The “Ghost Singer” Behind Hollywood’s Famous Actresses

Classically-trained American soprano Marni Nixon was one of the best-known voices of the 1950s and 1960s, but Hollywood’s leading ladies took all the credit. That’s because Nixon dubbed the singing voices of famous actresses, including Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. While Deborah Kerr was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Anna in The King and I and the film’s soundtrack sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Nixon was paid just $420 for her singing work, and her name was left out of the credits as well. Nixon was what’s known in the industry as a “ghost singer,” dubbing the singing voices of actresses who might not do well on their own. Her first job was dubbing the singing voice of child actor Margaret O’Brien in the 1949 film The Secret Garden. Just 4 years later, she sang the high notes Marilyn Monroe couldn’t quite reach in the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The sad part of Nixon’s story is that she was threatened by studio executives that if she ever told anyone about her dubbing, she would never be hired again. Nixon’s ghosting abilities soon became Hollywood’s best kept secret. However, in 1956, it was Deborah Kerr who accidentally dropped Nixon’s name in an interview. By the 1960s, newspapers had caught wind of the extent of Nixon’s ghost singing and Time magazine dubbed her “the ghostess with the mostest.” The only actress who seemed to have a problem with being dubbed was Natalie Wood, whose fragile ego couldn’t handle being told her singing wasn’t good enough. In 1965, Nixon’s ghosting career ended when she was hired to act and sing as one of the nuns in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. When she finished that film, she became a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and a featured singer on Leonard Bernstein’s young people’s concerts. Nixon died of breast cancer on July 24, 2016 at the age of 86.