Frings, Ketti (1909–1981)

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Frings, Ketti (1909–1981)

American screenwriter, playwright, novelist. Name variations: (pseudonym) Anita Kilgore. Born Katherine Hartley on February 28, 1909, in Columbus, Ohio; died in 1981; one of three daughters of Guy Herbert Hartley (a Quaker paper-box salesman) and Pauline (Sparks) Hartley; attended the Lake School for Girls, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; attended Principia College, St. Louis, Missouri, for one year; married Kurt Frings (a lightweight boxer turned actors' agent), on March 18, 1938; children: son Peter; daughter Kathie.


Hold Back the Dawn (1941); Guest in the House (1945); The Accused (1949); Thelma Jordan (1950); Dark City (1950); The Company She Keeps (1951); Come Back, Little Sheba (1953); About Mrs. Leslie (1954); The Shrike (1955); Foxfire (1955); By Love Possessed (1961); Mr. Sycamore (1975).

Other works:

(novel) Hold Back the Dawn (1940); R. Ayre's Mr. Sycamore (dramatization by Frings, 1942); (novel) God's Front Porch (1944); (novel) Let the Devil Catch You (1947); Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel (dramatization by Frings, 1957, musical version, with P. Udell, 1978); R. Wright's The Long Dream (dramatization by Frings, 1960); (with R.O. Hirson) Walking Happy (musical version of the play Hobson's Choice by H. Brighouse, 1966).

Playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Ketti Frings produced an impressive number of plays, novels, and screenplays during her 35-year career, but Look Homeward Angel (1957), her adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical novel, remains the work for which she is best known. For this play, she received the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and was named by the Los Angeles Times as "Woman of the Year."

Frings was born in 1909, the daughter of a paper-box salesman, and grew up in 13 different cities spanning the East and West coasts. Following her mother's death, she and her two sisters settled with an aunt in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she attended the Lake School for Girls. After graduating, she enrolled at Principia College in St. Louis, but was there for only a year. Frings believed that it was her early desire to be an actress that spawned her writing career. "When I was in school," she recalled, "I wrote plays so that I could write myself the best parts."

After leaving college, Frings wrote advertising copy, radio scripts, and articles for movie magazines, then decided to spend a year in the South of France, ostensibly to write her first novel. Although the book never materialized, she did meet her future husband Kurt Frings, a German-born lightweight boxer. (It was Kurt who called Frings "Ketti," the name that she eventually came to use professionally.) Following their marriage in 1938, the couple spent two years in Mexico waiting for Kurt to be allowed to enter the United States. The hiatus inspired Frings' first novel Hold Back The Dawn (1940), which the New Republic called "a moving and disturbing book, written in clipped, vivid sentences." Almost simultaneously, she adapted the novel for a film with the same title. (Released by Paramount in 1941, it starred Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland .)

Frings had less success with her first Broadway play Mr. Sycamore (1942), a fantasy about a disgruntled postman who turns himself into a tree. Despite an encouraging review from Brooks Atkinson, who called it "mildly imaginative," the play lasted for only 19 performances. "I was not too bruised by its lack of success," Frings said later. "You can only learn from your mistakes."

After a second novel, God's Front Porch (1944), Frings turned out a series of screenplays, including Guest in the House (1944), The Accused (1949), Thelma Jordan (1949), and The Company She Keeps (1951), the last of which was inspired by a visit she made to Tehachapi Women's Prison. In 1952, she wrote the screenplays for two successful Paramount pictures: Because of You, which at the time was labeled a "woman's picture," and Come Back, Little Sheba, a critically acclaimed adaptation of the William Inge play that earned an Academy Award for its star, Shirley Booth . Frings' next screenplay was also an adaptation of a popular play, The Shrike, by Joseph Kramm, and was released by Universal-International in 1955. During the shooting of the film, which was directed by José Ferrer, who also played the lead opposite June Allyson , Frings served as an assistant to Ferrer for those scenes in which he acted.

Ketti Frings began working on the adaptation of Look Homeward Angel in 1955, after receiving dramatic rights from Edward C. Aswell, Wolfe's last editor and literary executor. The project took two years, not an unusual length of time for Frings, who was known to spend 10 to 12 hours a day at her typewriter. "The greatest mistake anyone can make is to undertake a play as a casual excursion in creative work, to treat it as an alternate occupation," she said about the craft of playwriting. "It's quite the other way. It demands the most complete dedication. And even with that kind of dedication you can't be sure of the result, but you have to possess it anyway."

Although Frings condensed Wolfe's 626-page novel into two hours' playing time, altered the time span to three weeks, and reduced the number of characters to 19, she nevertheless, in the words of Richard Watts, Jr. (New York Post, November 29, 1957), "captured the letter and spirit of the Wolfe novel in completely dramatic terms." He felt that Frings adaptation had "truth, richness, abounding vitality, laughter and compassion, and enormous emotional impact." John McCain called the play "quite simply, one of the best evenings I've ever had in the theatre."

Frings and her husband, who became a well-known actor's agent with such clients as Elizabeth Taylor , Audrey Hepburn , and Maria Schell , had two children and lived in Beverly Hills, where they had an ultra-modern home that Cleveland Amory called "one of Hollywood's most showy showplaces." Although the house appeared to be made entirely of glass, one of the rooms had no windows at all, only a skylight. It served as Frings' office, because it kept her focused. "You can't look out! You have to look in. It's a darn good thing, too, not only for writing but for everything else."

Frings' later work for the stage never quite clicked. Her 1960 dramatization of Richard Wright's novel, The Long Dream, was not well received, and Walking Happy, a 1966 musical adaptation of Harold Brighouse's play Hobson's Choice, received mixed reviews. Her last work for the stage was a collaboration with Peter Udell on a musical version of Look Homeward Angel, retitled Angel. The ill-fated production opened on Broadway on May 10, 1978, but closed after only five performances. Frings' final screenplay was also resurrected from the past, an adaptation of her earlier play Mr. Sycamore (1975).


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper Collins, 1994.

Mainiero, Lina. American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1960.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts