Fay Wray was one of the biggest box office stars in 1930’s Hollywood, and was best remembered for her role as Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933). In the film, set on the remote Skull Island, Wray is rescued by King Kong from the native islanders; who are planning on having her for dinner (literally), and carried safely back to his gorilla mountain cave.
Like so many stars of the Silver Screen, Fay Wray lived in Playa Del Rey, and at least once worked, and nearly died, at what we today call Toes Beach. And as is often the case in Hollywood, mysteries abound.
In 1932, the same year King Kong was filmed, Fay Wray starred in a forgettable film, opposite Wallace Beery, George Raft and Jackie Cooper, in The Bowery (1933). According to some sources, the beach scenes were filmed at what was then the abandoned fishing pier at Playa Del Rey. It must have been an easy commute for Wray, as she lived just a few doors from the pier, near to where another film diva, Mae Murray was living in her “castle.”
Living next door to Fay Wray on the sands at Playa Del Rey, director George Hill had built a bungalow. Hill was best known for directing Min and Bill (1931), which paired Beery and Marie Dressler (who also lived in Playa Del Rey) as boozy tugboat owner-operators, with a script by his wife Frances Marion. This phenomenally popular film made both Beery and Dressler into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's two top stars for the next couple of years, and formed the basis for many later stereotypical routines about hard-nosed seagoing men.
Fay Wray was married to Rhodes scholar, WWI pilot, and Academy Award winning screenwriter John Monk Saunders at the time. Saunders screenwriting credits included Wings (1927), which became the first film to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture. He won an Oscar for Best Story for the writing of The Dawn Patrol (1930). A few years earlier, at the Playa Del Rey home of actor George Beban, Saunders was present when cowboy actor Tom Mix beat up vaudevillian Will Morrissey, after a rude comment was made about Tom Mix’s horse. (I couldn’t make this stuff up).
On Tuesday June 20, 1933, Miss Wray was enjoying a rare day off. It was a warm day with temperatures nearing 85 degrees, so she decided to take a swim in the ocean, just a few steps from her door. She was quickly caught in a ferocious rip tide, and was carried out to sea.
This is where the story gets murky. According to newspaper articles, George Hill heard her cries, and swam out to rescue her, and carried her back to her home. But at a recent Hollywood auction, a signed photograph of Wray was sold, with a dedication to someone named Tom Harrison, thanking him for saving her. Was there some sort of cover up? The world will probably never know.
Incidentally, later that year George Hill was severely injured in a car accident just when his career was beginning to peak, and it is rumored that his injuries were the root cause of his apparent suicide in 1934. His body was found in his Playa Del Rey home with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. At the time of his death, Hill was preparing to direct, and had done some shooting in China for, The Good Earth, produced at MGM by Irving Thalberg, an Oscar-winning film released to great acclaim in 1937.
Fay Wray divorced Saunders in 1939, and after battling poor health; he hanged himself at his Fort Myers, Florida home in March 1940.
Of course, Fay Wray went on to become one of Hollywood’s best-known actresses, and lived until the age of 96. On August 10, 2004, two days after she passed peacefully in her sleep, the lights of the Empire State Building were extinguished for 15 minutes in her memory.
INFO: FAY WRAY AUTOGRAPHED PHOTO, AND NEWS CLIPPING. The photo is inscribed; “For Tom Harrison, The unknown stranger who rescued me from the wild waves of Playa Del Rey, Gratefully, Fay Wray.” However, news articles credited director George W. Hill for saving her from “the dangerous currents of Playa Del Rey.” Complements, The Day The Circus Came To Town, Mae Murray, Playa Del Rey, CA, Author. (Soon to be released).