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Mystery of the Model

It's a case worthy of a Hollywood sleuth. Did a young Myrna Loy pose for the statue that stood in front of Venice High for eight decades?

September 27, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Battered and bruised, the hacked-up remains of the beauty were found hidden in a garden, her head nowhere to be seen.

But who was she? A famous movie star? A popular athlete? The ex-wife of an oil magnate?

It's a mystery worthy of Nick and Nora Charles, the highball-sipping screwball sleuths played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 1930s and '40s "The Thin Man" detective movies.

Urbane Nick and wisecracking Nora solved the most convoluted of crimes. So this missing-person caper would be a snap for them. Or would it?

The case centers on an 8-foot statue that for eight decades stood in front of Venice High School.

According to legend, it depicted a lithesome Myrna Loy herself, clad in a revealing cloth and stretching toward the sky.

Myrna Williams, as she was then known, was 17 when Venice High art teacher Harry Winebrenner reputedly asked her to pose for the statue. He crafted a figure with arms outstretched and chin uplifted, standing between kneeling male and female sculptures.

Through the 1920s and '30s, Winebrenner kept tinkering with the statue. He altered the stance. He repositioned arms. He changed the neck and head.

Over the years, the statue was battered by vandalism. Its outstretched arms were broken off, replaced with new arms folded somewhat unceremoniously across its chest. At some point, the face lost its distinguishing characteristics, almost as if someone had climbed the statue and scraped away the nose, eyes and mouth with a grinder.

"It looked too smooth to have been done by the elements," said Assistant Principal Brenda Morton.

When the high school began talking about restoring the statue two years ago, a question arose: Was the Myrna Loy statue really a statue of Myrna Loy?

A professional art conservator's study of the statue commissioned by Venice High alumni in 2001 concluded that the statue was "not intended to be a portrait of Myrna Loy." And those familiar with the "Thin Man" series and other Myrna Loy movies said that the statue looked nothing like her.

"Even when the face was in better shape, it certainly was not a flattering depiction of Myrna Loy," Morton said. "She was much more attractive than the statue would lead you to believe."

Then, a year ago, the whole statue disappeared.

*

Boy Scout Zacharie Noel may have been the last person to see the Myrna Loy statue in one piece.

He was a 17-year-old Venice High senior last summer when he launched what he hoped would be an Eagle Scout statue-renovation project for Santa Monica Troop 107.

During all of Noel's years at the school, the statue had been an eyesore. Rusty bits of iron rebar poked through the surface. Its head was splayed, and its face was unrecognizable.

"The thing was falling apart and looked really nasty," said Noel, reached between shifts as a cook at the Shack in Playa del Rey.

Scout officials decided that the work was too ambitious for him and his volunteer assistants. But Noel got permission to remove the 400-pound statue and landscape the area. Originally, they planned to move the artwork into the school's boiler room.

"It turned out Myrna wouldn't fit through the doors," Noel said. "So they took her somewhere else."

Where, exactly, no one seemed to know.

Over the next few months, concerned alumni called the high school wondering where the statue had gone. Some thought she had been stolen. Even those answering the school phone weren't sure what had happened.

When a reporter made inquiries this summer, assistant principal Morton suggested talking to David King, garden master with the Learning Garden, a nonprofit group that helps operate Venice High's garden.

Over at the campus horticulture area, King was sitting beneath a tree and working on a laptop when he was asked about the sculpture.

King glanced toward the garden's potting sheds and tool-storage structures and shook his head. "If she's in these buildings, it's carefully hidden from me. It's a big thing. I would have seen it," he said.

Then his gaze stopped at a small fenced-in scrap yard at the edge of the garden. Through the fence, a canvas-shrouded object the size of a large refrigerator could be seen. A chunk of concrete protruded from under the fabric.

Summoned to the scene, campus plant manager Mario Castro unlocked the gate and yanked away the tarp. There was the statue.

But its head was nowhere in sight.

*

Nobody knows more about Venice High School and its colorful past than Tom Anderson.

The 1952 graduate is a retired corporate financial officer and historian for the Venice High alumni association. Back in his day, cheerleaders and student council members proudly posed next to the Myrna Loy statue for school yearbook pictures.

In an office next to the school's library, Anderson unlocked a file cabinet and pulled out a thick scrapbook filled with photos, yellowed newspaper clippings and school records.

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