Virtuoso Starlet: Marcia Van Dyke, Her Violin and Fickle Fame

Actress and violinist Marcia Van Dyke.
John Florea—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not published in LIFE. Actress and violinist Marcia Van Dyke.
Celebrity
'40s

Throughout its four-decade run as a weekly magazine, LIFE frequently featured young actresses — or “starlets,” in the terminology of the day — on its cover, tacitly endorsing a person LIFE clearly felt was The Next Big Thing. Sometimes, they got it right — with Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and other future legends. But far more frequently, they got it wrong, and the starlet whose career seemed poised to shift into overdrive after appearing on a LIFE cover would instead act in a few films, maybe go on to do some TV . . . and then fade away.

In January 1948, for example, an actress named Marcia Van Dyke graced the LIFE cover, accompanied by the laconic, even cryptic, tagline, “Starlet-Violinist.” Inside, the profile of Van Dyke (or “Miss Van Dyke,” as the article had it), took pains to ensure the reader that this starlet wasn’t just another pretty face. Unfortunately, the way they went about praising Miss Van Dyke sort of sounds (to today’s ears) as if they’re damning her, instead:

The big difference between most movie starlets and Marcia Van Dyke is that their talent begins and ends with their pretty faces. When called on to sing or swim, they need doubles. And when called on to act, they make most movie audiences wish they were singing or swimming. Miss Van Dyke, who is 25, has considerably more to offer Hollywood than her pretty face. She sings professionally, plays near-professional tennis and swims like a seal. Much more unusual, she is also an accomplished violinist.

Last May, when she was playing with the San Francisco Symphony, LIFE photographed Miss Van Dyke, and called her “the prettiest first violinist in the symphonic big time.” As a result she was given a contract by M-G-M producer Joseph Pasternak. Contrary to Hollywood traditions, in her first movie Miss Van Dyke actually was cast as a violinist.

Van Dyke, as multi-talented as she might have been, only worked in Hollywood for six years, and never in a starring role. Still, no one could possibly consider her a failure; after all, countless young actresses yearn to act in the movies, or on television, and never get a chance to step in front of a camera. So while Marcia Van Dyke might not have had the blockbuster onscreen career that her LIFE cover suggested was in store, at least she had her moment — in fact, she had several moments — in the sun. To which we can only add: Bravo!

John Florea—LIFE Magazine

John Florea—LIFE Magazine

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