The daughter of a sign painter, Hervey was born Irene Herwick in Los Angeles in 1910. She married a musician while still in her teens, and four years later was a young divorcee with a baby girl to support. A friend introduced her to a casting agent at MGM, who suggested she train as an actress after which he would arrange a screen test.
Hervey's mother was a practitioner of Christian Science, and one of her pupils was the veteran actress Emma Dunn, who agreed to become the girl's coach. A successful screen test at MGM ensued, and Hervey made her film debut in King Vidor's drama The Stranger's Return (1933), playing the wife of an Iowa farmer, Franchot Tone. She also played a small role in Hollywood Party (1933), and was featured in two Pete Smith shorts, Attention Suckers and Taking Care of Baby (both 1934).
In the Crime Does Not Pay two-reeler A Thrill for Thelma (1935), she starred as a young girl who tries the easy route to a life of luxury and ends up in prison, but Hervey spent most of her time on loan to other studios, including Fox, Paramount, United Artists, Columbia and Monogram. At Fox, she played the female lead in Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), one of the best of that excellent series, in which the detective used her powder-puff to disclose finger-prints on a gun.
At MGM, she became briefly engaged to their rising young star Robert Taylor. Both the studio and Taylor's possessive mother disapproved, feeling marriage would be bad for the actor's career, but Hervey later stated that it was the actor's "impossible jealousy" that caused their romance to end. Shortly afterwards, at a party given by the director Raoul Walsh, Hervey met Allan Jones. "By the end of the evening," stated Hervey, "we had become entranced with each other." Jones's first wife, Marjorie Buell, received her divorce from him on 25 July 1936, and the very next day Jones and Hervey were married. Their son John Allan (later known as Jack Jones) was born in 1938.
Hervey asked for her release from MGM shortly after her marriage, and she was then signed by Universal, where her husband was under contract. Her first film for the studio, The Lady Fights Back (1937), a B movie in which Hervey and dam-builder Kent Taylor fight to preserve local salmon ecology, set the pattern for most of the material given to her.
Though the studio kept the actress busy with approximately seven films a year, most of them were minor films, her best roles being in the Bing Crosby musical East Side of Heaven (1939), in Joe May's atmospheric whodunnit House of Fear (1939) and as the upright girl who (though somewhat colourless compared to the saloon singer Marlene Dietrich) wins the sheriff (James Stewart) in George Marshall's classic western Destry Rides Again (1939).
In the studio's very free adaptation of the Rodgers and Hart stage hit The Boys From Syracuse (1940), Hervey was featured with her husband Allan Jones and sang the lovely "Falling in Love With Love", one of the few songs retained from the stage score. Less prestigious films in which she starred included Mr Dynamite (1940), pursuing Nazi saboteurs with Lloyd Nolan, Bombay Clipper (1942), helping the reporter William Gargan uncover a gang of international crooks, Frisco Lil (1942), as a croupier working to clear her father of a murder charge, and the bizarre thriller Night Monster (1942).
The syndicated columnist Jack O'Brian described Hervey as "a beautiful combination of delicately, naturally aristocratic poise and ease", and critics compared her to Myrna Loy, but the studio seemed unwilling to give her a major opportunity. The actress herself said that she was never ambitious, and announced upon her marriage to Jones that her family would always come "first and foremost". (Jones legally adopted Hervey's daughter Gail.)
In 1943 Hervey was seriously injured in a car crash, which led to an enforced retirement for five years. She returned to films (and Universal) to play the wife of William Powell in the comedy Mr Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), and displayed elegant sophistication in occasional character roles in such films as Chicago Deadline (1949) with Alan Ladd, and Manhandled (1949), Lewis Foster's intriguing thriller with starts with Hervey's apparent murder by her husband - it transpires that we are witnessing the husband's recurring dream.
Hervey and Jones were divorced in 1957, by which time Hervey had become a prolific performer on television. She acted in such prestigious live shows as Studio One, Playhouse 90 and Matinee Theatre, and was a guest star on Perry Mason, Burke's Law, Burns and Allen, Doctor Kildare and Ironside. For several seasons she had an ongoing role in the soap opera The Young Marrieds, in 1965 she played a regular role on the series Honey West as the detective heroine's tough Aunt Meg, and in 1969 was nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance in an episode of My Three Sons. Her last screen role was in Clint Eastwood's powerful thriller Play Misty For Me (1971), as a wealthy San Franciscan who offers the disc-jockey Eastwood a job in network radio.
Still slender and elegant, with a stylish grey coiffure, she was given a position with the Valley Oaks Travel Agency in Sherman Oaks, California, and enjoyed taking advantage of the free travel her job offered, flying to attend her son's night-club openings all over the world. Both her children had made her a grandmother. Though she stated at the time of her divorce that she would doubtless remarry, Joan Hervey never did. "To my surprise," she said in 1987, "I discovered solitude, something I had never experienced. I found it very much to my liking. And my children are very close, both in physical distance and in the even more important sense. I am greatly blessed and very grateful."
Irene Herwick (Irene Hervey), actress: born Los Angeles 11 July 1910; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 20 December 1998.