The New York Times reports that Marni Nixon (born Margaret Nixon McEathron in Altadena, CA), whose name you may not know, and whose voice you may not know you know (but surely do know), has died at 86. According to the paper, she died yesterday on Manhattan, after having lived on the Upper West Side for over four decades. She’s survived by a great deal of relatives, including three sisters, two daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
If you’ve ever had “I Feel Pretty” or “I Could’ve Danced All Night” stuck in your head, it was likely in Nixon’s voice, for she was the “ghost-singer” for much of Natalie Wood’s Maria in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Even if the aforementioned songs aren’t your favorites, Nixon contributed to over 50 films, so more likely than not, she’s crooned her way through your subconscious on various occasions. (The Times points out that sometimes she wouldn’t even dub full songs — for example, she sang just two lines of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.)
Beyond being dubbed by Time as “the ghostess with the mostess,” she had a full career as a classical singer: she made her solo debut singing “Carmina Burana” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, appeared solo at the likes of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, alongside the New York Philharmonic, toured with Liberace, performed with the LA, Seattle and San Francisco Operas; she also made assorted appearances in shows on Broadway. (Nixon also, later, taught at Cal Arts, and was the host of the Seattle-based kids’ series, Boomerang in the 70s and 80s.) Since her work dubbing famous actress’ musical appearances often went uncredited, it was these other endeavors that saw her get to openly present her talents to audiences.
“It was just a part of the working singer’s job in Hollywood to do anything that was necessary and a lot of dubbing was going on,” she told the Washington Post in 2013. Some of her most famous dubbing work wasn’t as lucrative as you might think, though — she sang “Getting to Know You” for The King and I for Deborah Kerr, and earned only $420 from it.
The singer alleged that she’d actually been threatened by 20th Century Fox that if she ever revealed that she sang that part, it’d be the end of her career. (The story ultimately broke, BBC notes, when Kerr herself credited her during an interview.)
For her vocal performances in these iconic films, she would devote a great deal of effort coming to understand the ways the voices of the actresses she’d be singing as worked. For Deborah Kerr, she told the Post that she would elongate her neck and morph her mouth to look like that of the King and I star. She said:
I think I learned more about acting from observing her in that way. To imagine what was going on in her mind that would create that kind of sound and the flow of the emotionality that was going through her when she was singing.
For West Side Story, Natalie Wood supposedly didn’t fully know how much of her own voice would be totally replaced by Nixon’s — and it turns out that at one point in the film, Nixon is harmonizing with herself as both Maria and Rita Moreno’s Anita in part of “Tonight.” (That being said, her name did not appear on the soundtrack, and for that, she did not get the portion of the royalties she would have otherwise; BBC notes that Leonard Bernstein eventually gave up .25 percent of his own earnings from the soundtrack to her).
The one time Nixon actually sang in the flesh in a film was in The Sound of Music as a nun singing “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”