Rhett and Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. Nick and Nora in The Thin Man. Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca. They’re just three of cinema’s most renowned couples.
And then there’s Fay Wray. She was part of two legendary duos, on screen and off.
In 1933, Fay became the original “Scream Queen,” thanks to RKO’s monster hit King Kong. The film’s producer wasn’t kidding when he promised Fay, “You’re going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” With that role, Fay secured everlasting fame as the leather-lunged blonde clutched in Kong’s hairy palm.
Naturally, the brilliantly cheeky title of Fay’s 1989 autobiography was On the Other Hand. More than a half-century after their terrifying Kong-frontation, Fay’s affection for the big ape comes through loud and clear: “Every time I’m in New York,” she wrote, “I say a little prayer when passing the Empire State Building. A good friend of mine died up there.”
Vina Fay Wray was born in Alberta, Canada on September 15, 1907. At the age of 14, Fay trekked to Hollywood, and by 17, she was supporting her single mother and five siblings in a series of mostly forgettable flicks. In 1928, Fay married John Monk Saunders, the troubled Oscar-winning scribe behind Tinseltown’s first Best Picture (Wings), who committed suicide in 1940. Two years later, Fay wed another Academy Award-winning scenarist, Robert Riskin, who teamed with Frank Capra for three blockbuster hits: It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and You Can’t Take It With You.
As a film historian, I knew that Fay was Riskin’s wife. What I didn’t know was how moving their love story was. Last year, I got the inside scoop on a Zoom event my friend Arnie Reisman held with the couple’s daughter to discuss her book, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir. Let other callers pepper Victoria Riskin with questions about Kong and her Mom; I was there to hear about her Dad, having long admired his work with Capra.
Victoria’s beautifully written tale tracks Fay and Robert’s lives in the decades before they met; shares anecdotes and letters from their marriage (including the WWII years when Robert ditched highly paid movie gigs to make documentaries for the Office of War Information); and offers fascinating peeks at her parents’ celebrity pals, like Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Irving Berlin, and Harpo Marx.
Fay and Robert’s relationship endured for 15 years, from their love-at-first-sight meeting at a 1940 Christmas Eve party, through the devastating 1950 stroke that left Robert an invalid. For the next five heartbreaking years, Fay devoted herself to her husband’s care, while also struggling to pay the bills, resume her dormant acting career, and raise their young children. Sadly, Robert died in 1955. He was 58 years old.
Yet there was one more “Only in Hollywood” twist to come: In 1971, Fay married Sanford Rothenberg, the doc who handled Robert’s case 20 years earlier. Widowed in 1991, Fay died in 2004 at the age of 96. Two days later, the lights on the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her honor.