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Fay Wray

Star of 'King Kong' later typecast as a 'scream queen'

Wednesday 11 August 2004 00:00 BST

Fay Wray made 58 pictures, but was famous for only one - King Kong.

Vina Fay Wray, actress: born Cardston, Alberta 15 September 1907; married 1928 John Monk Saunders (died 1940; one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1942 Robert Riskin (died 1955; one son, one daughter), 1970 Sanford Rothenberg (died 1991); died New York 8 August 2004.

Fay Wray made 58 pictures, but was famous for only one - King Kong.

In 1929, while filming The Four Feathers at Paramount, Wray met Merian Cooper, an aviator who had been shot down in France during the First World War and again in Russia while fighting for Polish independence. After an epic escape, he had turned adventurer, making spectacular documentary films with Ernest B. Schoedsack, who would be his co- director on King Kong (1933), the story of a giant ape who terrorises New York. Wray was astonished by Cooper; she had never met anyone who sent orchids to her room every day.

He always lit up when he saw me, so we had a good feeling for each other. He was highly intelligent and very enthusiastic - just like a little boy with his enthusiasms. He was all wound up with excitement about any idea he might have and he was very magnetic, so it was easy to say yes to King Kong.

I'd been doing a play in New York with Cary Grant, so when Coop promised me the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, I was hoping Cary Grant would come to California.

Wray had no script to work from:

There was this big hand with a steel rod in it so they could elevate it. I would stand on the floor of the stage and they would fold the rubber fingers round me as securely as possible and then up I went in the air. A wind machine gave movement to my clothes. I had to imagine the whole of Kong was there.

I was maybe six feet up, against a back projected background of the city. I did it as long as I could and when I felt I was going to slip through, I would holler and they would put me down and we would start again. These scenes were put together with an animated 18-inch Kong.

King Kong was a massive hit - it saved the studio from bankruptcy - but Wray went on to become typecast as the girl who screamed through endless horror pictures - a "scream queen". When, later, she was invited to England by the BBC, at last, she thought, some serious culture. But they wanted her to scream for a sound-effects recording.

Fay Wray was born on a ranch called Wrayland, near Cardston, Alberta, in Canada in 1907. For the sake of her mother's health, the family moved to Arizona when she was three, and then to Utah. Her father, a British immigrant, originally from Hull, was inventive and artistic, but ill-equipped for making money. They became poorer and poorer, and one day he was gone. "Street Angel, Home Devil", was her mother's comment.

Fay fell in love with movies. Her first appearance, as a child, was in a screen test used to advertise a newspaper; as soon as enough people had subscribed, the camera team slipped away and she never saw the result. Fay's older sister died in the flu epidemic. The family planned to move to Los Angeles, and Fay travelled ahead, boarding with Ferdinand Pinney Earle and his wife.

Earle was an artist involved in special effects. Fay Wray played an Oriental dancer in his The Lover's Oath (1925). He was known in Hollywood as "Affinity" Earle because in a divorce case he claimed the other man's wife was his "affinity". When Earle began to pay midnight calls to her room, Wray stacked furniture against her bedroom door until she could make good her escape.

Although still at high school, she began to be noticed. She danced with the Kosloff troupe, who worked in DeMille pictures. She was remarkably beautiful, and her mother was over- protective. When a friend photographed her on the beach, dressed in chiffon, her mother smashed each glass-plate negative. It was surprising that she allowed her to work in movies, but Wray became an extra at Century Comedies and played a bit part in Gasoline Love (1923).

The first producer to show an interest in her career, Bud Barsky, wanted to change her name to June Darling. He cast her in Coast Patrol (1925) - and Wray held on to her name. At the Hal Roach studio, the director F. Richard Jones offered her a six-month contract at $60 a week. "It seems incredible to me," she recalled, "that it could have happened so fast, so simply." She played with Charley Chase and Stan Laurel.

Her mother gave her a Model T, and she offered lifts to another Roach actress, Janet Gaynor. When their contracts were up, both moved to Universal where they shared dressing rooms and played in westerns. Universal were famous for their blindness towards the talent under their noses. Even when both girls were voted Wampas Baby Stars of 1926 by the Western Assocation of Motion Picture Advertisers, along with Joan Crawford and Mary Astor, they kept them in westerns (one of Wray's was directed by a young William Wyler). Gaynor left to win Academy Awards for her performances in Sunrise (1927) and Seventh Heaven (1927). Wray left to play opposite Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March (1928).

Von Stroheim had made Universal's biggest pictures - and nearly ruined the studio through his extravagance. (He rebuilt most of Monte Carlo on the back lot for Foolish Wives, 1922.) But he was a brilliant director and Wray was desperately anxious to work with him. She was rejected at once for being too tall, so she returned without high heels and with her hair down and she was allowed to meet von Stroheim:

He had such a reputation of being militaristic, of cracking a whip. But he was a very genteel person, immaculately dressed in white linen. When Stroheim had finished telling the story of the film, he asked, "Do you think you could play Mitzi?" I said "I know I could." And he offered me his hand and said "Goodbye, Mitzi."

And when he said that, that was my answer. I couldn't take his hand. I could only put my face in my hands and cry. And I heard him say, "Oh, I can work with her." I knew from that moment that my life was going to be immensely different.

I heard Wray tell this story several times, and she never managed to get through it without tears. She admitted that she fell in love with von Stroheim, and it is evident from the film itself. Von Stroheim tried to arrange a tryst, but again she decided to slip away. It was the night von Stroheim planned to shoot the tryst between them in the story. "Von Stroheim the director could not force von Stroheim the actor to smile." They had to stop work for the night. Alas, the picture was of monumental length and once more von Stroheim was taken off and the production closed down. It was split into two, but the second half, The Honeymoon, was never released in America, and is now lost.

Wray's subsequent Paramount films were made for superb directors - William Wellman, Mauritz Stiller and Rowland V. Lee - but none made the impression of von Stroheim. However, during Legion of the Condemned (1928) - a follow-up to Wings (1927), starring Gary Cooper and using some of the unused footage - she met John Monk Saunders, who had written both pictures.

A Rhodes Scholar who had joined the Air Service during the war, Saunders was a romantic character in Scott Fitzgerald mould. He thought Wray had "Nefertiti eyes". He wrote The Last Flight (1931), a eulogy for the lost generation. (A musical, Nikki, with Wray in the title role, opened the same year in New York.) He was the target for many glamorous women, but he was also an alcoholic. Fay took the risk and married him in 1928, while on location in Easton, Maryland.

Wray was hired to work in a series of horror films: The Most Dangerous Game (1932, English title: The Hounds of Zaroff), made while the tricky animation sequences of Kong were being done, at the same studio, on the same sets; Doctor X (1932, made before Kong's release) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), both in two-colour Technicolor and both directed by Michael Curtiz; and The Vampire Bat (1933).

Thanks to the energy of her new agent, the former silent star Helen Ferguson, and with the huge success of King Kong in 1933, Wray became one of the most prolific actresses in the business. But, at the film's premiere, "I wasn't too impressed," she said. "I didn't realise then that King Kong and I were going to be together for the rest of our lives . . ."

She accepted roles in British pictures, in the hope of getting away from horror films. But England did not provide the contrast she had hoped. She played in films like Bulldog Jack (1935), with Jack Hulbert and The Clairvoyant (1935), with Claude Rains. Production was exceedingly slow. She spent time sightseeing, and was in a park when she overheard a woman saying to a recalcitrant boy, "If you don't behave, I'll have Fay Wray get King Kong after you!"

John Monk Saunders, now addicted to drugs as well as alcohol, began stealing from her. They had a trial separation and Wray returned to the theatre. Then she heard that Saunders had sold their Hollywood home, taken their daughter, Susan, and all the money. She tracked him down to a psychiatric hospital. They divorced in 1939 and, in March the following year, Saunders committed suicide.

After a period living with the left-wing writer Clifford Odets, in 1942 Wray married Robert Riskin, scriptwriter of some of the best Frank Capra pictures, and they had a son, Bobby, and a daughter, Vicky. Wray made a handful of routine pictures during the war; but she also did radio plays and was a television pioneer. A few years later, Riskin suffered a severe stroke. With money in short supply, Wray was grateful for a film at Fox, Treasure of the Golden Condor (1953), with Cornel Wilde and Anne Bancroft, and Small Town Girl (1953) at MGM.

She also returned to radio and television - she played Natalie Wood's mother in a series called The Pride of the Family from 1953 to 1955. In 1955, Riskin died at the Motion Picture Hospital; the doctor who impressed Wray most was Dr Sanford Rothenberg, a neurosurgeon, and they married.

In 1985 Wray wrote a play, The Meadowlark, inspired by her childhood in Utah, which was staged on the East Coast, directed by her daughter Susan. She hoped very much that it would be presented in London. She had an apartment in Trump Tower, New York - a building tall enough for a visit by Kong - and one in Century City, where the Fox back lot used to be.

In 1997, Patrick Stanbury and I interviewed Wray for a documentary about horror films. She did not want to be known as a one-picture actress, and she described in enthralling detail the making of Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March (1928). Her account was so moving that we decided to do what we could to restore the film. We presented it with live orchestra the next year as one of the last of the "Channel Four Silents". We asked Fay Wray if she would come to London to introduce it and she eagerly agreed. "I loved that picture, I loved von Stroheim - I never worked with such a great director again."

In 1998, when already 90, she had a fall in her New York home. She lay for three days, unable to move, and when she was found she was severely dehydrated. She played down the event, scared that her children might find out and put her in a nursing home, and made a remarkable recovery, in 2000 celebrating her 93rd birthday at the George Eastman House, in Rochester, New York, introducing The Wedding March.

Fay Wray was one of the most attractive personalities of an era packed with extraordinary people. Almost as beautiful in her nineties as she had been as a girl, she could still hold an audience enraptured with her memories, and have them howling with laughter at her wisecracks. She was a brilliant actress - as she demonstrated in The Wedding March - and a fine writer. Apart from an excellent autobiography, On the Other Hand (1989), she wrote poetry and several plays.

She was one of those people who could inspire you from a single meeting. I knew her for 30 years and after every encounter I had a feeling of exhilaration.

Kevin Brownlow

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