Hidden Hollywood: Fay Wray, Beauty and the Beasts, Part I

Fay Wray, 1930s
Fay Wray sizes up her tall, dark leading man, “King Kong,” 1933.

by Robert J. Avrech

Actress Fay Wray achieved screen immortality as Ann Darrow, the girl in King Kong’s paw, the beauty who tamed the raging beast.

For most of us growing up after Hollywood’s Golden Age, Fay Wray (b. Vina Fay Wray; September 15, 1907 – August 8, 2004) was nothing more than a fetching, half-naked prop, screaming endlessly, eyes wide with terror.

But Fay Wray, the lovely, Canadian-born actress, had a long, distinguished Hollywood career that stretched from 1923 to 1980 — over eighty movies, and then numerous guest appearances on television. On the surface, it seems a life drenched in glamour. But in reality Fay Wray played beauty to several human beasts.

Studio portrait of Fay Wray, 1930’s.

In Wray’s beautifully written and understated 1989 autobiography, On the Other Hand, the actress reflects on her life and career. With the wisdom of age and prose delicate as cut glass, Wray reveals several haunting episodes which left indelible scars.

Like so many early Hollywood actresses, Wray’s father was absent. She remembers her earliest years in Alberta, toddling around a log cabin, surrounded by nature, loving parents, brothers and sisters. But a move to America, first Arizona, and then Utah, brings money troubles to the growing Wray clan. And then, one day, Poppa is gone. She intuits that her parents have separated. But her mother never speaks of the broken marriage. Thus, the first man in her life disappears. No explanation, no goodbye. Abandoned.

Fay’s older sister Willow is engaged to one William Mortensen, a slick, theatrical type, who dazzles Fay with his knowledge of art. He seems sophisticated, educated, and powerful.

Momma informs Fay, 14, that she will be moving to Los Angeles, California with Willow and William.

On the train to Los Angeles, alone with Fay, William confides a terrible secret:

William turned toward me and began telling me what he said he had been thinking since he first saw me. He painted a word picture that made me feel beautiful and special and unique. The surprise of this was absolutely enormous.

“My sister. It’s my sister you like.”

“It’s you.”

He didn’t reach out to touch me. he just went on talking abut the quality he had seen.

Oh Willow, I thought. This is a “triangle.” I felt odd, as old as a fourteen-year-old could feel. I felt happy that he admired me; I felt guilty that he did. The train rushed on and my face felt hot. I stared at the pattern in the combing jacket. To hear that he had not cared for my sister, as my mother had said, made me feel awful, even though I liked hearing what he had to say about me. I was feeling an appreciation of myself beyond what I had ever felt; at the same time, it was terribly uncomfortable to feel so old.

Indeed, Mortensen has done to Wray what all child abusers do to their victims. He has stolen her innocence, abruptly replacing her youth with a terrible maturity for which she is ill prepared.

Once settled in Los Angeles, Mortensen arranges to be alone with Fay:

William came and sat beside me on a window seat. He ran his hand over my dress, feeling the shape of my breasts. I sat absolutely still, not moving at all, even to look at him. He got up and left the house, leaving me worried and wondering why, when I stood up, there was moisture on my skin.

Mortensen, cuts a dashing figure as he drives a Harley Davidson motorcycle. He dresses in riding pants and boots, a slim leather jacket and a visored cap with goggles. He bundles Fay in the cycle’s sidecar and roars off. Before she knows it, Fay is an extra in a movie, produced by one Ferdnand Pinney Earle. Mortensen works as a scenery painter.

Earle shows the impressionable girl around town. Fay is dazzled when silent star Olive Borden smiles at her. Somehow, Earle contrives for Fay to stay overnight at his house. In the middle of the night, Earle tries to break into Fay’s bedroom. Terrified, Fay blocks the door with a chest of drawers. In the morning, at breakfast, Earle jokes with his wife about the incident. The wife says nothing. Fay begs Mortensen to take her away.

A few days later, Mortensen brings Fay to the prestigious Wetzel Photographic Studio on Hollywood Boulevard:

It was Sunday. He had borrowed the studio, borrowed the dresses, and for several hours, he photographed me. I changed dresses and my hair each time, all my feelings flowing along with his enthusiasm I felt grown-up and admired and lovely in the laces and taffeta. And later, when he showed me the prints, I knew it was possible for me to look at least seventeen or maybe more. There was a person in those pictures I hadn’t seen before, even if I had suspected she could be there. And he had stimulated all of that.

Fay enrolls in high school. Mortensen privately tutors her in Shakespeare. He signs her report cards. She continues to get bit roles in silent films.

One day, Mortensen drives Fay up the coast, and in a private cove on the beach, takes photos of Fay running in the surf. Fay indicates that she had a bolt of chiffon cloth and Bill “wanted the ends of the chiffon to fly in back of me and my loosened hair to fly back in the same way.”

And then I saw a highway patrolman coming down the narrow path on the palisade that we ourselves had used. I waited while he approached Bill. “People up there on the highway say that you are down here taking nude photographs.”“You can see for yourself that isn’t so,” Bill said to him. He looked at me, nodded. “Even so,” he said, “I think you ought to pack up and move along.”

There was a lot of disgrace hearing that: “pack up and move along.” My face burned. The sting of that moment remained. It was hard to tell my mother about it but I thought I had to.

Yes, in the intervening months, mother Wray has reappeared.

After a moment of absorbing this confession, she went on. “Did he have his way with you?”

“What do you mean? What does that mean… have his way?”

“It means,” she said, “that I have been afraid you would have a baby.”

Fay has no idea what her mother is talking about. She is young and innocent.

Fay and her mother pay a visit to Mortensen.

He obliged her by bringing out a stack of Graflex negatives: “Every negative you have ever taken of her.” He placed them in a stack as she indicated—beside the chair in which she sat. I stood near the door: he, on the far side of the room. I saw in his expression astonishment and nonresistance to what my mother did then. She smashed each negative. Each plate of glass splintered down onto the one just smashed, until she had done them all. She seemed to be naming them as she struck one on top of another: Sin! Sin! Ugly! Sinful! She didn’t speak but her energy was eloquent… Was this true?  Was this really happening—this great erasure? This amputation?  It wasn’t good, her fury was saying. It was evil, evil, evil! I looked at him. Both of us were letting this awful moment condemn us. But there was no question of not letting it happen. The only question was whether it was true: was it right; was a mother the one who would know even without knowing? Mothers were supposed to be very close to God.

She said we should go.

“You are not to set a foot out of this house, ” she said when we got to the house on Van Ness Avenue. It was painful to be isolated, not to be seeing Bill. For more than a year, he had had charge of my life. He was my mentor, my friend.

Fay never saw Mortensen again. Willow married another man. But Fay, in the classic manner of an abused child, was emotionally invested in Bill Mortensen:

The tragedy of my mother’s actions was that she was assuming we had a physical relationship. Out of complete ignorance I had contributed to that assumption. It would be a long time before I would know what a physical relationship was. William Mortensen had never tried to embrace me. Perhaps if he had, as my mother imagined, I would have been compelled to walk out of the house and go to him. It was numbing to think that in her eyes, all the time I had been in California, I had been a very wicked person.

As King Kong lies dead at the foot of the Empire State building, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) delivers the tale’s epitaph invoking Beauty and the Beast—which, ironically, also fits this terribly sad story.