(b. 15 September 1907 in Alberta, Canada; d. 8 August 2004 in New York City), actress best known for her role as Ann Darrow in the motion picture King Kong (1933), in which the giant ape beast’s infatuation with her beauty established the genre convention of the archetypal fright film heroine.
Wray was born Vina Fay Wray and was the youngest of six children of Joseph Herbert Wray, a rancher, farmer, saw mill owner, inventor, and later a night watchman, and Vina Marguerite (Jones) Wray, a seamstress. Wray’s father was born in Hull, England, and her mother was from Salt Lake City, Utah. The Wrays married in 1910 and settled in a cabin in Canada. After Wray’s mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown, Wray lived with a Dr. and Mrs. Stackpole. In 1911 the family immigrated to the United States, where her father worked a twenty-acre farm. When that venture failed, the Wrays moved to Salt Lake City, where her father was a night watchman and her mother sewed; the children shucked corn for extra income.
Upon seeing her first moving picture, Wray decided to become an actress. Wray’s parents separated, and her mother began proactively to support her daughter’s ambitions. The Salt Lake Telegram held a contest offering a motion picture screen test to the seller of the most newspaper subscriptions. Wray put all her energy into door-to-door canvassing. Her winning test, photographed at the county courthouse, shows her on a bench holding red roses, directed to look upward.
With her mother’s permission, William Mortensen, who had film industry contacts, took Wray to Hollywood, California, where she appeared in a film based on The Rubāiyāt of Omar Khayyám. Although Wray dined at the famed Musso and Franks, was taken to Mack Sennett Studios, and met silent movie stars, the teenager quickly became exposed to the seamier side of the silver screen when Mortensen attempted to touch her inappropriately and an industry letcher tried to get into her bedroom.
Wray then lived with Katherine Wright and her family while Mortensen became her guardian, tutor, and, mentor. Wray took ballet lessons and played bit parts. Publicity pictures were taken, including shots by the ocean and poses in the sexy Theda Bara look. Bara was a silent screen actress who became famous for her image as a vamp and a femme fatale. Bara was often surrounded by “Nubian slaves” and was known to pet a serpent in a room filled with incense while courting the press. Wray naively sent the photos to her mother, who then showed up unannounced, demanded to see the negatives, and smashed the glass plates to bits. To protect her daughter from the immorality of Hollywood, her mother set up household while Wray attended Hollywood High School. Movie offers continued, and Wray played “look-pretty,” leading-lady roles for Century and Fox studios.
Wray’s break came with a six-month contract for $60 per week with the Hal Roach Studios, where she played the ingénue lead opposite Charlie Chase and Stan Laurel. This early work was followed by a string of two-reel Westerns featuring Eddie Cobb and five-reelers starring Hoot Gibson. The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS) nominated Wray as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926.
Developing a reputation as a young woman who told producers and directors what was on her mind, the eighteen-year-old Wray demanded to meet the silent film giant Eric von Stroheim, and even though the studio insisted she was wrong for the part, Wray won the role of Mitzi in The Wedding March (1928). After three more silent films, including Legion of the Condemned (1928), directed by William Wellman, the sound era began, and the nineteen-year-old Wray married the previously wed, twenty-nine-year-old screenwriter John Monk Saunders, a known womanizer. They had one child, a daughter.
Wray was cast in The Four Feathers (1929), directed by Merian C. Cooper, and performed in Josef von Sternberg’s first sound film, Thunderbolt (1929). Other roles followed: Pointed Heels (1929) and Behind the Makeup (1930), both opposite William Powell; The Texan (1930), directed by John Cromwell, starring Gary Cooper; and George Abbott’s production of The Sea God (1930), with Richard Arlen.
Wray was loaned out to Warner Bros. for The Finger Points, written by Saunders. At Twentieth Century–Fox she starred with Victor McLaglen in the Western Three Rogues (1931). She worked at Columbia with Frank Capra in Dirigible (1931) and played in the Samuel Gold-wyn film The Unholy Garden (1931), written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Merian C. Cooper, now at RKO Studios, cast Wray in a long-planned project he had developed with Ernest Schoedsack and the special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien. Wray made a studio screen test in which she reacted to a rear-screen-projected stop-motion fight between a giant ape and a Tyrannosaurus rex while Cooper yelled “Scream! Scream for your life, Fay!” This led to the production of King Kong (1933), the iconic beauty-and-the-beast tale that immortalized Wray. Wray’s incandescent sensuality, her blood-curdling screams, and her unrelenting courage launched the prototype for 1970s slasher films and female empowerment movies at the turn of the twenty-first century. The final dialogue spoken by the entertainment entrepreneur Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) completes the metaphor that has endured since the film’s release in 1933: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Wray’s renown as a horror film heroine led to Doctor X (1932), Mystery of The Wax Museum (1933), and The Vampire Bat (1933). In 1933 and 1934 she appeared in as many as twenty-three films, a new film scheduled every fourth Friday. Expanding to other genres, Wray appeared in a film intrigue Shanghai Madness (1933), with Spencer Tracy, and as a bad girl in One Sunday Afternoon (1933), with Gary Cooper. She endured twenty takes of a face slap in Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery (1933), with George Raft and Wallace Beery; starred in Below the Sea (1933), with Ralph Bellamy; and played the title role in the Columbia B-movie Ann Carver’s Profession (1933).
Wray, whose life-altering celebrity included being present at the historic meeting that led to the creation of the Screen Actors Guild, paid a personal price for fame. An extortion threat to kill her mother was foiled by the police. Her husband’s indiscretion with his secretary caused Wray emotional pain and embarrassment when she walked in on them in her own home. Another extortion note necessitated that bodyguards travel with Wray. Through all the strife Wray performed in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), a story by Saunders, with Cary Grant; Madame Spy (1934); the comedy The Richest Girl in the World (1934); The Affairs of Cellini (1934); and Alias Bulldog Drummond (1935), opposite Ralph Richardson.
Wray’s marriage was tumultuous, and Saunders spun out of control; his fistfight with the actor Herbert Marshall at a party given by the director Ernst Lubitsch, a suicide attempt, and a dismissive attitude toward their newborn daughter led to a trial separation. Saunders became vehemently pro-Nazi, and during Wray’s visit to his beach house Saunders surreptitiously injected her with a drug.
Wray had a romantic interlude with the movie producer Howard Hughes. In 1938 Wray performed in summer theater, beginning with It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. When she moved on to Saratoga, New York, for the John Van Druten play There’s Always Juliet, Lewis, captivated by Wray, trailed along. Appearing in Matunuck, Rhode Island, with the play, Wray received written proclamations of Lewis’s love. Wray learned that in her absence her husband had sold their home for cash and the entire contents to an antique dealer, and had disappeared with their daughter. The district attorney found them in Charlottesville, Virginia. Saunders was put under psychiatric care at University Hospital, and the child was placed in the children’s ward. Wray’s nightmarish experiences with Saunders ultimately ended in a divorce finalized in December 1940.
Wray returned to Hollywood to make Wildcat Bus (1940), a B-movie for RKO. She met the screenwriter Robert Riskin at a Christmas party that the actor Richard Barthelmess held for his unattached friends. At the time Wray’s personal life was particularly complicated; the playwright Clifford Odets was pressing hard for Wray to marry him, and tragedy struck when Saunders committed suicide and Wray’s life became fodder for the gossip columns. Riskin expressed his feelings for Wray and became a loving supporter.
Wray went on to appear in Adam Had Four Sons (1941), with Warner Baxter, Susan Hayward, and Ingrid Bergman. The George Kaufman play Mr. Big closed in a week. During this period Wray became one of the first film actresses to appear on television. The National Broadcasting Company also developed a radio series, Rosemary, for her.
Wray and Riskin married and had one daughter, and Riskin also adopted Wray’s daughter from her previous marriage. Later, while writing Mr. Belvedere, Riskin suffered a stroke and Wray, who had retired from acting, returned to work, appearing in The Treasure of the Golden Condor (1953), Small Town Girl (1953), and the television series The Pride of the Family. After receiving the 1955 Laurel Award for Achievement, Riskin died in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital, with Wray by his side.
Wray continued acting, starring with Lillian Gish in The Cobweb (1955), with Joan Crawford in Queen Bee (1955), and with Debbie Reynolds in Ross Hunter’s production Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). Wray officially retired in 1958. In 1971 she married Sanford Rothenberg, a doctor who had cared for Riskin. Wray wrote The Meadowlark, a play produced in 1985. She was widowed again in the early 1990s.
Wray died at her home at age ninety-six of natural causes. She is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood. She will be remembered in popular culture as the symbol of innocence and purity in the giant hand of Kong. Wray excelled as a working actress in sometimes artless films and was admired for her dignified tenacity when confronted with family hardships. She reached the heights among Hollywood’s royalty. Her beauty and professionalism were valuable contributions to the motion picture industry.
Wray’s autobiography is On the Other Hand: A Life Story (1989). Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, The Making of King Kong: The Story Behind a Film Classic (1975), details Wray’s participation in her most beloved screen performance. Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich, The Films of Fay Wray(2005), covers the actress’s screen career. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Aug. 2004).