Marni Nixon's voice was behind some of cinema's best musicals throughout the 1905s and 60s - but her face? Not so much. The talented singer who brought success to many films was once sworn to secrecy. Here's why.
Long gone was the era of silent films, and starlets dominated the screen in the golden age of Hollywood. These cinematic legends included Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, and Deborah Kerr.
Yet, there was something else that these four women also had in common. Not only were they some of the most in-demand actresses of their day with legacies that still last today, but they also shared a secret. A secret that Hollywood tried to hide for many years…
The Star You Never Knew
Marni Nixon was the star that no one had ever heard of. She had influenced cinematic history in a significant way, yet nobody would be able to recognize her on the street. She worked on some of the biggest films in history, but no one knew who she was.
She was the woman working behind the scenes. So, what did Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, and Deborah Kerr have in common? Marni Nixon was their voice. Yes, their voice! She became known as the Hollywood Ghost Singer for her lovely singing voice, being dubbed over some of the most famous actresses ever.
Since she was a young girl, Nixon has loved performing. She grew up in the town of Altadena, California, to parents Charles and Margaret. Nixon was one of four sisters. The girls grew up during the Great Depression but were very fortunate that their father kept his job.
Nixon told CBS Sunday Morning, "...I think they discovered that by the time I was, like, 4 years old that I had perfect pitch and I was very good at singing." She also was a talented violinist. When she was only 11, she won a competition, and its prize was a spot in a national radio commercial. And that's when a lifelong love began...
Hard at Work
Throughout her childhood, Marni performed at recitals and in extra or bit roles. She also sang in choruses and worked on stage musical productions, and even had a solo debut at the famous Hollywood Bowl. Nixon performed under the guidance of conductor Leopold Stokowski.
However, she had no desire to be labeled as merely one thing. She said, "When I was 17, it seemed natural to flit from one persona and style to the other, and I merrily accepted whatever opportunity came along without question." This can-do attitude led her to accept a role that would forever alter her career and life.
Her First Movie Role
After finishing her studies in high school, she started working in the mailroom as a messenger for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Nixon told CBS Sunday Morning, "...They were actually going to groom me... to be a starlet." However, things ended up taking a different route. Word got around MGM that Nixon had an impeccable singing voice.
Composer Bronislaw Kaper approached Nixon, according to the Daily Telegraph, and asked if she could sing in Hindi. Despite not actually knowing how Nixon answered yes. The studio hired her to sing child actress Margaret O'Brien's vocals for her lullaby in the 1949 movie The Secret Garden.
A New Direction
A new career path took off for Marni. She became a "ghost" in Hollywood. The practice was quite common during the golden age of Hollywood. Talented singers would be hired to perform a film's songs, and their vocals would be dubbed over the famous starlets cast in the movie.
In addition to singing for Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden, she also sang for O'Brien in Big City and voiced the angels in the 1948 film Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. The dubbing continued, and Nixon sang the vocals for Jeanne Crain in the 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen.
Things took off for Nixon when she was called to help with a film titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe starred alongside Jane Russell in the musical comedy. Although Monroe had an incredible singing voice, she was unable to hit the high notes required in the number Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend.
The studio needed someone who would not only be able to hit the desired high notes but also be able to blend in with Monroe's voice. Cue Marni Nixon. With her four-octave vocal range and ability to be pitch-perfect, Nixon was the obvious choice. She was hired for the job.
The King and Nixon
Nixon's next job was much more demanding and time-consuming. Deborah Kerr, one of the biggest stars of the time, was set to star in the movie musical The King and I. However, Kerr wasn't known for her voice and needed someone to dub her. Per Daily Telegraph, the singer meant to do her dubbing passed away. So, Nixon's phone rang.
Nixon told NPR, "Whenever there was a song to be sung in a scene, I would get up and stand next to her and watch her while she sang. And she would watch me, while I sang. After we recorded that song, she would have to go to the filming of it and mouth to that performance."
The two women worked seamlessly together, and their partnership was a success. Per World Treasures, the two actresses spent hours working together. Marni would work on copying Kerr's British accent and mannerisms, while Kerr would lip sync and work with Nixon's vocals.
The product of their collaboration was entirely convincing. Kerr received a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance as Anna. Although she did not secure the Oscar, she would remain part of cinematic history forever for the role.
Silenced by Hollywood
While Nixon contributed significantly to The King and I, she only earned $420 for her work. Not only was she paid so little for her vocals, but she was also sworn to secrecy by the studio. They did not want the truth revealed that Deborah Kerr did not sing her own songs.
Marni recalled to Nightline in 2007, "You always had to sign a contract that nothing would be revealed. Twentieth Century Fox, when I did The King and I, threatened me. They said, if anybody ever knows that you did any part of the dubbing for Deborah Kerr, we'll see to it that you don't work in town again."
Kerr Slips the Secret
Marni's involvement in the film got out, but she didn't spill the news. It was actually Deborah Kerr who told the press about Marni's contributions to The King and I. While promoting the movie, Kerr did an interview with The Mirror. The article was released with the title Deborah Tells A Secret.
Kerr told the interviewer about Marni and her involvement in the film. She said, "She's a wonderful woman, this Marni Nixon." Kerr explained that they split the songs. But what would Nixon do? Was she going to be able to stay working in the industry now that the news of the Hollywood ghost was out in the open?
A Career Kickoff
Rather than being dumped out of the town and never working again, the exact opposite happened! Everyone still wanted to work with Nixon, and she was called up left and right. It turns out there was no need to worry - the exposure by Kerr made Nixon even more in demand.
Kerr and Nixon joined forces again on the film An Affair to Remember. Nixon also sang the vocals for Sophia Loren in the movie Boy on a Dolphin and for Janet Leigh in Pepe. Separate from Marni's career as a Hollywood ghost, she performed in the chorus of Can-Can.
The Next Job
Nixon's next big job would be on the movie musical The West Side Story. Inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the musical occurs in 1950s New York City as two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, compete for control. However, Sharks member Tony falls in love with the sister of the Jet's leader, Maria.
Natalie Wood was a child actress who starred in Miracle on 34th Street and was transitioning into more mature roles. At the time of her casting in West Side Story, she had been nominated for an Academy Award for Rebel Without a Cause. With her star power in tow, she was cast in the distinguished role of Maria.
Wood was aware that Nixon would also be working on the film. However, she was not clued into the extent of it. Stephen Cole, who co-wrote Nixon's memoir, told NPR that Wood was under the impression that only specific high notes would be replaced. It turns out that was not the case.
According to the Independent, Wood was left completely in the dark about the arrangement. The studio feared their star would quit if she knew the truth. Wood would record her numbers, and the studio had her mimic along to them as she filmed to complete the illusion.
Nixon's Singing Voice
Meanwhile, Marni was recording her versions of the songs, which would end up being used in the final product. Stephen Cole explained, "Marni thought it was barbaric, because Natalie was not good and everyone would tell her she was wonderful, she was fabulous, knowing that they would not be using her tracks."
Once filming was completed, Natalie Wood was finally told what was actually happening behind her back. Nixon told NPR, "From what I've heard, she was just absolutely furious and stomped out of the studio in a total rage." While Wood may have been mad about what was happening, the movie still succeeded.
West Side Success Story
The film was a box office hit. It is still regarded as one of the greatest musical films ever made, being the highest-grossing film of 1961. Not only was it a commercial success, but it was also a critical one. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won ten of them.
The project became a piece of cinematic history, except Marni Nixon, who helped to make the movie what it was, was left entirely in the dust. Her role was kept under wraps, she was paid poorly, and her name was omitted from the credits. While everyone else was applauded for their efforts, Nixon was made to be a ghost.
Worst Kept Secret
Over the years, Marni Nixon's work as Hollywood's ghost became known through the entertainment industry. Despite efforts to keep her dubbing role a secret, people started catching wind of what was happening behind the scenes of their most beloved films.
Nixon ended up becoming an open secret within Hollywood. Thus, her role as Hollywood's ghost singer was one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry. Eventually, her name became a clue in crossword puzzles and on Jeopardy! Nixon became her own sort of cult figure in pop culture.
Another Leading Lady
Audrey Hepburn was one of the most in-demand actresses of the decade. So, when producer Jack Warner was casting the movie rendition of the stage musical My Fair Lady, she was at the top of his list to play the part of Eliza Doolittle. He felt Hepburn would be a better choice over Julie Andrews, who originated the role on stage.
Hepburn sang for her role in Funny Face. However, My Fair Lady required a higher level of singing that Julie Andrews could pull off, but Hepburn didn't have the same training and talents as Andrews. Good thing that the studio knew precisely who to call.
My Fair Marni
Nixon told NPR about Hepburn, "She kept going to her voice lessons and trying to improve certain parts and rerecord certain things. But she could also tell she wasn't making it." Eventually, the news was broken to Hepburn that Nixon's voice would be dubbed into the movie.
Hepburn reportedly walked off set, but according to the Independent, she returned the next day and apologized for her reaction. The two women ended up having a collaborative partnership, and Nixon said about the experience, "I really felt fused with her."
At Her Wit's End
Although she had been part of some of the greatest films in cinematic history and contributed directly to their success, it was challenging work for Marni Nixon. She described her job, "I learned to adapt my own voice to suit the facial and mouth movements and even the enunciation patterns of the actresses I sang for."
She continued, "It got so I'd lent my voice to so many others that I felt it no longer belonged to me. It was eerie. I had lost part of myself." Nixon was suffering from an identity crisis. Furthermore, she didn't get the usual perks that actresses typically receive, like royalties or award recognition.
A Magazine Profile
Then, a different kind of phone call came in. Nixon recalled, "Suddenly Time magazine called and they said they wanted to do an interview with me and they had found out about the dubbing. So they came and sent a photographer, and they dubbed me, 'The Ghostess with the Mostest.' Bad rhyme, but that sort of stuck, you know?"
The profile was released in 1964. Nixon told the outlet, "Eventually you want to play the character yourself." It had been around 15 years of being a ghost for Marni. Finally, she got recognition, and maybe her turn to be the star of the show would be coming, too.
Over the years, Nixon had gotten used to being a ghost. She sang the vocals, and they would end up in the final product. At first, Nixon wasn't particularly disturbed by it. This was simply what the job entailed! She was hired to be used as a dub, and so she did the job.
Then, things started to change. The Hollywood ghost singer told The Times, "The anonymity didn't bother me until I sang Natalie Wood's songs in West Side Story. Then I saw how important my singing was to the picture. I was giving my talent, and somebody else was taking the credit."
No More Dubbing
At last, Marni Nixon was hired for a role that she would be the face to her own singing voice. She was cast as Sister Sophia in the 1965 musical movie The Sound of Music. Director Robert Wise said in the DVD commentary of the movie that audiences were able to see the voice they knew so well.
It must have been a dream come true for the woman who used to keep her identity a secret to receive a credit in a movie. Although, she fought for the rights to royalties on the West Side Story. So, what was next for the former ghost singer of Hollywood?
A Singing Sensation
Throughout the 1960s, Nixon was still working frequently. She was hired to be the singing voice of Princess Serena in Jack and the Beanstalk. She gave recital performances at some of the most famous venues in America, including Carnegie Hall. She also performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.
She became a teacher and taught at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita and the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. She also spent time working as the host of a children's television show in Seattle called Boomerang. Nixon continued to appear in variety shows, television shows, and operas.
Nixon didn't stop working. She toured around the country as a cabaret show. She started recording songs and was nominated for two Grammy Awards. She starred in Off-Broadway productions, including Taking My Turn. Like the women that she used to sing for, Marni Nixon was a star.
She was cast in a Disney film to be the singing voice of Grandmother Fa in the 1998 film Mulan. Except, this was much different than other times. Nixon was properly credited for her work, and everyone involved knew what was happening. What a complete turnaround!
Her Personal Life
Throughout her professional highs and lows, Marni always had her family by her side to get her through. In 1950, she married composer Ernest Gold. He is most well-known for composing the score of Exodus. Together, the couple had three children. However, Gold and Nixon ended their marriage in 1969.
Two years later, Nixon remarried Lajos "Fritz" Fenster, and they were together from 1971 until 1975. Afterward, she found love once again with Albert Block, who she stayed married to from 1983 until he passed away in 2015. One of Nixon's sons, Andrew Gold, followed in his parents' footsteps and became a singer and songwriter.
Sharing Her Story
The description of her memoir starts, "Everyone knows Marni Nixon…even if they think they don't." Ain't that the truth? Nixon decided she was going to share her incredible story from her perspective. Along with Stephen Cole, they wrote an autobiography, giving fans an inside look at Hollywood's ghost singer.
The late movie critic Roger Ebert wrote about the book and its subject, "Marnie Nixon is the unacknowledged star of some of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time…. at last in her autobiography she comes out from behind the screen and takes a richly deserved bow."
Awarded for Her Work
After years of her work being hidden and her star power going unnoticed, Marni Nixon got what she deserved. In 2012, the singer was the recipient of one of the greatest honors of her career. She was bestowed with the George Peabody Award for Outstanding Contributions to American Music.
Nixon was also presented with the Singer Symposium's Distinguished Artist Award and was the winner of four Emmy awards for her children's television show. All of these accolades must have meant the world to Marni. She was no longer the ghost singer of Hollywood.
A Personal Battle
Nixon battled breast cancer in 1985 and 2000, but she lost her last battle with the disease in 2016. The singer passed away at the age of 86. Newspapers everywhere mourned her death and celebrated her contributions. The New York Times called her "American cinema's most unsung singer."
Although she may no longer be with us, her mark on cinematic history is unquestionable. For a long time, she was a ghost, hidden among the star powers of those who surrounded her. Then, she emerged from the shadows and will be forever remembered for her talents.
The Ghost Singer's Legacy
Marni Nixon made a name for herself. While she started her career as a ghost singer for cinema's most legendary stars, she became an icon in her own right. Although she literally gave her voice to stars like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, it was Nixon who helped to define this magical era of movie-making.
She emerged from her ghostly status and had a blossoming career of her own. For years to come, audiences will think of her voice when they sing I Feel Pretty, Getting to Know You, and Wouldn't It Be Loverly? Marni Nixon will forever be remembered as much more than Hollywood's ghost singer.