Early in Victoria Riskin’s biography of her parents, “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir,” she recalls building a snowman at age 3 with her brother Bobby and their father, screenwriter Robert Riskin. For years, she writes, she imagined her mother “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.” But Wray was behind a Leica camera, in that rare snow, recording the family happiness she had finally, gratefully found.
Pop culture enshrines Wray as the blonde love object of “King Kong” in the iconic 1933 film. But the Utah innocent who arrived in Los Angeles at 14 emerges from her daughter’s pages as a kind, good-natured trooper. The script for 1933’s “The Bowery” called for costar George Raft to slap Wray — 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. “King Kong” director Merian C. Cooper ordered her to “scream for your life” into a microphone for “eight uninterrupted hours” until he caught the desired pitch. Wray couldn’t speak for weeks afterward. That year, she became “Founding Member #1475 of the Screen Actors Guild.”
The witty, progressive-minded Riskin, whose parents had fled anti-Semitic repression in what is now Belarus for New York in 1891, was active in Depression-era organizing efforts for what ultimately became the Screen Writers Guild. He was at the beginning of his collaboration with Italian-born director Frank Capra, which yielded such legendary films as “Meet John Doe” and the Oscar-winning “It Happened One Night.” In conversation Victoria describes parties where the two men rolled around like clowns, and the “incredible elegance and fun” as well as “rich political conversation and artistic conversation” that prevailed in her parents’ intellectual social circle.
“This group of people were great raconteurs,” says Victoria, who from 2001 to 2004 served as president of the Writers Guild of America, West, the union her father helped create. “They were bright, they were imaginative, energetic, optimistic. Even in the Depression they loved the country. Cooper was a Republican all his life, because he understood how bad Stalin was, and he’d been a prisoner in Russia, and my father was a liberal and loved FDR and was very worried about Hitler. The country was very divided. But people were not as divided as they became after World War II when the blacklist descended upon Hollywood, or as they are seemingly right now. It was interesting to me that Riskin and Capra worked well together even though Capra was a conservative, and the theme of the little guy and the common man and the belief in the basic goodness of others and helping others was all Riskin; it was not Capra at all. But Capra was a wonderful director and he knew a good story and could bring it to life on film.”
Falling in love shortly after Pearl Harbor, Wray and Riskin’s touching, romantic letters express recognition of their good fortune. Wray’s first husband, philandering screenwriter John Monk Saunders, had spent her money, kidnapped their daughter Susan, and sold their house; the warm, stable Riskin, who’d previously dated Carole Lombard and Loretta Young, was elated to have finally found someone with whom he could be emotionally intimate. In one amusing passage, he races from Los Angeles to Barstow to Pasadena to meet Wray’s train, flowers and heart in hand. 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.”
The book’s most intriguing sections detail the diplomatic Riskin’s stewardship of the Office of War Information’s overseas bureau — work even Victoria didn’t fully grasp until the team behind Peter Miller’s excellent 2014 documentary “Projections of America” asked her to dig into her father’s files. She says Riskin’s OWI work has been “lost to history” because too many books about Hollywood’s war effort have relied on a “limited set of documents” and recycled stories — and that’s “astounding,” 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. Victoria, a former Human Rights Watch international board member, calls them “propaganda of the gentlest kind,” designed to educate overseas audiences about American life and democratic ideals. Acknowledging that “propaganda” is “a very loaded term,” she defends the convictions of her father, who suffered a partially paralyzing stroke in 1950 and died at 58 in 1955. (Wray died at 96 in 2004.) He believed that foreign audiences would love America if they loved American films.
“Telling stories that elevate the human spirit to reflect simple things of life in an appreciative way … 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? I think it’s a worthy conversation, especially in an era of ‘fake news’ and spinning information.”
Victoria Riskin discusses “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir” at Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 7. Info: (626) 449-5320. Victoriariskin.com, vromansbookstore.com