Marni Nixon: Hollywood’s ‘ghostess with the mostest’

Obituary: singer who dubbed stars in films such as ‘The King and I’ and ‘West Side Story’

Marni Nixon: Born – February 22nd, 1930. Died – July 24th, 2016.  Photograph: Harden-Curtis Associates/PA Wire

Marni Nixon: Born – February 22nd, 1930. Died – July 24th, 2016. Photograph: Harden-Curtis Associates/PA Wire

 

Marni Nixon, American cinema’s most unsung singer, has died, aged 86.

Classically trained, Nixon was during the 1950s and 1960s the – usually uncredited – singing voice of the stars in a spate of celebrated Hollywood films. She dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, among many others.

“The ghostess with the mostest,” the newspapers called her, a description that eventually began to rankle.

Before her Hollywood days and long afterward, Nixon was an acclaimed concert singer, a specialist in contemporary music who appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic; a recitalist at Carnegie, Alice Tully and Town Halls in New York; and a featured singer on one of Leonard Bernstein’s televised young people’s concerts.

Generations of film audiences have grown accustomed to Nixon’s voice, if not her face, in standards like Getting to Know You, from The King and I; I Feel Pretty, from West Side Story; and I Could Have Danced All Night, from My Fair Lady.

Kerr was nominated for an Oscar in 1956 for her role as Anna in The King and I; the film’s soundtrack album sold hundreds of thousands of copies. For singing Anna’s part, Nixon recalled, she received a total of $420. Twentieth Century Fox told her that if anybody ever knew that she did any part of the dubbing for Kerr, they would see to it that she didn’t work in town again, she said.

Although Nixon honoured the bargain, her work soon became one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets.

No credit

West Side Story

The voice of an angel heard by Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc – it was Nixon’s. The songs of the nightclub singer, played by Kerr, in An Affair to Remember? Nixon. The second line of the couplet “But square-cut or pear-shape/ These rocks don’t lose their shape,” with its pinpoint high note on “their,” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? That was Nixon too. (The film’s star Marilyn Monroe sang the rest of the number, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.)

Over time, Nixon came to regard her spectacular mimetic gift as more curse than blessing. For, despite her myriad accomplishments as a singer of art songs, she was obliged to spend years exorcising her ghostly cinematic presence.

“It got so I’d lent my voice to so many others that I felt it no longer belonged to me,” she told the New York Times in 1981. “It was eerie; I had lost part of myself.”

She was born Margaret Nixon McEathron in Altadena, California. She began studying the violin at four and throughout her childhood played bit parts in Hollywood films. She later studied opera at Tanglewood.

Nixon did occasionally take centre stage, as when she played Eliza Doolittle in a 1964 revival of My Fair Lady at City Center in New York. (Andrews had played the part in the original Broadway production, which opened in 1956.) On Broadway, Nixon appeared in the musical drama James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (2000), the 2001 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and the 2003 revival of Nine.

Nixon’s first marriage, to Ernest Gold, a film composer who won an Oscar for the 1960 film Exodus, ended in divorce, as did her second, to Lajos Frederick Fenster. Her third husband, Albert Block, died in 2015.

Nixon, who continued singing until she was in her 80s, eventually came to regard her heard-but-not-seen life with affection. Her memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night, was published in 2006.

She is survived by her daughters, Martha Carr and Melani Gold Friedman. A son from her first marriage, Andrew Gold, died in 2011.