Myrna and I

December 17, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen

IT WAS going to be a rather routine trip back to Boston, I thought. I'd just boarded Amtrak's Senator at New York's Penn Station on a warm August afternoon in 1973.

Then she sat down next to me.

Well, almost. A table separated us. A middle-aged lady, on my right, sank her nails into my arm and whispered, "Do you know who that is?"

I said I did.

"Why, it's Myrna Loy!" she exclaimed.

Myrna Loy, still a freckle-faced redhead whom I would have expected to be more at home in a deluxe Pullman drawing room, had seated herself in a somewhat forlorn parlor car of the former New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.

Here in the flesh was that cool 1930s motion picture sophisticate who, as Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" movies, seemed to live in an endless series of expensive hotel suites with her detective husband Nick, played by William Powell.

Powell was always dressed to perfection in Saville Row cut lounge suits and snap-brim fedoras. His wonderfully wavy hair was parted in the middle and combed back in the style of the day. His expressive eyes and pencil mustache always gave the impression that he was up to something.

They were the perfect picture of urbanity, perpetually smoking and downing martinis mixed in a wonderful art deco cocktail shaker that looked as though it had been lifted from the observation bar of the Queen Mary. Even the Charles' dog Asta was urbane, for heaven's sake.

And now she was all mine. Well, almost. I glared at the woman on my right, who was in a state of hysteria but managing to keep quiet.

Myrna Loy removed a portable radio from her pocketbook, attached its earpiece and started to read from a stack of newspapers she had brought along.

I decided to take the plunge. "I'm having a cocktail, Miss Loy, would you care to, uh, join me?" I croaked.

"I'd be delighted," she said.

"I've always enjoyed your films," I said.

"Now wait a minute. You're too young to remember my films," she said with a little laugh that I had seen her give Powell when he did something that amused her.

"The late show," I sputtered back.

And then she pinned me to the wall.

"Which one?"

"Miss Loy, I loved that scene when you gave William Powell a revolver for Christmas," I said, "and he sat in bed and shot the balls off the Christmas tree."

"Oh, doesn't every man want to do that?" she asked with the laugh heard 'round the world in darkened theaters nearly four decades earlier.

I wondered how many women watching those films consciously or unconsciously tried to imitate it and be like Myrna Loy and amuse their husbands and boyfriends the same way she amused Nick Charles.

When she learned that I was moving to Baltimore, she said, "Baltimore was always kind to me, and especially The Sun when I played Ford's."

Then the porter approached and said, "Miss Loy, I used to take care of you before the war on the Coast Starlight when you rode the train to San Francisco."

"I just adored the baked potatoes they served in the diner on that train," she replied.

She asked me where I was going. I told her I was returning to my home in Boston. She said she was going to Westerly, R.I., to visit a nephew and his family.

Clearing my throat, I took another plunge. "Miss Loy, if I go home tonight and tell my wife that I rode up on the train with you, she's not going to believe me."

"Do you have a business card?" I did. She took it, found a pen, wrote on it and pressed it back in my hand: "All good wishes! Myrna Loy."

As we approached Westerly, she shook my hand and thanked me for the drink and the conversation, and then she was gone.

I watched her step off the train and into the arms of relatives. People passing on the platform failed to recognize this actress whose face had flickered on movie screens for more than half a century and who had the most charming, pert way of asking for a drink:

"Why Nicky, I'd love a maahtini!"

The card is still on my wife's mirror, and now that both the "Charleses" are dead, Powell in 1984, Myrna Loy this week, their photos are on our refrigerator.

Fred Rasmussen writes obituaries for The Baltimore Sun.

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