Fay Wray and Robert Riskin’s touching romance springs to life in past Writers Guild President Victoria Riskin’s memoir of her parents
By Bliss Bowen
Frank Capra, Gary Cooper, Dolores Del Rio, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, and Clifford Odets: just part of the cast in Victoria Riskin’s biography of her parents, “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir.”
Wray, immortalized in 1933’s “King Kong” as the object of the iconic beast’s affection, was one of the first female silent film stars to succeed in “talkies.” Screenwriter Robert Riskin won an Oscar for 1934’s “It Happened One Night” in addition to scripting other classics (“Meet John Doe,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”) and overseeing the Office of War Information’s WWII overseas bureau.
The book is a fond remembrance of midcentury Hollywood as a real community shaped by close relationships and neighborhoods, although Victoria Riskin doesn’t ignore the industry’s seedier practices or characters (including Wray’s tragic first husband, Oscar-winning screenwriter John Monk Saunders). A memory of building snowmen with brother Bobby (who now owns McCabe’s Guitar Shop) and their father is particularly charming.
“It was a small town,” affirms Victoria, who from 2001 to 2004 served as president of the Writers Guild of America West, the union her father helped create. “People built very strong friendships. … There was a great sense of play, even pranks against Harry Cohn, the studio boss. There were lots of parties. I remem-
ber my father and Frank Capra rolling around on the floor like clowns. At the same time there was an incredible elegance and fun. So many of the people in our circle, in our family, were genuine intellectuals. They were well read, knew music well, bought fine art … there was always rich political conversation and artistic conversation.”
Wray, who arrived here at age 14, comes across as a good-natured trooper. The script for 1933’s “The Bowery” called for co-star George Raft to slap her — a move he reluctantly repeated through 20 takes until, with Wray’s “eyes watering, her face bright red and her ears ringing,” director Raoul Walsh was satisfied. For “King Kong,” she was ordered to work a 22-hour shift, and later to “scream for your life” into a microphone for “eight uninterrupted hours” until director Merion Cooper elicited the desired pitch. She couldn’t speak for weeks afterward.
Small wonder Wray and Riskin championed unions.
Victoria says she began to see her parents “as people” and “multidimensional human beings” while researching their histories, as well as colorful characters like Cooper and lawyer-turned-diplomat Wild Bill Donovan who left indelible imprints on their lives. (That includes Edith Fitzgerald, Riskin’s first girlfriend, revealed as a writer meriting further attention.)
When they finally connected, Wray was 34 and vulnerable; Saunders had spent her money, kidnapped their daughter Susan, and sold their house. She adored the “warm, witty, intelligent” Riskin, and craved a relationship with man so caring and stable. Riskin, who’d previously dated Carole Lombard and Loretta Young,
was elated to have finally found someone he trusted so completely. Falling in love shortly after Pearl Harbor, their touching letters express recognition of their good fortune.
“Darling the sun shone brightly all day, but I wandered aimlessly in dark clouds. It’s a bewildering phenomenon,” a lonesome Riskin cabled when “Faysie” was doing a radio show in New York. Later, he voiced his convictions about the war, wondered what dogs dream, and promised Wray “a million [kisses] a night” when they reunited. They married in August 1942, after Wray proposed, and Riskin adopted Susan.
“I don’t think I say this in the book: When she married him, she said, ‘I am not sure how long I’m going to have him, and I want to be with him every moment I can and to make his life as easy and happy as I can,’” Victoria recalls. “That was the sense she had.”
(Riskin suffered a partially paralyzing stroke the day after Christmas, 1950, and died at 58 in 1955. Wray found work in television, and died in 2004 at 96.)
The book’s most fascinating sections detail the diplomatic Riskin’s little-known achievements with OWI’s overseas bureau — work even Victoria acknowledges she didn’t fully grasp until the documentary team behind Peter Miller’s excellent 2014 film “Projections of America” asked her to dig into her father’s files. Too many books about Hollywood’s war effort have overlooked Riskin’s “lost to history” OWI work because they’ve relied on a “limited set of documents” and recycled stories. That’s “astounding,” she says, because his OWI films were “so much more impactful, larger in scope and more sensitive than anything else.”
Some of those films (e.g., “The Cummington Story”) survive on YouTube. Created by Hollywood’s most successful writers and producers, they were designed to educate overseas audiences about American life, ideals and democracy. Victoria calls it “propaganda of the gentlest kind” in the book, and says her father believed foreign audiences would love America if they loved American films. It’s a striking attitude to ponder in our cynical times.
“‘Propaganda’ is a very loaded term; it has a very negative connotation. But telling stories that elevate the human spirit to reflect simple things of life in an appreciative way, like he did — it really set the stage about how you feel about yourself as a culture and a community. Those are films designed to influence — is that bad? Or is that OK?” muses Victoria, a former Human Rights Watch international board member now residing in Martha’s Vineyard with her husband. “I think it’s a worthy conversation, especially in an era of ‘fake news’ and spinning information all the time.”
Victoria Riskin discusses “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir” from 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday (March 10) at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., Ste. 33, Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit victoriariskin.com.