Remembering ‘Ghost Singer’ Marni Nixon

By: Ella Tabor

One of the most-loved soprano voices of the 1950s and 60s, Marni Nixon, spent most of her career unnoticed and underpaid.

In 1930, Margaret Nixon McEathron was born in Southern California. From a young age she had a passion for singing. As a child, she sang in professional choirs.

In her late teens, Nixon began training to be a classical soprano.
Around this time, she was employed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) as a messenger. Soon, they took notice of Nixon’s stirring singing talents, (Nixon possessed a perfect pitch and a four-octave range) and they hired her as a ‘ghost’. A ‘ghost’ was someone that did the singing in a movie, for the actress on screen.

Nixon received sub-par pay for her talents though she is a big part in why many blockbuster movies are such successes. For example, in 1956, Deborah Kerr was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Anna in the film ‘The King and I’. The soundtrack sold thousands of copies but Nixon was only paid $420 for her singing; her name was left out of the credits.

Nixon’s first project was dubbing the singing voice of actor Margaret O’Brien, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s, ‘The Secret Garden’, in 1949. Later, 1953, Nixon would sing the high notes in the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, in the movie ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, that Marilyn Monroe couldn’t reach.

She was threatened into silence by Twentieth Century Fox. In an interview with ABC News in 2007 she said, “You always had to sign a contract that nothing would be released…They said, If anybody ever knows…we’ll see to it that you don’t work in town again.”

Nixon stayed silent; it was actually due to Deborah Kerr that she was ever brought to light. Kerr dropped Nixon’s name in an interview with The Mirror in 1956, the year she won the Oscar for ‘The King and I’.

By the 1960’s, Nixon’s voice was finally recognized. The movie ‘My Fair Lady’ came around, and Nixon’s voice was employed again. She said about Audrey Hepburn (leading actress in the film), “She was very smart and could say, ‘I know this is not good enough…’”

Other actresses were not as happy about Nixon’s dubbing. She was brought on to sing for Natalie Wood in ‘West Side Story’, originally to fill in a few high notes. In the end though, most of Wood’s original voice was thrown out. She even took a few of her lines. Nixon said, “I don’t think Natalie Wood’s ego could take that.”

During the success of ‘West Side Story’, Nixon realized how vital her singing was. By 1965, Nixon stepped into the light completely. She appeared in ‘The Sound of Music’ (1965) and voiced a character in the 1998 movie ‘Mulan’.

Additionally, Nixon went on to teach singing at the California Institute of Arts, and published her autobiography, ‘I Could Have Sung All Night’.

She passed away from breast cancer at the age of 86 in 2016.

Marni Nixon serves as an example of Hollywood corruption, but she is more than that. She is also a woman with an amazing voice, a woman who fought for herself, and someone who was pushed aside for too long.