Posted by Susan Doll on July 21, 2014
If I could go one day without hearing about the dreaded Kardashians, I would be thrilled. The most superficial of celebrities, they are famous for being famous, with no body of work to support their fame. How could this gaggle of girls with no discernable talents be the center of media attention? Recently, while researching a pre-Code film in newspapers of the era, I came to understand the construction of celebrity more fully. I was reminded that while gossip, rumors, and accusations pour from the Internet at an alarming rate, there have always been Kardashians eager to climb into the spotlight, and media outlets eager to keep them there.
Toby Wing was treated like the Kim Kardashian of her day. However, there are some differences: She did display a healthy degree of ambition, she parlayed her celebrity into a short-lived studio contract and a few supporting roles, and her famous family left a positive mark on history. Her life story offers insight into the Hollywood publicity machine, which has always churned out celebrities lie dolls on an assembly line.
Born Martha Virginia in the state of Virginia, Wing grew up in Los Angeles. Stories vary as to how she acquired the nickname Toby. Some sources mention that it was an old family name, but Hollywood publicity from the 1930s claimed that “toby” is a Southern colloquialism for a colt that is skittish and awkward looking. Upon seeing little Virginia for the first time, an aunt proclaimed her “toby-struck.” I have never heard this phrase in my life, and a quick search on the Web produced no verifications outside articles about Toby Wing. Whether fabricated by a press agent or a legitimate colloquialism, the story was perfect for publicity because of the irony of such a pretty girl being unattractive as an infant.
Wing’s mother, Martha, who was an expert equestrian, landed work as a stunt woman during the 1920s. She doubled for the biggest female stars, including Mary Pickford and Marion Davies. Martha brought her daughters into the business to work as extras, while her husband Paul, recently retired from the military, became an assistant director. While attending Hollywood High, Toby began to haunt the studios, looking to break into the chorus in musical comedies. She became a Goldwyn Girl, appearing without credit in such movies as Palmy Days and The Kid from Spain. Though she was not cast in any speaking roles, Goldwyn lent her to Warners for Busby Berkeley’s blonde-studded production numbers. If you have seen 42nd Street and recall the musical number in which Dick Powell sings “Young and Healthy” to an uncredited blonde in a fox-fur bra, that was Toby Wing. She was 17.
During this time, her name peppered the gossip columns in the newspapers and fanzines. She was frequently photographed wearing cutie holiday costumes for generic publicity stills, which were sent by studios to newspapers and fanzines on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 4th of July. Press agents also photographed her in bathing suits standing alongside important visitors to the various studios, or exercising with a studio’s athletic director. She was photographed diving, horseback riding, jumping, or learning dances. She was lent to any organization, institution, or company in need of a pretty starlet to adorn a photograph touting a milestone or accomplishment. Toby looked on as smiling bakers pulled pastries from their fancy new ovens; or, she lovingly bottle-fed baby deer in a park. Movie fans knew her name and face, even though she had not yet landed a speaking role. She earned several nicknames, including the Darling of the Photographers, the Most Beautiful Chorus Girl in Hollywood, and the Girl with a Face like the Morning Sun.
She was also known as America’s Most Engaged Girl. A flashy dresser, she was constantly in the columns and fanzines for going out on the town with actors, wealthy heirs, even royalty. Wing’s successful and failed romances were splashed everywhere. By 1934, she was 19, and had already dated Jack Oakie, Wesley Ruggles, Maurice Chevalier, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., Albert Vanderbilt, manufacturer H.B. Franklin Jr., and millionaire Howard Hughes. She was engaged to songwriter Pinky Tomlin and former child star Jackie Coogan.
Her youthful adventures were highly publicized, and they made her the butt of jokes in the entertainment press, not unlike the Kardashians today. A fluff piece syndicated through King Features called her a “charter member of the many-times-a-model-never-a-featured-player club.” In detailing her romantic exploits, the same article noted that “the stag line [the line-up of men to date her] reached from West Point to Panama.” A column in Photoplay listed all of the men in her life, subtly comparing her dating record to that of a man: “What’s sauce for the goose is applesauce for the gander.” The columnist smirked that she landed Chevalier by wearing “a demure little red dress with a more demure little Toby in it.” Sidney Skolsky poked fun of Wing’s slight movie career in his column called “Hollywood,” reporting with some sarcasm, “This may not be believed, but I actually saw Toby Wing facing a camera. I mean a camera that was grinding. You know the reputation Toby has acquired recently; she is seen in photographs showing her cooking, or eating at the Brown Derby, or going to an opening with her boyfriend, but no one has seen her actually in a motion picture.” Skolsky discovered that Wing was helping out on a screen test on the Warners lot with a dark, handsome actor named Gilbert Roland.
Wing’s strategy, or that of her agent, was to be recognized as famous by the press and create a fan base, which might lead to a role or a decent contract. A common enough strategy in Hollywood at the time, but this path to stardom could also backfire, turning the wannabe star into the dreaded “publicity hound,” a term thrown at Wing during this time period. In general, the promotional photos made her recognizable, but the publicity branded her as a dim party girl who traded on her looks—not suitable material for serious stardom.
Despite the jokes about her lack of screen credits, Wing did appear in a few speaking roles, beginning in 1934 with Search for Beauty. She played star Ida Lupino’s teenage cousin, who is exploited by an unscrupulous publisher into posing for suggestive photographs. Her big scene occurs when she dances on a table in her underwear, naively believing that she is auditioning for the movies. In Paramount’s True Confession, Wing makes the most of a bit role as the secretary at Fred MacMurray’s law firm. When he asks her to take dictation, she replies, “Are you kidding?” suggesting she was not hired for her secretarial skills. Unlike the Kardashians, I found Wing to be funny, charismatic, and beautiful in that Harlow-Monroe way. In Search for Beauty, she made a better impression on me than Ida Lupino, who was roughly the same age but just plain dull. (Judge for yourself on September 5, when Search for Beauty airs on TCM as part of a celebration of pre-Code movies.)
In 1937, Wing signed a contract with a small production company called Grand National Films, who began to groom her for stardom. At this point, any similarity to the Kardashians ends. The tone of her publicity changed immediately. Articles were released to newspaper syndicates by studio press agents that touted her refined background. Her mother was depicted as a fine Southern belle, the daughter of a famed Civil War veteran who had fought with Stonewall Jackson. No mention was made of Martha’s career as a stunt woman. Toby was said to have been born on the family plantation, Right Oaks, which echoed Twelve Oaks, the plantation in Gone With the Wind—the country’s number-one best-seller at the time. Her years at Hollywood High were spent as a “tennis champ,” not hanging around the studios looking for a chance in the chorus line. Other articles revealed her connection to an English playwright named Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, who was her great uncle. Wing supposedly told reporters she never brought it up before because she did not want to use his name to get ahead. Instead of remarking to reporters about how much she loved her latest beaus and their material possessions, she revealed plans to appear in plays at the Pasadena Playhouse because that was true acting.
Wing costarred in only two films after her new contract with Grand National, Mr. Boggs Steps Out and The Marines Come Through. In 1937, she met aviator Henry Tindall “Dick” Merrill, and the pair were married the following year. In 1940, the Merrills lost their first son to crib death, and they relocated to the east coast in search of a private, down-to-earth lifestyle. There they experienced the triumphs and tragedies of ordinary folk.
Toby’s father, Paul Wing, had been a photographer in the military in WWI, which he parlayed into a career as an assistant director in Hollywood in the 1920s. In 1940, with war looming on the horizon, he felt the need to re-enlist. After teaching photography at Fort Monmouth, he was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines. When the Japanese attacked the Philippines, he joined the defense of Bataan, but in 1942, he was captured alongside 60,000 Filipinos and 15,000 American soldiers. At age 49, he was forced to participate in the Bataan Death March, then spent most of the war in a prison camp on Cabanatuan. Unbelievably, he hid a camera on his person, secretly taking photos of the Death March and of conditions on Cabanatuan. He survived his ordeal, but according to Toby, her father was a changed man upon his return. He retreated to a farm in Virginia, making furniture and staying close to home.
Tragedy befell Toby and Dick Merrill in 1982 when their only surviving son was murdered. Later that year, Dick died. Toby Wing Merrill died in 2001, having lived a full, interesting life without movie stardom.
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