recalled that Miss Wray's family moved to the United States from Canada
in a stagecoach and said that she was possibly the longest-living true
star of silent films.
As sound and color came to the movies,
Miss Wray remained at the top, but it was the celebrated role that took
her to the top of a very tall building that elevated her to cinematic
The huge success of "King
Kong," a beauty-and-the-beast film that opened in New York at
both Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy in 1933, led to roles for Miss
Wray in other 1930's films in which her life or her virtue, or both,
were imperiled. But she was always aware that she would be remembered
for the pivotal scene of "King Kong," in which the giant ape
carries her to the top of the Empire State Building, gently places her
on a ledge, lunges furiously at fighter planes peppering him with
bullets and falls to his death.
"When I'm in New York," Miss
Wray wrote in The New York Times in 1969, "I look at the Empire
State Building and feel as though it belongs to me, or is it vice
The most hazardous part of filming
"King Kong," Miss Wray recalled, was the tendency of the giant
gorilla hand to loosen its grasp while she was suspended high above the
set. When she felt she was about to fall, she implored the director,
Merian C. Cooper, to have her lowered to the stage floor to rest a few
minutes before being secured once again in the hand and sent aloft.
She spent an entire day recording
additional screams, variously shrill and plaintive, that an editor later
inserted in the soundtrack - too often, she later emphasized. Asked how
she was able to muster such animated cries, she replied, "I made
myself believe that the nearest possible hope of rescue was at least a
Over the years, Miss Wray said, she
came to feel that Kong had "become a spiritual thing to many
people, including me."
In a 1987 interview, Miss Wray said she
had been sent a script for the 1976 remake of "King Kong," in
which Jessica Lange played Kong's co-star, because its producers wanted
her to play a small role. She said she disliked the script and declined
the offer because "the film I made was so extraordinary, so full of
imagination and special effects, that it will never be equaled."
Fay Wray was born on Sept. 15, 1907, on
a farm in Alberta, a daughter of Jerry Wray, an inventor, and his wife,
Vina. Vina Wray and her three daughters moved to Arizona by stagecoach
when Fay was 3, and to Lark, Utah, when she was 5. Her father and two
brothers had gone ahead.
By the time Fay was 12 or 13, her
parents had separated, a sister had died of the flu, and the family was
struggling financially. Fay's mother sent her to Los Angeles to live
with a friend and pursue a movie career. She appeared in her first film,
''Gasoline Love," in 1923. She was an ingénue in a half-dozen
Her breakthrough came when Erich von
Stroheim chose her to play the bride in his 1928 silent classic "The
Wedding March." Miss Wray was always drawn to writers, as she
recounted in her 1989 autobiography, "On the Other Hand." She
was just 19 when she married John Monk Saunders, a Rhodes scholar and
screenwriter known for films like "Wings."
She divorced him, she said, after he injected her with drugs while she
slept, sold their house and their furniture and kept the money, and
disappeared for a time with their baby daughter, Susan. Saunders hanged
himself in 1940.
She was pursued by Sinclair Lewis and
had a long romance with Clifford Odets. In 1942 she married Robert
Riskin, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "It
Happened One Night." They had two children, Vicki and Robert
Jr. Riskin had a stroke in 1950 and died five years later. In 1971, she
married Dr. Sanford Rothenberg, a neurosurgeon who had been one of
Riskin's doctors. Dr. Rothenberg died in 1991.
Miss Wray retired in 1942 but made
occasional movies in the 1950's and had a leading role in "Gideon's
Trumpet," a 1979 film with Henry Fonda. On television, she
starred in a situation comedy, "The Pride of the Family," from
1953 to 1955. In later years she also wrote plays that were produced in
Miss Wray is survived by her daughters
Susan Riskin of Manhattan and Victoria Riskin of Los Angeles; her son,
Robert Riskin Jr., of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.
In 1997, Miss Wray joined Julius
Epstein, a writer of the film "Casablanca,"
to testify to Congress in favor of greater copyright protection for
pre-1960's film writers.
Last March Peter Jackson, the director,
asked her over dinner if she would appear in his remake of ''King
Kong." He wanted her to read the summary line, '' 'Twas beauty
killed the beast."
She thought that might be too
confusing, said Mr. McKay, who was host at the dinner.
''How can someone play me when I'm
here?" she asked. End