Editor’s Choice January/February 2012

The Perfect Wife

The nicest star in Hollywood, plus the man who made what Americans looked at
Everett Collection

Understated, high-minded, well-mannered, Myrna Loy was much like the great comedic characters she played in the movies. Those qualities made her one of the best-liked and most highly regarded stars in Hollywood, a town full of louts, but a town also devoted to turning out product on tight budgets at breakneck speed, which made it prize the considerate professionalism that Loy consistently displayed. Loy’s haute-bourgeois rearing in Montana and Los Angeles gave her the beautiful diction—the crisp, modulated, casually elegant American speech—she would deploy with sparkling effect onscreen (see, for instance, her endless, deadpan disquisition on her sister’s fiancé’s family tree in Double Wedding ). Her genteel upbringing also included an intense pursuit of dance, which enhanced her inherent poise and accentuated the litheness of her figure (while a student at Venice High—she transferred there from Westlake School for Girls—she modeled for the revealing statue, Inspiration , that has stood in front of the school since 1922).

Loy made good use of that graceful body—as a teenager she found work in the dance troupe at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre to support her widowed mother and younger brother (“I never wavered in my conviction that I was the man in the family,” she said), and she got her start in the pictures playing a variety of often scantily clad Oriental temptresses. Indeed, Loy’s persona always married cool and hot. She shared with Cary Grant a knowing, detached, crisp comedic style—she could command a scene by arching an eyebrow—that was quite the opposite of sultry. In a rare turn for a marquee actress then (or now), she often played a wife (Wife vs. Secretary, all the Thin Man movies, I Love You Again, The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House); she managed always to be wryly intelligent and bemused, and to deploy what Italo Calvino called her “lucid self-possession” while also introducing an effervescence and hint of carnality into onscreen wedded life. Labeled the screen’s “perfect wife,” Loy preferred Gore Vidal’s description of her movie guise: “the good-sex woman-wife.”

A principled, old-fashioned, patriotic Hollywood liberal (no contradiction there), Loy devoted much of her time and energy to worthy causes. Her anti-Nazi stance in the 1930s got her films banned in Germany, and during the Second World War she made only one movie, because she was dedicating herself to war work, mostly for the American Red Cross. After the war, she stood up to the witch hunts, worked on behalf of liberal candidates such as her friend (and wife of her frequent co-star Melvyn Douglas) Helen Gahagan Douglas, and served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and as co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. All of which was laudable, if hardly tabloid fodder. As John Ford famously said of Loy, “Wouldn’t you know, the kid they pick to play the tramps is the only good girl in Hollywood.” Loy led a good life, but hardly a dramatic one, and one in which she often subordinated her Hollywood career to her political and philanthropic endeavors—which means that a true record of that life must largely be a chronicle of Loy’s less-than-scintillating good works.

Emily W. Leider, a biographer of Valentino and Mae West, relates all of this faithfully and intelligently, and while this book is probably as well researched as it could be (Loy was careful to remove many of the personal letters from the archive she left to Boston University), it doesn’t add much to Loy’s 1987 autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming —a book as courteous and reserved as was Loy herself.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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