As Nick Charles, one half of the crimefighting duo, Nick and Nora, William Powell made marriage look fun. He and Myrna Loy, his costar in the Thin Man mysteries, dressed impeccably as they bantered over cocktails or cooed affectionately in each other’s ears. The actors were so believable as Nick and Nora, fans wrote seeking marital advice!
In his real life, however, William knew a lot of heartache. His first two marriages ended in divorce, and soulmate, actress Jean Harlow, died tragically at 26. William also survived the suicide of his only child and a brush with cancer before finding joy in the last decades of his life.
After a brief early marriage to actress Eileen Wilson, the mother of his son, William, the actor wed Carole Lombard in 1931. “The day I met Carole I had the same feeling as a 16-year-old boy on his first date,” he gushed.
But the demands of twin careers in Hollywood caused long separations, and the pair amiably divorced after less than three years. They would, however, remain friends for life and team up again on screen in 1936’s screwball comedy My Man Godfrey.
William had begun his career playing silent-screen villains, but found his niche in sophisticated comedies. He filmed Reckless and Libeled Lady with Jean Harlow and fell hard for his leading lady. “They really just hit it off,” says Roger Bryant, author of William Powell: The Life and Films. “She was attracted to his sophistication and his worldly ways, plus she felt like she could trust him.”
William appreciated Jean’s beauty, of course, but also her ability to be one of the guys. “She was plainspoken, like Carole Lombard,” says Bryant. “He had this image that was very urbane, but he liked women who were a little bit salty.”
he couple dated for two years and planned to wed, but their happiness ended abruptly when Jean became ill on the set of 1937’s Saratoga. A studio doctor made the mistake of writing off Jean’s pain and vomiting as lingering symptoms from her recent bout of flu — but it was much worse. “She had a condition that had been destroying her kidneys for years,” says Bryant. William arrived by the time Jean was finally hospitalized and was with her when she passed away from uremic poisoning. “After the funeral, he went into seclusion,” says Bryant. “He was so griefstricken that he became ill.”
In 1940, the star married Diana Lewis, his third and final wife. By then, William had survived rectal cancer thanks to experimental treatments. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he admitted. He retired from making movies in the 1950s and moved to the California desert to work on his golf game. “I think he finally found happiness,” says Bryant. “The fan magazines portrayed he and Diana playing games and riding their bikes around Palm Springs. He lived another 29 years and evidently was happy.”