Nearly everyone in Helena was outside in celebration. Nearly everyone.
And that one who was not is perhaps Helena’s most well-known daughter.
Enough years have passed since the height of Myrna Loy’s fame that perhaps even in her home town it is necessary to qualify that she was a Hollywood movie star, easily one of the most famous of her time, a time that spanned most of the 20th century. President Franklin Roosevelt whose own fame is omnipresent once said it was Loy he most hoped to meet.
Myrna Loy is a Hollywood legend whose youth was spent in Helena. Included among those collective days of youth is the time of World War I, which ended by armistice 100 years ago on Nov. 11, 1918. The date came to be known as Armistice Day. Here in America we now call it Veterans Day.
Helena broke into wild celebration at the news of Armistice Day. All surviving sources tell of a victory street party that erased easily the previous benchmark of public celebration, that being miners arriving in town with newly discovered caches of mineral wealth. It was a public bacchanalia the likes of which even frontier Helena had never seen. And frontier Helena had seen a lot.
There were that day fireworks, sirens, singing, dancing and, of course, drinking. Quite a bit of drinking, as if such a thing need be noted in a Montana mining town later repurposed as a state capital. But Myrna Loy, known in those days as Myrna Williams, would have none of it. The evening of 11 November was rainy and cold by her account. It was a sad day for a girl who would live to be a very old woman. So sad that for decades afterward she would recall it in her casual conversation and more formally in her writing. Never again in Loy’s life would such personal sadness be juxtaposed against such public happiness as it was on Armistice Day.
Myrna Loy was entering the shadow of death while all others were emerging from it.
Her father and once Montana state congressman, David Franklin Williams, had died only days before the Great War ended. After helping his own family recover from a contemporary scourge known as the Spanish Influenza, he himself succumbed to it. His funeral took place soon afterward at more or less the same moment the armistice was signed ending World War I. Loy made frequent note that strangers reveling and her family mourning intermixed that evening of Nov. 11, 1918, all crying but for different reasons.
Tonight, as Helena winds down into an evening peace staider than its halcyon past, consider the scene 100 years ago to the very hour. Walk outside this evening and imagine the explosions of color in the sky, the dancehall music, the wild abandon everywhere.
Continue traveling in your imagination to Forestvale Cemetery on what was then and in many ways still is the edge of Helena. Freshly buried is David Franklin Williams, a Montanan of some note even without Myrna Loy as his daughter. Return from that funeral in a car with Loy and her surviving family, weaving through crowds of Montana folk celebrating an American victory that was believed to make the world safe for democracy.
Myrna Loy was just an early teenager at the time, born in 1905. She would live for decades and decades beyond Nov. 11 of 1918 but that day was always with her. The ambivalence of her experience on Armistice Day was a talking point for Myrna Loy throughout her life. It should remain a talking point for those of who survive her in Helena.
Remembering is a matter of loyalty toward a woman who held Helena dear enough to ask that she be buried there. Myrna Loy is now ashes at the feet of her father whose own internment in Forestvale is a personal family drama played out within the public American drama of the armistice that ended the Great War. This is the month, the day and the hour to remember all of it.
Tom Nelson is an associate professor in the School of Communications of Elon University in North Carolina. He spends part of his summer in Montana, hence his draw to Montana's people and history.