Being and Becoming

By James Kotsilibas-Davis and

Myrna Loy

Knopf. 372 pp. $19.95

IN JAMES THURBER'S lachrymose "One Is a Wanderer," the lonely narrator considers seeing a movie that has "action and guns and airplanes, and Myrna Loy." That disclosure alone makes the story a period piece. You know it was written in 1937 when, if Loy wasn't in a particular movie, it seemed she ought to be.

Myrna Loy's film career has spanned more than half a century and over much of that distance she held major-star status. Yet she belongs absolutely to the 1930s. Ever so briefly, she was "Queen of the Movies" during her sometime co-star Clark Gable's longer tenure as king. But Loy peaked when the movies were somehow more important to American life than they had been before, or ever would be again.

She was one of the more beguiling antidotes to the Great Depression and she excelled in her medium's most joyous expression of that era, the screwball comedy. Tossing bright barbs with William Powell in the Thin Man series and in such larks as Libeled Lady and I Love You Again, or romancing Gable or Tracy at M-G-M and Cary Grant later at RKO, Myrna Loy was one of the most welcome screen players, consistently well-liked by both male and female moviegoers.

Her sterling contemporaries in the zany genre were Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne and Rosalind Russell, all of them eventually partnered by Grant on film. But among the cherished comediennes of the rhapsodized Golden Age, only Loy never lost her cool. Serene yet mischievously wise, she stayed in control of herself and the situation. And now here's Myrna Loy very much in character at 82, an autobiographer persuading us that her art imitated her life.

The sensational, steamy confession is the faded stars' vogue, but Loy will have none of that. She doesn't present herself as a secret drug addict or closet drunk. She won't enumerate famous bygone lovers or evaluate their boudoir performance. With good spirit and humor she'll reveal that Gable, Tracy and stellar others failed at sexual conquest. (She pushed Gable into some bushes but they remained friends anyway.)

Nor will she bad-mouth any of her four husbands: producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. (1936-42); car rental heir John Hertz (1942-44); writer-producer Gene Markey (1946-50); and Howland Sargeant (1951-60), an assistant secretary of state in the Truman administration. All are treated with affection. Loy regrets none of her marriages, only that all of them failed.

Not that she's timid. She lashes out at Christina Crawford for writing an opportunistic, irresponsible Mommie Dearest about her friend Joan; and she doesn't forgive former costar Robert Taylor for ruining innocent people with "tattletale" testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

MOSTLY, though, Myrna Loy recalls a lot of good times, and they become better times in her recollection. The triumph of this book is that the voice is entirely hers. It's a collaboration of sorts, with James Kotsilibas-Davis billed as co-author. Yet how different stylistically is Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming from the turgidly rhetorical The Barrymores which Kotsilibas-Davis wrote all by himself some years ago. One wonders if Loy really required a collaborator or even the kind of editor Kotsilibas-Davis seems to have been on this occasion. He regularly interrupts "her" narrative with valentines about Myrna Loy from friends and co-workers, as clumsily intrusive as they're agreeable.

Another problem is inherent and surely unresolvable. It can't always be 1937. Loy's complete life story can't be consistently as provocative as her brief heyday was.

Myrna Williams from Helena, Montana, was just out of her teens when she got started in silent pictures as an oriental vamp, and she endured an often frustrating 10-year apprenticeship before earning true stardom in her first outing as Nora Charles in The Thin Man in 1934. Five years later her dramatic appearance as Lady Esketh in The Rains Came signaled the end of the "Loy era" implied in the Thurber story. In between she adorned some classics and near-classics: Broadway Bill, The Great Ziegfeld, Wife vs. Secretary (she's Gable's wife; Jean Harlow is the secretary), Test Pilot, Libeled Lady and several of her 13 screen marriages to Bill Powell. The "and-the-next-picture-I-made" type of memoir is usually stultifying, but not when Loy is doing the remembering. She made more than 120 films and recalls every one of them, usually delightfully and with meaningful hindsight. She adorned the American screen's most vibrant era, and her reminiscence is a glorious tribute to the studio system. And of course, her fabulous supporting assembly is a casting director's dream. Unfortunately the substantial portion of the text dealing with her professional afterlife, significantly as a liberal political activist, can't compete with the studio years despite thoughtful rendering.

She was the screen's "perfect wife," but David Shipman notes in The Great Movie Stars that "like all good actresses of that era she had great warmth, but her appeal lay in the fact that she was more chic and more sophisticated than any real wife could be." That is the way we would always want Myrna Loy, and that is who we have in a rare filmland memoir.

Larry Swindell is the book editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and author of "The Last Hero: A Biography of Gary Cooper."