“I find it not acceptable when people blame Hollywood for the things that happened to them. Films are wonderful. I’ve had a beautiful life because of films.” The insight of a legend – Fay Wray – a woman whose film career was largely defined by one great role, but whose life holds many lessons, and much wonder.
Fay Wray was born on September 15, 1907, on a farm in Alberta, Canada, the daughter of Jerry Wray, an inventor, and his wife, Vina. One of six children, Fay and her family moved to Arizona when she was three, and then to Utah, where she spent most of her childhood. She would soon know hard times as the family struggled to survive after her parents separated when Fay was 12, and her mother moved to Los Angeles with her five children. Fay, who had been in frail health since the great influenza epidemic of World War I (in which she lost her cherished older sister), followed her guiding star to California when she was fourteen.
As a teen-ager, Miss Wray began acting in bit parts in movies, then won supporting roles. After graduating from Hollywood High School, she was the ingénue in a half-dozen silent westerns and, like many actresses of the silent era, her first roles were in comedy shorts. Eventually, she played leads for Hal Roach, the studio which, along with Mack Sennett’s, had done the most to define the golden age of silent screen comedy. Soon, she graduated to leads in western features at Universal, continuing to learn her craft as she awaited the opportunity to demonstrate her talent in a major role.
That big chance came when Erich von Stroheim chose Fay for the feminine lead, Mitzi, in his masterpiece, The Wedding March, which began filming in 1926. Von Stroheim said of his new find at the time, “As soon as I had seen Fay Wray and spoken with her for a few minutes, I knew I had found the right girl. I didn’t even take a test of her … Fay has spirituality … but she also has that very real sex appeal that takes hold of the hearts of men.” The Wedding March would remain Fay’s personal favorite and the one role in which she felt she most fully expressed herself.
In 1927, while the film was still in production, Harry Carr, co-author of the script with von Stroheim, introduced Fay to the public in an article for Motion Picture Magazine: “…this new von Stroheim discovery proves to have brains – a lot. She is, in fact, one of the most remarkable personalities I have ever known in the movies. Miss Wray makes me think a lot of Lillian Gish. She has the same patient tolerance – the same understanding heart – the same level, fearless intelligence; and a gentle distinction and dignity. By the time von Stroheim finishes her training, little Miss Wray will probably be a great actress; in any case she is sure to be a fine woman.”
When Paramount took over the distribution of von Stroheim’s film, they also inherited Fay’s contract, and promptly launched her as a new star. Silent films she made for Paramount include William Wellman’s 1928 World War I drama, The Legion of the Condemned, opposite Gary Cooper; Mauritz Stiller’s last film, The Street of Sin, with Emil Jannings; The First Kiss, which reteamed her with Gary Cooper, and her final silent, a 1929 adaptation of The Four Feathers directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.
Although Fay felt that the coming of sound destroyed a unique art, she successfully survived the change-over and appeared in a variety of talkies for Paramount, such as Josef von Sternberg’s first sound film, Thunderbolt.
It was her work at Paramount that led to her marriage to John Monk Saunders in 1928. He was a talented screenwriter, a young man of great promise with impressive achievements to his credit (including the first film to win a Best Picture Academy Award, Wings), and seemingly an even brighter future. Fay and John became part of the Hollywood set of the late 1920s and early 1930s. They lived in a Spanish style home that King and Florence Vidor had built, complete with tennis courts, on Selma Avenue in Hollywood. They entertained frequently, their friends in the film colony coming for tennis and tea.
But Fay was never so caught up in the social whirl that her work was affected. Indeed, within a three-year period after her contract with Paramount ran out, she was the leading lady in twenty-five features – more than some prominent actresses made in their entire careers – and worked for every major studio in Hollywood. She kept up a hectic pace, relying solely on her natural energy and enthusiasm. While she did not strive for the lavish lifestyle of many actresses of the era, she said she felt like a true star when she asked the director to let her stop work at six.
The huge success of King Kong, a beauty-and-the beast film that opened in New York at both Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy in 1933, was surrounded by roles for Miss Wray in other 1930s films in which her life or her virtue, or both, were imperiled: Dr. X, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat, and The Most Dangerous Game.
However, she was always aware that she would be remembered for the culmination of King Kong, in which the giant ape from Skull Island carries her to the top of the Empire State Building, gently places her on a ledge, lunges furiously at fighter planes peppering him with bullets and falls to his death from the 102-story skyscraper, his strength and power neutralized by love. “When I’m in New York,” the actress wrote in The New York Times in 1969, “I look at the building and feel as though it belongs to me, or is it vice versa?”
The most hazardous part of filming King Kong, Miss Wray recalled, was the tendency of the giant gorilla hand to loosen its grasp while she was suspended high above the set. When she felt she was about to fall, she implored the director, Merian C. Cooper, to have her lowered to the stage floor to rest a few minutes before being secured once again in the hand and sent aloft. She spent an entire day recording additional screams, variously shrill and plaintive, that an editor later inserted in the soundtrack – too often, she later emphasized. Asked how she was able to muster such animated cries, she replied, “I made myself believe that the nearest possible hope of rescue was at least a mile away.”
Although King Kong, like its title character, has towered over most of her career, Fay showed she was capable of playing everything from an assertive woman lawyer in Ann Carver’s Profession to an artist’s model of the Italian Renaissance in The Affairs of Cellini, and the mysterious, seductive title role of Woman in the Dark. And in still another variant on the “Beauty and the Beast” theme, in the sweeping epic, Viva Villa!, she portrayed an elegant lady of the Mexican aristocracy whose initial attraction to Pancho Villa, portrayed by Wallace Beery as a heroic, idealistic yet brutish revolutionary leader, turns to revulsion in the end.
In the later thirties, her personal life took precedence over her film career. Although she had hoped the birth of their daughter Susan might bring them closer together, the problems in her marriage to John Monk Saunders proved insurmountable and led to a painful divorce in 1938. In 1940, Fay heard the shocking news that Saunders, at age 43, had committed suicide, a tragedy that could have overwhelmed her except for her strength of character and deep-seated faith in the spiritual. By 1942, she had embarked on a new life when she married the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon), a relationship that brought her years of happiness and two more children, Vicki and Robert, Jr.
In 1950, when Riskin suffered a stroke, she was forced to return to acting after a decade of retirement, appearing in many films and television shows, including a starring role in a situation
comedy, The Pride of the Family, from 1953 to 1955. Widowed in 1955, she withdrew from acting in the sixties, subsequently marrying Dr. Sanford Rothenberg, who had been Robert Riskin’s neurosurgeon throughout the long, difficult years of his illness. Not content to just retire, however, and feeling she must do something creative, she turned to writing, concentrating on plays and stories. In 1979, she co-starred with Henry Fonda in Gideon’s Trumpet, and in 1989, she published her autobiography, On the Other Hand. An outstanding movie memoir, it is an honest, non-sensational, and sensitive account of the joys and sorrows in her life – and the triumphs and setbacks in her career.
Although widowed in 1991 and no longer acting, Fay scarcely withdrew from the world. She divided her time between her apartments in Century City and Manhattan and, energetic as ever into her nineties, she drove her own car, enjoyed going to the theatre, visiting with her children and friends, and making personal appearances at screenings of her films, including a rousing visit to the Hollywood Cinecon in the late 1990s. In April of 1997, she wowed Congress as she testified on behalf of screenwriters and their heirs seeking residuals for films produced prior to 1960. In August 1997, she was present at the production of her play, “The Meadowlark,” an autobiographical work set in a small copper-mining town in Utah. The play was staged by the Barnstormers Summer Theatre in Tamworth, New Hampshire, and directed by her daughter, Susan.
Fay Wray passed away on Sunday, August 8, 2004, in her Manhattan apartment, at the age of 96. Her decades of contributions to the motion picture industry were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6349 Hollywood Boulevard. She rests in Section 8 – The Garden of Legends – at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Fitting, too, that she should have such a title to her final resting place, because there is no question that she was, is, and will continue to be just that – a Legend, forever.