"Even my best friends never fail to tell me that the smartest thing I ever did was to marry Myrna Loy on the screen," William Powell once said, and he did so 13 times, most frequently in the Thin Man series of the 1930s and '40s.
She is 82 now. Her hair is still red, though a powdery strawberry. Her eyelashes, which once appeared sweet with dew, are no longer extraordinary. But the sparkling smile remains ripe with intelligence, and the nose, the Nose, the plastic surgeon's paragon, is still, as Tammy Grimes once described it, "a wonder of nature."
She has just published her memoirs, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, with writer James Kotsilibas-Davis, a book fat with Hollywood history and 147 enchanting photos. In it, she is candid about what it was like to be a Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer star, an eternally staunch liberal Democrat (even when it got her branded a communist), a delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and, in real life, a wife four times, only to see each marriage fail.
And there is some juicy fun. Loy is forthcoming about what Asta the dog was really like, reveals Louis B. Mayer's historic parting words to her and describes the various techniques she employed to thwart the impassioned advances of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Tyrone Power and director John Ford.
"Going through my past was like intense psychotherapy," says Loy, perched regally on a flower-print sofa in her modest and cluttered East Side apartment.
"No, it was better than therapy. Therapy is boring," says Kotsilibas- Davis, who embarked on the project with her six years ago, and spent countless hours talking in Loy's living room. "But I wore that chair out. There were many days when Myrna would break down and cry."
She was born Myrna Williams in Helena, Mont., a town famous for producing only one other movie star, Judge Cooper's son, Gary.
"I was not your typical Helena girl. For one thing, my parents were more liberal than most people from Montana. My family was always involved in politics. I think all decent families should be," Loy says, touching her thin, expressive fingers to her hair.
"My mother was a ferocious Democrat, shall we say. My father was a representative in the state legislature. At first, he was a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, but when I was 10, I talked him into voting for Woodrow Wilson. I thought there was something right about Wilson. What he did with the League of Nations was very important."
"She was a fighter," says Kotsilibas-Davis. "Even back then."
And she made up her mind up about things early. "By the time I was 3 years old, I was dancing on my tippy-toes," says Loy, who is wearing a long aqua- and-white flowered dress and pearl earrings. "I did special dances in high school. I was a good dancer, gifted. But I never wanted to be a ballet dancer. My toes were too long for standard ballet."
The family moved to Los Angeles when she was 13. By 18, she had left school and was on the stage at Grauman's Egyptian Theater. "That was a very big theater in those days. After that, where do you from there?"
The studios routinely came to Grauman's for dancers. One of Loy's earliest roles was as part of a "human chandelier," in a mid-'20s Ziegfeld Follies movie knockoff. Another bauble in the chandelier was an unknown dancer named Lucille Le Sueur, who was quickly renamed Joan Crawford. A short while later, Myrna Williams became Myrna Loy; the studios thought Williams too common a name for a performer.
"Initially in the movies, they cast me as an exotic. I had kind of slitty eyes," Loy says, touching her eyelids. "I didn't mind. I thought it was wonderful. The more exotic it was, the more it fit in with my background as a dancer. I certainly didn't look like Myrna Williams from Helena, Mont."
She played vamps, tramps and every exotic part imaginable. "Wouldn't you know," John Ford once mused, "the kid they pick to play the tramps is the only good girl in Hollywood."
She worked constantly. In less than two years, she made 15 pictures for MGM. "It was the hardest work in the world. You got up at 4:30 a.m. so you could be at the studio by 7 and on the set by 9," she says, her gray-blue eyes sparkling. "They were very long hours. I complain about it now, but I always thrived on it. It served as an outlet for me."
It took her a decade and more than 80 pictures to become a star. Louis B. Mayer did not want her to play Nora Charles in The Thin Man, having previously scheduled her for yet another exotic part in Stamboul Quest. Mayer agreed to it only if director W.S. Van Dyke could do the film in three weeks.
The Thin Man was filmed in 16 days in the spring of 1934, with two days for retakes. The director wasn't called "One-Take Van Dyke" for nothing.
Loy adored working with Powell, who became a great friend. "I think we were too much alike for a romance," she says. Asta, the darling little dog of Nick and Nora Charles, was a different matter.
Several wire-haired terriers played the part. The first one, Skippy, bit her.
From The Thin Man on, Loy was a lady, a comedian, a star. That she turned out a comedian was perhaps the biggest surprise of all. "I had never been considered funny. Oh, no! I was deadly serious. I was terribly serious. I must have been a bore for some people," she says, laughing. "But Bill Powell had that marvelous subtlety that was so compatible with my style of acting. He was a very witty man, a great wit, and knew how to use it."
And Cary Grant, her co-star in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, what was it like to work with him?
Loy flashes a devilish smile. "Now what do you think it was like to work with Cary Grant, hmmmm?"
Grant and Powell are perhaps the only two actors who didn't make a play for Loy. "Being considered a lady was certainly an advantage in life," she says. ''Although it didn't make much of a difference where sex was involved. It didn't help me at all. They still tried."
Indeed, they did. Spencer Tracy followed her around like a little puppy.
Ford nursed a crush on her for years.
Gable made a pass at her door while his second wife, Rhea, was waiting in the car.
"Well, I pushed him off the porch. Imagine, a grown man acting like that! He was drunk with power, that's what he was," Loy says, speaking as if it had happened yesterday. "He thought everyone should fall down when he was around. He believed his own publicity, that he was irresistible.
"My friend, Lou MacFarlane, was waiting inside the house on her hands and knees, waiting to catch a glimpse of her idol. Afterward, she said, 'How could you do that to Clark Gable?' I said he was a stupid, ignorant man. But she didn't care. Lou said, 'I wouldn't care if he couldn't read.' "
And then there was Leslie Howard. If you want to get Loy to beam, all it takes is one mention of the English actor's name. "Aaahhhhh," she sighs, sotto voce. "Now, that was love."
But she never married an actor. Her first husband, Arthur Hornblow, was a producer; her second, John Hertz Jr., an advertising executive and scion of one of the country's wealthier families; her third, Gene Markey, a writer and producer, and her fourth, Howland Sargeant, a Rhodes scholar and assistant secretary of state.
"You see," says Kotsilibas-Davis, "Myrna likes brains. That's not a notable trait in actors," to which Loy nods her head in vigorous agreement.
"Well, of course, it was sad that I had this image as the perfect wife, but my marriages didn't work," she says, matter of factly. "What the hell, I invested a lot in those marriages."
Hornblow, she readily concedes, was her great love. "Of course, he just about wrecked my life, too." The first and last marriages were "the long ones, the serious ones. The middle ones were a waste of time. Well, Gene was a lot of fun. But the second, aahhhh, that was dreadful."
Hertz, she writes in the book, hit her - hit her so hard once that a black eye prevented her from meeting the Franklin Roosevelts and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands at Hyde Park. After the marriage, she went into analysis for 10 months.
Though Loy never had any children, Hornblow's son became like a son to her. They still maintain strong ties. Her apartment is filled with pictures of young kids, the children and grandchildren of close friends whom she refers to as "like my family." Most of the other pictures are of her parents and such friends as Eleanor Roosevelt. She also keeps a photo of the young Laurence Olivier. "I don't know him at all," she says. "I'm just a fan."
Always an independent spirit, she felt fenced in by the studio system, and asked to be released from her MGM contract. Mayer was taken aback by such a request.
"You're very ungrateful after all I've done for you," she recalls the movie mogul saying to her at the time. "I couldn't care more about you if you were my own horse." But he released her just the same.
As she matured, Loy was not afraid to accept mother roles and smaller parts. Once freed from MGM, she appeared as Fredric March's wife in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which she refers to as "probably my finest film." She became a member of the American Association for the United Nations and an active delegate to UNESCO.
She campaigned vigorously for Democratic candidates, particularly Adlai Stevenson in the '50s. "Oh, I had a tremendous crush on him," she says. "He was something." She also worked for John F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.
She has little patience with Republicans. She calls President Reagan "a big nothing." The worst thing she says about actor Adolphe Menjou, who labeled her a communist in the mid '40s, was that "he was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. He just didn't know the truth when he saw it."
When the movie offers began to thin, she took to the stage. "I was a grown lady, in my mid 50s, when I got on the stage as an actress," she says. "I had terrible stage fright. It's an awful thing. But I got over it."
It is clear she is very proud of her career, that her life is one of few regrets. She has always been true to conscience. She has always been a lady. At the end of an afternoon, as she grows tired, Loy wants to correct one long- held misconception.
"You know, the truth was, I wasn't the perfect wife in the movies," she says. "I was the wife everyone wanted, but not the quintessential wife. I was someone fun to be around, not the woman in the apron."
She gives a great Myrna Loy smile. "Now, don't you think that's so much better?"