Dubbed by some as the hardest-working actress in Hollywood, Fay Wray was a legend in the world of early filmmaking. A master of blood-curdling screams, Wray was most well-known as the beauty held high in the giant hand of one of cinema’s best-known monsters. When she wasn’t busy acting, Wray had to navigate failed relationships and the darker side of fame. Sadly, the one thing she never escaped was the silhouette of the giant ape that overshadowed all her other achievements.
1. She Came From Humble Beginnings
Vina Fay Wray was born on September 15, 1907, near Cardston, Alberta, to Joseph Heber Wray and Elvina Marguerite Jones. Only a few short years into her life, her family up and moved down to Utah, where her parents struggled financially to provide for her and her five siblings—but the worst was yet to come.
It wasn’t long after that her father disappeared, leaving Wray’s mother to care for the children by herself.
2. She Had A Lucky Break
Without anyone to provide for the family, Wray began searching for work.
And as luck would have it, a connection gave her the opportunity she was looking for. Her sister’s beau, who worked as a photographer, decided to bring her to Los Angeles. It was there that she found work with Hal Roach Studios, a film company.
A contract with Universal Studios and several films were not far behind. From there, her luck would only grow.
3. She Won A Special Honor
The talented and beautiful young actress made such a good impression when she arrived on the scene that she caught the attention of some who would catapult her into the spotlight.
In 1926, Wray was chosen to be one of the “WAMPAS Baby Stars”, who were young actresses who showed real promise and were expected to make it big in showbiz.
And though not all the Baby Stars panned out in the end, that was not the case for Wray.
WAMPAS had picked a real ringer—and make it big she did.
4. She Finally Took Center Stage
Thrust into the limelight, Fay Wray seized the opportunity to act in a lead role, after several years of small bits and uncredited work.
At just 18 years of age, she accepted director Erich von Stroheim’s offer to headline the romantic drama The Wedding March. It was hard work—but Wray wasn’t prepared for Von Stroheim’s extreme approach to direction. The perfectionist Stroheim told the cast they would film 24,000 takes until they got it right if necessary.
Credited for its high production and Wray’s performance, it was nevertheless a financial bust. Despite the flop, Wray always considered it to be her best work—a work that would soon be overshadowed.
5. She Was An Acting Machine
Fay Wray knew what it was to be in need, having spent her childhood in poverty, her mother barely scraping enough together to keep her family going.
But Wray wanted to change all that. Working under Paramount Pictures, Wray took as many jobs as she could, lending her considerable talent to over a dozen films in the next six years.
She passed back the earnings from the movies to Elvina and the rest of her family, a way of repaying all that her mother had done.
And Wray didn’t stop after 12 films. No, she was just getting started.
6. She Faced A Monumental Change In The Industry
Cinema has been revolutionized many times since its conception, but few changes were as game-changing as the shift from silent films to “talkies”. Suddenly, there was a brand new element to acting, but Wray navigated the shift like a pro, with the 1929 film, Thunderbolt. The audience could now appreciate her vocal capabilities alongside the grace and beauty of her physical acting—but that wasn’t all she brought to the table.
And it was this new technology that would allow Wray to show off one of her greatest skills—a scream that chilled to the bone. A scream that would dominate Hollywood for years to come.
7. She Was Horror Royalty
A staple of the horror genre is the damsel in distress, beset by a terrible monster—and it was in this role that Wray exceled. From the very first cry of terror heard on screen, the audience was smitten with her.
She showcased the skill in several films, such as 1930's The Sea God featuring island-dwelling cannibals. The people called her “Hollywood’s scream queen”, perhaps not the most flattering of titles—but one well-earned. The scream queen had gained her celebrity status.
8. She Earned Another Title
Earning a title in Hollywood is a sign of a great star, but Wray didn’t just earn one, but two. Due to her drive, Wray raced through film after film and racked up a whopping 46 credits between 1928 and 1934 and thus gained the nickname of “the hardest working actress in Hollywood”. And she had no plans of slowing down.
9. She Was A People Person
The stars of the silver screen were often shallow, self-centered people who used relationships as a means to further their careers. But Fay Wray couldn’t have been more different. She loved people and had a strong desire to really know who they were on the inside.
She was a great listener and anyone found talking to her to be easy and freeing. It was more than her beauty and acting chops that people fell in love with; she had a heart of gold.
But of course, as we’ll see, it’s often those types of people that others tend to take advantage of.
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10. She Filmed Two Movies Simultaneously
Working on a film is tough work normally—and Wray decided to make it twice as hard. Under RKO, Wray spent several months on the same set, shooting two different movies.
One, they shot during the day, and the other during the night, in a grueling schedule that would wear down even the most experienced actor. But Wray was up to the challenge.
The first film was a well-received horror flick called The Most Dangerous Game, and the other was a film involving a particularly large ape.
11. She Starred In One Of Cinema’s Most Iconic Horror Films
In the thick of her acting days, Fay Wray landed the lead role in a film so well-known that it stamped her name in the history books.
The film? Why, King Kong, of course. Playing Ann Darrow, the sacrificial bride to the giant ape in RKO Radio Pictures’ 1933 movie, she and her co-stars put on a brilliant performance. That performance cemented King Kong as a box-office home run and pulled RKO from the brink of bankruptcy.
12. She Didn’t Know What King Kong Was About
As revealed in her autobiography, when Wray signed with RKO and agreed to work on King Kong, she didn’t know what she was getting into—and she was in for a larger-than-life surprise. Director Merian C.
Cooper promised Fay she would star alongside the “tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”. Wray hoped it was a handsome actor, such as Cary Grant, whom she had just performed with on Broadway.
She couldn’t have been more wrong, as the leading man was of course the monstrous giant ape that wasn’t real. Luckily for everyone, the odd pairing worked perfectly.
13. Kong Was Different Than Anything She Had Done Before
Movie production is always a huge job, but it was particularly difficult while filming King Kong. This was due to integrating live-action actors with stop-motion animation, which was necessary to create the giant Kong, as there was no actor in a gorilla suit.
Wray spent 22 hours in a prop tree, filming reactions to a scene that was entirely animated in stop-motion. She was sore for days afterward, but the results were well worth the momentary discomfort.
14. She Became Part Of One Of The Most Famous Movie Silhouettes
A New York tower.
A giant hand grasping the top. Biplanes circling. A great ape roaring out over the city. And a lady held captive in the clutches of the monster. Even one who has never seen the movie recognizes the scene.
The shot of Kong scaling the Empire State Building with Darrow, is so ingrained in pop culture that it is still recognizable nearly a century later. It was a moment Wray would never escape, even once the movie was long finished.
15. King Kong Drew Some Negative Attention
King Kong was revolutionary in many fields—but some people thought it went a little too far. Some scenes were a little too violent or steamy for the likes of some people and were cut to adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code.
The scenes included several of Kong squashing and chomping people and one where he undresses Darrow and then sniffs his fingers. Pretty tame for nowadays, but for its time, it was certainly controversial.
16. She Made A Mix-Tape (Sorta)
Some people might have found it weird to be famous for screaming in terror and perhaps Fay Wray did too, but it was showbiz, after all.
Capitalizing on the new development, Wray recorded a wide selection of screams, yells, and moans and titled it “Aria of Agonies”. She handed it off to editors to insert into King Kong. Afterward, Wray wondered if it was a bit much, but the audiences loved it and that’s what it was all about.
17. It Overshadowed All Her Other Work
An artist with incredible drive, Wray graced over 100 movies with her skillful acting, but despite all her hard work, very few still echo in the memories of Hollywood.
Soon after King Kong’s release, Wray became synonymous with Ann Darrow. She would always be the girlfriend of the giant ape, forever stuck in that giant hand.
She wished that people would remember her other films, even just a little.
But she couldn’t stay resentful of King Kong forever. It was, after all, a masterpiece.
18. She Starred In A Rip-Off
During her busiest days, Fay Wray was stuck in a loop of working on horror films. She was just too good as the scream queen.
A small studio, Majestic Pictures Inc. hired her to play in a cheap knock-off of Dracula, called The Vampire Bat. With a tiny budget, cheap effects, and recycled sets, the film was headed for disaster—until Wray stepped in.
Thanks to a solid performance, critics found something to like.
No matter what, she always did her best—a quality that acted like a magnet for attention.
19. She Found Love
The new queen of the silver screen wasted no time looking for her king—and there was no shortage of options. It didn’t take long for her to fall deeply in love. The object of her affection was John Monk Saunders, a successful director and screenwriter, with endless charisma, wit, and good looks.
The two tied the knot in 1928, with Saunders’ best man being Gary Cooper, who often co-starred alongside Wray. For a time, they lived happily, but all was not as it seemed.
20. Her Husband Had Demons Of His Own
Wray’s marriage began as a dream, but as time wore on, it turned into a nightmare. Wray noticed Saunders’ heavy reliance on alcohol and soon it became apparent that it was a real problem. Even in the face of Saunders’ alcoholism, Wray couldn’t help but love him and did her best to help him. But things would only grow worse.
21. It Wasn’t All Bad
Though many trials plagued their marriage, nothing could stop Fay Wray from loving the man she had first met. She was never angry at Saunders, even in the midst of his most drunken nights. The two had a child, Susan, in 1936, many years into their union, a bright spot that Wray would continue to love long after Saunders was gone.
22. Her Marriage Began To Break
For years, Wray worked bravely to keep her marriage intact, but eventually, the problems became too dire to ignore. Saunders’ drinking problems had raged out of control and on top of that, a new problem had reared its ugly head: in trying to cure his alcoholism, he had become hopelessly addicted to his medications.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
23. Her Husband Was A Scoundrel
Fay Wray had always been one of the more down-to-earth starlets in Hollywood, but for Saunders, he fell into one of the lifestyle’s more common scandals: he was a philanderer.
As Wray’s daughter put it, Saunders was ‘’handsome,” “brilliant,” and “charismatic,” but those attributes only made it easier for him to cheat on his wife. And he wasn’t done yet.
24. She Couldn’t Take It Anymore
Saunders was already on thin ice with Wray—but that didn’t stop him from digging himself a deeper hole. Despite years of marriage, he spent all his time galivanting around with other women and spending nearly all of Wray’s hard-earned money on booze. Finally fed up, Wray filed for divorce in 1939, leaving Saunders high and dry.
25. Her Husband Met An Untimely End
Though Wray had parted ways with her husband, she still held affection for him. She could not resent a man who had so many problems. And so, when the news came that Saunders had taken his own life the following year, Wray was stricken with grief.
She would always wonder if there had been something else she could have done to save him. But, Wray didn’t let the tragedy stop her and she continued on.
26. She Found A Second Chance At Love
In the wake of her first marriage’s tragedy, Wray threw herself into her work. But despite her busy life as a star, Cupid’s arrow would find her heart once more. This time, it was the desirable Robert Riskin, a writer and producer who loved to rub shoulders with the biggest names in Hollywood.
The two hit it off and for once, Wray was not focused on acting.
27. Her Husband Was A Catch
They say there’s always another fish in the sea, but for Wray, she didn’t have to wonder about the one who got away. Riskin was the guy in the 1940s.
He loved hanging out at nightclubs with a different beauty on his arm every night, thrilled to be the lucky gal. Riskin loved the adventure of the nights and didn’t want to settle down.
He rejected a proposal from Carole Lombard, the stunning comedy actress, unwilling to reign in his wild spirit. But that all changed once Wray entered the picture.
28. Her Husband Could Finally Open Up
For someone with a track record like Riskin, it would have been easy to assume his true colors, but in reality, the adventurous promiscuity was merely a mask. There was a side to Riskin he didn’t show anyone, secrets he had never shared—until Wray showed up. Her desire to connect with people drew Riskin to her and for the first time in his life, he could speak honestly from the heart.
He had found someone who truly cared and from that grew a deep bond.
29. She Took A Step Back From The Limelight
Fay Wray had always been a hard worker. From the time she landed her first job, it had been pedal to the metal, just to make ends meet and she hadn’t let off the gas. Acting was her life and she hadn’t considered slowing. But when Riskin folded his wings and asked for her hand, Wray found that she could too, as long as they were together.
Plucking up the courage, Wray at last retired from cinema, and for a time, things were good.
30. She Started A Family
Swept off her feet by Riskin, Wray happily accepted his proposal and the two wed in 1942. It didn’t take long for a little munchkin to come along, named Robert Jr and shortly after, Victoria. Together with Susan, her daughter from her first marriage, they found themselves a little slice of life as a happy family.
But, unfortunately, dark times were on the horizon.
31. Her Husband Was A Romantic
There’s nothing quite like knowing someone is thinking of you, especially if it comes in a tangible form. For Wray, it was like she was living in a romance movie.
Riskin put his writing skills to good use, penning over 100 love letters to his wife, tender and beautiful words meant for Wray and her alone. Some were short, some were many pages long, but all showcased the love the two shared.
32. Her Husband’s Health Took A Hit
Good health is something that is often taken for granted until it's gone. Unfortunately for Wray, she learned that the hard way. In 1950, after eight years of bliss with her husband, Riskin suffered a stroke that left him in dire straits.
Partially paralyzed, Riskin’s career screeched to a halt as the stroke took its toll. For Wray, it was a devastating blow, but she wasn’t one to roll over. She had faced adversity before and she would do it once again.
33. Her Retirement Didn’t Last Long
Throughout her career, Wray was “the hardest working actress in Hollywood” and she was going to live up to that title. With Riskin out of commission, Wray had to pull up her bootstraps and head back in front of the cameras to support her family.
It must have been quite the deja vu, being the breadwinner for the second time in her life, but she didn’t complain. She was ready to make her comeback.
34. She Didn’t Miss A Beat
It had been a decade since she had starred in a film.
You’d think she would be rusty, but Wray was anything but. The populace was ecstatic that their scream queen was back. She returned in 1953 with Treasure of the Golden Condor and from then on, it was back to business. She took it a bit slower than she used to, but she still starred in over a dozen films and shows over the next decade.
35. She Suffered Another Great Loss
You’d think that Wray had persevered through enough hardships with a smile that she deserved a break. But life had other plans. Despite her best efforts to care for her husband, after five years of deteriorating health, Riskin took his final breath at the age of 58.
It was a devastating blow to Wray and her children, who lost their partner and father far too soon.
Wray would always cling to the love they had shared even as she moved on with her life and career.
36. She Held Onto Keepsakes
Now widowed for the second time, Wray had to press on. She still had Robert Jr and Victoria to care for and luckily, she had experience. But she never forgot Riskin and the bond they shared—and she showed her devotion in a heartbreaking way. The letters he had written to her, each and everyone, she kept safe in a small leather pouch, in perfect condition.
They were a time capsule of when her life was perfect and she would cherish them always.
37. She Passed Them On
Wray loved the letters from her husband, but she knew she couldn’t keep them to herself. Her family deserved to see that which their father left behind and so Wray gifted the letters to her grown daughter, Victoria.
For a long time, Victoria was unable to read through the loving words of her late father as the grief was too overwhelming.
But when she did, it opened her eyes to the love they shared and served as inspiration for the book she would pen down the road.
38. She Changed Her Mind
With age comes perspective and perspective is what changed for Wray, when considering her magnum opus. She had always known it was a marvelous feat of early film-making, breaking ground in the industry. She began to appreciate it and found that the shadow that had loomed over her other works was in fact a spotlight on a true masterpiece.
King Kong was never far from her mind and she grew to consider him a friend, long gone.
Each time she passed by the Empire State Building, memories came flooding back and she would say a little prayer for the fictional friend who died at its peak.
39. She Put Her Feelings In Writing
Perhaps inspired by her late husband’s penchant for writing letters, Wray took up a pen of her own. There was one figure who she wanted to write to in particular. Kong. Her letter read, “I don’t know where you are. I’m sure you’re up at Skull Island, but I don’t have a zip code for you, and want you to know what an influence you were in my life. I hope I was a positive influence in your life”. It was an awfully sweet gesture to a figure who Wray had tried to distance herself from for years.
40. She Went For The Hat Trick
Companionship is something that all people crave and Wray was no different. Both of her marriages had fallen apart far too soon and she wasn’t ready to spend the rest of her life alone. So when she met neurosurgeon Doctor Sanford Rothenberg, it didn’t take much convincing for her to tie the knot again. The two married in 1971 and the marriage lasted 20 years, the longest of all her unions.
41. She Retired For Good
There’s a saying that all good things come to an end—and that much was true for Fay Wray. After nearly 60 years and over 100 films, she could finally relax. Her final film was the 1980 historical drama titled Gideon’s Trumpet, which starred Henry Fonda as the lead—but there was a dark side to it.
For scenes set in prison, they used actual inmates as extras, who weren’t super thrilled about it. When it wrapped, so did Wray’s magnificent acting career, but she wasn’t quite done yet.
42. She Picked Up The Pen Again
Retirement is a time of rest and relaxation, but for some, they still have more to give, outside of the workforce.
Wray was one of those people. Ever a creative force, she looked back on her life and turned it into a record for all to see. She finished writing the autobiography in 1988 and titled it On the Other Hand. It offered insights into all parts of her life, including her most well-known film, King Kong.
43. She Appeared In Songs
Pop culture is chock-full of references to everything and anything.
And no celebrity is safe, even one’s that peaked in the 30s. Several songs mention Wray by name, including from a pair in The Rocky Picture Horror Show, and she also appeared in a few Peanuts comics alongside Snoopy and Woodstock. I’m sure Wray was flattered, even if each one was in reference to her and Kong. They were still intertwined.
44. Her Daughter Inherited Some Of Her Talents
Some children follow exactly in the footsteps of their parents and some walk in the opposite direction. For Wray’s daughter, Victoria Riskin, she carved her own path, but she did share one thing with her parents; a love of writing. In her later days, Victoria published a book about the lives of her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, drawing from the love letters her father had written to her mother.
It opened a window into the life of Hollywood’s first scream queen.
45. She Was Nearly In Another Blockbuster
An actor is lucky if they make one generational film in their time—and Wray almost made it into another legendary blockbuster. James Cameron offered for Wray to play the part of elderly Rose in a particular movie about a large ship that hits an iceberg.
Yeah, that one. Wray turned him down and the role passed on to Gloria Stuart, but she nearly played in Titanic.
Still, even missing out on the legendary film, Wray’s legacy stands on its own, high above the skyline of New York.
46. She Will Always Be Linked To A Great Landmark
Serving as an important location in the final act of Fay’s finest film, the Empire State Building is an iconic structure, in large part thanks to Wray and Kong. At the 60th anniversary of the building, Wray appeared as a special guest of honor.
She had visited it often and would continue doing so for the rest of her life. One of her final public appearances was before the rising monolith. And that’s not the only public structure she’s connected to.
47. She Became A Landmark
Throughout history, important figures have had grand statues and monuments built in their honor.
For Wray, a similar thing happened, though to a much smaller degree. On the 60th anniversary of King Kong, she returned to her hometown of Cardston, Alberta, where the locals revealed a park named in her honor and a small fountain dedicated to her, with a sign bearing the silhouettes of Kong and Darrow.
Wray was now memorialized, still clutched in Kong’s grasp, but really, it’s not like anyone was going to forget.
48. Her Work Was Well Lauded
A true artist needs no commendation, for their prize is satisfaction in a job well done.
Still, awards are very nice, and awards are what Wray received. Some were a little more niche, such as the Women in Film Crystal Award in 1989 and a Legend in Film award at the 2003 Palm Beach International Film Festival.
She also earned a star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, where her name will live on forever, etched in stone.
49. She Almost Made One Last Return
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Hollywood keeps rebooting films and franchises. King Kong didn’t escape this fate either. When Peter Jackson remade the film, he and star Naomi Watts met with Wray and proposed that Wray make one last trip in front of the cameras as a cameo in the new film.
Wray teased Watts, saying, “You’re not Ann Darrow. I’m Ann Darrow”.
What the cameo would have been, we will never know, as it was not to be.
50. Her Long Reign Finally Ended
No one can rule forever. Empires crumble, dynasties collapse, crowns fade away.
The same is true for the era of Hollywood’s first scream queen. After a long successful career, outliving three husbands and creating a lasting legacy, her time had come to an end. On August 8, 2004, at the age of 96, Fay Wray passed away peacefully in her sleep.
The hardest-working actress in Hollywood could finally rest for good.