By Steve Starr
"It was beauty killed the beast." The last line of dialogue in the famous cinematic classic King Kong helped to cement Fay Wray's name into the minds of millions of people around the world.
The brunette beauty stated she was sick of her reputation as a shrieking blonde screamer pursued by an ape. She later changed her mind.
Vina Fay Wray was born September 15, 1907, one of six children, near Cardston, Alberta, Canada, where her father Joseph was a rancher. Looking for a better life, her family moved to Arizona when Fay was three, then to Utah where she spent most of her childhood. Her parents separated, and hard times ensued. Fay was often in ill health as the result of the horrific influenza pandemic that killed one of her beloved sisters, and 675,000 others in the United States.
The family moved to California, and during a summer vacation, twelve-year-old Wray was chosen by the famous director Erich Von Sroheim to play a waif in Blind Husbands (1919). Later, sixteen-year-old Wray obtained a small part in Gasoline Love (1923). It was two years before she won another role in The Coast Patrol (1925), and then continued to work in movies as an extra, carving a small career in Hal Roach comedy shorts and westerns.
Stroheim again chose the still unknown Wray for a major leading role in his excellent film, The Wedding March (1928), which always remained Wray’s favorite movie. Stroheim said of the nineteen-year-old, "As soon as I saw Fay Wray and spoken with her for a few minutes, I knew I had 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." That same year, Wray’s brother, an inmate in a mental asylum, escaped and committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a streetcar in Stockton, California.
Wray became a star in Stroheim’s film, but sound was coming to the movies, and she felt it was destroying an art form. Yet, Wray adapted to the new medium easily, and appeared in Josef Von Sternberg's first talkie, Thunderbolt (1929). Miss Wray screamed loudly in the highly successful horror films, Dr. X, (1932), The Mystery of the Wax Museum, (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and The Vampire Bat (1933).
Then came the film that changed her life forever, when she was paid only $10,000 to play Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933). Unforgettable and sometimes half naked, Wray raced the pulses of the men she traveled with on a ship, the natives she encountered, and the great Kong. The image of her dressed in white, her blonde hair blowing and glowing against a pitch-black night on a distant island while she is sadistically tied to giant pillars atop an altar, screaming and frantically trying to escape the incredulous horror she sees when Kong approaches her is indelibly burned into any mind who sees it. Fay Wray made movie history.
Those who watch her pulled from her hotel bed in her white satin evening gown, screaming and writhing in terror and held high above Manhattan in the paw of Kong never forget the scene that is a movie icon. Wray did her own terrifying, memorable screaming in her movies, easily explaining why she was often referred to as “The Queen of Screams.”
In 1928, Wray married screenwriter John Monk Saunders. They both became a staple of Hollywood society, living in a gorgeous Spanish-style home where they threw lavish parties. The couple had one child and divorced in 1938. Saunders committed suicide a little over a year later. In 1942, Wray married another screenwriter, Robert Riskin, with whom she had two children. In the 1950's, Riskin became ill, and for financial reasons Wray was forced to return to acting after a decade of retirement, appearing in various films and television shows. Their happy marriage lasted until his death in 1955. In 1970, Wray married Riskin's neurosurgeon, Dr. Sandy Rothenberg, and their marriage lasted until Rothenberg’s death in 1991. Faye began writing stories and plays, and in 1989 she published her autobiography, On The Other Hand.
Some of Wray's movies include Viva Villa (1934), The Affairs of Cellini (1934), The Richest Girl in the World (1934), It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Adam Had Four Sons (1941), Small Town Girl (1953), The Cobweb (1955), Queen Bee (1955), Crime of Passion (1957), and Tammy and the Bachelor, (1957).
In 1998, Wray made a special appearance on the 70th annual Academy Awards show. It is reported there is a theatre on the Gold Coast in Africa which shows only two alternating films every day of the year. One day they show The Mark of Zorro, the next day they show King Kong, and on Sunday they show both films. King Kong is still played in numerous theatres throughout the continent.
Fay Wray stated, "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."
Fay Wray died August 8, 2004. She was 96 years old. Two days later on August 10, the thousands of lights at the Empire State Building, forever remembered as the site where Kong climbed with Ann Darrow, and fell, were dimmed for fifteen minutes.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, Starr is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online-www.EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
You may email Steve at [email protected], and visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view part of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy many of the letters, photos, and autographs he has received from his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to various periodicals, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind
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