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Home > Popped Clogs

Popped Clog: Karen Morley

Karen Morley - actress, American, blacklistee - has died. She was 93.

1 May 2003

Karen Morley was born in 1909, the same year as Billie Holiday, but with blonder hair. She was born in Ottumwa, a town which has one of those 'loyal till the end' dog memorials in its cemetery.

(Unfortunately, the image linked to above is rather small and grainy, and doesn't do justice to the splendour of the statue. Probably).

So anyway - this dog belonged to young George Nash. When the child died (in 1904) the unhappy greyhound visited George's grave every day, and eventually died there of a broken heart. The memorial was created by George's grandfather (Thomas) as a tribute. Who knows - perhaps the young Karen Morley was so moved by the story of George's dog that she became an actress. These things can happen, you know.

Ottumwa has three bridges, and the Jefferson Viaduct has the distinction of being the longest municipal bridge in the state of Iowa, spanning two thousand one hundred twenty feet. Pretty big for a municipal bridge, by anyone's standards. Except the Chinese. They've almost certainly got some massive municipal bridges tucked away - although we're not likely to hear about them. Why on earth are they so secretive? This is the sort of question which probably plagued Karen Morley as she studied for a career in medicine at UCLA.

However, medicine didn't hold the flighty young Karen's attention for long, and she enrolled in a theatre course at the Pasadena Playhouse. Interestingly enough, in later years Nick Nolte also studied there, which is as good an excuse as any to show a picture of him off his face on drugs.

In 1932, Morley got her big break, when Howard Hughes signed her up to play a gangster's moll in the epic 'Scarface'. Like Jennifer Grey does in 'The Cotton Club'. The whole gangster-moll relationship is a fascinating one. For a start: is it possible simply to be 'a moll' or does one have to be a 'gangster's moll'? And can men be molls? What about the submissive boyfriend of a gay gangster? And how big a criminal does a man have to be before his partner can claim moll status? Is it like a joint graduation?

The moll status must add a whole extra dimension of stress to a woman's life. Bad enough at the best of times to try and fight the signs of aging - but then with the possible loss of mollhood a genuine possibility - what on earth must it be like? You sway confidently into a room with a Martini in your hand, everyone looks up at you and there's an embarrassed silence. One of the henchman coughs and looks out of the window. You catch sight of yourself in the intricately framed mirror. Oh god - you've lost it. You're just a woman in a tight dress with a fag in her hand. You turn quietly back towards the door, pack a suitcase and catch the first train back to Ottumwa.

After 'Scarface', Morley played opposite Greta Garbo in 'Mata Hari' - which means that they probably had some sort of tempestuous off-screen affair. That's the sort of thing that happened in those days, pretty much all of the time. Nowadays you have to make do with Tom Hanks getting off with Vin Diesel on the set of Saving Private Ryan, which isn't half so glamorous. This is how Morley remembered Garbo:

'She had wide shoulders, big hands and those famous big feet.'

Lovers talk - if ever there was.

In 1947 Morley's career came to a juddering halt (quicker even than Jennifer Grey's) when she refused to answer questions when testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if she had ever been a member of the Communist Party. She was promptly blacklisted and barely work in Hollywood again - her last film being 'Born to the Saddle' in 1953 (opposite Dolores Prest, who doesn't seem to have been in any other films at all - at least, not according to IMDB - and doesn't even scratch the surface of Google).

Karen dabbled in left-wing politics, failed, and then in 2003 she got pneumonia and died. And that was the end of Ms Morley. A beautiful and talented actress, crushed by the paranoia of a sick country, the one-time lover of Greta Garbo (possibly), one-time friend of Dolores Prest (probably), she had eyes of steel and eyebrows like scimitars. Typical bloody communist.

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