From the beginning, Myrna Loy’s screen image conjured mystery, a sense of something withheld. “Who is she?” was a question posed in the first fan magazine article published about her in 1925. This first ever biography of the wry and sophisticated actress best known for her role as Nora Charles, wife to dapper detective William Powell in The Thin Man, offers an unprecedented picture of her life and an extraordinary movie career that spanned six decades. Opening with Loy’s rough-and-tumble upbringing in Montana, the book takes us to Los Angeles in the 1920s, where Loy’s striking looks caught the eye of Valentino, through the silent and early sound era to her films of the thirties, when Loy became a top box office draw, and to her robust post–World War II career. Throughout, Emily W. Leider illuminates the actress’s friendships with luminaries such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford and her collaborations with the likes of John Barrymore, David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn, and William Wyler, among many others. This highly engaging biography offers a fascinating slice of studio era history and gives us the first full picture of a very private woman who has often been overlooked despite her tremendous star power.
List of Plates
1. The Climb
2. Not Your Typical Helena Girl
3. Life without Father
4. Enter Myrna Loy
5. Warner Bros.’ Exotic Vixen
7. Cutting the Veil
8. Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man
9. Myrna Loy vs. MGM
10. Mrs. Arthur Hornblow Jr.
11. Wife vs. Mistress
13. Things Fall Apart
16. Breaking Away
17. Mrs. Howland Sargeant
18. New York Ending
Appendix. Myrna Loy’s Film, Television, and Theater Credits
Plates follow page
Biographer, poet, and memoirist Emily W. Leider is the author of Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, Becoming Mae West, and Rapid Eye Movement and Other Poems, among other books.
“Myrna Loy has found an ideal biographer in Emily Leider, a gifted writer who loves film history and knows how to mine the field for the kind of details that help her paint a full and rounded picture of her subject.” —Leonard Maltin, film critic/historian
"A masterful tribute to MGM's subtlest star."—David Stenn, author of Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow
"Finally, a biography worthy of Myrna Loy—a smart, fascinating book about a smart, fascinating woman."—Eve Golden, author of Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow
“This first biography of Myrna Loy is so conscientiously researched, so closely written in detail and intelligent style that there will be no need for a second. Emily Leider documents both the woman and the actress: the early years in Montana and the multiple and sometimes foolish marriages of the former, and the development of the latter from exotic silent player to sophisticated lead in the Thin Man series to everyone’s image of a proud, understanding middle-class wife in the 1940s and beyond.”—Anthony Slide, author of Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers
In the spring of 1905 Della Mae Williams, pregnant with the baby girl she and her husband, David, would name Myrna Adele, decided to take a hike. While David journeyed by rail to Chicago to sell cattle, she set out with friends from her home on the Williams family's ranch in southwestern Montana's Crow Creek Valley, traveling south, probably in a wagon pulled by a team of ranch horses. She packed a knapsack, donned sturdy boots and a sunbonnet, tied a rope around her thickening waist, and joined a group of climbers determined to scale the highest peak in the southern Rocky Mountains. Della climbed all the way to the top, a triumph that someone in the party not only recorded with a Kodak but also made public. A photograph of Mrs. Della Williams, the first white woman known to have packed through to the mountain's summit, would soon adorn the cover of Field and Stream (BB, 10).
When he saw his wife's picture smiling from the front of a popular magazine, David exploded. Although a genial man, and a free thinker when it came to religion-after being elected to the Montana state legislature in his early twenties, he wrote "none" when asked to name his church-"Honest Dave's" ideas about womenfolk had always been more conservative than those of his strong-minded, high-spirited wife. He never did come to terms with Della's habit of taking off without him every now and then, a tendency she would indulge periodically during their fourteen years as man and wife. Her love affair with California would one day threaten the stability of their marriage. This spring he soon got over his pique. An openhearted man, he rarely held a grudge.
On August 2, 1905, several months after Della's audacious hike, she and David welcomed their first-born, a child who would share Della's spunk and David's concern for others. The robust infant came into the world in the city of Helena, not at the ranch, and the facts that she was born in a hospital and "attended by a physician" hint of her family's relative prosperity. Doctors were scarce in sparsely populated Montana.
The baby's Celtic good looks immediately commanded attention. She had a well-knit, long-limbed body, gray-green almond-shaped eyes, wide cheeks, a rosebud mouth, fair skin that would freckle easily, and abundant carrot-colored hair. Her pert nose tilted up, like the nose of her Welch-born paternal grandmother, Ann Williams, who also had red hair. Della's Scottish mother, Isabella Johnson, who lived four miles from the ranch in the tiny town of Radersburg, used to press down on that up-tilting nose every time she rocked the baby to sleep, trying in vain to flatten it and make it more like the noses in her side of the family. The nose would one day become a movie star's signature, coveted by many women and even copied by some with access to plastic surgery. Though David would never have approved, had he survived to see it, his daughter's adult face would be recognized around the world, adorning the covers of countless popular magazines.
Della and her mother, Isabella, wanted to name the baby Annabel, combining Isabella's name with "Ann," the name of David's recently deceased mother, but the women lost out this time, to David. On one of his frequent trips by railroad to sell livestock, he'd taken a fancy to "Myrna," the name of a whistle-stop town his train clamored through. He insisted that his daughter be called Myrna. There was consensus about the baby's middle name, Adele, a version of "Della." Being named after a train station would turn out to fit the restless Myrna, who would travel widely and change her address often. "I don't like to stay very long in one place," she once told a reporter.
Wanderlust ran in both the Johnson and Williams families. Seeking a better life, all four of Myrna's grandparents had crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the United States in the 1850s or 1860s: two came from Wales, one from Scotland, and one from Sweden. Myrna's personality, a writer for a fan magazine would claim, mingled the national traits of her forebears. "She has the reserve of the Welsh, and a good deal of the canniness of the Scot. Didn't Sweden produce Garbo, the exotic?"
Myrna's wayfaring grandparents, ever on the move as they sought abundance on the western frontier, traveled by ocean steamer, covered wagon, stagecoach, freight wagon, ox train, horseback, riverboat, railroad, and even by foot before all four landed forty miles southeast of Helena, where the Bozeman-to-Helena stage road crossed Crow Creek at the gold-rush mining town of Radersburg. At the time they arrived, the sprawling Montana Territory-559 miles long along the Canadian border-was both isolated and "practically uninhabited. One could travel for miles without seeing so much as a trapper's bivouac. Thousands of buffalo darkened the rolling plains. There were deer, antelope, elk, wolves and coyotes on every hill." Before the 1883 arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the railroad station nearest to Radersburg was more than six hundred miles distant, in Corinne, Utah, a stopping place for stagecoaches and freight teams.
The population of Radersburg, located on the plains in the shadow of the snowcapped Big Belt and Bitterroot mountains, never amounted to much. At the peak of the gold rush, in 1869, it reached its high point: one thousand residents. This was the period when Myrna's grandparents arrived, joining other settlers descending on the boomtown from all over the map. The number of citizens in Radersburg had dwindled to 169 by 1880, the year Della was born, compared to three thousand in Helena. With a population of seventy in the 2000 Census, it seems well on its way to becoming a ghost town.
To get to Montana Territory, Myrna's pioneer grandparents braved blizzards, rockslides, wind, rain, insects, sleet, and dust storms. They forded streams, coaxed rickety wagon wheels out of muddy ruts, and urged fly-plagued mule trains and recalcitrant livestock over makeshift bridges. They ascended mountain passes on treacherous trails, camped out on the open prairie, nursed sick children, and left behind injured or dead horses and cattle. On the overland trail they encountered Indians, both friendly and not. On a freighting trip to Montana Myrna's grandfather D.T. Williams "met friendly Indians at Campbell's Creek; they showed many scalps of white men on long poles." Williams and his party bowed their heads in prayer as they drove past gravesites marking recent burials. By the end of their journey each weathered immigrant surely knew, if he or she hadn't known before starting out, how to skin a buck, tan a hide, hitch a wagon, dress a wound, and fire a gun. Among the family treasures that Myrna still owned in the 1940s was a pair of pistols and a flintlock rifle.
The adversity the new settlers faced once they arrived in Montana Territory began with the struggle to get water, which had to be hauled from Crow Creek, "unless there came a drifting snow and one went to the work of melting it." They quickly built houses made of logs, with sod roofs and dirt floors. Eventually they constructed more substantial dwellings, where kerosene lamps or candles supplied light after the sun went down. Wood served as fuel and cost six dollars a cord, unless you felled the trees yourself. Chamber pots or the outhouse-not a friendly place when the temperature plunged below zero-made do as bathrooms. Unless you were a fearless rider with a good horse, or commanded your own buckboard, getting out of town could present a challenge. Roads were few, unpaved, and for many months in the year were buried under snowdrifts. The stagecoach from Bozeman to Helena stopped in Radersburg only three times a week. Hiring a livery to Helena would cost you a day's time and set you back thirty-eight dollars.
Della's father, John Johnson, was a carpenter who hailed from Göteborg, Sweden. His first stopping place in America had been Chicago. In 1867, at age twenty-seven, he had walked the 150 miles to Radersburg from Fort Benton, where the Missouri River steamer from St. Louis had deposited him. He and his friend Albert W. Sederburg, also a Swede and a carpenter, gallantly gave up their seats on the stagecoach to two ladies in need; hence the long hike (BB, 7). John Johnson headed for Radersburg after gold had been discovered at the Keating and East Pacific mines, hoping for a lucky strike at a time when fortunes could be made with a flash in the proverbial pan.
John Johnson and A.W. Sederburg tried their luck in the gold-rich streams and quartz mines but soon settled for a surer way to survive. As partners they opened a cabinet shop in town, on the ground floor of a two-story log building they constructed, which also housed the Masonic temple. There they built and sold tables, dressers, bedsteads, washstands, chairs, and cedar caskets. John Johnson continued placer mining, too, during the warmer months and, when Della was only eight, made a habit of taking her along to the diggings.
Myrna's paternal grandfather, David Thomas Williams, a rancher, died at age sixty-eight, the year before she was born. Known as D.T. Williams, he started out on a Welsh farm in Neath, near Swansea, sailing at age twenty from Liverpool to Philadelphia in 1856. If he'd remained in southern Wales, where coal mining, copper smelting, and the railroad were blackening the cities, he believed his scant resources and lack of education would have condemned him to a grim future. In 1880, twenty-four years after emigrating, he still could not read or write English, according to the U.S. Census. When he was new to American soil, he tried coal mining in Pennsylvania, then gold mining in Mason City Virginia and the California Sierras, before making his way to Austin, Nevada. There he met his future wife, Ann Morgan Davis, she of the auburn hair, tilted nose, green eyes, and freckles that Myrna would inherit. To convince Ann and her immigrant Welsh parents that he would make a trustworthy husband, Williams went into business hauling freight from Salt Lake City with two four-horse teams. Having impressed his future in-laws, he married Ann in Toole, Utah, but the couple did not linger there. After their first child was born, they switched from hauling freight to ranching and moved to Elk City, Idaho, where they raised cattle and horses and had a second child. The enterprising and tireless D.T. had his eye on the open range of Montana Territory, which offered cheap land for homesteaders, lots of it, and was booming. Now that gold seekers were flocking to the mining camps, they would need horses for transportation, herding cattle, and plowing. The newcomers would be hungry for beef and bread, as would the settlers at military forts and Indian agencies. Boardinghouses would need milk and butter. The recently arrived cowboys and farmers would be donning leather chaps, vests, and boots, all of which made horse and cattle ranching and wheat farming seem to him winning undertakings, despite the relentless toil and hardship they entailed. D.T. and Ann set out in 1870 for Montana's Crow Creek Valley, each driving a wagon. The pregnant Ann drove their two children and her blind mother, along with blueberry and gooseberry bushes and apple tree seedlings to transplant in Montana (BB, 4-5). When Myrna revisited the ranch a final time in the early 1980s, a few of Ann's gnarled apple trees were blooming in what used to be her orchard.
Whenever Myrna recalled stories about her frontier forebears, she wondered at their grit, can-do spirit, resourcefulness, and courage. She did not share the scathing opinion voiced by her father's friend, the celebrated western painter Charles Russell, that the pioneer should be seen as a despoiler, a desecrator of virgin land who "traps all the fur, kills off all the wild meat, cuts down all the trees, grazes off all the grass." She hailed Grandfather Williams for his up-by-the-bootstraps rise from the poverty of his boyhood and for accumulating enough Montana land and stock to render him one of the wealthiest men in his county (which was Jefferson County first, then became Broadwater after 1897). Under the 1862 Homestead Act, which Abraham Lincoln had signed, in 1870 the newcomer D.T. Williams could and did acquire 160 acres of public Montana Territory land in the Crow Creek Valley, land that had long been a buffalo hunting ground for migrating Flathead, Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Crow Indians and, since the coming of Lewis and Clark to the Missouri River headwaters in 1805, had seen an occasional white trapper, hunter, fur trader, or mountain man. With the advent of the gold rush, farmers, other ranchers, and a few merchants and innkeepers were beginning to join the miners invading the area, the only valley of the Missouri River.
To take title to the 160 acres, D.T. Williams had to "prove up." That meant he had to live on the land for five years and make improvements on it. He built a log house, chicken coops, a barn, corrals, and split-log fences. Fifteen years later, under the Desert Land Act, he bought another two hundred acres for twenty-five cents an acre, parts of which he had to irrigate with ditches, for despite the Crow Creek, the land was often dry. He planted acres of wheat, displacing wild grass, buffalo berry, brush, pine, cedar, and willow trees. Myrna boasted that by the time Montana became a state, in 1889, her grandfather owned fifteen hundred head of cattle, many horses, and most of Crow Creek Valley's acreage (BB, 6-8). He held stock in several mines, as well.
For all her pride in the prominence of D.T. Williams and the craft and industry of her Johnson grandfather, Myrna identified most with her grandmothers. "They've always been heroic figures to me," she said, "my two grandmothers, coming from protected childhoods in Wales and Scotland to a strange land, fighting like hell to make civilized environments for their men and children" (BB, 7).
Twice widowed by the age of forty-five, Grandmother Isabella Giles Wilder Johnson was the only one of Myrna's grandparents that she actually got to know, the other three having died before she came into the world. Grandmother Johnson rarely complained. "She never took anything as a hardship. She had a lusty, fearless joy in life, and hardships were a part of life and you took them standing up." Born in Largs, Scotland, Isabella had set out on a sailing vessel from Scotland in her teens. She traveled with an aunt, leaving behind her bereft mother and many siblings. In America Isabella married at age seventeen, but her first husband died in Iowa, where they had been living. She arrived in Radersburg as a widow with a four-year-old son, James Wilder (BB, 6-7). No doubt she hoped to be able to support James with what she gleaned from the diggings in Montana gold country. When she joined a wagon train to cross the plains, she brought along her cut glass and French china. Soon after arriving in Radersburg, she married the Swedish carpenter John Johnson, who with his partner, Sederburg, built them a house. The Johnsons would have three children, of whom Della was the youngest.
Compared to Europe and the eastern states, the western mining frontier offered women greater independence, more social flexibility, and an opportunity to speak out. For a woman to work outside the home was not unusual in Montana. Myrna's Johnson aunt, LuLu Belle, became county treasurer, and Myrna grew up hearing spirited political talk around the dinner table. That an aunt sought and won public office is not surprising. The Williams family lived in a state that would follow the leads of other westerns states-Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Washington, California, Kansas, and Arizona-granting women the vote in 1914, six years before the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchised women nationally. Montana in 1917 elected Jeanette Rankin the first U.S. congresswoman. Myrna Loy always attributed her own political activism to the atmosphere in her home and home state. As she saw it, the scant number of Montana citizens made each voice count for more.
Della's uppity spirit was a source of strife, contributing to a contentious marriage that survived several separations. David's quarrel with her about her picture on the magazine cover was neither the first nor the last of its kind. Though Della and David knew one another from childhood, they saw the world differently and often took opposite sides in an argument. He was a Republican, she a lifelong Democrat. The pleasure-loving, musical Della, an accomplished pianist, studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and, before marrying, had considered a career as a concert artist, "but I had to abandon all thoughts of realizing that ambition when I married." She continued to enjoy performing on the piano and organ.
David, though he shed his Presbyterian parents' unbending religious faith, clung to their straitlaced morality. He had little feeling for the performing arts and considered a woman's public display a step toward the gutter. Della, whose father carved and painted wood figures and crafted cedar furniture, identified with artists, while David favored practical, remunerative, and traditionally masculine pursuits: ranching, selling land and cattle, appraising farms for a bank, serving the community via his lodge. At his father's ranch during his younger days he wore a ten-gallon hat, rode horses, chowed down with cowhands, drove cattle, and roped steers. He lacked the long, lean good looks of his fellow Montanan, and future Hollywood cowboy, Gary Cooper-David's face was round and his build chunky-but in his youth he lived the rough-and-tumble outdoor life of a genuine cowpuncher. Later, in Helena, he sat on bank boards, but as an appraiser and seller of farmland he continued to spend time outdoors, often in the saddle. Della, too, rode a horse confidently, because a Montana woman simply had to. But in contrast to David, Della, after her father's early death, inhabited a cultured world of women presided over by her mother, who sang at the piano, read books, put up jelly, baked ginger cookies, and cultivated the tiger lilies and pansies in her garden.
The friction between Della and David rarely erupted into open warfare, but it remained a constant during Myrna's girlhood. Myrna had no model of marital harmony. The screen's future Perfect Wife came out of a less than perfect union in which Della's role was neither consistently nor clearly defined. Della balked at being purely domestic yet lacked economic independence. Music-making showcased her skills, providing pleasure, an identity distinct from that of wife and mother, and activity, but no income. The compliant wife Myrna Loy sometimes played both in movies and in her real-life marriages was definitely not modeled on her mother.
When Della Mae Johnson and David Franklin Williams got married in Helena in March of 1904, twenty-four-year-old Della had completed her musical training in Chicago, and David, one year older than his bride, had finished school at the Commercial Department of the State Agricultural College in Bozeman. At age twenty-three, just a few years after finishing college, he'd been the youngest man ever elected to serve a term in the Montana legislature, representing Broadwater County as a Republican in 1903. His particular interests as a representative were education, agriculture, irrigation, and water rights. Just prior to their wedding David and Della had been living as single young people in Helena, sharing a lively circle of friends, but they returned to the Williams ranch in Crow Creek Valley after tying the knot. David, whose prosperous parents both died within months of his marriage, abandoned politics and took over at the Williams ranch, working as a stockman and farmer. He was not its sole owner, however, but a part owner with his two brothers and two sisters. His father's will had left the land in equal one-fifth shares to his five surviving children. Della, much happier in Helena, served reluctantly as a ranch wife, even though she was moving closer to her hometown. She knew how to cook but hated doing it. The ranch employed a Chinese cook. Holiday meals, according to Myrna, were always prepared by her father, who sometimes brought home from Chicago cracked crab on ice.
The Williams ranch, called "The Home Place" in legal documents, had no electricity or outdoor plumbing. Water used for bathing, cooking, or laundry had to be pumped by hand and heated in a barrel. Ice that was needed to keep perishables fresh was stored in an icehouse and covered with sawdust to prevent it from thawing. Helena offered many more of the amusements, conveniences, and comforts that Della appreciated than did the remote Crow Creek Valley, about fourteen miles from the nearest train station. A photograph exists, too blurry to enable reproduction, that captures an idyllic moment of ranch life several years after Della and David settled there: Della, in trousers, white shirt, and sun hat, sits on a saddled dark-coated horse; Myrna, behind her (about five years old), rides a smaller white horse, and near both a dark filly with her colt grazes on sunlit grass.
David and Della grew up on the raucous mining frontier after the gold rush had peaked. Big changes were afoot in the Montana Territory. When they were toddlers, in the early 1880s, herds of buffalo still blackened the plains, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which Colonel George Custer and 120-odd other members of the 7th Cavalry died fighting Sioux and Cheyenne Indians fewer than two hundred miles southeast from Radersburg, was a recent memory. White settlers still talked about it, as they talked about Chief Joseph's dramatic 1877 attempt to lead his band of Nez Pierce to refuge in the nearby Bitterroot Mountains. Many of the white cattlemen held the Native Americans in contempt and, fearing attacks, demanded protection from the U.S. military, which established posts throughout the territory. By 1883 the buffalo had disappeared, wiped out by a combination of overhunting and disease introduced by cattle. The Indians, once dependent on the buffalo herds, moved onto reservations, but the vast reservations often had to cede portions of land to provide right-of-way to the builders of the Great Northern-Northern Pacific Railway.
David managed to grow up without racial bigotry, and in his time at the legislature befriended fellow representative Frank Linderman, a hunter and trapper turned newspaperman and author who became fascinated with the stories told to him by Flathead, Cree, Crow, and Chippewa tribesmen he befriended. His well-known Indian Why Stories, a collection of tales with illustrations by Charles Russell, helped teach the white man something of the red man's traditions. Linderman was one of the non-Indians who joined with Indians pushing for a home for landless Crees and Chippewas. In his thirties David Franklin Williams joined that effort, which resulted in the 1911 formation of the Rocky Boy Reservation near Havre, at the abandoned Fort Assiniboine. This reservation was and still is owned by its occupants, not the U.S. government (BB, 8).
Della and David attended Radersburg's one-room grammar school on the hill, a wood-frame building that also housed the Methodist church. The town had only this one church-Della used to play the organ there-but supported three saloons (one run by a woman), a liquor shop, and a brewery. Although many prospectors of gold and silver had moved on to what they hoped would be richer claims in other parts of the country, mining of some sort (for silver, lead, zinc, and iron ore after the gold had played out) continued in Radersburg into the early twentieth century, and despite the civilizing presence of the church, the school, a general store, and three lodges, frontier unruliness-the whoops that go with whiskey, high-stakes poker games, fancy ladies, and bucking broncos-lingered. The tiny town, once the Jefferson County seat, had its own jail and sheriff by the 1880s. Before that, a murderer or some other unfortunate transgressor might be found dangling from a rope extended from a beef scaffold. During the gold rush, robbery and claim jumping were common crimes. Nearby mining camps had been named Hog-Em, Cheat-Em, and Rob-Em. Although crime diminished by the 1880s, drinking, gambling, and disputes over claims continued to disrupt everyday life. Ranchers still had reason to complain about horse thieves and cattle rustlers. Gun toting was the rule, not the exception. The itinerant Methodist preacher, known as Brother Van (William Wesley Van Orsdel), had his work cut out for him. He rode into town on a white horse, always boarding with a different local family, which received him warmly. Brother Van enjoyed celebrity status in Radersburg and its environs. "The women were crazy about him," Della recalled.
Social life in this rough but no longer booming gold-rush town revolved around dancing parties where a pistol-packing chaperone would expel anyone carrying liquor or a six-shooter. Group dances-square and circle-were favored, though couples might venture a Highland waltz or two-step. The women at the dances pinned up their long hair, donning floor-length skirts with pinched-in waists, bustles, and blouses with high collars and puffy sleeves. Their men put on freshly laundered blue jeans, pressed shirts, and polished boots. The dances could last all night, because the revelers feared that the roads were too dangerous to travel in the dark.
During the school year Della participated in a literary society, led by the schoolteacher, which offered drama programs, too. On Saturday nights recitations of poetry took place, and pageants and tableaus were presented. Come spring there would be Sunday afternoon horseback riding parties after church. On the Fourth of July everyone flocked to a big picnic, where Old Glory would be unfurled and the Declaration of Independence declaimed. Della, who lived in town, participated enthusiastically in the community goings-on, but David, ensconced in the Valley on the Williams ranch, could join the fun less often. He liked parties, but he was needed for chores when he wasn't at school.
The outdoor events Della enjoyed had to take place in spring or summer because the long, frigid winters could be, and often were, deadly. Cowboys had to put on "two suits of heavy underwear, two pairs of wool socks, wool pants, two woolen shirts, overalls, leather chaps, wool gloves under leather mittens, blanket-lined overcoats and fur caps." During the infamous winter of 1886-87, when the temperature plummeted to sixty-three degrees below zero, hundreds of thousands of Montana Territory cattle and sheep perished trying to find forage in the snow and ice. A similar freeze when Myrna was a year old made railroad tracks snap and sent starving cattle into the towns in search of grass. Humans died too. David's older sister Hattie succumbed in the brutal winter of 1887. Of David's ten siblings, only five-the five who would eventually inherit the ranch-survived into adulthood. According to Myrna (BB, 6) scarlet fever took several of them.
Recollections of the severe Montana winters didn't taint Myrna's rosy picture of her early years at the Williams ranch. In her autobiography she speaks lovingly of the fragrant roses spilling over the split-log fence in front of the ranch house; her grandmother's apple trees in the back, which yielded bushels of apples in summer; and her grandfather's cottonwoods, whose leaves she tried to taste. She recalls playing with the baby lambs and the dobbin Dolly she was first taught to ride with no saddle, only a bridle (BB, 13). It's always spring or summer in her recollections.
Myrna would always regret that she never got to portray a frontier woman onscreen in a Gary Cooper western. Cooper, whose British parents settled in Helena, grew up playing cowboys-and-Indians and collecting arrowheads-activities that apparently escaped young Myrna, though in her Hollywood days she could still throw a lasso. She did play a Salinas Valley ranch wife in the 1949 film based on Steinbeck's The Red Pony. To most film lovers, though, news of Myrna Loy's Montana ranch background comes as a shock. Who pictures Nora Charles wearing cowboy boots, denim, buckskin, or calico frocks? In her screen heyday Myrna Loy embodied city-bred, martini-quaffing, chiffon-gowned elegance and sophistication.
Myrna's earliest memory was of the endless acres of wheat fields where she wandered off on her own, losing her way, not to be found by anxious searchers until late at night. That trauma didn't curb her fondness for plunking herself down in the midst of a field of swaying brown-gold grain, looking up at scudding clouds and the expansive, mountain-framed sky, which might shift its color from blue to darkest gray in a matter of seconds. "I used to be alone most of the time-that's great for the imagination." The only other child around was her cousin Laura Belle Wilder, daughter of Della's sister Lu, but although Myrna loved her cousin, a five-year age gap separated them. From the start, Myrna tended to be a solitary dreamer, busy with her own thoughts and quite self-sufficient. Those traits would linger. Don Bachardy, who sketched her when she was close to seventy, refers to her "charming wistful vagueness" and "untragic aloneness." Because there were no playmates of her own age around the ranch, she frolicked with the animals or invented human companions. "I liked having friends nobody else could see," Myrna would say of herself. "Maybe that's the Welsh in me. You know how they believe in ... the little people."
If this young daydreamer prized stillness, she also loved to move. Physically adventurous, Myrna often scraped her knees while climbing trees, tumbling in the hay, or scurrying through a wheat field. In early spring she braved swimming in an icy stream. Surviving photographs of her in early childhood show her all dolled up in pretty dresses, with a locket around her neck and a ribbon in her hair. Della made sure Myrna looked her best for the camera. But on the ranch and later, in Helena, Myrna was known as a tomboy. She and her father were pals. He read her stories and would take her along for berry picking, horseback riding, or rabbit hunting. He never struck her. The only spanking she ever received was from the hired man, Ben Sitton, who had forbidden her to crawl through the wire around the ranch. "I did, so he spanked me."
Ranch hands ate at a long kitchen table. In the same room, behind the potbellied wood-burning stove that provided heat, Myrna stored her slate, picture books, and child-size red chair. There she cuddled two gray kittens named after local plants, Timothy and Alfalfa. At night, after the candles were blown out, she could hear the howls of wolves and coyotes from her bed. More soothing was the sound of her mother playing Brahms's "Lullaby" on the piano, accompanied by Aunt Lu's violin. Thus comforted, Myrna would drift off to sleep.