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

Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, King Kong, 1933.
Fay Wray, studio portrait.
Fay Wray, studio portrait.

In her disarmingly modest, and revealing 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 her life in a lovely, impressionist style that is at the same time sharply focused.

As I wrote in Part I, Wray, a fatherless beauty from Canada, made her way to Hollywood with her stage-door mother, her sister Willow, and Willow’s husband, William Mortensen. Her brother-in-law, a dashing young man, sexually abused fourteen-year-old Fay.  Part II, was devoted to Wray’s troubled and tragic brother Vivien, who attempted incest with Fay, and then, in despair, almost certainly committed suicide by flinging himself from a moving train.

Yet another beast in human form was to play a major role in Wray’s life.

Fay Wray with John Monk Saunders. Beauty and the beast.
Fay Wray with John Monk Saunders. Beauty and the beast.

In 1928, just as silent films were about to fade away, and as a young contract player at Paramount, Wray met the young and dashing John Monk Saunders, a screenwriter. Saunders had just written Wings, the soon-to-be celebrated film that told the story of flying aces in World War I. Wray, like so many Hollywood starlets, was fatherless and woefully undereducated. When they first meet on the studio lot, Wray conjures a vivid, romantic portrait:

I turned to see a very handsome man. It was a warm summer afternoon. He was dressed in white flannels, a dark blue blazer, and wore a white Panama hat. I thought he was astonishingly good-looking. Astonishing because the name Monk suggested someone less wonderfully groomed.

Wray was shooting Legion of the Condemned, a story about flyers in the Foreign Legion, also penned by Saunders. Wray’s leading man was the up and coming star Gary Cooper. Wray admits she had no inkling that Cooper would become one of Hollywood’s most durable and iconic leading men.

A whirlwind romance ensues. Wray is swept off her feet by the dashing, sophisticated Saunders, a former Rhodes scholar, and a flying instructor during World War I, who, to his everlasting regret, never saw combat, was never the decorated flying ace he yearned to become.

Wray was nineteen and Saunders was twenty-nine when they married in 1928.

But Saunders, already married and divorced, was chronically unfaithful. And Fay was not unaware of this. On the very night that Saunders asked Fay to marry him, another actress who had been sharing his life announced their engagement.

Saunders had been brought out to Hollywood by Paramount mogul Jesse Lasky, who saw in him a brilliant and personable writer, the right man to author a screenplay about the dashing flying aces. Lasky’s wife Bessie, was also instrumental in bringing Saunders out to California, for she and Saunders were having an affair.

Fay notes that:

[Bessie’s] son Jesse Jr. has written in his book, Whatever Happened to Hollywood?: When John Saunders married Fay Wray, it almost broke Bessie’s heart. She considered him her own admirer.

Of course, all the warning signs were there: the women Saunders flirted with outrageously, and of course, the booze. Saunders was a an alcoholic and even before they were married Fay saw him dead drunk on several occasions. The affair with Bessie Lasky continues even after wedding vows are exchanged.

Writes Fay:

I would go on trying to understand why he would say that if I should ever find him in bed with another woman, I should think nothing of it—because he was “oversexed.”

He thought of himself as part of the Lost Generation. He admired the “membership”; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had visited him in his house in the Hollywood Hills. Standing on a balcony, the three had competed to see who could urinate farther. Yes, Zelda too.

The marriage is deeply troubled, but Fay, young and naive, soldiers on in the vain hope that somehow things will improve. She shoots King Kong, (1933) the finest rendering of the beauty and the beast theme in Hollywood history. At Saunders’ constant urging, she makes one film after another with little regard for the quality of the productions. Saunders convinced her that if she takes time off the public will forget her, and her salary quote will drop. Thus, she finds herself grinding out a succession of mediocre B movies. Meanwhile, Fay discovers that John is having an affair with his secretary.

Fay Wray cringes before King Kong, the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.
Fay Wray cringes before King Kong, the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.

She is miserable. But Fay endures this hellish marriage for years. And then she becomes pregnant. In a halo of hope, Fay tells John the good news.

He replies: “What the hell is that to me?”

Fay claims that she succeeded in achieving a sense of detachment by reading Friedrich Nietzsche. But her pain is on the surface. While pregnant, Fay discovers that John has been taking huge amounts of “medication.” Still relatively innocent, she does not suspect narcotics.

After the birth of their child, Susan Cary Saunders, a highly recommended pediatrician comes to see the newborn.

As he was leaving the room after reporting to us, John said to him, “We will not be needing you.”

“Why did you say that?” I had liked the very bright, slender redheaded young man. “Why did you tell him that?”

“He’s a Jew.”

Fay Wray with daughter Susan.
Fay Wray with daughter Susan.

Saunders worked with and for Jews. He had a long-running affair with Bessie Lasky, a Jewish woman. Yet Saunders was typical of his time. Jews were acceptable if they advanced your career, otherwise they were, well, just dirty Jews.

This is all the more ironic because early in her autobiography, Wray goes out of her way to tell us that her mother read “Daniel Deronda” and had “come to admire the Jewish character.”

Booze, narcotics, and his own private demons, turn Saunders into a raving Jew-hater:

When he talked about leaving and going to join Hitler, allowing Hollywood “to stew in its own Jews”—a remark he borrowed from a certain conservative male star; when my jewels disappeared and he answered my concern with expressionless silence; when he sat across from me at dinner, the pupils of his eyes large and unseeing, his movements unrealistically slow; when he completed the sale of an adjacent lot and asked me to endorse the check, holding it down so I would not know the face amount, I felt numbness. When he sprained his ankle, it was the cook, not I, who went upstairs to wash away the pain. Throughout the progression of his problems, I was no help to him, wanting only relief.

Fourteen months after Susan is born, Fay and John separate. But Fay dutifully takes Susan to visit her father at his Malibu beach house.

Susan and I went to spend an afternoon with him. He took charming photos of her crawling through untrodden sand, leaving furrows in her wake. She took a nap and so did I, lying face down in my bathing suit. I was awakened by a sharp sting in my right buttock. John was withdrawing a needle. He left the room quickly. I sat up on the edge of the bed, feeling a blurry sensation as though my body were made of absorbent cotton. He had never done such a thing before! I suspected he wanted me to share in his own experience so I could be more understanding. But if this was the feeling—just a nasty, fuzzy, uncomfortable feeling—why would he want it? Why would anyone want it?

Saunders, unhinged, his career taking a nose-dive, kidnaps baby Susan. Fay manages to get her daughter back and retain custody. Finally, in 1940, Fay and Saunders are divorced.

On March 11, 1940, Fay learns that Saunders has committed suicide by hanging himself. He was 42 years old.

Fay seems drawn to writers. She was pursued by Sinclair Lewis, who comes across as petty and unbalanced. Fay has an intense affair with Clifford Odets, another self-absorbed narcissist. But then Fay meets Robert Riskin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Lost Horizon. He is sober, dependable, a mature man. And Jewish. They are married in 1942, and happily stay together for a slim thirteen years until his tragic and early death in 1955, age 58. They had two children, Victoria Riskin, and Robert Riskin, Jr.

The beasts in Fay Wray’s life are, at last, gone.

Fay marries one last time, to neurosurgeon Dr. Sanford Rothenberg—a Jewish doctor, take that John—who died in 1991.

In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, Fay said: “I find it not acceptable when people blame Hollywood for the things that happened to them. Films are wonderful. I’ve had a beautiful life because of films.”

Fay Wray passed away peacefully in 2004, age 96. Two days after her death, the lights of the Empire State Building were extinguished for 15 minutes in her memory.

Still lovely, Fay Wray poses with her memoir.
Still lovely, Fay Wray poses with her 1989 memoir.