williams, a rancher, died at age sixty-eight, the year before she was born. Known as D. T. Williams, he started out on a Welsh farm in Neath, near Swansea, sailing at age twenty from Liverpool to Philadelphia in 1856. If he'd remained in southern Wales, where coal mining, copper smelting, and the railroad were blackening the cities, he believed his scant resources and lack of education would have condemned him to a grim future. In 1880, twenty-four years after emigrating, he still could not read or write English, according to the U.S. Census. When he was new to American soil, he tried coal mining in Pennsylvania, then gold mining in Mason City, Virginia, and the California Sierras, before making his way to Austin, Nevada. There he met his future wife, Ann Morgan Davis, she of the auburn hair, tilted nose, green eyes, and freckles that Myrna would inherit. To convince Ann and her immigrant Welsh parents that he would make a trustworthy husband, Williams went into business hauling freight from Salt Lake City with two four-horse teams. Having impressed his future in-laws, he married Ann in Toole, Utah, but the couple did not linger there. After their first child was born, they switched from hauling freight to ranching and moved to Elk City, Idaho, where they raised cattle and horses and had a second child. The enterprising and tireless D. T. had his eye on the open range of Montana Territory, which offered cheap land for homesteaders, lots of it, and was booming. Now that gold seekers were flocking to the mining camps, they would need horses for transportation, herding cattle, and plowing. The newcomers would be hungry for beef and bread, as would the settlers at military forts and Indian agencies. Boardinghouses would need milk and butter. The recently arrived cowboys and farmers would be donning leather chaps, vests, and boots, all of which made horse and cattle ranching and wheat farming seem to him winning undertakings, despite the relentless toil and hardship they entailed. D. T. and Ann set out in 1870 for Montana's Crow Creek Valley, each driving a wagon. The pregnant Ann drove their two children and her blind mother, along with blueberry and gooseberry bushes and apple tree seedlings to transplant in Montana (BB, 4–5). When Myrna revisited the ranch a final time in the early 1980s, a few of Ann's gnarled apple trees were blooming in what used to be her orchard.
Whenever Myrna recalled stories about her frontier forebears, she wondered at their grit, can-do spirit, resourcefulness, and courage. She did not share the scathing opinion voiced by her father's friend, the celebrated western painter Charles Russell, that the pioneer should be seen as a despoiler, a desecrator of virgin land who "traps all the fur, kills off all the wild meat, cuts down all the trees, grazes off all the grass." She hailed Grandfather Williams for his up-by-the-bootstraps rise from the poverty of his boyhood and for accumulating enough Montana land and stock to render him one of the wealthiest men in his county (which was Jefferson County first, then became Broadwater after 1897). Under the 1862 Homestead Act, which Abraham Lincoln had signed, in 1870 the newcomer D. T. Williams could and did acquire 160 acres of public Montana Territory land in the Crow Creek Valley, land that had long been a buffalo hunting ground for migrating Flathead, Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Crow Indians and, since the coming of Lewis and Clark to the Missouri River headwaters in 1805, had seen an occasional white trapper, hunter, fur trader, or mountain man. With the advent of the gold rush, farmers, other ranchers, and a few merchants and innkeepers were beginning to join the miners invading the area, the only valley of the Missouri River.
To take title to the 160 acres, D. T. Williams had to "prove up." That meant he had to live on the land for five years and make improvements on it. He built a log house, chicken coops, a barn, corrals, and split-log fences. Fifteen years later, under the Desert Land Act, he bought another two hundred acres for twenty-five cents an acre, parts of which he had to irrigate with ditches, for despite the Crow Creek, the land was often dry. He planted acres of wheat, displacing wild grass, buffalo berry, brush, pine, cedar, and willow trees. Myrna boasted that by the time Montana became a state, in 1889, her grandfather owned fifteen hundred head of cattle, many horses, and most of Crow Creek Valley's acreage (BB, 6–8). He held stock in several mines, as well.
For all her pride in the prominence of D. T. Williams and the craft and industry of her Johnson grandfather, Myrna identified most with her grandmothers. "They've always been heroic figures to me," she said, "my two grandmothers, coming from protected childhoods in Wales and Scotland to a strange land, fighting like hell to make civilized environments for their men and children" (BB, 7).
Twice widowed by the age of forty-five, Grandmother Isabella Giles Wilder Johnson was the only one of Myrna's grandparents that she actually got to know, the other three having died before she came into the world. Grandmother Johnson rarely complained. "She never took anything as a hardship. She had a lusty, fearless joy in life, and hardships were a part of life and you took them standing up." Born in Largs, Scotland, Isabella had set out on a sailing vessel from Scotland in her teens. She traveled with an aunt, leaving behind her bereft mother and many siblings. In America Isabella married at age seventeen, but her first husband died in Iowa, where they had been living. She arrived in Radersburg as a widow with a four-year-old son, James Wilder (BB, 6–7). No doubt she hoped to be able to support James with what she gleaned from the diggings in Montana gold country. When she joined a wagon train to cross the plains, she brought along her cut glass and French china. Soon after arriving in Radersburg, she married the Swedish carpenter John Johnson, who with his partner, Sederburg, built them a house. The Johnsons would have three children, of whom Della was the youngest.
Compared to Europe and the eastern states, the western mining frontier offered women greater independence, more social flexibility, and an opportunity to speak out. For a woman to work outside the home was not unusual in Montana. Myrna's Johnson aunt, LuLu Belle, became county treasurer, and Myrna grew up hearing spirited political talk around the dinner table. That an aunt sought and won public office is not surprising. The Williams family lived in a state that would follow the leads of other western states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Washington, California, Kansas, and Arizona—in granting women the vote in 1914, six years before the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchised women nationally. Montana in 1917 elected Jeanette Rankin the first U.S. congresswoman. Myrna Loy always attributed her own political activism to the atmosphere in her home and home state. As she saw it, the scant number of Montana citizens made each voice count for more.
Della's uppity spirit was a source of strife, contributing to a contentious marriage that survived several separations. David's quarrel with her about her picture on the magazine cover was neither the first nor the last of its kind. Though Della and David knew one another from childhood, they saw the world differently and often took opposite sides in an argument. He was a Republican, she a lifelong Democrat. The pleasure-loving, musical Della, an accomplished pianist, studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and, before marrying, had considered a career as a concert artist, but she said, "I had to abandon all thoughts of realizing that ambition when I married." She continued to enjoy performing on the piano and organ.
1. The Climb 2. Not Your Typical Helena Girl 3. Life without Father 4. Enter Myrna Loy 5. Warner Bros.’ Exotic Vixen 6. Breakthrough 7. Cutting the Veil 8. Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man 9. Myrna Loy vs. MGM 10. Mrs. Arthur Hornblow Jr. 11. Wife vs. Mistress 12. Trouble 13. Things Fall Apart 14. Rebound 15. Postwar 16. Breaking Away 17. Mrs. Howland Sargeant 18. New York Ending
Appendix. Myrna Loy’s Film, Television, and Theater Credits Notes Bibliography Index Plates follow page
What People are Saying About This
From the Publisher
"A top-notch biography of a great performer. . . . Highly recommended."Choice
"A crisp, smart biography."Washington Post
"Loy's gifts are easy to enjoy, hard to describe. She's been lucky in attracting an even-tempered sympathetic biographer like Ms. Leider, whose book, like the best of its genre, sends you back to the films."Wall Street Journal
"This is a must read for anyone who is a Myrna Loy fan."San Francisco Book Review / Sacramento Book Review
"Reveals the shy, warm, and modest figure behind the image of the cool, chic urbanite. . . . Leider's books are smart and witty trips through the lives of her subjects, and this work is no exception."Library Journal
Myrna Loy 3.8 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
Myrna Loy is one of my favorite actresses, so I was excited that there was finally a biography of her. Now, I haven't finished yet -- I'm only up to page 110 -- but boy, howdy, it's turning into a long slog! The first few chapters, on Loy's childhood and family situation, are interesting. Ironically, it's once she begins working in movies that the book becomes a bit of a snooze. The author's formula is roughly this: Myrna began working on this film in year X. Synopsis of plot; synopsis of Myrna's role. How Myrna felt about the role. A smidge of personal information: did she like her co-stars, did the leading man hit on her? Very brief. Then any good notices she received. Then onto the next film. Repeat. Feels a bit like a forced march to me; like I said, I'm only on page 110, yet it's become almost a chore to read this thing and I'm not sure I'll finish. Oh, and Myrna doesn't seem to have liked the actresses in her peer group who would have been her "competitors," whether intentionally or not, which doesn't strike me as very attractive.
More than 1 year ago
Completely researched and well written, this book pays tribute to one of the finest actresses that has ever graced the silver screen. This work captures the private, unseen life of a woman who truly stands out from among her peers in both her actions and her grace. The only book you'll ever need on star who captured our hearts in such films as "The Thin Man" and "Best Years of Our Lives." A must have for your personnel library. Now if only someone could do as great a job for her frequent co-star, William Powell.
More than 1 year ago
Ms. Leider acknowledges early on that Ms. Loy did not give a lot of personal info in interviews and letters of possible interest did not survived, but a sour note is that this book is more of a movie review than a bio. Half of the book is composed of complete story lines from Ms. Loy's movies. One of my favorite actresses appears to have been a doormat for a vindictive father, four husbands, a controlling mother and a non-working brother.
More than 1 year ago
I grew up watching Myrna Loy movies on TV. She was an icon, someone for a young girl to pattern herself on if she wished to be witty and elegant. Wit and elegance were not merely in the roles Loy played -- in real life she was a generous woman who was involved in world politics through the wars and upheaval that occurred during her lifetime. I didn't know that Myrna Loy had started in silent movies; now I do because the book contains a complete filmography. And I learned about some of her best films which have rarely been on TV. I loved reading every word of this biography. The author gives full credit to the parts she used from Loys's autobiography and adds much more to that based on her own research, with great detail on Myrna Loy's private life and her career.
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