Fay Wray began her autobiography On the Other Hand with an open letter to her most famous co-star. In it she said, “for more than half a century, you have been the most dominant figure in my public life. To speak of me is to think of you. To speak to me is often a prelude to questions about you.” This most dominant figure was of course the mighty King Kong and the film they appeared in together is unquestionably the best remembered in Wray’s career. She went on to tell Kong, “I admire you because you made only one film—and that became famous, whereas I made seventy-five or eighty and only the one I made with you became really famous.” Despite this fact, which was true for many decades, other films in Wray’s filmography have found new life in the years since she wrote those words in 1988. Now, she is best remembered for five, all of them horror films or adventure thrillers, and all of them made concurrently with King Kong. This is a reason for horror fans to rejoice and as we pass her 115th birthday late last year, we celebrate the original, and perhaps still the greatest, Scream Queen.
Fay Wray was born in the shadows of the Canadian Rockies and spent the first years of her life in a ranch house built by her father Joseph and on the surrounding land he named “Wrayland.” In her early memories, Fay remembered her mother, Vina, as free-spirited and having “an impudent kind of beauty.” At the age of seventeen, Vina had married a man in Utah before running off with Joseph to Canada where the couple had four children, Fay being the youngest. The springs and summers were times of wonder for Vina and her children, but the winters proved too much to bear for Vina who was taken by what was then called “melancholia” and it was arranged for her to stay in an asylum in the town of Brandon 650 miles away from Wrayland. The children were sent to stay with other families during this period as Joseph was unable to act as both provider and caregiver for the children with his difficult working schedule. Fay lived for some months with Dr. Harry Stockpoole and his wife, where she, just barely three, best remembered being enraptured by his fingers dancing along the piano keyboard in their home.
After Vina returned from her hospitalization, the family emigrated back to the United States in 1911 and settled in the town of Colton, Arizona where the family stayed with one of Vina’s brothers until Joseph was able to find a place of their own in Mesa. While living here, another child, Richard, was born. Only two years later, the family moved again, this time back to Joseph and Vina’s hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, where Joseph got a job in a factory. It was while living here that Fay was first exposed to the new invention that would ultimately provide her with a career and worldwide fame—the movies. Soon after the factory where Joseph worked closed, Fay recalled hearing news of a war that had broken out far away that would change the world. “The only think it changed for us right away,” Fay later wrote, “was that my father went to work in a copper mill town.” So, the family would once again move, this time to the small, now long-gone town of Lark, Utah. About two months before meeting their father in Lark, Vina had another child, Victor. Not long after, there was a fire at the mill where Joseph worked and he was forced to move once again, but this time the family did not follow. Soon after, Joseph and Vina separated, and she moved herself and the children back to Salt Lake City.
Fay caught the acting bug at a young age. At age twelve she won a screen test through a contest the Salt Lake Telegram, ostensibly for the purpose of making a film about the early days of Utah, but it was really about collecting subscriptions. This test would be the first time she appeared on screen when it was shown in a local theater. By fourteen, Fay was sent to Hollywood by her mother with William Mortensen, a friend of Fay’s sister Willow. Once they arrived in Los Angeles, Mortensen immediately set to work helping Fay find her way into the film business. She appeared as an extra in several films and made a number of important early connections before appearing in her first sizable role as a clown in a two-reel comedy short. In these early years, her mother also came to live with her in Los Angeles, in large part to keep an eye on her and, perhaps in her mind, protect her innocence.
Feeling confident in her abilities as a screen actress with these early roles, Fay decided to approach Richard Jones at Hal Roach Studios and asked to work for him. He immediately gave her a six-month contract with the studio. Much of this included bit parts and publicity photos but also an early lead for director Leo McCarey opposite Stan Laurel before his team-up with Oliver Hardy. She soon met Paul Kohner, the future casting director at Universal. When her six months with Hal Roach was up, she moved over to Universal where she quickly moved “from two-reel Westerns all the way to a five-reeler with their biggest star, Hoot Gibson.” It was around this time that she heard of a film to be directed by a filmmaker she very much wanted to work with and pursued it with her characteristic polite confidence. The film was The Wedding March (1928) and the director was silent screen pioneer Erich von Stroheim.
It was on The Wedding March that Wray fell in love with making movies. She also seems to have developed an infatuation with her director, who also co-starred in the film, and the feeling was mutual, though von Stroheim was married at the time. Nothing ever came of this, but Fay Wray continued to express affection and admiration toward the filmmaker for the rest of her life. “I felt a rapport with him that I would never lose,” she later wrote. The Wedding March was a turning point for Wray, whose career only ascended from that point until reaching its apex in 1933’s King Kong. Before completion, The Wedding March, along with Fay’s contract was sold to Paramount, which cut the film extensively before releasing it in two parts. The first half, known as The Wedding March, still exists, the second part The Honeymoon does not as the only known print of it was lost in a fire in 1957, days after von Stroheim’s death.
The early days at Paramount included an attempt to make a regular onscreen pairing of Wray and an at the time unknown Gary Cooper and the two starred in several films together. It was while filming The First Kiss with Cooper that Fay received word that her oldest brother, Vivien, who had quite possibly inherited his mother’s melancholia “had fallen accidentally (or purposefully) between the railroad cars” and died during a train trip. Wray would look back fondly on her years at Paramount and was devastated when her contract was cancelled in 1933 due to the studio’s financial troubles brought about by the Depression. During her years there, she worked with Josef von Sternberg, William Powell, Frank Capra, George Abbott, Ronald Colman, William Wellman, and many others both within the studio and while on loan to others.
She thought of the people she worked with there, both in front of and behind the camera, as an extended family.
During the Paramount years, she also met John Monk Saunders, one of the studio’s most promising writers. Wray was starring in a film he had written, Legion of the Condemned (1928), when they struck up conversation that soon led to a dating relationship and engagement. Saunders’ place in the Hollywood elite would be cemented when Wings (1927), a film he wrote, would become the first to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The couple were married when Fay was twenty and John thirty. There was also the complication that a woman ten years John’s senior had an intense infatuation with him and he apparently married partially in an attempt to escape that relationship. Soon after their marriage, relatively innocent photos that Fay had taken when she first arrived in Hollywood threatened to cause a scandal. John’s jealousies and double standards quickly became apparent. Soon she saw that his drinking could be a problem and suspected infidelities. Later, at least one of these would prove true.
Though her marriage to Saunders seemed to be doomed from the start, Fay became connected with her most important collaborators through him. She was cast in The Four Feathers (1929) for producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Wray suspects in her autobiography, because her husband shared legal representation and had a few friends in common with Cooper. She went on to describe Cooper, as “a fascinating combination of high imagination, an implicitly rebellious nature, a political conservative, an intellect, an adventurer, and a visionary.” A few years after, Cooper would remember Fay and cast her opposite his most famous creation and her most famous co-star, the mighty Kong.
The coming of the Great Depression for the studios meant cutting costs wherever possible. Part of that for Paramount included loaning out its contract players to other studios. This opened the door to her best-known work. But first, she would head off to Broadway to star in a musical version of her husband’s novel, Single Lady, title after its main character, Nikki. She was cast opposite a tall, handsome man with whom she would strike an instant rapport, Achibald “Archie” Leach. Having trouble with that name, she took to calling him Cary after his character’s name Cary Lockwood. Soon enough the world would know him by Cary as well, but with the snappier last name of Grant. Soon after returning to Hollywood, Wray was asked by Merian C. Cooper, now at RKO, to meet with him about a new picture he had in development. “You’re going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” he told her. At first, Wray later admitted, she hoped Cooper meant Cary Grant was on his way to town, but he soon indicated the giant ape in the production sketches he had brought her to see.
In the years 1932 and 33, Fay Wray made fourteen films, proving that the chapter title of her autobiography about this period, “I’m the Busiest Actress in Hollywood,” was not hyperbole. Of these films, five are the most remembered of her entire career: Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat, and above all, King Kong. These are the movies that made her an icon and crowned her the very first Scream Queen. There had been horror heroines before, but the development of sound coupled with Wray’s distinctive wail made her truly worthy of this title. No one could scream like Fay Wray. At first, hearing herself scream, particularly at the Los Angeles premiere of King Kong made her uncomfortable. She simply felt it was too much. During the production of Kong, “I had gone into a sound room at RKO and screamed and moaned and whimpered for several minutes, recording a kind of ‘Aria of Agonies,’ so that the sounds could be spliced into various spots as needed.” Of course, this scream is ultimately what made her an icon and has been used in the decades since as a stock female scream for film after film.
Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum will be forever linked for several reasons. In both, Wray co-stars with Lionel Atwill, both are directed by the great Michael Curtiz, and both were made in the early “two-strip” Technicolor process. Doctor X also has the distinction of being the first time Fay Wray’s scream was heard in a horror film. Inextricably connected to King Kong is The Most Dangerous Game which was also produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack. As with all these films, it was made during breaks in the filming of Kong as Willis O’Brien was hard at work animating the great ape and his rivals. The film also used several of the Skull Island sets. The Vampire Bat is perhaps the least known of these but is a suitably creepy offering from the king of horror studios of the era, Universal. This odd amalgam of the studio’s most successful films of 1931, Dracula and Frankenstein, reteamed Wray with Lionel Atwill and features a performance from the great character actor Dwight Frye in a role very much akin to his turn as Renfield in Dracula.
1934 only continued the trend of constant work as well as ascent into the Hollywood elite. She and Saunders went to parties at the home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, true royalty of the time. She also began a new film every fourth Friday of the year, just as she had the previous year. She later expressed some regret for her policy in this period of taking every role she was offered because there was “no selectivity.” She felt that it ultimately harmed her career, though it did keep her finances stable during the most dire years of the Great Depression. Though none of these would prove to have the staying power of King Kong, she was able to venture into roles beyond the “damsel in distress” and play villains, vamps, and comedic roles. She lobbied for several roles she did not get. One she took particular note of in her book was approaching the writer of Lost Horizon about playing the role of Maria. The role went to the actress Margo, but this brief encounter, which she thought little of at the time, was the first time she met the man who would prove to be her greatest love, Robert Riskin.
Despite her busyness, she found time to skeet shoot and go deep-sea fishing with John, attend the very first meeting in which the Screen Actor’s Guild was proposed, survived the 1933 Los Angeles earthquake unscathed, and helped the Los Angeles police capture a man who attempted to extort her by threatening her mother’s life. Unfortunately, the troubles in her marriage continued as well as Saunders was caught in an affair with his secretary and later hit Herbert Marshall while at a party at the home of Ernst Lubitsch, very nearly causing a major scandal. While making a film in London, it became clear to others that Fay was pregnant, a fact that she was already quite aware of. It was also clear that her marriage was disintegrating. Soon, Fay gave birth to Susan Cary Saunders and immediately lost all interest in working. About fourteen months after the birth, Fay and John separated and soon after that, her mother passed away. These were difficult times for Fay, but as she had so often before, she would only continue to prove her resilience, though the drama in her life caused by John would continue.
She soon began to work again in films as well as on stage, capturing the attention of writer Sinclair Lewis in the process. During this time, John took Susan one day and disappeared. It was about six weeks before they were discovered in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Fay traveled with a friend to reclaim her daughter, which John agreed to allow. This led to some trouble in Fay’s finances as attorneys became necessary and film offers were declining. Her divorce from John would become final in December of 1940. In the meantime, she would live in New York with Susan, doing theater to help pay the bills before returning to Hollywood in 1939 where Fay began making B pictures, as she often had. She was invited to a Christmas party by her friends Jessica and Richard Barthelmess where Robert Riskin, the writer she had had a brief conversation with years before, asked her if she would like to see The Grapes of Wrath with him. She accepted.
Riskin had become one of the most successful and sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood by that point, writing many films for Frank Capra and winning the Oscar for It Happened One Night (1934). He was also one of the town’s most eligible bachelors having dated the likes of Carole Lombard and Wray’s Mystery of the Wax Museum co-star Glenda Farrell among other blonde bombshells of the era. Despite being a well-known blonde in King Kong, Fay was actually a brunette and that was hardly the only difference between her and others Riskin was known to be seen with. But from the first moments, Riskin clearly respected Fay and the feeling was very much mutual. Of these early days she wrote, “I was glad to be such a friend to this intelligent, even-tempered man.”
As their friendship and eventual romance blossomed, Fay learned that her former husband’s life had deteriorated rapidly. She wanted and tried to help after he disappeared once again, but she soon learned that John had committed suicide. Of her years with him she wrote, “my life with John had been tormenting in many ways, in many ways sweet and rewarding. I had learned a lot from him.”
In the years between meeting and eventually marrying Riskin, Fay made her living on the New York stage, occasionally making the trip to Hollywood to shoot a film. He wrote to her often while she was across the country and eagerly awaited her arrival in Los Angeles on the few occasions she returned. During one of his visits to New York, Fay said, “Bob…I’d like to marry you,” to which he responded, “I do have some hurts to overcome.” It apparently did not take him long as the two were married soon after this, first unofficially by six-year-old Susan during a walk in the park, then officially by a judge in the St. Regis hotel. Fay became pregnant about six weeks after and gave birth on July 3, 1943 to Robert Riskin, Jr. They welcomed their second child together, Victoria, in 1945. By this time, Robert had also legally adopted Susan. No longer dependent upon it for income, Fay happily retired from acting to care for her family.
The idyllic life they built only lasted a few years, however as on the evening of December 26, 1950, Riskin suffered a stroke. At first, it was unclear exactly what had happened, but after medical examinations, a brief coma, and exploratory surgeries, Riskin would soon become partially paralyzed and mentally impaired. As Victoria later wrote in her book about her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, “the house was arranged for my father’s comfort and rehabilitation, but after a year he was no better. He was taken to a convalescent home where he remained, not improving, for the three years left to him.” This was a devastating ending to one of the great Hollywood love stories. Fay worked hard to provide for her family and keep their spirits up as much as she possibly could.
It became imperative that Fay resume her acting career. She spoke with Riskin’s friends about getting back to work and soon landed a film at Twentieth Century-Fox. She continued to work steadily for some time in film and on television, though she said of these projects, “the films I made in the next few years were not significant except for the people I worked with.” These included Lillian Gish, Edward G. Robinson, Anne Bancroft, Joan Crawford, Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood, and Debbie Reynolds among others. As she had in the early thirties, Fay took every role she was offered, but her purpose was thoroughly to provide for her family. She no longer attended the Hollywood parties as she had in the early days but “was home from the studio in time to have dinner with us, sometimes still in her studio makeup,” her daughter Victoria wrote. She also regularly visited her husband until his death in September of 1955. She was at his side at the moment he passed.
As her children grew, Fay once again retired from acting in 1965 and in 1971, married Sanford “Sandy” Rothenberg, who had been Riskin’s neurosurgeon. They remained married until his death from cancer in 1991. She was coaxed out of retirement only once, to play a small part in the 1980 film Gideon’s Trumpet with Henry Fonda as a favor to Victoria’s husband David W. Rintels. She spent her last years living in New York, which she preferred to Los Angeles, though she would occasionally visit the set of movies and television projects her daughter Victoria was involved with. She would often make public appearances, give interviews, and take speaking engagements discussing her years in and love for Hollywood. She kept her wit and humor all the way to the end, though an injury to her leg in 2000 and heart troubles made her final years more challenging physically. She passed away on August 8, 2004, just a few weeks shy of her 97th birthday and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
In her final years, Fay Wray seemed to come to terms with the fact that one film she had made years before had eclipsed the seventy plus other credits she had to her name. Though she turned down the opportunity to appear in the final moments of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) and utter the famous line “twas Beauty killed the Beast,” she had an apparent fondness for her biggest co-star. As the years have passed, other films as well as her importance to the golden age of Hollywood have risen to the surface. She is and always will be royalty to movie fans. And to classic horror fans, she will always be the first and one true Scream Queen.