Toby Wing (Martha Virginia Wing)
BiographyAmelia Court House, Virginia, USA
It's pretty unusual for a mostly unbilled chorus girl to rate a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but Toby Wing was unique. A genuine granddaughter of the Confederacy (on her mother's side at least; her father's family was pure Maine Yankee), she was born Martha Virginia Wing in Amelia Court House, Virginia in 1915 and taking the stage name Toby after a family nickname (for a horse!). Toby's father Paul Wing was an Army officer and she spent her childhood divided between Virginia and the Panama Canal's American Zone. Read more... became an assistant director and Paramount Studios mid-level manager. Toby and her sister Pat Wing grew up fantasizing about becoming movie stars and moving to Hollywood in the mid-1920's afforded her to score a small number of juvenile parts in Paramount silents her dad was working on, most notably appearing as 12-year old Nan in The Pony Express (1925). She retreated from acting to finish her schooling at her parent's insistence. Stories differ, but she struck up a friendship with Jack Oakie who introduced her to Samuel Goldwyn at a party (Paramount studio publicists, always a questionable source of facts, claimed she was discovered by Mack Sennett with her sister, Pat, while walking to the Santa Monica Pier. Either story seems plausible since she soon found herself working for both men). She was the last graduate of the studio's in-house high school in 1933. A natural brunette, she dyed her hair platinum blond and by 1932, at age 16, she landed rather historic place in Hollywood history as one of the original Goldwyn Girls, billed as the girl "with a face like the morning sun" in Eddie Cantor's hit Palmy Days (1931) and then found herself at Paramount working on an early Bing Crosby short. The choreographer on the Eddie Cantor film was Busby Berkeley who would later hire her for a choice, albeit unbilled, role in 42nd Street (1933). Her remarkable beauty was not just in the movies; off camera, she lured to her door many a celebrated suitor (Maurice Chevalier, Alfred Vanderbilt, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., Jackie Coogan-- to whom she was engaged to during most of 1935, singer Pinky Tomlin-- briefly engaged in late 1937-- and wealthy Toronto playboy Erskine Eaton - to name a few). In 1936, while mourning the untimely death of one of her suitors (army pilot John T. Helms, whom she claimed to be secretly engaged) Miss Wing swore off men - falling in love with them, that is. She announced "I have really given up falling in love with men! Oh, yes! My career is now to be my life." Her numerous engagements became something of a joke around Hollywood. Career-wise, she was seen to her best benefit while on loan to Warner Bros. in 42nd Street (1933), prominently featuring her in the unbilled part as the so-called 'Young and Healthy' Girl (the 17-year old knockout wearing a fox bra being warbled to by Dick Powell with dances staged by Berkeley). Anyone watching the hit film would have assumed she was headed for bigger and better things in Hollywood but it was not meant to be. Toby's career would never show any logical ascent toward stardom. She would be cast in a prominent billed part, only to revert back as uncredited eye candy, with some appearances lasting mere seconds (such as those as the party guest in Torch Singer (1933), Private Detective 62 (1933) -- a 3-second shot as Warren William's supposed girlfriend-- and Baby Face (1933) where she simply glares at Barbara Stanwyck), and a feature appearance would be followed by a short. Initially signed to the financially ailing Paramount, she spent much of her contract there on loan. The 1934 Production Code effectively prevented anything approaching her barely clothed appearances in Come On, Marines! (1934), Murder at the Vanities (1934) and Search for Beauty (1934) from being repeated. In 1935 she made a tantalizingly brief - yet silent - appearance in La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (1935), an MGM short promoting early 3-strip Technicolor, more notable today for containing the Gumm Sisters' rendition of "La Cucaracha" (sung by 15-year old Judy Garland). Toby occasionally scored meatier roles in poverty row efforts, receiving star billing in the cheapie Canadian production of Thoroughbred (1935), financed by a suitor, and later in struggling Grand National's Mr. Boggs Steps Out (1938), a low budget Stuart Erwin Jr. vehicle. But in the end her Hollywood career was a frustrating mix of intense publicity with little substance - and summed up, she had a vastly better press agent than a talent agent. On the publicity side, from mid-1933 -early 1938 Toby appeared in a dizzying array of movie magazines, scored numerous endorsement contracts and was easily one of the most photographed starlets in Hollywood. Her personal life also fueled the gossip fires by being pursued by many prominent men - there are dozens of press photos documenting her at nightclubs surrounded by admiring men well before she was 21 - and announcing numerous engagements (notably to Jackie Coogan during the period he discovered his mother and stepfather had squandered his childhood acting fortune, resulting in the so-called "Coogan Law"). After appearing in thirty-eight films over five years she ended her movie career where she pretty much began... in an uncredited bit role in the MGM Nelson Eddy-Jeannette MacDonald musical Sweethearts (1938) as a telephone operator (note: her appearance in this film is in dispute and may have been cut from the final print). Remarkably, despite a film resume overloaded with 5-second walk-ons and parts calling for idiotic-yet-sexy squeals in her underwear (she was actually quite intelligent), her stunning beauty guaranteed her lasting appeal. After a typically brief engagement to singer and one-time co-star Pinky Tomlin, she met the man who would be the love of her life, world-record setting Eastern Airlines pilot Dick Merrill, who was over 22 years her senior. They married in June, 1938 and went on to share a remarkable 44-year marriage. After her Hollywood career ended she accepted a role on Broadway, co-starring in the troubled Cole Porter musical, "You Never Know" that starred Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Lupe Velez which flopped after 73 performances. She happily retired to their home on Di Lido Island to life as a Miami housewife, where her husband flew the Miami-NYC EAL route. Her beauty and the vast number of cheesecake photos she took in the 1930s had her competing in good stead with the likes of Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable as a soldier's favorite pinup girl during WWII. During her heyday, she reputedly received more fan mail than Paramount stars Claudette Colbert and Marlene Dietrich. She suffered through the loss of her first child in 1940 and like thousands of wives, a long separation from her husband during WW2; Dick flew "The Hump" for the MTD and endured her father's capture at Bataan (he survived the Death March and subsequent imprisonment). Toby had a second child, Ricky, in 1941 and involved herself in civic affairs, church and successfully dabbled in real estate in Florida and California. Toby and her husband were devoutly religious and she taught Sunday school at Miami's All Saints Episcopal Church well into her 80s. She performed in 2 stage productions in the 1940's; "Father of the Bride" with Pat O'Brien at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and a benefit production of "The Women" and occasionally made the national press when photographed with her famous husband, who was General Eisenhower's pilot during his 1952 presidential campaign. The couple continued to appear publicly at aviation events throughout the 1960's and 70's during which time Dick was actively involved in Sidney Shannon's Air Museum in Virginia. Sadly, the couple also outlived their youngest child, who was involved in large-scale marijuana smuggling and murdered in their Miami home while the Merrills were living in Virginia in 1982. Dick died soon afterward and she spent the remainder of her life actively promoting her husband's rightful legacy as an aviation pioneer... and telling everyone how proud she was of her two granddaughters. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the 1980s and was briefly interviewed in TCM's Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof (1998) with her lesser-known chorus girl sister Pat Wing [Gill]. She died peacefully in her home in Mathews, VA in March 2001. Her sister Pat died the following year.