Fay Wray Biography
Even if they haven’t watched the 1933 classic movie “King Kong” from start to finish, almost every person has seen black and white clips and is familiar with the piercing shrieks of the young woman being stalked by the giant ape. Not as many people are aware, however, that the young girl who starred as the heroine was portrayed by a Hollywood beauty named Fay Wray who would come to be known as “The Queen of Scream.” While King Kong remains her best-known movie, the Canadian-born actress appeared in over seventy films. She lived a long life full of many roles and passed away peacefully in 2004 at the age of ninety-six.
Wray came from humble beginnings. She was born in 1907 on a ranch in a small town in Alberta, Canada and christened Vina Fay Wray. One of six children, she was the daughter of two Mormon immigrants. Her father was from England and her mother hailed from the Mormon capital of the US, Salt Lake City, Utah, where the family relocated shortly after her birth.
The small town life and religious surroundings abruptly changed for Wray, however, when in 1923 her family moved to Hollywood, California. Wray was sixteen at the time and began attending Hollywood High School. It didn’t take long for directors to notice the young beauty. Shortly after her arrival in Hollywood, she was cast in several short films, then starred in a well-received silent film entitled The Coast Patrol. In 1926, she was voted one of thirteen young actresses “most likely to succeed in pictures” by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers.
Between 1925 and 1933, Wray continued starring in popular movies. In 1927, she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, and this led to the starring role of Mitzi Schrammell in Erich von Stroheim’s hit film The Wedding March (1928.) It wasn’t until she left Paramount, though, and signed with RKO Radio Pictures that Wray found her niche. In 1932, she played a role in the horror film Doctor X and then starred in one of her most popular films, The Most Dangerous Game. These suspense and horror films were significant for Wray because as the movie industry began incorporating sound into its films (what was known as the “talkie” era), she would come to be known by the nickname “The Queen of Scream.” The talkie era was the downfall for many stars because the sound of their voices didn’t transition well. Wray, however, found her forte with her piercing vocals and affinity for the damsel in distress in horror movies.
In 1933, producer Merian C. Cooper famously approached Wray with a proposal. “[Cooper] called me into his office and showed me sketches of jungle scenes, and told me you’re going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood’.” Wray later recalled. “Naturally, I thought Clark Gable.” The Hollywood starlet could not have been more surprised when the producer laughed, and “then he showed me this sketch of a giant ape up the side of the Empire State Building, [and] he said, ‘there’s your leading man’.” She went on to star in King Kong, and her moniker as “Queen of Scream” was solidified. Throughout the film, her shrieks are earsplitting as she continually tries to evade the monster. The film, however, overshadowed the rest of her career. She later stated that when she was called into Cooper’s office for that fateful meeting, she had no idea “that King Kong and I were going to be together for the rest of our lives, and longer.”
Wray continued to find success until 1935, with roles in Once to Every Woman (1934), Viva Villa! (1934), and Alias Bulldog Drummond (1935.) Sadly, however, her fame began to dissipate. She also went through a public and painful divorce from her first husband, writer John Monk Saunders, with whom she had had her first child—a daughter named Susan. Wray married again, to another writer named Robert Riskin, and they had two children: Victoria Riskin and Robert Riskin, Jr. This marriage ended in divorce as well, and after her second divorce, she returned to acting to earn money. She found more success after this return, and found permanent and guest roles on popular sitcoms such as ABC’s The Pride of the Family and CBS’s Perry Mason.
Wray’s contribution to modern film has been honoured with many awards. She is a recipient of the Women in Film Crystal Award, a “Legend in Film” award given by the 2003 Palm Beach International Film Festival, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as well as Canada’s Walk of Fame.
She passed away due to natural causes in her Manhattan apartment on August 8, 2004. On August 10, the Empire State Building went dark for fifteen minutes in remembrance of the young beauty who was chased to the top in one of the most iconic film scenes of all time.