Her face alone may not be all that familiar. But when hear that famous scream elicited by her highly recognizable co-star, movie fans from generations old and new instantly recall her name -- Fay Wray.
Vina Fay Wray was born on September 15th, 1907, in Alberta, Canada. She was one of six children. Her family moved to Arizona when she was only three-years-old and then to Salt Lake City when she was five. It was Wray's many visits to the cinema and participation in school plays that helped her survive her many childhood hardships, such as the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the subsequent loss of her older sister, followed by the separation of her parents. In 1921 at the tender age of fourteen, Wray left Utah for California to follow her dreams of acting, despite her mother's objections.
Settling in Los Angeles, Wray set her sites on the Hollywood scene. Though the film biz was flooded with young ingénues from all over the country, Wray found work taking small parts in a number of comedy shorts. Eventually, her dynamic personality caught the eye of Hal Roach, who gave Wray her first starring roles in several of the famous silent era studio's shorts. At nineteen years old, Wray finally scored a contract with Universal Studios, where she starred in a number of Westerns for $75 a week.
Throughout her early silent work, Wray worked diligently on her craft, hoping that one day she could land a lead role that would demonstrate her talents. The opportunity came when Erich von Stroheim chose Fay for the female lead in his 1928 masterpiece, The Wedding March.
Von Stroheim said that as soon as he saw Wray that he knew he'd found the right girl. 'I didn't even take a test of her,' he said. 'Fay has spirituality... but she also has that very real sex appeal that takes hold of the hearts of men.'
In a 1989 interview, Wray had expressed her admiration for von Strohem's works, saying that she had hoped that one day she could work with the acclaimed director. The Wedding March would remain Fay's personal favorite and her role the one in which she felt she most fully expressed herself.
'The Wedding March was my first major film.' Wray said. 'I'm glad because (von Stroheim) was extraordinary. I never had the good fortune to work with so strong a talent as his again, so I treasure that experience.'
Paramount, who handled the distribution of The Wedding March, were so impressed with the young starlet that they gave her a contract and promptly launched her as a new star. For Paramount, Wray starred in several silent era gems directed by William Wellman and Merian C., Cooper, and opposite stars like Gary Cooper and Emil Jannings.
When the silent era gave way to the sound era, Wray voiced her displeasure, but quickly found success in the change over in a number of Paramount 'talkies', most notably in Thunderbolt.
In 1933 Fay Wray's life was about to take another major turn.
In a 1969 interview, Wray told of a script that was handed to her by her friend Marian Cooper. 'The only thing he'd tell me was that it was going to have 'the tallest darkest leading man in Hollywood,'' Wray said. 'Well, naturally, I thought of Clark Gable hopefully, and when the script came I was absolutely appalled! I thought it was a practical joke.'
King Kong premiered in 1933, and Fay Wray screamed her way into the pop culture iconography. Her legendary climb to the top of the Empire State Building, in the hairy clutches of a gigantic gorilla, has become one of the most instantly recognizable images of every generation since.
King Kong went on to become one of the most popular films ever produced. The 20th century version of Beauty and the Beast was created by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and demonstrated the breakthrough special effects of Willis O'Brien, who made a remarkably innovative use of stop-motion animation and rear-projection.
It was at the Paramount studios that Fay met her first husband, John Saunders. They fell in love and were married in 1929. When their marriage began to sour, Fay had hoped that the birth of their only child, Susan, would bring them closer together. But the problems in their marriage were undeniable, and they divorced after 10 years of marriage in 1939. A year later, Wray was shocked to hear the news that Saunders had committed suicide.
By 1942, Wray had embarked on a new life when she married another screenwriter, Robert Riskin. Her second marriage gave her all the happiness that she could hope for, so the actress retired from the movie business to raise two more children.
In 1955, Riskin became ill and died, forcing Wray to return to the film world after a decade of retirement. She worked for several years in both film and television, until she wed her third husband Dr. Sandy Rothenberg, who had been Robert Riskin's neurosurgeon throughout the long, difficult years of his illness.
Wray once again walked away from the silver screen, but was not content to just retire. Feeling that she must do something creative, she turned to writing, concentrating on plays and stories.
In 1989, she published her autobiography, On the Other Hand. The book was an honest and difficult account of her joys and sorrows, and her triumphs and failures in both her career and personal life.
Wray wrote of her role in the film world 'No one who made movies during the thirties thought of those years as the Golden Age. Imagine anyone saying, 'Here I am in the Golden Age!' It seems we don't know much about defining anything until long after the fact. I feel very good that there was a Golden Age and that I was a little, even a very little, part of it.'
After the death of her third husband in 1991, Wray once returned to her writing. In 1998, at the age of 91, Fay Wray saw her play The Meadowlark produced for the stage.
'(It) was so much more rewarding than anything else could have been.' Wray said in a 1998 interview.
The play about an impoverished family living in a coppermill town was mostly autobiographical.
'It deals with a time in my life when my family, because of the Depression, came south from Canada. Well, we ended up in a town called Lark, which is 20 miles out of Salt Lake City. The housing was so inadequate that we had a real struggle. It was good for us, I suppose. Those kinds of times produce qualities in us that make us better for having had them.'
Miss Wray spent her final years in the shadows of the landmark which brought her fame -- the Empire State Building.
'Each time I arrive in New York,' she wrote in her biography 'and (I) see the skyline and the exquisite beauty of the Empire State Building, my heart beats a little faster. I like that feeling. I really like it!'
New York City paid tribute to the legendary movie star Tuesday night by dimming the lights of the Empire State Building for fifteen minutes.
The legendary scream queen died in her Manhattan apartment Sunday night.