Myrna Loy The Only Good Girl in Hollywood is the first formal biography of the popular star famous for the six Thin Man films made between 1934 and 1947. The subtitle is a quote from director John Ford for whom she worked very early in her career. It was meant as a tribute to her professionalism and scandal-free life.
A major theme of this well researched and thoroughly enjoyable biography is the exploration of a paradox. On one hand is Myrna Loy’s screen image as the perfect wife, a woman able to manage both husband and family with wit and charm; on the other hand is a career woman who lived her life independently. Her four marriages were not successful and early on an abortion rendered her unable to have children. Loy was said to dislike the term “perfect wife.” She insisted no woman could ever live up to it. Far from being a stay-at-home wife, Myrna Loy was a working professional; from the age of 20, she was the sole support of her widowed mother and deadbeat brother.
It’s curious that there has been no biography of the star before this, although author Emily W. Leider does acknowledge an excellent autobiography: Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, co-written with James Kotsilibas-Davis and published in 1987. Included in Myrna Loy The Only Good Girl in Hollywood are 26 pages of filmography and a photo gallery. Lieder, no stranger to Hollywood, has also written biographies of Mae West and Rudolph Valentino.
The actress made 124 films between 1925 and 1980, making her first mark as a dancer and chorus girl. Early on she was cast as an Eurasian exotic, but Loy, whose real name was Myrna Williams, hit her stride with the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. Frequently cast opposite the distinguished William Powell, Myrna Loy was adored by the movie-going public as “the perfect wife.” She sustained this image clear through the Great Depression and capped it in 1946 with her staring role in the Academy Award winner, The Best Years of Our Lives.
Loy’s career began to slow down in the late 1940’s when good parts for women her age were seldom written. In response, she threw her energy into Democratic politics starting with The Committee for the First Amendment, which she and three others in the film industry founded. The Committee was formed in 1947 to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings into alleged communist influence in Hollywood. These were treacherous waters to wade into. Loy later put her energies into the less controversial presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.
Myrna Loy made a significant contribution to the cinema during Hollywood’s golden age. If her life and work seem contradictory, the author reminds us that she was raised on a ranch in Montana. She grew up tough, resilient, smart, and unwilling to remain silent when something needed to be said. The way she played her movie character Nora Charles is perfectly consistent with her background as an independent frontier woman.
In 1990 Loy was recognized with a special Academy Award “for her career achievement.” By then, at age 85, the actress was too ill to travel and addressed the academy briefly from her New York apartment. She died three years later. Author Emily Leider demonstrates in this moving biography that Myrna Loy was truly a woman ahead of her time, and that’s reason enough to want to read about her and watch her films today.