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Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir

by Victoria Riskin

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Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Biography)

A Hollywood love story, a Hollywood memoir, a dual biography of two of Hollywood’s most famous figures, whose golden lives were lived at the center of Hollywood’s golden age, written by their daughter, an acclaimed writer and producer.

Fay Wray was most famous as the woman—the blonde in a diaphanous gown—who captured the heart of the mighty King Kong, the twenty-five-foot, sixty-ton gorilla, as he placed her, nestled in his eight-foot hand, on the ledge of the 102-story Empire State Building, putting Wray at the height of New York’s skyline and cinematic immortality.

Wray starred in more than 120 pictures opposite Hollywood's biggest stars—Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper (The Legion of the Condemned, The First Kiss, The Texan, One Sunday Afternoon), Clark Gable, William Powell, and Charles Boyer; from cowboy stars Hoot Gibson and Art Accord to Ronald Colman (The Unholy Garden), Claude Rains, Ralph Richardson, and Melvyn Douglas. She was directed by the masters of the age, from Fred Niblo, Erich von Stroheim (The Wedding March), and Mauritz Stiller (The Street of Sin) to Leo McCarey, William Wyler, Gregory La Cava, “Wild Bill” William Wellman, Merian C. Cooper (The Four Feathers, King Kong), Josef von Sternberg (Thunderbolt), Dorothy Arzner (Behind the Make-Up), Frank Capra (Dirigible), Michael Curtiz (Doctor X), Raoul Walsh (The Bowery), and Vincente Minnelli.

The book’s—and Wray’s—counterpart: Robert Riskin, considered one of the greatest screenwriters of all time. Academy Award–winning writer (nominated for five), producer, ten-year-long collaborator with Frank Capra on such pictures as American Madness, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Meet John Doe, hailed by many, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, as “among the best screenwriters in the business.” Riskin wrote women characters who were smart, ornery, sexy, always resilient, as he perfected what took full shape in It Happened One Night, the Riskin character, male or female—breezy, self-made, streetwise, optimistic, with a sense of humor that is subtle and sure.

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin lived large lives, finding each other after establishing their artistic selves and after each had had many romantic attachments—Wray, an eleven-year-long difficult marriage and a fraught affair with Clifford Odets, and Riskin, a series of romances with, among others, Carole Lombard, Glenda Farrell, and Loretta Young.

Here are Wray’s and Riskin’s lives, their work, their fairy-tale marriage that ended so tragically. Here are their dual, quintessential American lives, ultimately and blissfully intertwined.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524747299
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/26/2019
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 148 MB
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About the Author

VICTORIA RISKIN adapted Willa Cather’s My Ántonia for television and was a producer of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding as well as The Last Best Year, based on her years as a psychologist. Riskin was president of the Writers Guild of America West and served for twelve years as a director of Human Rights Watch. She lives on Martha's Vineyard with her husband, the writer David W. Rintels.

Read an Excerpt


My first memory is of a snowstorm in Los Angeles. The land of eternal sunshine had never in its known history been blanketed in white the way it was on January 10, 1949—The Old Farmer’s Almanac gives the date—and never has again.
I was three years old. My brother Bobby, five, had already dressed him­self and run downstairs to join our thirteen-year-old sister, Susan, outside. I fidgeted impatiently while our English nanny, Miss Haesloop, in her starched white uniform, secured the buttons of my blue corduroy trouser suit and put rubber overshoes over my Buster Browns.
My father organized a snowball fight that morning on the front lawn of our Bel-Air home. Bobby and I pelted each other until a snowball hit me in the face and I burst into tears. My father scooped me up and deftly dis­tracted me into helping him make a snowman. He also recruited Bobby, who was a genius at building things, and let me tuck in stones for the snowman’s eyes and a carrot for his nose. This, he emphasized, was the most important job of all. “There you go, rascal. You stick that carrot right in the middle of his face.”
In the photographs of that day, my mother is absent. For years, I imag­ined she was in the kitchen having the cook prepare the hot chocolate to warm us when we came in, or rearranging the living room rugs and fur­niture for an evening of square dancing that was all the rage in the late 1940s, or readying a dinner party for the friends who regularly came to our house: Jack Benny, Rosalind Russell, Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Irving Berlin, Harpo Marx, Darryl Zanuck, Edward G. Robinson. I now understand that she was outdoors with us all along, tak­ing the photos with her Leica camera, recording our lives, memorializing our family’s landmark moments as was now her passion. Snow and snow­man and, indelibly, my father in his tweed newsboy’s cap, woolen scarf and heavy overcoat, tortoiseshell glasses, tanned olive skin, his head tilted to the side with a smile starting to form as if waiting for me to finish tell­ing him a funny story.
Today, looking at pictures of that day, I still smell his Old Spice after­shave and the scent of his cigarettes, and see his smiling eyes.
Life with my father had warmth and adventure. He took us to Gilmore Field to see the Hollywood Stars play baseball, leading us in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the way. He took us to his bungalow at Twentieth Century–Fox, where we could play while he wrote, or to the commissary for lunch, or for the world’s best hot fudge sundaes at C. C. Brown’s on Hollywood Boulevard.
Evenings were an unchanging ritual. At five o’clock Bobby and I ate dinner in the playroom upstairs as Miss Haesloop turned the Grundig radio to Edward R. Murrow or Cecil Brown, and mostly we followed her orders to be quiet. Her rapt attention, turned to the news from London, was a clear indicator of how she worried about war, even though the war had been over for three years.

After our baths, we were sprinkled with talcum, put into pajamas, and ushered into our parents’ bedroom for the children’s hour. My father, in his armchair with the rose floral print, waved us in. He held his beer, or sometimes neat Scotch, in his left hand, his Lucky Strike in the right. Two fingers were yellowed from chain-smoking, one calloused from writing. He wore cashmere sweaters and handmade shoes from London and the best silk ties and shirts money could buy. My mother might be wearing a clingy black crepe dress if they were going to dinner at Romanoff’s or Chasen’s, her dark wavy hair combed back to frame her warm, welcom­ing face, her red lipstick carefully drawn outside the line of her lips to give them fullness. Her rosewater eau de cologne spiced the air.
“Hey, rascal,” my father said, pulling me onto his lap. “Tell me how your day was.” I told stories from school or pretended I was a ballerina and climbed down and danced for him. He watched as if nothing in the world were more important than my awkward ballet twirls. He let me sip foam from his beer while Bobby was using the bed as a trampoline.
“Hey, Bobby! Think you can crack us open some walnuts?”
Bobby did what my father had taught us, punching a hole in the corner of a pillow—not too deep, not too shallow—and tucking a walnut inside and throwing the pillow up a foot or two in the air, then smashing it hard on both sides as it came down. The walnut flew up, hit the ceiling, and exploded. Walnut pieces rained everywhere. My mother said that years later, when we moved, she found walnut bits behind the painting over the fireplace, under the bed, even in the closet. She said wistfully, “It made a mess but you kids were having such a good time.”
My father’s tricks engaged our sense of wonder. None was more exhila­rating or terrifying than when he held the burning butt of his Lucky Strike between his lips and, with a grin, flipped the smoldering butt backwards into his mouth where it disappeared for an interminable time. When our screaming and excitement reached its peak, he flipped the burning butt out, no hands—that would have been cheating—and took a long easy puff while we collapsed in relief.
“You like that one, hey?”
Those were the Eden days, the first six years of my life.

Table of Contents

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen

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