Fay Wray: Beauty and the Beasts, Part II

Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, The Fist Kiss, 1928.

Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, The First Kiss, 1928.

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, unravels her life in Hollywood in a lovely, impressionist style.

As Seraphic Secret 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. Her brother-in-law, a dashing young man, 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 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.

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  1. Barry
    Posted December 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Lelsie Fenton was a cute little guy.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 20, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink


      TYPO: Should have read “Leslie Fenton with Ann Dvorak…” 

      I will correct immediately.


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      • Barry
        Posted December 20, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        A nice correction. I just saw Leslie Fenton in Paul Fejos’ Broadway. And while I know some of his directorial work, what hapened to him after 1950?

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        • Barry
          Posted December 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          More re Leslie Fenton. He married Charles Howard’s widow and opened an antique shop. That surely reads incomplete to me but is the beginning of a fascinating piece. Charles Howard for those who don’t know owned Seabiscuit. Played by Jeff Bridges.

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          • Robert J. Avrech
            Posted December 21, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink


            Thanks so much for the information about Fenton. He was married to Ann Dvorak for a few years and then they divorced. She was an interesting and talented actress who rebelled against the studio system — and self-destructed.

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            • Barry
              Posted December 21, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

              I’ve never seen Ann Dvorak when I did not think she was of interest. Two mid-forties westerns, Flame of the Barbary Coast with John wayne and, much better, Abilene Town with Randolph Scott, were show cases that should have lead to renewed starring opportunities. Did not happen but she was effective with Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own and I Was An American Spy. Sense, rather than know, that her later life was tragic.

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              • Robert J. Avrech
                Posted December 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

                She is amazing in Scarface and in Three on a Match she just steals the show from Bette Davis and Joan Blondell. Quite an accomplishment.

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                • Barry
                  Posted December 22, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

                  I’ve seen them both and found Scarface of considerable interest. Story development, performance and over all feeling. Three On A Match I just didn’t get. Possibly need a second look which I had last night with Red Dust followed by Mogambo. Quite an experience and worth repeating. Donald Sinden has  it all over Gene Raymond. Kelly and Astor both okay, but if someone had said this guy has an American wife I believe Kelly would have been much stronger, and more appealing rather than affecting and struggling with her accent.  Harlow all over Gardner. No comparison. Gable is Gable. Great. Ford and Fleming should have gotten together. Each man in his time brings something special to the table. Fleming much sexier and not just because of pre-code.

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                  • Robert J. Avrech
                    Posted December 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                    I confess, I don’t like Mogambo, save for Kelly’s performance, which is perfect. After “Red Dust”, it just feels… limp.

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  2. Bill Brandt
    Posted December 20, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    One wonders how she could keep functioning! And what the heck was Vivien doing in Lodi??

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink


      To make it in Hollywood you need to be tough and resilient.

      As for Lodi, I am clueless. 

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    • Johnny
      Posted December 21, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink


      You have to wonder that about a lot of the people Robert has written about from the early days of Hollywood. I remember from my abnormal psych classes that the human is capable of many things from great art to hellish actions. Compartmentalization is common for all of us to avoid cognitive dissonance. It can eventually lead to a breakdown but it can also allow us to cope for a long time.

      And while there were probably few effective outlets for Fay Wray to deal with her situation, I fear today there may be too much help. Think back to the pre-school sex molestation crisis in the 1980s and how the therapists hired to help the kids usually did more harm than good. They were skilled at planting false memories and experiences and a lot of innocent people had their lives ruined for it.

      I hope the therapists in CT don’t make the survivors of Sandy Hook permanent victims either. Back in the late ’70s a female classmate of my brother was shot and killed along with her boyfriend as they were sitting in the boyfriend’s car in front of her house after a date. This is in a part of town where policemen are sent right before they retire because the worst crimes are houses getting teepeed and their deaths are unsolved to this day. Her eight year old brother was sent to a therapist to “deal” with her death and it screwed him up for 20 years.

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      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted December 21, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink


        I know a woman who has been in classic Freudian therapy for over 20 years. She is far crazier now than when she started. Sometimes, less is more.

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