Childhood & Early Life
She was born on October 18, 1902, in Savannah, Georgia, in the wealthy family of Homer A. Hopkins and Ellen Cutter. The marriage of her parents was not a happy one that would often see her accompanying her mother and only sister Ruby to her maternal grandfather’s house, who was the fourth mayor of Bainbridge.
Later her parents divorced and little Miriam moved with her mother and sister to Bainbridge for good. She spent happy times there acting, directing and writing several plays that she would perform with her friends in the woods, an early knack that culminated into a full-fledged acting career. She also used to sing in children's choir held at the Episcopal church of the town.
At thirteen years of age she relocated with her mother and sister to Syracuse, New York where her maternal uncle, who wanted to support the family, was a wealthy businessman.
She attended ‘Goddard Seminary’ in Barre, Vermont (at present the ‘Goddard College’ in Plainfield, Vermont), an officially recognized private liberal arts college, from where she completed her graduation. There she studied music, participated in several plays, took extra lessons in singing and piano and remained actively involved in extracurricular activities. She also turned heads there by becoming the first student to flaunt a bob-cut hair.
Thereafter she joined ‘Leboska Dance Troupe’ and performed with them till the time she broke her ankle.
She also attended ‘Syracuse University’ in New York.
Continue Reading Below
At 20 she stepped into show business as a chorus girl in dancing and productions of ‘Broadway’ in New York City. After performing in local musicals she gradually started doing dramatic roles.
Her excellent stage presence and charisma added with favourable reviews she received on Broadway soon made ‘Paramount Pictures’ eager to sign her to a contract that materialised in 1930. This led to her official film debut that year with Fred C. Newmeyer directed romantic comedy ‘Fast and Loose’.
Her film career took off swiftly within a year of joining Paramount that saw her starring opposite Maurice Chevalier, the biggest actor of Paramount during that time, in the 1931 American Pre-Code musical comedy ‘The Smiling Lieutenant’, directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
She tasted her first success with the American Pre-Code horror drama film ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ in 1931. It was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, where she essayed the role of a prostitute Ivy Pearson who gets involved with Jekyll and Hyde. Although she received rave reviews, many of her shots were removed prior to official release of the film due to potential controversy about the film as also her part in it.
After a couple of films she landed up with her breakthrough film in 1932, ‘Trouble in Paradise’, her second film with Ernst Lubitsch, where she proved her mettle by portraying the character of a charming yet jealous pickpocket Lily.
During that time the pre-Code films of this talented and daring beauty were thought-out to be risqué although all the films garnered box office success and acclamation from critics. Her other notable films of that time included ‘Design for Living’, and ‘The Story of Temple Drake’, both released in 1933. While the storyline of the first revolved around a ménage à trois between her, Gary Cooper and Fredric March; the second one featured a rape scene.
The 1930s were the most fruitful years of her film career when she reached pinnacle of success achieving stardom with most of her films reaping success both commercially and critically. Her other notable films of that decade are ‘Two Kinds of Women’ (1932), ‘The Richest Girl in the World’ (1934), ‘Barbary Coast’ (1935), ‘Becky Sharp’ (1935), ‘These Three’ (1936) and ‘The Old Maid’ (1939).
Through her portrayals she presented new kind of women in Hollywood that America had never seen earlier like tricksters, plotters, seducers and cool Hannahs who were unconventional yet glamorous and captivating.
Although she auditioned for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in epic historical romance film ‘Gone with the Wind’, directed by Victor Fleming, which eventually won ten ‘Academy Awards’, it was finally played by Vivien Leigh.
Her arch-rivalry with another silver-screen prima donna Bette Davis, with whom she did two films, ‘The Old Maid’ (1939) and ‘Old Acquaintance’ (1943) and whom she suspected of having an affair with her then husband Anatole Litvak soon became viral.
She concentrated more on performing on-stage during the 1940s that saw her appearing in plays like ‘The Perfect Marriage’, ‘The Skin of our Teeth’ and ‘Message for Margaret’. She also performed in radio programs like ‘Suspense and Inner Sanctum’, ‘Lux Radio Theatre’ and ‘The Campbell Playhouse’.
From late 1940s for around three decades she performed in television plays, becoming a pioneer in the small-screen. Some of her TV performances include American anthology series such as ‘The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre’ in 1949; ‘Pulitzer Prize Playhouse’ in 1951 , that featured adaptations of ‘Pulitzer Prize’ winning stories, novels and plays; and ‘Lux Video Theatre’ from 1951 to 1955; and science fiction TV series ‘The Outer Limits’ in 1964.
Her later films mostly saw her in character roles including ‘The Heiress’ (1949), ‘The Mating Season’ (1951), ‘The Children's Hour’ (1961) and ‘The Chase’ (1966).
Personal Life & Legacy
She married four times but all culminated in divorce. These were with actor Brandon Peters (1926–27); screenwriter and aviator Austin Parker (1928-31); director Anatole Litvak (1937–39); and war correspondent Raymond B. Brock (1945-51).
She adopted a son Michael T. Hopkins in 1932 who passed away on October 5, 2010.
On October 9, 1972, she succumbed to heart attack and was interred in the ‘Oak City Cemetery’ in Bainbridge, U.S.