Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming
by James Kotsilbas-Davis and Myrna Loy
Alfred Knopf, Publisher, November 1987
Do you read a lot of biographies? I don’t. Especially those from the classic movie actors I love and admire so much. I know. It’s just that I’m terrified that they’ll disappoint me and I hate disappointment. I am a chicken when it comes to these things. God forbid these people don’t live up to their characters we’ve grown to love so much, right? Well, Myrna Loy is my all-time favorite actress and this was a problem when I discovered her autobiography years ago. Because I adore her so much, hers was the last autobiography I ever wanted to read. I read it anyway. Four times now since the late 2000s…and counting. As it turns out, it ALWAYS feels good to “be around” Myrna and her thoughts with this book. Her down-to-earth honesty and genuine enthusiasm shine through here, just like it does when she’s on screen. Not only does she live up to Nora Charles and all the other parts she played, she illustrates what a wonderful human she was. Not by bragging about it mind you, but by simply documenting all she’s lived through and experienced. This is one autobiography that’s worth reading again and again. And I do.
Being and Becoming is Myrna Loy’s autobiography. It’s a chronological book with four sections of black and white photographs that come from her early life in Montana to the apex of her acting career in Hollywood to her life in New York City. Her voice in her writing here is what I have always thought of as ‘typical Myrna,’ – thank God – entertaining, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and down-to-earth. This is an inspiring story of a Montana farm girl who conquered Hollywood and ruled it for years as the “perfect wife” and “queen of the movies.” Seriously, moviegoers voted for Myrna in 1936 as “Queen of the Movies,” the same year they proclaimed Clark Gable “King.” That seems right.
Being and Becoming feels like an honest account of a life that just happened to occur in the middle of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The story takes the reader on quite a ride filled with names we all recognize and details that are fun to know. From Hollywood History to an account of her activism and charity work during World War II, this is a perfect read not only for a Myrna Loy fan, but a history buff too.
Myrna shares thoughts and anecdotes about a lot of her movies and many of her costars. There’s some especially interesting stories about William Powell, James Stewart, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and more. There’s quite a few quotes from them about Myrna sprinkled throughout the book too:
“…When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles and microphones. We weren’t acting We were just two people in perfect harmony. Many times I’ve played with an actress who seemed to be separated from me by a plate-glass window; there was no contact at all. But Myrna, unlike some actresses who think only of themselves, has the happy faculty of being able to listen while the other fellow says his lines. She has the give and take of acting that brings out the best…” – William Powell
I love knowing that’s how William Powell felt about her. He oughta know, he made 14 movies with Myrna, including all six The Thin Man movies. There’s no question that Myrna’s career was built on playing the “perfect wife” to Powell and several others. Though she played wives before them it was the Thin Man series with William Powell that solidified the perfect wife persona:
Nick Charles (Powell): “You don’t scold, you don’t nag and you’re far too pretty in the morning.”
Nora Charles (Loy): “All right, I’ll remember: must scold, must nag, musn’t be too pretty in the morning.”
Myrna says about the perfect wife moniker she carried:
“Some perfect wife I am, I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children and can’t boil an egg.”
Everything in this book is spirited and enjoyable to read. She’s never upset about anything as she tells her story, even though there were tough times. She never gossips, never complains, never shows any vindictiveness. In fact, she points out that she “never had time for such things.” She simply tells it like it was. In Being and Becoming Myrna has given us a front row seat to what was going on during the studio era as the movies we love were being made. It is exactly what I hoped it would be and so much more. When I reread it now, it’s a place for me to be that feels good, just like every one of her movies, and I cherish that.
“One of the great charms of cinema” – from Myrna’s New York Times obituary on December 15, 1993.
“A woman who has the courage to stand up for her convictions.” – said Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio when he read a W magazine interview with Myrna into the Congressional Record.
Her response to the Senator:
“Well, I guess I was raised to do that by pioneers who valued such attributes. I could ask for no greater tribute.” – last paragraph of book.