September 15, 1907 – Fay Wray:
“I was known as the queen of the Bs. If only I’d been a little more selective.”
In college, I had a work-study job archiving Fay Wray’s papers, and working with her, listening to her stories, we became friendly.
In late spring 1974, after experiencing a monumental rejection that at the time seemed that I might never recover, Wray, still beautiful in her late 60s, invited me to her apartment in the Hollywood Hills for tea. Attempting some sort of solace, Wray, who owned a world-class collection of autographs and historical ephemera, offered me a gift wrapped in simple brown paper tied with twine, hoping it would cheer me. Opening it, I discovered a letter from Louis XVI, the Bourbon King, written to his sister in September 1787. He didn’t actually write it, of course. The letter was penned by a scribe as he dictated, but it is affixed with the royal seal and has his signature.
At the time it seemed an odd gift choice for me. I had no special interest in the French Monarchy or the Revolution; I would have loved to have owned a signed musical manuscript of Cole Porter‘s which I had admired at her cunning cottage (she lived mostly in Manhattan with her doctor husband, but came to Los Angeles sometimes, still seeking acting work). But, it was the thought that counts.
Wray’s thoughtful gift sent me on a lifetime’s worth of research about all the Louis. I believed I owed it to King Kong’s girlfriend to embrace the letter. It remains my most cherished object.
She made 80 films, yet her fame will always be joined to her big co-star. Wray referred to her unrequited lover simply as ”Kong”, and he seems to have far outlasted the celebrity she enjoyed playing opposite some of the most handsome male stars of the Golden Era: Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, Joel McCrea, and Fredric March. She had been promised by King Kong director Merian Cooper that she would star with “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”.
Although Kong appeared huge, he was only 18 inches tall and covered with rabbit hair. He was shot one frame at a time by stop-motion photography artist Willis O’Brien and his crew. The diminutive Wray only knew one part of the ape’s body when she was grasped in a mechanical eight-foot-long hand. She wittily titled of her memoir On The Other Hand (1989).
“I would stand on the floor and they would bring this arm down and cinch it around my waist, then pull me up in the air. Every time I moved, one of the fingers would loosen, so it would look like I was trying to get away. Actually, I was trying not to slip through his hand.”
The role called for a blonde for contrast with the leading man’s rusty brunet hair. Radio Pictures wanted Jean Harlow, but Cooper had a high regard for Wray, whom he and co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack had directed in Four Feathers (1929) and The Most Dangerous Game, shot almost simultaneously with King Kong, decided to cover her brown hair with a blonde wig and cast her as Kong’s “golden woman”.
King Kong was a landmark film and it influenced all future special-effects movies, but the heart of the film is Kong’s erotic fascination with the scantily dressed Wray. One of the most iconic images in film history is Kong atop the Empire State Building, holding Wray in his one hand, swatting at the airplanes buzzing around him.
As proof of his love, Kong gently places Wray on a ledge before he is shot down. In the gathering around the crushed body of Kong, Robert Armstrong utters the immortal line:
“Oh, no. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the Beast.”
Yet, really, it was the Beast that killed Beauty, or at least, Wray’s career.
Wray had worked with greatest directors of the day: William Wyler, William Wellman, Erich Von Stroheim, Josef Von Sternberg and Frank Capra, and Wray had mostly been cast as romantic leads in conventional studio films until her almost retirement in 1944.
She was born Vina Fay Wray in Alberta, Canada. One of six children, her family moved to Utah, where she spent most of her childhood. Because of her frail health after the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918-19, which killed 40 million people including Wray’s older sister, her divorced mother took her to live in California when she was 14-years-old, where she attended Hollywood High School.
Wray began acting in silent comedy shorts, before landing leading roles for Hal Roach, followed by Westerns at Universal Pictures. Her big break came in 1926, when Von Stroheim chose her for the lead in The Wedding March. She was 19-years-old. Stroheim:
“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, Wray plays an innkeeper’s daughter who becomes romantically involved with a prince played by Von Stroheim. The scene in which they flirt and fall in love during the feast of Corpus Christi is remarkable. Despite their love, she is married off to a depraved monsterous butcher, foreshadowing the beauty and the beast theme that would define Wray’s later work. She told me that The Wedding March was her favorite of her films and her best, most honest performance.
Paramount, the distributor of Stroheim’s film, bought Wray’s contract and launched her as their studio’s newest star, comparing her to Lillian Gish. The silent films she made for Paramount in 1928-29 included Wellman’s first world war drama, The Legion Of The Condemned, opposite Gary Cooper; Mauritz Stiller‘s last film, The Street Of Sin, with Emil Jannings, and her final silent film, Four Feathers.
At Paramount, she met screenwriter John Monk Saunders, who wrote Wings (1927), first film to win an Academy Award. Wray had a hectic schedule, making 25 films in three years. Before King Kong, Wray had already become a top ”scream queen” in horror films, where her wholesome loveliness and innocent demeanor were a striking contrast to the monsters that menaced her.
Wray’s scream is as iconic as Edvard Munch‘s, remembered as fondly as Vera Miles‘ and Janet Leigh‘s in Psycho or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers‘ Donald Sutherland in 1978. In Michael Curtiz‘s Doctor X (1932) she escapes death at the hands of a moon monster; she is nearly turned into an exhibit in The Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933); almost gets a blood transfusion in The Vampire Bat (1933); and ran through the jungle in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) with Joel McCrea, pursued by a crazy Count (Leslie Banks), the same sets that were used next for King Kong.
Saunders turned out to be a vicious anti-Semitic, drug addict and drunk. He threatened to cut his wrists while they were in England where Wray was filming. Five years later, Saunders did, in fact, kill himself.
After affairs with the writers Sinclair Lewis and Clifford Odets, Wray married Capra’s favorite screenwriter Robert Riskin, the Academy Award-winning writer of It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936). In the 1950s, Riskin became ill, and Wray went back to work after a decade of retirement, playing mother figures in Queen Bee (1955) with Joan Crawford, Rock, Pretty Baby (1957) and Dragstrip Riot (1958), and working in television shows, including her own sitcom The Pride Of The Family (1955-57) with Natalie Wood as her daughter.
Widowed in 1957, she withdrew from acting again, marrying Dr. Sanford Rothenberg, who had been Riskin’s neurosurgeon throughout the long, difficult years of his illness.
Wray was approached about playing Rose in Titanic (1997), a role that brought Gloria Stuart an Oscar nomination. She was a special guest at the 70th Academy Awards that year, the only 1920s-era actor in attendance that evening.
She was offered a small role in Peter Jackson‘s unnecessary remake of King Kong (2005), even meeting with Naomi Watts, who played her role of Ann Darrow. She politely declined, claiming the original Kong was the true King.
We sent Christmas cards until the mid-1980s, when her card came back as ”address unknown” one year. Wray’s final credits rolled in August 2004, taken in her sleep by natural causes a month before her 97th birthday. The Husband called me at work with the sad news. She was especially kind to me and believed that I had the stuff to be a good actor. You can visit her now at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Two days after her passing, the lights of the Empire State Building were lowered for 15 minutes in her memory.
“I would have loved to have had more roles of more depth like the one in The Wedding March, 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 kind of magic that King Kong has.”