“Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant? How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?”
Actress Myrna Loy (1905-93) asked that in the 1930s, when she was a top box-office star playing Nora Charles opposite William Powell as Nick in the comic mystery “The Thin Man” (1934) and five sequels. Loy was born as Myrna Williams in Helena, Montana, 114 years ago Friday.
Loy’s father, David Williams, was the youngest man ever elected to Montana’s state legislature. He claimed he saw the name Myrna written on a water tower traveling back to Helena by train just before her birth.
There’s no place named Myrna in the United States. Williams was probably passing through Merna, Nebraska, when he saw the sign. Merna was founded as “Muddy Flats” in 1876 by Samuel Dunning, its first postmaster. In 1883, he moved 30 miles northwest to found Dunning, Nebraska. His friend William Brotherton, taking over the postmaster job, renamed Muddy Flats “Merna” after Dunning’s 7-year-old daughter.
David Williams may have deliberately altered the spelling to “Myrna,” or simply misremembered it. Both Myrna and Merna are thought to be Americanized respellings of Irish Gaelic Muirne, “festive.”
In Irish legend, Muirne was the daughter of a Druid and mother of the great Irish hero Finn Mac Cool. The father of the earliest born Myrna in the United States census, Thomas Fox of Saunders County, Nebraska, was born in Ireland. Myrna Fox (1865-1929) is called “Murnie” on her 1882 marriage license to Perry Hadsall, and on her Idaho tombstone, reinforcing the idea that Myrna is a form of Muirne. Still, it’s a bit mysterious why over 2,000 American families, most in the Midwest without Irish ancestry, named daughters Myrna or Merna by 1910.
The first famous Myrna was North Dakota-born Myrna Sharlow (1893-1952). Sharlow was a featured operatic soprano in Boston and Chicago between 1912 and 1927. She made several appearances in Europe and New York. The name Myrna had an upward surge during the first years of Sharlow’s fame.
Loy’s career had a bigger impact. She first became famous playing exotic Asian roles in the 1920s. In 1934, she played a woman torn between love for gangster Blackie (Clark Gable) and politician Jim (William Powell) in “Manhattan Melodrama.” That was the film notorious bank robber John Dillinger (1903-34) saw in a Chicago theater just before he was shot and killed by FBI agents. Myrna Loy was supposedly Dillinger’s favorite actress.
“Melodrama” and “The Thin Man” films helped Myrna peak as a baby name in 1938 at 134th, when 1,801 girls received it.
After 1945, Loy’s roles shifted from glamorous to matronly. She starred as industrial psychologist Lillian Gilbreth in 1950’s “Cheaper by the Dozen,” where her role as a mother of 12 defied her real-life status as a childless four-time divorcée.
The name receded along with Loy’s career. Myrna left the top thousand in 1977. In 2018, only 16 American babies were named Myrna.
With other Hollywood names like Ava and Greta booming, perhaps avant-garde parents should reconsider Myrna. A movie star who said, “Life is not about having and getting, it’s about being and becoming,” perhaps deserves a few more namesakes.