Sean at the Una Merkel mural in Covington, KY
Sean Kinder made his authorial debut earlier this year after years of research and writing – the labor of love that is authorship. His book, titled, Una Merkel: The Actress with Sassy Wit and Southern Charm, is a meticulously-researched, comprehensive biography of one of Hollywood’s most underrated, incredibly talented stars. It’s a fabulous account of the life of this wonderful woman who, although never yearning for a starring role in Hollywood, stole scene after scene in hundreds of movies. If you’ve seen the“The Parent Trap,” as in the endearing 1961 movie starring Hayley Mills and Camera Trick Mills, you’ve seen Una Merkel in action, playing the housekeeper/voice of reason Verbena. She became known as much for her skill on screen as for the slight Kentucky twang with which she spoke.
I’ll let Sean do most of the talking in the interview below, but I will tell you one thing before you read much further. Pronounce Una with a “you” and a “nuh” versus the impulse to treat the name like a derivation of the Spanish word for one. It’s an easy mistake to make (one the author of this post made about a hundred times)!
How did you find out about Una?
Although I had heard about her earlier, Una Merkel first really caught my attention around 2005 or so, after I saw her in several films on Turner Classic Movies. Born in Covington, Kentucky, in 1903, she was the consummate professional actress, so versatile that she did everything: theater, radio, films (silent and talkies), and television in a career that spanned over forty years. She was rewarded for her efforts by a Tony Award in 1956, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, and an Academy Award nomination in 1962.
When did you decide you wanted to write about Una?
Around 2006, I began thinking about doing a long-term research project, and being such a big fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood (1930s-1940s), I hoped to find a topic or subject connected with that era. After some initial looking, I made up my mind to embark on an ambitious project—a biography about actress—but which one? Una seemed a natural choice for several reasons. First, she was a native Kentuckian, so at least the initial part of my research could be done here in Kentucky. Second, not much had been written about her, so I felt that I would be able to contribute something new and vital to film studies, all while sharing and spotlighting her amazing talent and career achievements.
Tell us a little bit about your research process. Where did you travel for your research?
Back in 2007, I traveled to Covington, where I interviewed Clyde Day, who was one hundred years old at the time. He was a childhood friend of Una’s, and he even took me downtown to see one of Una’s residences and the church she attended. Later on, I traveled to California twice, and while there, I visited the Margaret Herrick Library, which is the main repository for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I also did research at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The photos in this book are so great! How did you find so many good ones?
Thank you! The book does include over 110 photos, and there were even some that I didn’t use. Except for a couple of them, they are all part of my personal collection that I have amassed over the years, and I’m very proud of it. Some were purchased at a shop in Hollywood, but the majority I acquired at film festivals and through Ebay.
How long did it take to put this book together?
It took me four years or so to do the research for the book, conduct interviews, collect photos and memorabilia, and organize the massive amount of information that I collected. Then, it took me another four years to write the book. It was a tremendous amount of work, but well worth the effort.
What were some of the challenges of writing this book?
When you’re writing the biography of someone who’s been deceased awhile (Una died in 1986), there’s always the difficulty of finding friends or acquaintances who are willing to speak or write about that person. I contacted many of Una’s colleagues, and while some of them responded, others did not. Some, for instance, claimed not to have any substantive memories of her. A few were not in good health, while others simply were too busy or unwilling to participate. Having said that, I was nevertheless able to locate a considerable number of individuals who shared their thoughts and memories with me. Each contributed, sometimes in big and small ways, to my understanding of Una, providing more clues or insights into her unique personality and remarkable life.
What is one of the most interesting details you discovered about Una?
It’s difficult for me to narrow it down to just one, so how about if I give you three of them? 1) Famous director D. W. Griffith once called her the “greatest natural actress now in pictures.” 2) She was one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood in 1933, appearing in no less than 13 films that year. 3) She and Gary Cooper entertained troops in Australia and New Guinea during World War II under very harsh conditions, enduring enemy fire (at one point less than a half a mile away), swarms of insects, electrical outages, Spartan living conditions, and temperatures on stage that exceeded 130 degrees under the sweltering lights. Despite all those challenges, she looked back on it with fondness, claiming it was one of the highlights of her life.
You say in the book that she “never aspired to be a star,” but “took on secondary roles.” Did she turn down any big roles?
Una never wanted to be a star for several reasons. First, she knew what a heavy responsibility it was. Moviegoers often expected their movie stars to be just like the personas they played on screen—ultra glamorous, chic, sophisticated and bigger than life, even offscreen. That wasn’t who Una was in real life. She was the polar opposite—down-to-earth, humble, and unassuming. Plus, she wasn’t interested in fame or stardom, but in playing good roles. She realized early on that some of the best parts were given to the supporting players. As for turning down roles, this wasn’t an option early in her career during the studio system. Your contract gave you little to no control over your scripts or roles, and if you didn’t play what was assigned to you, you could be suspended without pay. Later in her career, as a free agent, Una had more freedom in her choice of roles. She didn’t turn down any big roles, but there were a few that passed her by. For example, she barely missed becoming Blondie in the long-running film series based on the comic strip. She was also briefly considered for the part of Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
What role did Una become most known for?
In her heyday in the 1930s, Una was usually cast as the sassy, wisecracking best friend of the star. Besides those roles, she was probably best known for two roles: 1) the feisty frontier woman in Destry Rides Again, who gets into a knock-down, drag-out fight with Marlene Dietrich. Her other famous role is the suspicious housekeeper Verbena in the original Parent Trap, who figures out that the twins (played by Hayley Mills) have traded places.
All photos courtesy Sean Kinder. Do not use without permission.