NEW YORK -- Downstairs, rain falls on the slick street and workmen fill the lobby with the whine of saws and the sharp, thin smell of sawdust and paint. Here, on a top floor that must once have seemed to perch above the city but now is barely waist-high to Manhattan's towers, Myrna Loy sits in her "penthouse," an Upper East Side apartment far too cozy for its grandiose name. The air is warm, and the corners of the living room filled with faded pillows, photographs, loose papers awaiting attention and small familiar things -- a tiny stuffed animal, a softly ticking clock on a side table where it is easily seen, a sweating enamel mug on a paper towel to protect the table's varnish.

For years they called her "the perfect wife": witty, charming, beautiful, self-possessed yet unthreatening, tart yet sympathetic. She played wives who could match their husbands drink for drink and joke for joke, who had not abandoned sex and fun for a matronly apron. Women asked their plastic surgeons to give them "a Myrna Loy nose." Franklin Roosevelt claimed her as his favorite movie star. In scores of movies, as detective-socialite Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" series with William Powell, with Fredric March in "The Best Years of Our Lives," with Cary Grant and Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy was an American ideal. She never looked cranky or unamused. Eyes draped by languorous lids, a set of eyebrows apparently designed to rise in silent, ironic comment, a low voice that seemed to bubble up through a glass of fine champagne, she was a movie star who felt no need to swamp an audience with her sexuality or dazzle with pyrotechnics. She was Myrna Loy -- refined, delightful, the minimalist comedian.

Today she is 83, her wavy hair the color of faded ginger, her eyes as pale as water, the voice still rich. She sits deep in a flowered couch, a bright green dressing gown snapped shut to her neck, embroidered slippers on her feet, a cane resting beside her.

Tonight she will join the Reagans and four other Kennedy Center Award honorees -- Alvin Ailey, George Burns, Roger Stevens and Alexander Schneider -- in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Young and aging stars will speak her praise. She will, no doubt, gleam a smile into the cameras. But now, at home, she is not the object of the public's nostalgic affection. The elaborate lights and cameras, the sleek designer gowns and the art deco sets that spun glamorous webs around the actresses of the '30s and '40s are gone. She is an old woman, worried about the drive down to Washington, vague and confused about why she must go to Washington at all, turning to her publicist for reassurance.

"This weekend?" she asks, pulling a thick date book toward her and riffling through its pages.

"Yes, you're going to Washington on Friday, and you'll be there Saturday and Sunday," says John Springer, a gray-haired and twinkling man who has represented Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Richard Burton, and whom Loy refers to as "dear John" and "my collaborator." They have worked together for more than 40 years, and he is as much friend and protector as publicist.

"Yes, it says I'll leave on Friday," Loy says, studying her book, "but it doesn't say to where." She laughs and Springer laughs; he continues with gentle reminders that are soothingly specific. "It's the Kennedy Center Honors ... You're going to Washington, and I think you're going with Robbie and Shirley ... "

"I don't think it's such a good idea to drive," she says, but she no longer likes to fly -- no, she just doesn't enjoy it anymore -- and these plans have been made. She shrugs her shoulders in acceptance.

"Any kind of honor means a lot to me," she says. "Certainly. I'm always very moved by it. I don't understand it! I don't know why! But it's very nice." And she laughs again, the woman who in 1937 was voted Queen of the Movies (to Clark Gable's King) by more than 20 million newspaper readers.

"Queen?" she says. "Was I? I knew lots of other queens. He and I happened to be King and Queen, but when I think of the people I grew up with, people I watched, I didn't think I was very important. Then, suddenly, I was important, I guess."

"You certainly were," says Springer.

"I was fairly successful in my early days in some very bad movies. I don't remember them. How did I become so successful?" she asks, looking at Springer with a smile that is both graciously self-deprecating and sincerely curious.

"Some of the movies were bad," Springer says. "But you -- you were never bad. You were always great. Once you got on a roll with 'The Thin Man' -- from that point on, it was just great."

"They were very subtle," Loy says of the movies in the comic detective series based on stories by Dashiell Hammett. "They had a lot of humor in them, hidden humor, that many people didn't get, but I did. Can you tell now? I don't know. Are they still funny? I thought they were pretty smart."

Smart they were. Loy, with the dog Asta pulling at the leash. Powell, a cocktail shaker always at hand. Corpses piled up with insouciant frequency, and crime was a game for the rich in a world where the Depression did not exist. The humor was light and quick: "Don't bother," Loy told Powell as he lay languid in a hammock while she tried to open a lawn chair. "You might get all sweaty and die."

Before the first "Thin Man" movie, in 1934, Loy was attempting to shake off the image of an "exotic" in Hollywood. Her mother had moved Myrna and her brother to California from Montana after her father died, and the teen-age dancer began to sneak onto the back lot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she and friends put on private performances. After beginning her career in the melodramatic extravaganzas staged at Grauman's Egyptian movie house, Loy began to get bit parts in the movies. Despite her Welsh and Scottish blood, despite a youth spent riding horses in Montana, she was cast in a series of Asian and gypsy roles that called for a good deal of makeup and much mangled English ("Nubi, she be geepsy" was a typical line). But by the time she appeared in 1932's "The Mask of Fu Manchu," she was about to leave the exotics behind for a stream of comic roles.

"There had been romantic couples before, but Loy and Powell were something new and original," the late director George Cukor said several years ago. "They actually made marital comedy palatable ... Myrna gave the wit to the whole thing. They hit that wonderful note because he always did a wee bit too much and she underdid it, creating a grace, a charm, a chemistry."

In her 1987 autobiography "Being and Becoming," written with James Kotsilibas-Davis, Loy wrote that she continued that restraint even in her more serious parts: "Oh, I could have cried all over the place in many of my films, but it just didn't feel right. The audience loses respect for the character. It seems that instinctively I've done this kind of underplaying a good deal in my work."

She now believes her determination to avoid the showy, dramatic effects may have kept her from ever winning -- or even being nominated for -- an Academy Award. "I know why, I understand," she says. "Because I didn't chew up the furniture, I didn't chew up the scenery. I throw everything out. It's a whole different thing. But I swear to you -- check the people who won. They're people who" -- and she starts whirring her arms around in demonstration, her hands a tornado of frenetic emotion.

"You put on an eye patch, be an old character," says Springer, hunching over in his chair in exaggerated age. "John Wayne."

Loy laughs. "I loved that!" she says, remembering the eye-patched Wayne in his Oscar-winning "True Grit."

"But you were so cool and relaxed, you made it look so easy," says Springer. "Not that it was easy. You made it look easy."

"That's my problem," Loy says, still laughing. "Oh, dear. Well." The laughter bubbles away.

Loy and Powell made 14 films together in 13 years, interrupted by breaks she took to argue for -- and win -- more money from MGM executives, to perform volunteer work during World War II, and to attempt the real-life role of "perfect wife."

Over the years, Loy has been married to studio executive Arthur Hornblow, New York millionaire John Hertz Jr., screenwriter Gene Markey and finally State Department official Howland Sargeant. The irony implicit in being "the perfect wife" on screen and divorced four times in real life does not escape her. She believes her husbands often felt threatened by her success.

"So many women in the profession had difficulty keeping marriages going unless they quit or found subservient husbands -- managers, handmaidens, whatever they called it," she wrote in her autobiography. "Most of the male stars whose marriages have lasted married women who maybe were starlets but never became stars; they just gave up after marrying. It was hard for a man to tolerate the activities of a woman who wasn't there when they woke up -- she'd gone to the studio."

After the war ended, Loy took the relatively small part of the wife of a returning veteran in "The Best Years of Our Lives," a performance for which she was widely praised and which signaled her reincarnation as the "perfect mother" in such movies as "Cheaper by the Dozen." Character roles followed, as Loy passed the age Hollywood deemed suitable for leading ladies. She would not, she wrote, attempt to remain the top-billed star. " 'My name goes above the title,' Bette Davis insists," Loy wrote in her autobiography. " 'I'm the star!' She is, and a great one. But is it worth playing all those demented old ladies to maintain that status?"

Loy had never been one of the stars for whom the movies were everything, and the bulk of her work was finished decades ago. She lived in New York for many years, and Washington for several, and was very active in liberal and Democratic politics. She spoke on behalf of the United Nations and served on the national commission for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. She was accused of being a communist by the Hollywood Reporter (she sued for libel and the paper retracted its charges), campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt and eventually found herself on Richard Nixon's White House "enemies list" because she had supported Helen Gahagan Douglas in her Senate race against Nixon.

"Mother was a great politician in Montana," Loy says. "She always had her finger in somebody's pie. Isn't everyone involved in politics? They should be."

In the late '40s, Loy says, she tried to contact Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, to ask him to take action on behalf of his members, many of whom were suffering because of the Red scare. She got no response. "Even then he had an eye on his political future," she wrote in "Being and Becoming." "He'd taken off for the mountains. He didn't want any of that on his shoes."

She was not in Reagan's Hollywood circle. And although over the past eight years the White House seems to have become a latter-day annex to the movie studios of the '40s and '50s, Loy says, "You haven't seen me there, have you?"

Not one to hide her opinions ("That's never any problem with me! I have to watch myself!" she says), in her book Loy criticized Reagan's "anachronistic administration promoting the age-old fallacy of aggression for ultimate peace," and said, "Ronald Reagan has lived up to my expectations, which were not very great; he did, after all, tell us everything he was going to do beforehand. And I had inklings before that, not only in Hollywood but in Chicago, after dining with his conservative in-laws, the Loyal Davises. When they began reviling Adlai Stevenson and his humanitarian policies, I stood up from their table, scornfully surveyed that gathering of plutocrats and headed straight for the door. It was a short jump from the views expressed there to the patio politics of their son-in-law."

Now, she says with genuine amazement about Reagan, "Isn't it something, that career of his! Remarkable!"

Tonight, she is reminded, she will be sharing a Kennedy Center box with the man who had that remarkable career.

"And he'll be very charming," Springer says to his old friend.

For years, Loy and Powell received letters seeking marital advice from fans who assumed that the two actors, so compatible on screen, must be married off screen as well. The mistake was easy to understand. Like a few of her colleagues, Loy had a personal presence that suffused her performances. She was so -- well, she was so Myrna Loy: so poised, so sophisticated, so irreducibly herself that Nora Charles seemed less a role than a pseudonym. Yes, she played older supporting parts -- in a touring company of "Barefoot in the Park," in a revival of "The Women," in "Airport 1975" and in a guest appearance on the TV series "Love, Sidney" -- but it was almost impossible to believe she was changing.

She does not get out much now. Recently she attended the Broadway play "M. Butterfly," but that was the first show in a long time, and she says she rarely sees movies anymore. "She is frail," says Springer. When she sits at the Kennedy Center tonight, she will be surrounded by comforting faces: Springer will be there, as will her manager of many years, and Roddy McDowall, another old friend.

Three years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences staged a tribute to Loy. "She so dreaded the Academy event in Carnegie Hall," Springer says. "And when it was over, she said, 'It did more for me than you know.' She was walking on clouds for weeks. She's very conscious of her image, and she always feels she isn't the Myrna Loy the world expects to see any more. Which isn't true, of course."

But it has been more than 50 years since "The Thin Man," and Myrna Loy says there will be no photographs of her at home, despite protestations that she looks wonderful. "What did you expect?" she asks in affront. "A white-haired old lady?"

No, not a white-haired old lady -- Nora Charles. Movie stars are not supposed to age. They're supposed to die young and self-destructive, like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, or keep up the public fight, as Bette Davis has, until the darkness rears up and seizes them. Everything must be oversized, heroic enough to fill a big screen. Even farewell concert after farewell concert, comeback after comeback, is less disturbing than a quiet fading away in a cozy apartment.

The movies themselves helped define the myth: As Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," Gloria Swanson was a raging, deluded star who insisted that time stand still. But here in the penthouse, there is little of Norma Desmond, clinging to her lights and camera angles. Here there is a woman with a tremulous but warm handshake and a deep, bubbling voice, who was -- and is -- Myrna Loy.