Myrna Loy – The Only Good Girl in Hollywood vs. Being and Becoming

Of course I'm a Myrna Loy fan, isn't everyone? But it wasn't until reading Loy's autobiography, Being and Becoming, written with James Kotsilibas-Davis, that I really fell in love with Myrna Loy. I don't know how much of the text of that book is Loy's own voice as opposed to her co-authors' interpretation of it, but whatever the case may be, Being and Becoming, for me, is Myrna Loy, the woman and the star.

In Emily W. Leider's introduction to Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood she acknowledges the success of Loy's own book: "She and her co-author, James Kotsilibas-Davis, did such a good job with her autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, that other biographers may have feared they couldn't match it" (4). This reader, while excited from the moment I saw Leider's biography announced, faced the same trepidation. Beyond how much Being and Becoming made me like Loy it remains my favorite film star autobiography. Could an outsider's perspective match up?

Leider further teases me into her telling of Loy's story by adding that "Being and Becoming does venture into private territory, illuminated otherwise hidden corners. But it only goes so far. Full disclosure is never attempted, and some events and people get the short shrift" (5). Two such examples that we're told Leider's own Good Girl is going to give us are the complications arising from Loy's abortion and her problems with her younger brother, David. Both of those subjects are covered for the first time in The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.

Myrna Loy 1930s Garbaty Tobacco Card

Emily W. Leider has written a very readable study of Golden Age Hollywood centered around the career of Myrna Loy and the famous personalities surrounding her. While the writing is crisp and intelligent and Loy's film work is brought to life through concise summaries, what I didn't get out of The Only Good Girl in Hollywood was a better appreciation of Loy herself. Perhaps other biographers can't match what Loy gave us in Being and Becoming.

The first thing you'll notice about The Only Good Girl in Hollywood is it's heavy reliance on Being and Becoming as its primary source. Rightly so. However Loy's autobiography, cited in abbreviation as BB throughout Leider's work, becomes overwhelming. A search for the term BB inside The Only Good Girl in Hollywood on Google Books reveals 100 instances of the two-letter citation. That number is so round that I'm almost certain that count is low.

While Good Girl cites numerous other sources, none seem as edifying as Loy's own words from Being and Becoming. Leider spoke with numerous surviving Hornblow family members and those sections do stand-out, but there weren't a ton of people interviewed for Good Girl, a somewhat natural predicament thanks to natural life span. Actors acknowledged for being interviewed included Richard Benjamin, Rhonda Fleming, Lainie Kazan, and Joan Van Ark. Olivia de Havilland replied to the author by letter. Loy lived until 1993, certainly there are more survivors than this? The bibliography is 11 pages long, but again, it's Loy's own voice from that single title which lords over all else in The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.

Myrna Loy 1920s era 5x7 Fan Photo

The Only Good Girl in Hollywood complements Being and Becoming well and I have no doubt that Leider dug through every available source and sat through all of the movies, but I found myself preferring Loy in the first person from the earlier book. In Good Girl we learn about many Hollywood fixtures, take Clark Gable, William Powell and Jean Harlow, for example, but their stories are mostly told independent of Loy. When their stories intersect it's almost always Being and Becoming which supplies the personal flavor that I had wanted in a Myrna Loy biography.

No matter which of the credited authors lent greater voice to Being and Becoming it is that personal, likable, familiar tone which seems missing from The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.

Following are some excerpts from each book, centered around those familiar names I ticked off above, Gable, Powell and Harlow.

Her agent, Minna Wallis, introduced Loy to Clark Gable at the annual Mayfair Ball. In Being and Becoming Loy writes:

"By that time he was hot, the big rage; all the women in Hollywood, including my friend Lou MacFarlane, were talking about him. I'd heard he was always on the make at the studio, after everyone, snapping garters left and right. At the dance, though, he acted like a perfect gentleman--attentive, but not aggressive. Whenever I hear "Dancing in the Dark," I think of him, because we danced to it that night and he was vibrant and warm, a marvelous dancer. It was divine ..." (84).

1939-gp-love-scenes-loy-gableThen Loy tells what happened after the dance, on the ride home with Gable and Rhea, his wife at that time. "I could see that Clark was beginning to feel a bit amorous. He started edging towards me--with his wife sitting right there beside him" (84). Myrna rebuffed his further advances after he walked her to her door and said he was a bit frosty towards her the next time she saw him at the studio. When they worked together for the first time in Men in White (1934)*, Gable would ignore Loy to heap attention on co-star Elizabeth Allan. All was forgiven by the time of their next film together, Manhattan Melodrama (1934) and they were lifelong friends going forward.

* Loy and Gable both appeared in the earlier Night Flight (1933), but didn't share any scenes together.

Leider writes that "Considering her reluctance to gossip, it matters that Myrna did tattle on Clark Gable in her autobiography" (109). She then retells the story, though readers of Good Girl are never told why Loy's loose lips about Gable mattered. Both books have her warming up to Gable soon after the incident.

Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Parnell on a 1939 A and M Wix tobacco cardJust prior to Men in White Gable was loaned to Columbia to appear in Frank Capra's Oscar-sweeper It Happened One Night (1934). Capra had wanted Loy to play the part of Ellie Andrews in that movie, but Loy turned the offer down and the Academy Award for Best Actress would go to Claudette Colbert for her portrayal. Leider acknowledges Loy's complaints about the script and mentions that "Myrna became very defensive about what proved to be a serious error in judgment, never acknowledging that it was one. But she knew she didn't want to blow it again" (111). Sure enough, up next, Manhattan Melodrama starring Gable and for the first time alongside Loy, William Powell.

Of her miscalculation Loy wrote "Oh, I've taken flak for refusing that picture. Frank gave it to me for years. Lou MacFarlane, who begged me to do it, still says, 'I told you so!' But let me say, here and now, they sent me the worst script ever, completely different from the one they shot. I've had others corroborate that ... but no one believes me. That girl was unplayable as originally written" (94).

Yes, I'd agree with Leider, Myrna seems a bit defensive about this one! But as much as I love Loy I couldn't imagine It Happened One Night with anyone but Gable and Colbert. Perhaps it would have been just as good, but I for one am not willing to risk it in retrospect. A somewhat self-conscious Loy adds, "Besides, Claudette had the legs for it" (94).

In Good Girl Chapter 8 is "Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man" and Leider jumps directly into The Thin Man (1934) to begin the Powell-Loy story because despite their meeting and working together previously on Manhattan Melodrama, "Loy and Powell became an established romantic comedy team because The Thin Man hit the jackpot" (118). I was sure she'd go back to Manhattan Melodrama, and thankfully within a few pages she did. Of Powell and Loy's meeting on Manhattan Melodrama (1934) Leider writes:

William Powell and Myrna Loy 1937 Sinclair Tobacco Card"On this raucous night of celebrating Jim Wade's election, Eleanor bounds into Jim's moving sedan and nearly crash lands on Powell's lap. Powell exclaims in character, "Pardon me if I seem to intrude." Off-camera, seconds later, his first-ever words to the actress who would prove to be his ideal costar and long-term movie mate were a courtly, mocking echo of Stanley greeting Dr. Livingstone: 'Miss Loy, I presume?'" (120).

Loy's description in Being and Becoming was as follows:

"My first scene with Bill, a night shot on the back lot, happened before we'd even met. Woody was apparently too busy for introductions. My instructions were to run out of a building, through a crowd, and into a strange car. When Woody called 'Action,' I opened the car door, jumped in, and landed smack on William Powell's lap. He looked up nonchalantly: 'Miss Loy, I presume?' I said, 'Mr. Powell?' And that's how I met the man who would be my partner in fourteen films" (87).

Leider gives us a fine critical take on the Powell and Loy pairings, especially The Thin Man; we get a pretty good look at Powell himself, mostly sourced from his two biographers, Charles Francisco and Roger Bryant; there are mentions of the famed off-screen confusion of Powell and Loy as actual man and wife; but when it comes to Powell with Loy, off-screen, the commentary usually comes with those now familiar BB's appended at the end of the paragraph. Myrna Loy and William Powell 1939 A and M Wix tobacco cardFrankly I would have liked to have read more about William Powell in Loy's own Being and Becoming, but that was her telling her own story. It seems that by 2011 there's no one left to tell us about the on and off set camaraderie between Myrna Loy and William Powell.

Myrna Loy first met Jean Harlow when Powell, who'd already been involved with Harlow for awhile by then, brought her along to Louella Parson's radio show where Powell and Loy acted out some scenes from The Thin Man. Loy would work with Harlow in both Wife vs. Secretary (1936) with Gable and Libeled Lady (1936) with Powell and Spencer Tracy. Loy and Harlow became friends and Loy was a great admirer:

"Jean was always very cheerful, full of fun, but she also happened to be a sensitive woman with a great deal of self-respect. All that other stuff--that was all put on. She wasn't like that at all. She just happened to be a good actress who created a lively characterization that exuded sex appeal. Being a sexpot is no fun, I can tell you that ... When you think what this country does to those women--look at Marilyn Monroe! I guess it's a sin to be sexy, but a little vicarious drooling from the public, that's all right ... Remember that awful book that was written about Jean? That's typical of the school of biography that seeks to fit the reality of the image" (143).

Leider examines Loy's defense of Harlow:

"... she stood up for Harlow, who was indeed subjected to tabloid-style smears too many times. But Myrna's defense went overboard. She sanitized Harlow, overlooking the frank sexuality that had catapulted her to stardom and the questions that Paul Bern's probable suicide raised. She characterized her friend as the good-girl victim of exploiters and gossipmongers bent on tarnishing an idol ...But in her zeal to protect her friend, Myrna denied Harlow's zesty essence" (189-190).

The difference between those two takes seem to be the difference between a personal friend and a biographer. As titanic a presence as Jean Harlow holds for us all today she was simply Myrna's girlfriend back in the 1930's. I wouldn't imagine Myrna would have much cared about what catapulted Harlow to stardom preferring instead to remember a time together when "You would have thought Jean and I were in boarding school we had so much fun" (143). While I'm not saying Leider is wrong, I am saying it's a pretty good example of how I felt she missed showing us Myrna Loy.

Myrna Loy Clark Gable Jean Harlow 1936 Promotional Photo

In The Only Good Girl in Hollywood Emily W. Leider takes on an unenviable task in following-up a twenty-four year old autobiography so good that others "may have feared they couldn't match it." She doesn't, but she does her best to refresh it and its subject, Myrna Loy, in the minds of 21st century readers.

In Being and Becoming Loy invited us to a party. Yes, there were barriers, but she did let us in a little closer than arm's length. The Only Good Girl in Hollywood went to the party, hoped to find their host left some dirt under the rug, and satisfied that that was not the case produced as fine a reportage on the happenings as could be expected. A few other guests were consulted, but most were unavailable for comment.

Well researched Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood retells Loy's story from an outsider's perspective as well as could be expected, but was a little too distant for me to recommend anything other than immediately buying a copy of Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming if you don't already own one. If you already have a copy of the earlier book then this is going to be largely familiar territory, but well-worth the refresher.

Myrna Loy 1939 Rothmans Beauties tobacco card

Sources:

  • Leider, Emily W. Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: The University of California Press, 2011.
  • Loy, Myrna and James Kotsilibas-Davis. Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting perspective on a book I’m looking forward to reading. I would hope that Leider took advantage of the remarkable growth in accessible vintage Hollywood reference material over the past few years — trade publications such as “Film Daily,” fan magazines such as “Photoplay” — to round out her work on Loy, my second favorite classic Hollywood actress (trailing only Carole Lombard) and a remarkable, admirable woman ahead of her time both on and off screen. “Being And Becoming” would by its brilliant nature cast a colossal shadow over any subsequent biography of Myrna, but I’m hoping there’s enough here to make it at least a sufficient complement.

    • says

      @facebook-100001240993680:disqus The book is heavily researched, definitely, I just felt like it came back to Being and Becoming for the final word a bit too often. If it couldn’t be said better than it was already said, is it worth saying again?

      I had hoped after all these years to get to know Myrna Loy better and I didn’t. It’s excellent Hollywood history but seemed to rely on Being and Becoming for all of the personal touches. Of the non-Hornblow names on that list of interviewees I recognized more names of film critics than film players, that was telling in the general direction of the book. Of what I mentioned specifically above I thought the comparison of the Harlow sections showed this best, Loy presented Harlow as a friend, Leider as another movie star.

      If this book came before Being and Becoming it’d have been great, but I think a comparison is only natural, especially with those BB’s getting in the way so often throughout. If you love Loy, which you do, it’s well worth reading, yes, but my opinion is that we’re all going to return to Being and Becoming as much as the author does.

    • says

      @facebook-100001240993680:disqus The book is heavily researched, definitely, I just felt like it came back to Being and Becoming for the final word a bit too often. If it couldn’t be said better than it was already said, is it worth saying again?

      I had hoped after all these years to get to know Myrna Loy better and I didn’t. It’s excellent Hollywood history but seemed to rely on Being and Becoming for all of the personal touches. Of the non-Hornblow names on that list of interviewees I recognized more names of film critics than film players, that was telling in the general direction of the book. Of what I mentioned specifically above I thought the comparison of the Harlow sections showed this best, Loy presented Harlow as a friend, Leider as another movie star.

      If this book came before Being and Becoming it’d have been great, but I think a comparison is only natural, especially with those BB’s getting in the way so often throughout. If you love Loy, which you do, it’s well worth reading, yes, but I think we’re all going to return to Being and Becoming as much as the author does.

    • says

      Thanks for visiting, Halley. Yes, she said the first copy of the script was terrible. She also made herself feel a bit better by mentioning Robert Montgomery had turned down the part that Gable played.

  2. Lily says

    I’ve seen almost all of Myrna Loy’s movies–I’m no older than 20 and living in Asia so I hope you can imagine how hard this is to do–and I’m looking forward to both ‘Being and Becoming’ and ‘Good Girl’…both are currently at a snail’s pace race trying to get here so we’ll see then although Being was a LOT harder to track down. I’ve never heard a bad review on Being, I’m wondering now why it hasn’t been reprinted…I’ve had to toss pages off and on around ebay just to get a copy of it. It was maddening!

    But anyway, thank you for this article. It’s lovely and good prep for me  before delving into both books. Miss Loy was indeed ahead of her time on screen and both and while I’ve done my share of research online and through the random-est books I can get my hands on, I can’t wait to get to know the lady herself through her own words in her autobiography.

    • says

      Good going, Lily, I hope you can find more! Being and Becoming is a pretty popular out of print title so it always commands a premium in pricing. That said, if you’re not too picky about condition you can sometimes find an ex-library copy or a copy missing the dust jacket for under $20. Good luck!

      • Lily says

        Hey Cliff!

        Wow, three months back! Anyway, I was just dropping in to let you know I did get a copy of Only Good Girl AND Being and Becoming (it only cost me about $22). Got it via ebay and it was amazing! BB looked entirely brand new, save for the name of the previous owner! It was amazing.

        I read both and yes…it’s really hard not to notice the BBs that kept popping up throughout Good Girl…and since I am totally in love with Myrna Loy’s collab with James Kotsilibas-Davis, I have to say I loved Being and Becoming more. It wasn’t hard to hear Myrna’s voice speak in my head as I read…amazing book. But I love them both. Ms. Leider did what she could with what she had since it’s quite apparent that Myrna was intent on only divulging what she chose to, going as far as she did as making sure letters she had penned herself wouldn’t go about wandering into researcher’s hands in the future. It was commendable work, either way.

        I’m keeping them both close and safe. Same with my collection of Myrna Loy films–I even managed to get copies of a few of her silent movies as well as the pre-Perfect Wife days–I will treasure them all. Myrna Loy was an amazing woman and she was so much more ahead of her time…more than even she realized, I think.

        • says

           Glad you found a good deal on Being and Becoming @5b335fadee2545fcc99abd510ebee4f0:disqus sounds like yours is nicer than mine.

          You know I just finished Edward G. Robinson’s autobiography and am now following up with a more recent biography of him. It reminds me of the dueling Loy books because so far at least the author of the Robinson bio has relied heavily on EGR’s own take of his life in the earlier book. The difference is the Robinson author has chosen paraphrase much of the biographical details rather than directly quoting them as Leider did throughout Loy. Actually in this case I’m ready to see a few quotations, but that’s another story. Point is, perhaps Leider could have more skillfully weaved in the matter from Being and Becoming and made it a less overall distraction, at least to me. From my perspective it still feels more like a rehash, mind you a skillful one, than anything else.

    • says

      Thanks, Clara! See my comment to @Lily for a book hunting tip. Even if you’re willing to sacrifice condition timing is everything. I think I paid $40 for my copy a few years back and it’s got some water staining. Sometimes you just want to read the book though!

  3. says

    Wonderful job comparing these books! Biographies and autobiographies become out of print so quickly these days. There are some true gems out there and I wish that perhaps publishers would reissue old biographies. It seems like now it’s all new new new. If it’s a few years old, it’s already out of date even if the person profile passed away years ago.

    I definitely want to read Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. I think her defense of Jean Harlow was very sweet. Harlow was such a complicated woman and Loy was able to see beyond the “sexpot” persona.

    • says

      Thanks, Raquelle! The toughest part is that the limited market starts the pricing at $40 for so many trade paperbacks. That’s rough. At least the new Myrna book can be hand on Amazon for about $25 on discount which for a hardcover, as this is, is reasonable. It’s never going to hit the NYT Best Seller list so I don’t expect to see it for under that! What I need to get myself is the David Stenn Harlow biography … but that one, like Being and Becoming for others, seems to be the one I can’t ever find at a reasonable price.

  4. says

    Great review! While I’ve loved the Powell/Loy pairings films for ages, and do greatly enjoy some of Myrna’s other films, her filmography as a whole has frustrated me a bit. MGM never made a “Myrna Loy” vehicle, which IMO stunted her greatness as an actress because she was either shoehorned into roles that didn’t quite fit her persona, or was stuck as the “Perfect Wife.”

    I’ve managed to see some of her Pre-Codes like Animal Kingdom and When Ladies Meet, and she was really cracking, but it seems she didn’t have a producer (Thalberg-Shearer, or Bern-Harlow) or director (Cukor-Crawford, and later Hepburn) to lubricate the wheels at MGM. I refuse to believe she didn’t have the drive or desire to have her own vehicles even though she says in BB that she was content to play supporting lead–reading between the lines I sensed a holding back on her part because she wanted to rebel against being saddled with the burden of being the breadwinner when her father died. 

    However, despite her ups and downs in Hollywood, Myrna Loy was a truly remarkable woman and in my dreams I wish her autobiography was reissued with a box set of her films!

    • says

      I agree, Gigi. It would have been nice if at the end of the 1930′s Loy would have had the opportunity to do some of the types of things that Olivia De Havilland did 10 years later at about the same age.

      Still, it’s not too bad to have been the Queen of Hollywood’s Golden Age and I’m sure the Honorary Oscar at the end of her life really had to be redemption over any unspoken regrets she may have had.

  5. Richard says

      Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming is superb autobiography. What a pleasure to read her story!  Myrna’s perspective on her career and life has none of the self-congratulatory nonsense that some celebrities indulge in. Myrna Loy expressed her perspectives and recollections with conviction, without the taint of self-righteousness.  She was much a committed activist as she was an accomplished actress; and was proud of both. After her film heyday, she explored other options, including theatre–which became a surprising bonus for her.  She actually good along–professionally, speaking–with Adolphe Menjou, two politically polar opposites. It was just one expression of a far-sighted, thinking individual. 
       I loved Myrna’s  perspective of her last feature, the under-rated “Just Tell Me What You Want.” She played the administrative assistant to the high and mighty executive played by Alan King. (Louis B. Mayer?) . It brought her back to her MGM days, when she knew working women at the studio, not unlike her character Stella.  If the “Stella’s” liked you, they could see that phone calls were returned, and meetings arranged–ostensibly to further one’s career. Plucky Myrna could draw upon her remembrances to enhance a role.  While Leider’s biography was worth reading, Myrna’s autobiography remains the gold standard. Thank you, Cliff, for your comparison of the two books. It was thorough and diligent.  

    • says

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Richard. It gives further color to why Leider had such an unenviable task! The more I think about it I don’t think the author’s reliance on Being and Becoming would have seemed as overwhelming if there was more to the book overall. If that information is out there to be found I don’t know, but it might be the only way to properly follow-up Being and Becoming rather than just supplementing it.

  6. says

    Cliff, this is such a well crafted, detailed review and comparison of BB and Leider’s effort. I only want to read BB more! I have to say–I’m so glad I’m not the only one who wasn’t blown away by Leider’s book. I feel a little guilty about it because I know Leider worked really hard on it. I hold Myrna Loy up as the gold standard. She was a fantastic actress, and an even better human being. She deserves better. 

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