My Fair Lady and West Side Story 'ghost singer' Marni Nixon dies, aged 86

Nixon filled in secretly as a playback singer for Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood in a long career as a soprano

Marni Nixon, the singer whose voice can be heard filling in for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, has died aged 86, according to the New York Times. Randy Banner, a friend and student, said she died from breast cancer.

Nixon, whose full name was Margaret Nixon McEathron, was born in 1930 in California. As a child, she sang in professional choruses before studying to become a classical soprano. However, after discovering her aptitude for dubbing other people’s singing performances, MGM gave her work sharpening up the vocal efforts of established stars.

Watch Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in My Fair Lady

In the late 1940s, she provided the singing voice of child actor Margaret O’Brien, most notably in the 1949 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. In 1953, Nixon performed the high notes that Marilyn Monroe was unable to reach in Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in the film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Then came a major assignment: working with Deborah Kerr on the musical numbers for The King and I, 20th Century Fox’s big musical hit of 1956. Kerr went on to receive an Oscar nomination for best actress.

Nixon was later to provide the singing voices of Natalie Wood in West Side Story in 1961 and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, in 1964. Both films won Oscars for best picture.

Watch Audrey Hepburn sing I Could Have Danced All Night in My Fair Lady

Although Nixon was uncredited for her work, it was not quite as big a secret as supposed: a 1964 article in Time magazine described her as “the ghostess with the mostest”. Describing her dubbing career as “just a part of the working singer’s job in Hollywood”, Nixon credited Hepburn with understanding that “she had to accept that [her singing] wasn’t quite what it should be, but that “Wood’s ego [couldn’t] take that.”

At the same time, Nixon secured small roles on screen, including as one of the nuns in The Sound of Music (she’s the one who sings “But her penitence is real”).

Nixon taught singing, at the California Institute of Arts and, later, at the Music Academy of the West, also in California. She combined sporadic film work, including a vocal performance as Grandmother Fa in the 1998 Disney cartoon Mulan, with operatic parts and concert recitals, and in the 2000s took roles on Broadway in revivals of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and Maury Yeston’s Nine. In 2006 she published an autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night.

Watch Tonight from West Side Story, featuring Marni Nixon

Nixon was married three times, most recently to musician Albert Block, who died in 2015. She had three children with her first husband, soundtrack composer Ernest Gold; one of whom, the musician Andrew Gold, died in 2011.

• This article was amended on 16 July 2016 to reflect the fact Nixon was predeceased by her son, Andrew Gold.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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