Editor’s Choice January/February 2012

The Perfect Wife

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

Still, one senses that neither Loy’s nor Leider’s book penetrates deeply enough. Loy launched herself into a rough industry in a rough period; as a starlet, Loy, who by all accounts was unusually proper, resisted the not-so-tame advances of Gable and Spencer Tracy, and no doubt even less tame advances from casting directors and assorted Hollywood lowlifes. She navigated her transition from the silents to the talkies, and developed an intricate and subtle talent for comedy. In the era that produced history’s most brilliant constellation of screen comediennes, Cary Grant declared Loy “one of two expert comediennes in Hollywood,” the other being Jean Arthur. She negotiated an extremely successful career in which she contrived to be in the Industry but not of it, even while she was enveloped in the suffocating embrace of the star system, tied to the most suffocating of the studios (MGM) and under the most suffocating of the moguls (the boy genius Thalberg). She enjoyed a warm and loyal friendship with a woman who would have, well, suffocated lesser mortals—the notoriously brittle, ferociously determined Joan Crawford—that lasted from 1925 until Crawford’s death 52 years later. Clearly, along with her airy charm and her refinement, Loy possessed a drive and a steeliness that she didn’t acknowledge in her own book—and that has eluded Leider in this one.

Here’s a book that could have been beautiful but still only mediocre. The hugely influential Los Angeles–based graphic designer Saul Bass defined the graphic images of what marketers now call “mid-century modern”—so in this Mad Men besotted cultural moment (a moment that’s getting a bit long in the tooth), any gorgeously designed, hulking coffee-table book filled with images from Bass’s corpus gorgeously reproduced on heavy, creamy stock need only have been … gorgeous to fill its niche in the marketplace. But this book—designed by Jennifer Bass (Bass’s daughter) and written by Pat Kirkham, the design historian who wrote an exhaustive, stylish, and penetrating study of the design team of Charles and Ray Eames—is also a detailed, intricately layered examination of Bass’s wide-ranging, decades-spanning body of work; the designer’s political, aesthetic, and professional influences; and, most important, his cultural and commercial impact.

Bass is now most famous for the revolutionary title sequences he made for such movies as The Man With the Golden Arm , Anatomy of a Murder , Vertigo , North by Northwest , Ocean’s Eleven , and Grand Prix , and Kirkham’s deep research illuminates Bass’s evolution as a filmmaker—including his direction of the great spinning aerial opening of West Side Story and his direction (or near-direction) of the celebrated 77-shot shower sequence in Psycho . (Although Bass’s contribution to that scene was undoubtedly enormous, its exact extent is still disputed.) Kirkham details the intense collaborations Bass enjoyed with Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, and Martin Scorsese (Mad Men’s title sequence is essentially an homage to Bass’s openings of North by Northwest and Casino )—and also his equally close and long-lasting, if less glamorous, collaborations with a host of corporate clients. Bass’s “corporate identification” and packaging campaigns for United and Continental airlines, the Bell System, Chicken of the Sea, Dixie Cups, Lawry’s, Quaker Oats, Ohio Blue Tip Matches, and the Girl Scouts created iconic (to use a term that’s much overused but in this case accurate) images that began with the kicky minimalism of the 1950s and spanned the psychedelically influenced work of the 1970s. For any American alive in those times, this book reveals the enormous degree to which Bass defined his country’s quotidian visual life.

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. 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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