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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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1934 Fay Wray Cavenders Tobacco Card1920's Fay Wray 5x7 Fan Photo“I would like to be though of not as a star, but as a co-worker.” – Fay Wray

Some silent film stars are remembered for their looks. Some are immortalized for their wardrobe, or attitude, or their best feature. Not so with Fay Wray, whose name alone is catchy enough to stick in one’s head forever. But what is she best known for? A scream. That’s right – she was the “Queen of Scream”. That’s odd for two reasons, in this context. The first is that outside from some very forgettable horror films, screams are not the stuff classic cinema is made of. The second is that one can’t scream audibly in a silent film. This is true. For although Fay Wray started her career in the silent oldies, she made the transition to sound with ease, and in this sense, had a wonderfully versatile career.

Fay was born Vina Fay Wray – so her name is basically the real deal – on September 15, 1907. I feel personally connected to her because her family comes from Alberta, Canada (ok, I’ve never been there or anywhere near that part of the country, but still). Her father built a ranch he called “Wrayland” and was a successful businessman for a number of years. Fay’s mother stayed home to raise her four children. Fay was the youngest with three older brothers and sisters: Vivien, Vaida and Willow.

The calm life on Wrayland didn’t last too long for little Fay. A near-accident on sled one winter involving Fay and Vivien caused their mother to suffer a nervous breakdown, and all the children were sent to live with friends of the family while Mr. Wray set about selling the ranch. Then the whole family moved to Arizona in the US – Fay was only three at the time. Mr. Wray started to rebuild a farm to live and work on, but business was not as successful this time around. The family relocated to Salt Lake City.

City life wasn’t working to well for them, and they were living near the poverty line. Mr. Wray got a job as a night watchman and Mrs. Wray had another child, a baby boy, in 1914. They then moved to Lark, hoping for a better life. But all of this stress proved damaging to the Wray’s marriage, and Mrs. Wray filed for divorce. She moved the family back to Salt Lake City, where she rented a place to live. From here on in, Fay didn’t have much of a relationship with her father.

Things were going smoothly until an influenza epidemic hit the city in 1918, and Vaida died. Fay’s mother, realizing Fay was a fragile child herself, sent Fay off to live in Los Angeles, where the weather was warmer. Fay was fourteen, and was accompanied by William Mortenson, who had been courting Fay’s older sister Willow. During the trip to California, William told Fay he had certain strong feelings for Fay he didn’t have for Willow. Fay didn’t know quite what to make of this information at her young age. But they would develop a nice friendship, and William would guide Fay through the challenging first years in California.

It was William who found a place for Fay to stay when the aunt who was supposed to come to California didn’t show up. Fay started school and proved to be a good student. She was also very likeable and popular. But on weekends she was devoted to spending time with William, who 1936 R95 Fay Wray Linen PortraitOriginal Still Photo from King Kongtinkered with photography and loved taking pictures of Fay. The photographs were fairly modest, but Fay’s mother caught sight of them – Fay sent one to her in which she had jokingly posed as a glamorous star – and came hurrying to California, demanding that they all be destroyed.

Meanwhile, Fay had been quietly pursuing a life in front of the moving camera as well. She had done some tiny parts for Century comedy studios, having entered the scene at a time when Hollywood was starting to become the hot spot for movies away from the East Coast. Fay wanted to act, but she seemed to attract studio producers for her good looks. Fay wanted to be the next Mabel Normand, but she was basically asked to look really nice while the cameras were rolling. This set off a flood of ambition in Fay.

Fay decided to forego school and focus on her career. With naïve boldness, she marched into Hal Roach studios to ask for a job. Her method paid off, and Fay was given a six month contract, during which time she had roles in comedy shorts. When this time was up, Fay approached Universal, where she was also given a short contract. Westerns were this studio’s bread and butter, and Fay appeared in several of these. Despite the fact that these shorts, for the most part, don’t endure today, Fay became very popular. By 1926, Fay, in addition to Mary Astor, Joan Crawford and Janet Gaynor – with whom she shared a dressing room – was voted a WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Star. This meant Fay was deemed a girl with a heck of a lot of potential in the business.

During this heyday time, Fay was approached to star opposite the already notorious Erich Von Stroheim, actor-director extraordinaire, in his latest production, “The Wedding March” (1928). Fay met with Erich and was completely bowled over by his brilliance. She convinced him she should play the part. To do this role, Fay had to get out of her Universal contract, and move over to Selig studios. It was there that a whole new world of filmmaking opened up to her. There she learned about the difference between easily packageable entertainment, and art.

During the meticulous shoot, Fay really fell for Erich, but couldn’t deal with his advances once she told him how she felt. After all, she was only 18. In any case, the shoot went on a long while, and Selig halted production once six hours of film were shot. Both film and Fay were “sold” to Paramount, where a shorter version of the film was released, to instant acclaim.  Both “The Wedding March” and the sequel, “The Honeymoon” (1928) became (silent) masterpieces.

After these films, Fay started to flounder in B movies. Unlike Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, for example, she didn’t have a consistent director-mentor to ‘create’ her career. Erich Von Stroheim’s interest in her would prove one of the most valuable aspects of her life in the movies. Without him, things got tough, and then, when the crisis over the transition to sound films came in the late 1920s, Paramount cancelled Fay’s contract. But at around this time, Fay also fell in love, with a screenwriter named John Monk Saunders.

1920's-30's Fay Wray Premium from UruguayFay Wray featured on the cover of an Italian Story BookletFrom the start he was unstable and unfaithful. He was having an affair with mogul-wife Bessie Lasky, and also had a voracious sexual appetite with Fay and all their house staff. He also drank and had a drug problem.

By 1931, it looked like Fay’s life in the movies was over, despite her incredible potential. She went to New York, where she appeared in a play called “Nikki,” written by John. Fay costarred with a then young Cary Grant, and the two would become fast friends. While she was in New York, which still had a thriving movie scene, Fay met a lot of intriguing people, including producer Merian Cooper. He loved Fay right off, and begged her to star in his next movie. Fay was hoping  that the hero, who Merian described as “tall, dark and handsome” would be Cary Grant.

Of course, it wasn’t. It was King Kong, an animatronic ape. Fay wasn’t exactly thrilled about the concept for the movie, but she wanted to do it as a favour to Merian, and agreed to test scenes in front of a rear projection screen that would make the ape look much larger than Fay. These scenes wound up in the final version of the film. The final version also has Fay doing a lot of screaming – and not all of it was acting, as the six-foot model ape she had to sit in had moveable fingers!

“King Kong” (1933) was a masterwork of early film special effects technology. But since the process took so long, Fay also began acting in other movies at the same time. Producers were clamoring to have Fay star in their horror films – and so Fay did a lot more screaming over the next couple of years, in films like “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933) to “Vampire Bat” (1933) and “Doctor X” (1932). They made movies quickly during these heady days!

Of course, we’re no longer in the silent film era, so we’ll wrap up. Fay’s thrillers are the one’s most available today, and since Fay was so gorgeous, she really distinguished herself as the very first sex symbol of the genre, which is still popular today. She made thrillers in the US, in England, as her personal life began to fall apart. She had a daughter, Susan, with her husband, who by then already wanted a divorce. They agreed to a trial separation, but during this time, a highly unstable John made a few, initially successful kidnapping attempts on the baby, once Fay had moved to New York. The two were finally divorced in 1939.

Fay did more theatre work, and then moved back to Hollywood, where she married screenwriter Robert Riskin (he initially loved her more than she loved him, but her admiration for him grew into love). Among the highlights of her return to the movies were “Melody for Three” (1941) and “Adam Had Four Sons” (1941) with Ingrid Bergman. During a play rehearsal at this time, she heard that first husband John had committed suicide.

Fay had two children with Riskin, Bobby and Vicki. She became a devoted mother and was happy to stop working. But Riskin became ill and after a heart attack, died after five years of near-constant bed rest. Fay needed to work again. She was so likeable that she found work right away, doing small parts in movies and television. She had one scene in good friend Joan Crawford’s “Queen Bee” (1955) that showed she still looked great on screen, and still had that subtle acting skill.

Fay’s last screen appearance was in the 1980 television movie “Gideon’s Trumpet” with Henry Fonda. She then took to traveling, writing and making appearances countrywide. She wrote, in 1985, an autobiographical play called The Meadowlark, which daughter Susan produced. She was handpicked for recognition at the 1988 Academy Awards, and led an extremely fulfilled life through her later years. She may always be remembered for her screams, but a deeper look shows the remarkable talent and strength of this woman who overcame personal and career obstacles to endure, and shine.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Fay Wray Pages:

Denny Jackson's Fay Wray Page -- King Kong's Leading Lady!
Fay Wray by Kendahl Cruver -- A second Fay Wray profile right here on!