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

Fay Wray, 1930s
Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, The Fist Kiss, 1928.
Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, The First Kiss, 1928.

by Robert J. Avrech

In her modest, jewel of an autobiography, On the Other Hand, film actress Fay Wray (September 15, 1907–August 8, 2004), best known for her role as Ann Darrow in the classic film King Kong, unveils the confusing threads of her life in Hollywood in a lovely, impressionist style that is, at the same time, sharply focused.

As I wrote in Part I, Wray, a fatherless young beauty from Canada, made her way to Hollywood with her sister Willow and Willow’s husband, William Mortensen, who sexually abused fourteen-year-old Fay. At one point, he took “artistic photos” of her on the beach—and when Fay’s mother later discovered these photos, she destroyed them, furiously smashing plate after plate.

But even before the emotionally confusing incidents with William, there was another beast in Fay’s life: her eldest brother Vivien, whom she adored.

Studio portrait of Fay Wray, 1930's.
Studio portrait of Fay Wray, 1930’s.

He had a keen and sensitive intellect. He was a good student; he wrote a lot—essays on Matter and Energy—and he wrote poetry. I thought he knew all things.

Fay settled in California and performed steadily in the movies, first as an extra, then bit player, and finally a lead actress. In 1928, twenty-one years old, Fay was co-starring opposite Gary Cooper in The First Kiss. She and her mother bought a modest home for $3,000 at 1332 Sierra Bonita Avenue. It was a small house, and Vivien, 29, was placed in the “poorest room” in the back, where he had enough space and light to paint.

Friends who came to see him were mostly young male artists. One young Spanish painter did an imaginary portrait of me on a panel of maroon velvet. Another brought a portfolio of caricatures. There was an Italian poet too—Virgil.

Years later, Fay unearths a letter Vivien wrote to their mother which seems to be an elliptical confession of his homosexuality. But Vivien’s problems were far deeper. For one afternoon, while Fay’s mother is in the hospital “for a check-up”:

I was at the piano, playing away at “Wien, Wien,” when my brother Vivien came and sat on the piano bench beside me. He leaned close to me, breathing heavily onto my face, searching for my mouth. Oh, oh! Something horribly wrong was happening! I got up and ran. How soon could I get to my mother—to tell her? At the hospital, where she was walking about her room, I had no feelings that perhaps I shouldn’t have disturbed her. She had to know! She listened. She didn’t seem shocked. She didn’t seem surprised, neither did she reproach me for going to her. Apparently it was time for her to go home anyway. That must have been it. Because I knew I couldn’t be in the house again without her there.

No sexual taboo is as universal as incest. The fear, confusion and revulsion felt by Fay and, no doubt, her Mormon mother, are easy to fathom.

My mother talked with the family doctor, who thought that Vivien should have some supervision in a small hospital.

Even before Vivien is sent off to a hospital in Canada, Fay and her mother board a train with the cast and crew of The First Kiss and make their way cross-country to Maryland, for location work. As always, the backstage melodrama is more compelling than the movie. Fay tells us that Gary Cooper was in love with Evelyn Brent, and Leslie Fenton was smitten with Ann Dvorak. Fay confesses that she was in love with screenwriter John Monk Saunders—and worried about her brother.

Word came: Vivien had taken the train for Lodi, California: he had fallen accidentally (or purposefully) between the railroad cars! Willow went to “take care of everything.” Numbness. About two days later, I was doing a scene with Gary and when I looked up at him, he seemed to be my brother. It was the first moment of sensitive perception that my brother was actually gone. Professional people are supposed to be able to handle these moments. But I wasn’t yet such a professional. We stopped work for the day.

Just as King Kong seemed to die for Fay’s beauty, so did her troubled brother Vivien.

Fay Wray, a rising star in Hollywood, has already  endured two emotionally harrowing experiences. But the worst beast is yet to come. For while shooting The First Kiss, Fay impulsively marries screenwriter John Monk Saunders.

To be continued.