Actress Myrna Loy, who worked her way through countless roles as exotic vamps before becoming the screen epitome of the American wife, died Tuesday. She was 88.
Loy died at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York after a lengthy illness, according to Pat Sumers, a nursing supervisor. Further details were not immediately available.
Her resume was already 63 films long by the time stardom finally found her in W.S. Van Dyke’s adaptation of Dashiel Hammett’s “The Thin Man,” one of thirteen films, mostly comedies, in which she was paired with William Powell.
Her portrayal of Nora Charles, the sexy, dry-witted, hard-drinking wife of detective Nick Charles, completely altered her persona in the eyes of the American public. The film used her natural intelligence and wonderful comedic timing, developed through years of constant work in thankless roles.
She was President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite actress. And, according to the old MGM publicity machine, gangster John Dillinger was gunned down outside a Chicago theater after an outing to see Loy and Powell in “Manhattan Melodrama.”
“I am a good-hearted girl who knows more about loving than about using men,” Loy once said. But Hollywood initially chose to see Loy, born Myrna Williams in Montana on Aug. 2, 1905, as a provocative siren from the South Seas or the mysterious East. Her name was changed to Loy because it sounded Oriental.
After her father died in 1918, Loy and her family moved to California, where she graduated from Venice High School.
Right out of school she landed a job in the chorus at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and from there won roles in Fred Niblo’s silent “Ben-Hur” and “Pretty Lady.”
“The Thin Man” was the turning point, followed in quick succession by a number of sparkling comedies such as “Wife Vs. Secretary,””Libeled Lady,” and several “Thin Man” sequels. By 1936, she was voted the No. 1 box office star by U.S. theater owners.
At the height of her popularity she took a leave of absence and left for Europe complaining that MGM was paying her only $ 1,500 a week, whereas Powell was making twice that. After a number of legal threats, her contract was revised and the studio awarded her a $ 100,000 bonus.
After “The Thin Man Goes Home” in 1944, Loy left MGM, promising to return only for the detective series.
“Finding ‘The Thin Man’ was an accident, a lucky one for me. But 10 years of that kind of luck is enough. The world’s values change and I will have to change , too,” she said at the time. After the war Loy became a U.S. representative to UNESCO, the first Hollywood celebrity to work for the United Nations. She spoke openly against Sen. Joseph McCarthy and campaigned for civil rights and liberal politicians.
Though she was never even nominated for best actress in her 125 film career, in 1991 the Academy voted her an honorary Oscar for a lifetime of achievement. She was too ill to attend.
She married her third husband, Commander Gene Markey, a Hollywood writer/producer, in 1946, the same year she received her best dramatic notices ever for “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
The 1980 “Just Tell Me What You Want” was her final film.
Loy married a fourth time to Howland Sergeant, deputy assistant secretary of state to Dean Acheson. Like the previous three marriages, it ended in divorce in 1960. She never remarried. Her autobiography, “Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming,” co-authored by James Kotsilibas-Davis, came out in 1987.