A Hollywood life

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin as their daughter knew them

Created date

October 30th, 2019
Victoria Riskin with her mother, famed King Kong actress Fay Wray.

If anyone has Hollywood history embedded in her DNA, author Victoria Riskin is that person. After all, her parents were Tinsel Town royalty: her father, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin; her mother, the stunning leading lady Fay Wray, best known for her timeless performance as the gigantic ape’s crush in Merian C. Cooper’s classic King Kong (1933).

Riskin spent her early childhood steeped in celebrity, a household that most of us couldn’t begin to imagine, where regular visitors included Jack Benny, Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Irving Berlin, and Edward G. Robinson. In Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir (Pantheon, 2019), she recounts her parents’ loving marriage and the bygone era of cinema in which it transpired.

A skillfully woven narrative, the book is hardly a mere collection of nostalgic ruminations. On the contrary, Riskin carefully paints a vibrant portrait of a powerhouse couple who approached fame with a down-to-earth modesty.

“My mother and father came from humble backgrounds,” says Riskin, adding, “and even after they were famous, they didn’t let it go to their heads. They handled it sensibly.”

Fay Wray

Born in 1907, Wray spent most of her youth in Utah with her five siblings and Mormon parents. The family relocated to Los Angeles when she was in high school and, following graduation, she landed her debut role in a short historical film.

In 1925, she scored her first big part in a silent movie called The Coast Patrol and was soon under contract at Universal Studios appearing in low-budget westerns opposite Buck Jones. To those who worked with her, Wray obviously had the looks and talent that stardom required.

By the early 1930s, she had signed with RKO Radio Pictures, where she seamlessly made the transition to talkies, shooting her biggest film in 1932. 

King Kong was a blockbuster. Within four days of its release in March 1933, the movie grossed a whopping $90,000 and, in the end, a box-office total of $5.3 million.

Despite her booming career, Wray struggled with a rocky marriage to screenwriter John Monk Saunders until their divorce in 1939. Three years later she met her true love—a suave screenwriter named Robert Riskin.

Robert Riskin

Like Wray, he too hailed from humble beginnings, in his case, New York’s Lower East Side. Born in 1897 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Riskin dabbled in small-time film production and eventually made his way out to California to write dialogue for talkies. 

Throughout the 1930s, he established himself as a gifted author and started a running collaboration with director Frank Capra. The fruits of their partnership yielded Riskin a string of winners, among them Lady for a Day (1933), the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

“My father was an incredibly prolific writer—a master at telling a story and creating great dialogue,” notes Riskin. “His material was dramatic but believable; people could relate to it.”

To be sure, he labored tirelessly, churning out films that never lacked for quality. But unlike many celebrities, he was also a devoted family man, who provided his wife and children with a wholesome if not idyllic home life.

Riskin recalls how he loved playing in the yard with his kids while her mother proudly stood by snapping family pictures on her Leica. Sadly, such moments proved to be short lived. 

On the morning of December 26, 1950, Riskin’s father headed to the studio for a day of writing and unexpectedly returned home, struggling up the stairs without a word. The massive stroke he was having permanently incapacitated his mind and paralyzed his body.

Unable to walk or speak, he died five years later at the age of 58. 

The brief time he and Wray enjoyed as husband and wife was a precious gift, as it was for Riskin, whose memories of her father are few but nonetheless vivid.

“I was so young when I lost him; however, I was determined to get to know him through the wealth of papers he left behind,” she says. “That’s how I wrote this book, combing through stacks of boxes filled with the documents and scripts that defined him.”

In the process, Riskin has given readers a great deal more than a memoir. She has written a beautiful story, a brilliant chronicle of 1940s Hollywood, a memorial to her father, and a touching tribute to the blessings of family.

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