Una Merkel (1903 - 1986)



Una Merkel’s biography is built and maintained by people like you. Create an online profile of Una so that her life is remembered forever. If any factual information is incorrect, please edit Una’s biography.

Una Merkel
Born December 10, 1903 in Covington, Kentucky, USA
Died January 2, 1986 in Los Angeles, California, USA
Birth Name Una Kohnfelder
Height 5' 4" (1.63 m)
Mini Bio (1)
Una Merkel began her movie career as stand-in for Lillian Gish in the movie The Wind (1928). After that, she performed on Broadway before she returned to movies for the D.W. Griffith film Abraham Lincoln (1930). In her early years, before gaining a few pounds, she looked like Lillian Gish, but after Abraham Lincoln (1930) her comic potential was discovered. She mostly played supporting roles as the heroine's no-nonsense friend, but with her broad Southern accent and her peroxide blond hair, she gave one of her best performances as a wisecracking but not-so-bright chorus girl in 42nd Street (1933). Perhaps she is best remembered for her hair-pulling fight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939). In 1962, she was nominated for the Academy Award as best supporting actress in Summer and Smoke (1961).
- IMDb Mini Biography By: [contact link]
Spouse (1)
Ronald Lucin Burla (1 January 1932 - 26 March 1947) ( divorced)
Trivia (13)
She almost died on March 5, 1945 when her mother, Bess Merkel, committed suicide by turning on the gas. Her suicide note was personalized to Una's husband, Robert Burla, whom she affectionately addressed as "Bid".
Was originally signed for the title role in Blondie (1938) but was replaced before filming began.
Father: (Albert) Arno Merkel born May 9, 1882 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Died December 23, 1969 in Los Angeles, California. Mother: Bessie Phares Merkel died in New York City on March 5, 1945. She was 61 years old. Interred in Covington, Kentucky.
On March 4, 1952, nearly seven years after her mother committed suicide, she overdosed on sleeping pills. She was found unconscious by a nurse who caring for her at the time, and was rushed to the hospital where she remained in a coma.
She was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6230 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on February 8, 1960.
Her name was pronounced U-nah MER-cull.
Following her death, she was interred near her parents, Arno and Bess Merkel, at Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
During the filming of True Confession (1937) she rescued a movie property man Arthur Camp from drowning at Lake Arrowhead, California, when the backwash from her motorboat upset his skiff. She caught his suspenders with a boat hook and held him until help arrived from the shore. Camp was unable to swim.
Merkel appeared in both versions of "The Merry Widow (1934)" with Jeanette Macdonald and Maurice Chevalier and more than seventeen years later "The Merry Widow (1952)" with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas in different roles.
She got a couple of prime early roles because she reportedly looked like Lillian Gish, "World Shadows" with Charles Ray and "Abraham Lincoln" for D.W. Griffith.
Merkel had a vaudeville act before she entered films.
Merkel's father and Lee DeForest raised $250,000 for the patent on talking pictures but lost it to Warner Bros. because neither had "an ounce of business sense" according to Miss Merkel.
D. W. Griffith had Merkel take a test to play Mary Todd in his version of "Abraham Lincoln," and United Artists signed her to a one year contract. However, when she arrived to start shooting, he decided that he now wanted her to play Ann Rutledge. Kay Hammond ultimately played the First Lady.
Personal Quotes (8)
[on Pamela Franklin] In "A Tiger Walks"there was a little girl who is now in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," and she is excellent----Pamela Franklin. I can't understand why she wasn't nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
[on W.C. Fields] Yes, I remember the first day I worked with him; he was two hours late to the set. He was due at 9 and came in at 11, and he'd had quite a night the night before, I guess. The first scene was all of us sitting around the table--- I was his daughter; I was supposed to say, "Good morning, Pater," and kiss him. So in the rehearsal he apologized because you could smell the alcohol, and I said, "Mr. Fields, on you it smells like Chanel No. 5," and he said, "Honey, you're in!" From then on, he was just wonderful to me. He was a pretty grand person...If he thought a scene was too long, he'd take a couple of pages and tear them off. "That's enough; I'm not going to remember any more. You had to be pretty quick to keep up with him, but it was fun. It was never a strain.
[on Ernst Lubitsch] Oh, he was wonderful. He did all the parts for you; It's a wonder. every part in the picture didn't sound like Lubitsch.
[on Hope and Crosby] There was a New York actress who was supposed to be in that. I've had more things happen overnight, not expect to do them , and then all of a sudden somebody calls up. The best things I've ever gotten have been that way. And Paramount called me and asked me to come in, and I started work the day after they called me, because they had decided that this woman was not going to be right for the part. The atmosphere on the film was wonderful; they were like a couple of bad kids.
[0n "Destry Rides Again"] Well, it was very funny. I had never met Miss Dietrich until that day, and they outlined exactly what places they'd like is to hit on the set. We were not supposed to do anything but a few feet, and they had the stunt girls there to take over. But Mr. Marshall said, "Once you get started on this, just keep going as long as you can; don't worry. the camera will follow you." We did the whole thing, and we turned our checks over to the stunt girls!. We did the whole battle, and then at the end Jimmy Stewart came over and dumped a pail of water over our heads. We had to do it over again for close-ups, and do it for "Life" magazine... I went to the hospital after that picture. I finished it, but I was a mess of bruises, because I had little fat heels on, and Marlene had high spiked heels. All through the fight scene we were whispering to each other, "Are you all right?" "Can you finish it?" "Are you OK?" We did it in one continuous take. I thought they'd never call "Cut."
[on the studio system] ... of course, studios have changed. It used to be that Metro was the studio to be at. Now all of them are more standardized, I guess. It's more of a business.
[on David Wayne] I worked with David Wayne on the stage in "The Ponder Heart" and won a Tony Award for Best Supporting Performance of the year. I loved that part, and I loved David Wayne. I think he's one of the finest actors we have. He's so good they don't know what to do with them.
[on favorite directors] So many of the directors were so wonderful, and I think a picture took its tone from the director. I can't remember anyone I worked with I didn't like, but the man who directed "Reunion in Vienna" and "Private Lives" I thought was a genius, Sidney Franklin. George Marshall was another one.

Una Merkel Biography & Family History

This genealogy profile is dedicated to the life and ancestry of Una Merkel and her immediate Merkel family. Add to Una Merkel's genealogy page to share your memories & historical research with her family and other genealogy hobbyists.


at Covington, KY,


on at Los Angeles, CA,

Cause of death

There is no cause of death listed for Una.

Burial / Funeral

Do you know the final resting place - gravesite in a cemetery or location of cremation - of Una Merkel? Add burial and funeral information.


Last Known Residence

Did Una move a lot? Did she emigrate from another country? Add Una's last known location.

Average Age

Life Expectancy


Add family members


Did Una finish grade school, get a GED, go to high school, get a college degree or masters? What schools or universities did Una attend? Add education.


Share what Una did for a living or if she had a career or profession. Add Profession.


Add organizations, groups and memberships.

Military Service

Una Merkel toured USO camps during World War II with Gary Cooper and other stars.

Middle name

Unknown. Add middle name

Maiden name

Unknown. Add maiden name



Unknown. Add Una's ethnicity.


Unknown. Add Una's nationality.


Unknown. Was Una a religious woman? Add Una’s religion




1903 - In the year that Una Merkel was born, the first World Series of American baseball was played between October 1st and 13th. The Boston Americans of the American League played the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League. Boston came back from a three game to one deficit, winning the final four games to capture the title - such a large comeback wouldn't be repeated by a team until 1925. (A total of eight games were played.)

1911 - She was just 8 years old when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole, along with four fellow Norwegian explorers. After hearing that Peary had beaten him to the North Pole, Amundsen decided to tackle the South Pole. On December 14th, he succeeded.

1914 - Una was just 11 years old when in June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Yugoslavian national. Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. Other major powers took sides - and World War I began: Austria declared war on Serbia; Germany on Russia and France; Britain on Germany . . . and on it went until most of the world was embroiled in the war.

1964 - She was 61 years old when in June, three young civil rights workers - Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner from New York City, and James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi - were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi. Working with "Freedom Summer", they were registering African-Americans to vote in the Southern states. Their bodies were found two months later. Although it was discovered that the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff's Office and the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department were involved, only 7 men were convicted and served less than six years.

1986 - In the year of Una Merkel's passing, on September 8th, the Oprah Winfrey Show went into national syndication. A popular talk show, it was number 1 in the ratings since its debut. The last show aired on May 25, 2011.

Una Merkel Family Tree

Who was Una’s parents? Did she get married and did they have children? Share Una’s family tree to share her legacy and genealogy pedigree.

Una's Family
Add a parent
Add a parent
Una Merkel
Add a partner
Add a child
Add a partner
Add a child
Add a sibling

You can add or remove people from Una's family tree by clicking here.


This obit of Una Merkel is updated by the community. Edit this biography to contribute to her obituary. Include details such as cemetery, burial, newspaper obituary and grave or marker inscription if available.

Una Merkel, whose physical resemblance to Lillian Gish enabled her to embark on a dramatic career and whose talent kept her firmly at the thick of the productive actors who dominated Hollywood throughout the film industry’s fabled years, died Thursday.

The Kentucky-born Miss Merkel was 82 and was seen in the last of her 67 silent and sound pictures in 1966.

At her death, she had run a coastal gamut that brought her an Antoinette Perry (Tony) award in 1956 for best supporting actress in Broadway’s “The Ponder Heart” and an Academy Award (Oscar) nomination for best supporting actress in Hollywood’s “Summer and Smoke.”

She was part of that nearly extinct cadre of entertainers who made successful transitions from the era of overdrawn acting in films that could not talk to the often asinine comedies of the 1930s, when audiences fretted that characters would never shut up.

Looks Back on Career

And she managed it, said her associates, with an equanimity and self-effacing personna seldom seen on motion picture sets.

Looking back on her career several years ago, she did allow to author Richard Lamparski that “I really was kinda cute.” But then she quickly added: “I wish I’d known that then. I always thought I came over like a little hick.”

A blonde with sparkling blue eyes who so closely resembled Miss Gish in her early years that director D. W. Griffith made her a stand-in in “Way Down East” in 1920 and “The White Rose” in 1923, Miss Merkel had moved from her native Kentucky to Los Angeles while in her teens, seeking a career in films.

Movie Saloon Fight

The actress, who may best be remembered for the savage saloon fight she had with Marlene Dietrich in “Destry Rides Again,” had studied drama with Tyrone Power’s mother in New York. Her first featured film credit was in the long forgotten “The Fifth Horseman” in 1924. However, she had to return to New York for work after that, uttering one line in “Two by Two” in 1925, which ran two weeks, and another sentence in “The Poor Nut” the same year, which lasted three weeks.

However, she persevered and in 1927, was cast with Helen Hayes in “Coquette,” which enjoyed a 22-month Broadway run.

By 1930, she had returned to both Hollywood and Griffith, who cast her as Ann Rutledge, the sweetheart of “Abraham Lincoln,” opposite Walter Huston. But after one additional melodrama (“The Bat Whispers,” also in 1930), she became typed as a second female banana in a string of commercial triumphs. It was not unusual for her to make six films or more in a single year.

She was a caustic chorine in “42nd Street,” played opposite such comics as Harold Lloyd and Charles Butterworth and was an object of W. C. Fields’ frustrations in “The Bank Dick.” She was best on-screen buddies with Ruby Keeler, Janet Gaynor, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard in individual films and to Jean Harlow in several.

She deadpanned, drawled and wisecracked her way through “Broadway Melody of 1936,” “Biography of a Bachelor Girl,” “Evelyn Prentice,” “Born to Dance,” “Saratoga” and two dozen more films in the 1930s, capping the decade with “Destry” in 1939.

The grits-thick accent, quick retorts and sarcasm continued into the ‘40s, as she kept up a pace of secondary roles in secondary films. However, when the phone quit ringing in the 1950s, Miss Merkel opted to return to New York, where she won critical acclaim and the Tony for Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart.” The success evidently convinced film producers that there was more to Miss Merkel than scatterbrained banter, and she was cast as Geraldine Page’s bitter mother in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke.”

She did, however, have to submit to a screen test to get the role, even though she had already performed it on stage.

Nearly Killed

Miss Merkel, who toured USO camps during World War II with Gary Cooper and other stars, was divorced from aircraft executive Ronald L. Burla in 1946. That was a year after she was nearly killed when her mother committed suicide by turning on the gas in the New York apartment they were sharing.

In 1959, she was seen on Broadway with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon in “Take Me Along,” a musical adaptation of “Ah, Wilderness” remembered now primarily for its title song.

Her movie career lasted only for four additional pictures after “Summer and Smoke,” “The Parent Trap,” “Summer Magic,” “A Tiger Walks” and “Spinout,” an Elvis Presley vehicle in 1966. After that there were only a scattering of television appearances.

“I don’t remember in all those years ever being with unpleasant people,” was how she remembered her career during one of the last interviews she ever granted.

For the past several years, she had lived quietly in an apartment in Los Angeles. She leaves no immediate survivors and will be buried near her parents in Covington, Ky.

[contact link]

Share a Memory about Una Merkel

What do you remember about Una Merkel? Share your memories of special moments and stories you have heard about her. Or just leave a comment to show the world that Una is remembered.

Other Records of Una Merkel


Success Stories from Biographies like Una Merkel

I have to tell you a VERY special story about how AncientFaces helped to reunite our family. For 13 years, I have been searching for my grandmother's missing sister. She just disappeared from the family in the 1930s without a trace. No one ever knew where or when she died or where she was buried. My years of searching have just run into dead ends, so I had given up. Today, out-of-the-blue, a young lady called me and said that she had seen a photograph on AncientFaces and one of the women in the photo was her grandmother! Little did I know that she had left a small child behind when she died so young of TB. You can imagine our shock and excitement at finding each other and a whole new family that we never knew existed. We only live one state away from each other and very soon plan to have all family members meet to share our sides of "the story" and of course, many, many more picturesl AncientFaces...... without you, this family may never have been complete and Aunt Grace would have been lost to us forever. I hope you realize what a valuable service you provide and how grateful we are to have found you. Thank you!!!! -Lynda B.
I never knew my biological family. My family is my mother and father who raised me. But, as I got older I got curious about my heritage. It took me years of investigation to finally discover my parents’ names. Well, I get goosebumps just writing this, I have found my biological family because of AncientFaces. Yes!! I did a search for my [parents' names] and was shocked to find a photo of them on AncientFaces! I cannot tell you the feeling that came over me when I saw this photo - to see the faces of my biological parents…JUST LIKE THAT. I left a comment on the photo and you won’t believe this - the owner of the photo is MY SISTER!!! Yes, I have a LITTLE sister! It turns out my parents were too young when they had me and had to give me up. My little sister knew I existed and wanted to find me but had no way of doing it. Thanks to you I am meeting my little sister for the first time next month. GOD BLESS YOU ANCIENTFACES. -Anonymous
We have found our missing relative entirely thanks to AncientFaces. We have received a much clearer photo of Captain Grant from his Son. The picture we on AncientFaces is an old yellowed newspaper photo. I am attaching the new photo and ask that you take the old one out and put the new clear picture in its place. With our Canadian Remembrance Day here in 2 days - the timing could not be better. Thank You, AncientFaces. My long lost Aunt is now 86 years old and her Son and I are talking by phone and e-mails. Captain Grant was his Father and died in France in 1944 and is buried there. By posting pictures of the visit to his gravesite - we connected through one of his brothers. Amazing that our prayers have been answered. Thank you -Beth B.
I came home for lunch yesterday and decided to look at my email before going back to work. The weekly newsletter that I subscribe to from the Logan Family History Center had this message in it about AncientFaces. I clicked on the link and the first search I did was for Woodruff, and Mamie was the first picture that came up. I could hardly stand it. I was late getting back to work. I had to add comments and write to you. Thank you for noticing her in the store and for the website. I can't help but wonder how many other family pictures may have ended up in that store and why. I also can't help but feel that it was meant to be and that there is a purpose that this picture is coming home as you say. What are the chances of this all just happening? It's amazing that you even picked it up at the store and then went to all the extra effort to post it. It makes me feel as though you have been my friend forever. It certainly has given me a connection to you, and I have a love for what you do. I just can't tell you how excited I am. I can't even hold it in. -Cathy K., Utah
I have previously submitted several pictures of my grandfather August Zemidat. I have tried for many years to find anyone with that name, and I have searched many genealogy web sites to no avail. Recently I was contacted by someone who saw my pictures on AncientFaces who may well be a cousin. She also provided me with information that seems to indicate her grandparents were my grandfather’s siblings. Considering the many years I have been searching for the name Zemidat, I find this is absolutely amazing that I have finally found a family member. Thank you AncientFaces -Ron D.
I love AncientFaces, a while back I saw that you had labeled Garcia surname pictures. At the time I didn’t have all my family facts for my research. Anyway, I wandered into your site just to check it out AND NOW 1 YEAR LATER I received a picture from an 87 year old aunt and guess what you had this very same picture on your site!! (They were my great aunts and my great-grandmother!). Thank you… -Angela M.
I have loved AncientFaces since I first found it, it's the first thing I check when I turn on the computer. There was a time when even in the most modest households there were three cherished possessions, a family Bible. a family album and a fancy lamp. It was usual for the family to gather in the parlour, generally on Sunday and talk, tell stories of family and friends with the photos in the albums as illustration. Sadly in our modern electronic age we have fallen away from the oral tradition and interest in history has waned. I was quite shocked on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic to see so many comments from younger people who were surprised to learn that the Titanic wasn't just a movie. This is why AncientFaces is so important, to me it's the electronic age version of the oral tradition on a global scale and the sheer volume of people who follow, comment and contribute seems to prove the point. We are all grateful to you all for providing us with this wonderful site. - Arba M.