All images used on this page, with the exception of the book cover reproduced below, were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection. The image of Fay Wray above is a reproduction of an original photo from the movie King Kong but contains an authenticated autograph.
This biography is Copyright © 1997 by William M. Drew and may not be reproduced without written permisson from the author. Written some years before her death, this article is out of date in that it reads, in part, as if she were still alive. Regardless, it is an excellent recap of her life and career. For more information about the authorship of this biography, please see below.
There was no more dynamic personality in the Hollywood of 1997 than the actress who was born on September 15, 1907 in Alberta, Canada. One of six children, Fay Wray 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. 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.
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 bring about 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 opportunity came when Erich von Stroheim chose Fay for the feminine lead 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.” In The Wedding March, Fay plays Mitzi, a Viennese girl of the bourgeois class who becomes romantically involved with an Austrian prince portrayed by von Stroheim. Despite their great love, the Prince is forced by his parents to wed the crippled daughter of a wealthy manufacturer while Mitzi is married off to a vicious, lustful but prosperous butcher. As Mitzi, Fay conveys emotions ranging from tenderness and sweetness in her scenes with the Prince to rage and abhorrence when she is confronted by Schani. The contrast between Mitzi and the animalistic butcher Schani is an early manifestation of the “Beauty and the Beast” theme that would, in very different contexts, reecho in Fay`s later work. For all the film`s tragic denouement, the love scenes between the Prince and Mitzi serve to affirm love and the human spirit in the face of the world`s corrupting materialism. The Wedding March would remain Fay`s personal favorite and her role the one 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 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 had 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 and seemingly an even brighter future. Fay and Saunders became part of the Hollywood set of the late twenties and early thirties. 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, shewas 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.
One of the films she did in those years assured her place as a screen icon and made her a figure in folklore and myth. King Kong, among the half-dozen most famous films ever produced, was an original conception for the screen. This 20th century version of Beauty and the Beast was created by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack with the assistance of special effects wizard Willis O’Brien who made a remarkably innovative use of stop-motion animation and rear-projection. Although it inspired sequels, a remake and many imitations, the original King Kong remains unique and unequaled. Unlike so many of the others, the 1933 film imparts a kind of humanity in its strange, poignant tale of the giant, dark ape’s love for the five foot three Fay (who wore a blonde wig to contrast with Kong). A creature of both terror and pathos, Kong tries to protect the fragile Fay from dangers both real and imagined. Succeeding generations have embraced the film. Most people today immediately recognize its legendary climax with Fay and Kong on top of the Empire State Building. Even before its release, its reputation in the industry as a “chiller” led to Fay being cast in the horror films, The Most Dangerous Game, Doctor X, The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat.
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 is 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 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 screenwriter Robert Riskin, a relationship that brought her years of happiness and two more children.
In the 1950s, when Riskin became ill, she was forced to return to acting after a decade of retirement, appearing in many films and television shows. Widowed in 1955, she withdrew from acting in the sixties, subsequently marrying Dr. Sandy 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 1989, she published an autobiography, On the Other Hand. An outstanding movie memoir, it is an honest, sensitive, unsensationalized account of the joys and sorrows in her life–and the triumphs and setbacks in her career.Although widowed in the early 1990s and no longer acting, Fay has scarcely withdrawn from the world. Nowadays, she divides her time between her apartments in Century City and Manhattan and, energetic as ever at ninety, she still drives her own car, enjoys going to the theatre, visiting with her children and friends and making personal appearances at screenings of her films. She has continued to write, evident in her conversation which shows the same gift for observation and sensitivity to detail. She shows no sign of slowing down and has remained very much in the public eye. In April of this year, she wowed Congress as she testified on behalf of screenwriters and their heirs seeking residuals for films produced prior to 1960. In August, 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.
Appropriate for a woman of such resilience, she believes in reincarnation and is a devoted reader of Whitman and Emerson. She is a liberal who eschews dogma and maintains that external conditions should not invade the spirit, that knowing oneself and thinking positively can help an individual deal with problems while dark, angry thoughts only make one ill. Concerning her career, she says: “I would have loved to have had more roles of more unusual character and depth and I often thought that was too bad. However, it’s a strange thing. I think I have at least one film that people have cared enough about to make them feel good. I think it’s a strange, strange kind of magic that King Kong has. People who see it–their lives have changed because of it and they have so told me.” If she could have continued to work with Erich von Stroheim, the favorite of all her directors, she believes that her career “would have taken a different quality and character.” She feels that circumstances eventually interrupted “my energy and my drive and my vision of myself. . . .but that is how it was and it`s not to be found disturbing.” But whatever her temporary setbacks, she has always been a living testmony to the enduring creativity of the cinema`s golden age. Spirited but gentle, buoyant but thoughtful, she attained screen immortality through her skill as an actress in a career that linked the silent and sound eras with the age of television.
Also see: Fay Wrays’ filmography
The preceding article was adapted from the introduction to my interview with Fay Wray published in the book, At The Center of theFrame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties.
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William Drew can be reached at ReelDrew@aol.com
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