December 29, 1923 – Dina Merrill:
“Men think we can’t do two things at once. They can’t, but we can. Women are more resilient.”
She grew up at Mar-a-Lago, the estate in Florida now owned by the disgraced, impeached, lame duck, fetid, tangerine-hued grifter president. Becoming an actor was not considered proper for someone of Merrill’s privileged status. Her mother was Marjorie Merriweather Post, heir to C.W. Post’s cereal fortune and one of the nation’s richest women. Her father was E.F. Hutton, founder of the stockbroker firm that still carries his name.
There was a closeness between her acting career and a lifestyle. As a socialite and philanthropist, Merrill was mostly cast as upper-class women in films and television. Her patrician charm found her dubbed the ”New Grace Kelly” in 1959, but unlike the star who became a princess, Merrill was seldom given the chance to really show her acting chops. Still, she had a long career in films and television.
She is probably best remembered as Tony Curtis‘s love interest in Blake Edwards‘ comedy Operation Petticoat (1959). Merrill plays one of a group of stranded army nurses rescued by a US submarine captain during World War II. Her presence distracts one of his officers (Curtis) from his duties as he persuades her to let off steam (signified by a whistling kettle after they kiss). It also starred Cary Grant, who had been married to Merrill’s cousin, the Woolworth heir Barbara Hutton.
There is also her role as the rival to Elizabeth Taylor‘s character in Butterfield 8 (1960), which despite having won an Academy Award for her role, Taylor referred to the film as ”a piece of shit”. Merrill brought class to tawdry material and she exudes elegance in the thankless role of the wife of a wealthy businessman (Laurence Harvey), ultimately forgiving his thing with a high-class call girl (Taylor). Her wife character is more concerned that Taylor took her mink coat after a night with her husband.
She was born Nedenia Marjorie Hutton in New York City. She went to George Washington University in Washington, DC for one term, then dropped out and enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Merrill:
”Of course, my parents’ eyebrows shot up when I said I was going to be an actor. And I guess they said, really between themselves, ‘Let the dear girl try, and fall on her face’. Because it never occurred to me to ask my father or mother to pay for something they didn’t believe in, I did some modeling while acting off-Broadway.”
She chose her professional name from Charles Merrill of Merrill Lynch, a well-known stockbroker like her father. She made her Broadway debut as Dina Merrill in gay playwright John Van Druten‘s The Mermaids Singing in 1945 and made her film debut in Desk Set (1957) as the assistant to a librarian (Katharine Hepburn), one of the staff afraid of losing her job to two giant computers brought in by an efficiency expert (Spencer Tracy). She brought a little dignity to Don’t Give Up The Ship (1959), a grating comedy with Jerry Lewis, where she helps him search for a destroyer he lost during the World War II.
In Vincente Minnelli‘s charming The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father (1963), she is typecast as socialite. Merrill, in a black wig, is among the leading contenders to marry the widowed father (Glenn Ford), but is rejected by his young son (Ronnie Howard).
Back to cool blondeness, Merrill plays opposite Bob Hope in a tired generation gap comedy, I’ll Take Sweden (1965), employing an iffy Swedish accent, Merrill is mainly used to laugh at Hope’s wisecracks, playing a posh interior decorator who American business man (Hope) falls for in Stockholm (played by stock shots).
Underused and misused in Hollywood, Merrill preferred a career in television. Pick any series 1960s, 1970s or 198s: Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Rawhide, Mission Impossible, The Love Boat, Quincy, M.E., Murder, She Wrote, Roseanne; Merrill probably appeared on it. She was even on campy Batman for six episodes in 1968, as Calamity Jan opposite her second husband, Cliff Robertson, as a villain called Shame. Always game, Merrill was a recurring guest on several network television game and panel shows including The Match Game, To Tell The Truth, What’s My Line, and Hollywood Squares.
She returned to films, working with Robert Altman in A Wedding (1978), as the bridegroom’s bossy aunt, and as Hollywood royalty in The Player (1992). She didn’t seem to mind slumming; her role as a snobbish society woman in Caddyshack 2 (1988) trying to stop a vulgar nouveau riche tycoon Jackie Mason from joining an exclusive golf club. Merrill even allowed herself the indignity of having Mason chase her with a bulldozer.
Mainly, however, she was involved in numerous charitable and artistic causes. Her son’s diabetes inspired her to establish the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation; and she served for 12 years as presidential appointee to the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. At the time of her passing in 2017, Merrill had a net worth of $5 billion, little of it from her work as an actor.