Myrna Loy’s work with William Powell in the highly successful ThinMan films made her a star. But I always thought that Test Pilot was the best thing she ever did. In later years, I found out that she agreed with me.
After the movie, Emma and I walked out of the theater into a cold, unexpected, December downpour. With no umbrellas, we scurried around, the corner and ran down the block, where we found refuge in a warm and fragrant Yamhill Street coffeehouse with cramped, spindly chairs and sticky coffeecake. We were soaked. Emma unpinned and shook out her wet, ash-blonde hair, letting it hang wild and loose. Then, at a small, back-of-the-room table for two, we dried out and nurtured mugs of hot coffee. As I recall it, the coffee went in the first ten minutes and the rest was a happy after-taste of reminiscence.
Test Pilot had grabbed the both of us. We enjoyed it. And it started us talking about the world of flying. She reminded me that she had been in the co-pilot’s seat the first time either one of us had ever flown—in the old Ford Trimotor with Dick Rankin at the controls. We went on from there. As I now try to piece together the fragments, I think we talked about the first movie we had seen together, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Later, I know she teased me about the weeks, or was it months, that she had devoted to the task of teaching me to dance, we laughed about my boot camp misadventures at Vancouver Barracks, and we analyzed her former boyfriend, stiffly pressed, ramrod-straight, Master Sergeant Henry Karle.
At some point, the talk turned serious, too, as she described to me her troubled life in Spokane as a teenager, That’s when I heard for the first time the full story behind the thin, pale scar that slanted down into her left eyebrow—the story of a brutal husband, the jagged edge of a broken bottle and a teenage marriage gone wrong.
I saw the sadness in her laugh, too, when she talked of that desperate, lonely year on her own with no job and no family. And the degrading pressures of the marathon dance contest.
As I listened to this wistful, enigmatic woman who had come in and out of my life so many times over the years, I admitted to myself something that I already knew: I had been infatuated with Emma Nielsen probably from the time I was ten years old.