Me and Me2: An Appreciation of Marni Nixon

Marni Nixon
Stephen Cole and Marni Nixon at a book signing.

When someone you love passes away, you feel it in different ways. Sometimes there is relief. When my friend Ethel Merman died, it was a release from months of living with a brain tumor and knowing she would never sing again. When my first collaborator was stricken by a sudden blood clot at 58, it was anger and shock.

When, late Sunday evening, July 25, I heard that Marni Nixon died, I felt that a little piece of me went with her. Well, I had spent 18 months as Marni, co-authoring her memoirs and writing her life story in first person. I was Marni Nixon. We even signed our emails “Me” and “Me2,” alternating who was which. I was happy when the book was published (which I longed to call Audrey Hepburn Dubbed My Face but was ultimately titled I Could Have Sung All Night) and Marni could be the only Marni and I could interview her and play The Merv Griffin Show when we promoted it.

I loved pushing her to tell the stories about being the “Ghostess with the Mostest,” as Time magazine dubbed her. Marni told of what a gracious lady Deborah Kerr was during the making of the film version of The King and I (and that she thought Kerr and Yul Brynner were getting it on!), and how she would shadow Kerr on the set and feel all of her acting intentions so she could infuse the vocals with Kerr’s Mrs. Anna. She would smile ruefully when she told how she made $400 a song and no royalties from the best-selling record.

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“I was Marni Nixon.”

She would regale me with stories of Natalie Wood desperately wanting to sing her own songs in the film version of West Side Story, and about recording the whole, very difficult Bernstein-Sondheim score only to have to laboriously post-dub or loop every single note. And how, on that day, when the “Tonight” quintet was being recorded, both Rita Moreno and her dubber had colds, so Marni sang both parts and did a short duet with herself. Marni loved to tell how she even had to loop a line of dialogue for Wood who, rather than crying in the last scene, was covering up a muffled laugh.

I was with Marni in my mind when she sat beside the gloriously warm Audrey Hepburn during the long limo drives to the Warner Brothers lot so they could both be coached to sing those My Fair Lady songs, neither of them knowing which tracks would ultimately be used in the film. Ultimately, the singing Eliza Doolittle was mostly Marni and the public and press knew it — costing Hepburn an Oscar nomination. Hepburn’s friend and conductor, Andre Previn, blamed Marni for spilling the beans, but as Marni said, “There were 50 musicians in the room who knew I sang those songs!”

Then there were the smaller dubbing jobs that came in between the symphony gigs (Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic!), the operas, the musicals, the TV guest shots, the Vegas tours with Liberace…like the time Marni had to dub the great singer Ethel Waters on a TV show. It seemed they wanted to play one of Waters’ old records that the older Ethel could sing along with, but the rights cost too much. So: paging Marni! — who could sound like anyone. And, of course, that famous coloratura of Marilyn Monroe’s at the beginning “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: all those “no, no, no’s” were really Marni. And when the studio execs asked Marni to dub even more of Monroe in the film, she said, “Are you nuts? She sounds perfect!”

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“Are you nuts? She sounds perfect!”

The later years after My Fair Lady, when Marni moved to New York City and turned more to the stage, were exciting for me, for I had seen her in the very shows we were writing about: Taking My Turn, The Dead, Follies, Nine. Then things got even more confusing when my life as a musical theater writer started to converge with Marni’s career. She did the first readings and demos of my first produced musical, Dodsworth. Long after our book came out, we did events like our magical night at the Film Forum — the show opened with Kerr on the screen singing “Getting to Know You” but backstage Marni was really singing and then she entered with a mic, showing in a nutshell how much illusion there is behind the screen. Or when Marni learned a new song from my musical, The Night of the Hunter, and sang it in a show celebrating my work as a lyricist. She was walking with a cane then and having some memory problems, but I figured out a way to help get her into the song and remind her of the first lyrics and, once I did, her great acting and vocal technique took over and she mesmerized a full house. It was her last New York performance before a paying audience:

I loved being “the ghost’s ghost.” But Marni would not allow me to be anonymous. She made sure that I got credit as her co-author on the cover of the book and we even took a photo together that went inside the dust jacket. She was so generous, but fair. She told me, “You are the writer, but I am the author!” It made perfect sense, but how could I stand outside of her fabulous life?

I found myself, as dramatist, writing “Marni” and inhabiting her as if she were a character in one of my musicals and I was an actor. She made me laugh. A lot. A child of the Depression, Marni hoarded rubber bands and plastic bags and was notoriously frugal. Years ago, when she needed her assistant and friend, Maryann Lopinto, to travel with her, she bought the not-very-old Maryann a senior discount train ticket, gave her a scarf and told her to stoop over and look old!

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I loved writing about Marni’s powerful and very demanding mother — who kept detailed notes on Marni’s birth and early childhood years, knowing she would be famous one day. Marni’s family became mine: her sisters; her three husbands, including Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold; and, of course, her kids, Martha, Melani and Andy (who wrote the theme song for The Golden Girls, “Thank You For Being a Friend”).

I knew and loved Al Block, Marni’s final love match and third husband. He was perfect for her. A great musician himself, he played in the pits of the original West Side Story and Gypsy. He would marvel at the fact that the sometimes exacting, very tough Marni Nixon never yelled at me.

Well, it would have been like yelling at herself. Goodbye, Me. Love, Me2