By Elizabeth Wilson
March 1937 issue of Silver Screen
ON EVERY major studio lot in Hollywood there is a Quality Star. It’s part of the movie tradition. Now these Quality Stars are not the most beautiful women on the lot, rarely the most popular at the box office, and never the best actresses, but strangely enough it is they who knock down the biggest salaries and who cause great commotion in the “front office” at the mere drop of an eyelash.
They possess that elusive combination of attributes that, added to a dash of beauty and soupcon of personality, makes Glamour. And Glamour, boys and girls, is the most expensive thing in Hollywood. It is the duty of these Quality Stars to give chic, good taste and class to the cinema. First of all they must be able to wear clothes so maddeningly beautiful and divinely ultra that every female in the audience will bite her nails through sheer envy; and secondly, they must be able to play lovely lonely ladies of mystery, who make the big sacrifice for love, and who go trailing off alone across the desert sands.
Ah, romance and glamour. Women cry for it, women pay for it. The Quality Stars are definitely women made stars. Paramount has its Marlene Dietrich. Metro has its Garbo. And Warner has its Kay Francis. Now Kay isn’t the most beautiful girl on the Warners contract list, she has never been included among the Big Ten in the exhibitor’s poll, and she certainly isn’t the best actress on the lot (Bette Davis can act rings around her any day), but no matter how you look at it Kay has glamour and class. She’s the reigning Queen of the Warner Brothers movie kingdom in the San Fernando Valley. She is the pride and joy of Orry-Kelly, designer de luxe. She is the toast of the Beverly Hills smart set. And as sort of an anti-climax she is one of my favorite actresses—on the screen.
I suppose you know all about Kay Francis “on the screen.” Beginning with “Gentlemen of the Press” back in 1929, she has been in four or more pictures a year ever since—one of which “One Way Passage” is her best, “The Marriage Playground” her worst, and “Another Dawn” her latest—and unless you were born yesterday, and I doubt that, you have seen a deal of Miss Francis in the celluloid.
But what of Miss Francis in the flesh? Well, now, there is a bit of quibbling. There are those who say, “Have you been ritzed by Kay Francis today?” And those who say, “I never hope to know a grander gal.” “Cold as dry ice,” says the Press. “Warm and generous,” say her publicity people. “Charming,” says Ian Hunter. “Humph,” says Claude Rains. And if you think I’m going to take sides you’re crazy.
There are two things which magazine and newspaper writers always want to interview Kay Francis about—her love life and clothes—and those happen to be the two subjects on which she is just about as communicative as a clam. When a member of the publicity department asks her if she will consent to an interview Kay will say, “If it’s about pictures, yes. If it’s about private affairs, no.” She has the most terrific private life complex I have ever seen in any actress. She’s decidedly no gay extravert of the gold fish bowl. “My private life is my own,” says Kay, and means it. And completely entre nous, I think she’s got something there, but far be it from me to encourage it, because if all celebrities were as tight-mouthed as Kay, where would I be? Looking up at a curbstone somewhere, no doubt.
But, anyway, it really is a shame that she is so fussy about her private life because she has had a highly interesting and exciting one. Kay is a vital person. She is interested in people and strange places, and has always been ready to embrace change and adventure when they come her way. She is entirely of this world.
As Katharine Edwina Gibbs, Kay began that private life she is so secretive about on January, not so many years ago, in Oklahoma City, and the date was Friday the thirteenth. Being born in Oklahoma City was probably the only un-chic thing Kay ever did. But before she was year old her family moved to Santa Barbara, California, then to Los Angeles, and Denver. When she was about four her actress mother, Katherine Clinton, the daughter of a pioneer, decided to return to the stage and little Katharine—she did not become Kay until she went on the stage herself—spent her growing up years in one fashionable Eastern school after another. She was “finished” at Miss Fuller’s School for Girls at Ossining and the Cathedral School of Garden City.
Kay’s earliest recollection of the theater was when, at the age of four, she was allowed to sit “out front” one matinee day and watch her mother act. It was one of those melodramas so much in vogue at that time, and for the third act curtain her mother had to shoot herself. The shot rang out and the audience was frightfully impressed—then through the tense atmosphere piped up Kay’s baby voice, “Mother’s not really dead—she’s only acting.” Kay received her best spanking to date and was sent away to school.
When she had finished school Kay did a very surprising thing for a beautiful young girl, with the theatre in her blood—she entered a business college and took a course in shorthand and typing. Graduating from there she became a secretary to the financial secretary of Mrs. Dwight Morrow, and later to Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt. Kay had always liked politics, big business, and international finance, so she rather fancied herself as a future lady of Wall Street or woman of density or something. But before she had caused a flurry in steel or cornered a market in anything she had become a bit bored with it all and was off to Europe.
“Business training,” Kay declares, “teaches one not to volunteer information. That, I suppose, is the secret to my well-known reticence about my own life. Thanks to my training in the business world I keep a secretary-like silence about most of the matters that concern my employer, who happens to be myself.”
Well, of course, you can’t keep an actress down forever, so along about 1926 Kay decided, much to her mother’s horror, to take a fling at the theatre. She received valuable training in the Stuart Walker Company, playing in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Dayton—in fact, Kay gives Mr. Stuart Walker, now a Paramount producer, all the credit for making an actress out of her.
Returning to New York she played featured parts, but not leads, in “Venus,” “Crime” (along with Sylvia Sidney and Chester Morris), and with Walter Huston in “Elmer the Great.” And then the movies. It was in those gay pre-depression days of 1927 to 1930 that our Miss Francis practically became the belle of New York. Charming, chic, poised, and the most smartly dressed woman in any night club, it is no wonder that men went mad over her. At that time she lived with two girls in a small apartment near the corner of 51st and Park and it speaks well for their popularity that although they only had two rooms they had three telephones. There was such merry, hectic jangling of bells of an evening as you never heard—but it was all for fun, and fun they really had. Crazy, mad things. But Kay put an end to madness, temporarily, the night of the great Indoor Polo Match of East 51st Street when a two-hundred pound football player, in the excitement of the game, fell on Kay and broke her collar bone.
Kay Swann and Lois Long, her roommates, laughed heartily, but Kay didn’t think it was funny at all. Lois Long, who later became Mrs. Peter Arno, and still later became the ex-Mrs. Peter Arno and the New Yorker’s famous Lipstick, visited Kay in Hollywood recently and Kay threw a cocktail party for her that was quite the gayest thing of the year. There were no broken collar bones. Girls do grow up.
And what was Kay doing about all these men who were becoming raving maniacs for love of her? She married a couple of them and let the others sulk it out. Prior to going on the stage she married young Dwight Francis, hence her theatrical name of Kay Francis, and people who knew her then, when she was in her teens, say she was certainly the model wife. Dwight was from one of the Best Families, but there wasn’t much money for the young married couple so they lived in a little house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the future Glamour Girl of Warner Brothers cooked three meals a day for her husband. It was all very beautiful and simple.
Kay’s second marriage was to William A. Gaston of Boston, whose father was Mayor of Boston and then Governor of Massachusetts. This marriage ended in a Paris divorce court and Gaston later married Rosamond Pinchot. Her third marriage was to Kenneth MacKenna of Canterbury, New Hampshire, whom she met in Hollywood one fine morning when he was introduced to her as the leading man of her next picture.
MacKenna, well known New York actor whose real name is Jo Mielziner, immediately worked on a whirlwind courtship and finally won a “Yes” out of Miss Francis when she was recovering from an illness at a Hollywood hospital. He drove her from the hospital directly to the Los Angeles City Hall, and got a ticket for speeding, too, where he bought a license. Then the two of them, all alone, boarded his boat and sailed away for the island of Catalina, where they were married in the little town of Avalon in January 1931.
Kenneth used to like to tell an amusing story of their first night as Mr. and Mrs. Jo Mielziner. It seems that he had stocked the boat with provisions, and Kay was all excited over cooking their wedding dinner while they were anchored off Catalina. But he had forgotten to put gasoline in the stove tank and in the midst of Kay’s culinary display the darned thing sputtered and went cold. There was no gasoline on the boat. “There must be gasoline somewhere,” said Kay desperately, following it with one of her most classic remarks: “Fate wouldn’t let this happen to me on my wedding night.”
The Kenneth MacKennas spent their honeymoon in the house where Janet Gaynor has lived for the last few years, and then were divorced. No one knew exactly why, and you can be quite sure that tight-mouthed Kay did not choose to enlighten anyone. After her divorce Kay was seen often in Hollywood escorted from time to time by William Powell, Ronald Colman, and Maurice Chevalier. They weren’t romances—just good friends.
But for the last year she has been keeping “steady company” with big, blonde, anything but handsome Delmer Daves, a one-time lawyer who became a writer, and whom Kay met on the Warners lot when he wrote the script for one of her pictures. There is much speculation in Hollywood as to whether they will marry or not. Kay has said many times that she will not marry again until she is through with pictures—her present contract with the Messrs. Warner Brothers has three more years to go.
Before her recent departure for Europe, and she has been to Europe more than any other actress in Hollywood, she made a statement for the press. “I am not going to get married while I am in pictures,” said Miss Francis. Ten days later she was on a plane for New York, where she was joined by Delmer Daves, who, not by accident, caught the same boat she took for France. When last heard of they were celebrating Christmas together in St. Moritz, along with the Douglas Fairbanks and Merle Oberon. Your guess is as good as mine.
Next to interviewers who ask her about her love life Kay loathes, with a fine and beautiful loathing, fashion stills and gallery sittings, in fact she hates to have any kind of portraits taken. Getting her into the studio photographic gallery for a fashion sitting is just about equal to accomplishing the impossible. The still camera lens, for some reason or another, brings out the worst in Kay and she can usually be counted upon to go into a temperamental rage and tell everybody off in sight. And when Kay gets angry she does it thoroughly. Of course the night after one of these stormy gallery sessions Kay usually spends calling up everybody she bawled out and telling them quite meekly she is very, very sorry.
This fashion-fury of Kay’s is probably a hang-over from the humiliation she suffered when she first came to Hollywood. Paramount had a new featured player who was being sent out from New York and who, rumor had it, could wear clothes. There must be a publicity campaign to “put her over.” Why not call her the Best Dressed Woman in Hollywood and cause a controversy with Connie Bennett and Lilyan Tashman? Why not?
And so, when Kay got off the Chief in Pasadena, she found the station jammed with trunks and luggage not her own and a publicity department frantically snapping her by trunks, on trunks, in trunks. She shuddered every time she picked up a paper for weeks afterward. “Kay Francis, the Best Dressed Woman, Talks About Hats… How to Dress Smartly on Nothing, by Kay Francis, Hollywood’s Best Dressed Star,” etc. etc. etc. What the red flag is to the bull the word Best Dressed became to La Francis. But it stuck like adhesive tape.
In publicity circles Kay Francis is still the clothes horse of Hollywood. But, perversely enough, in the first scene of the first picture she made in Hollywood, “Dangerous Curves,” starring Clara Bow, she wore a tailored suit which had once been made for Bebe Daniels and left behind in the wardrobe department. And Miss Francis’ lines didn’t coincide then, or now, with those of Miss Daniels.
“Now I can be the best dressed woman in Hollywood,” Kay once snapped to an interviewer. “I but only six dresses a year.” And that’s quite true. She buys them in New York and under no conditions will she be photographed in them. They belong to that scared private life. She will not allow the studio to have a “home sitting” of it. In fact she permits them and the Press to enter as rarely as possible. It’s a charming, small frame house, in a quiet section of Hollywood, and is simply and tastefully furnished. She lives there alone. The last time I saw Kay Francis she was at the smart cocktail party Merle Oberon gave before leaving for England. Kay wore a rather dowdy sports coat and no hat. Hardly the Best Dressed Woman.
It is said in the market place, by those who pretend to be in the know, that Kay Francis is one of the four richest movie stars. When she is ready to retire she will be so financially independent that she can thumb her nose at anybody. The Francis weekly stipend from Paramount and Warners has not gone into Beverly Hills estates, Duesenbergs, yachts, race horses, furs and star sapphires. On the contrary, it has gone into annuities, trust funds, bonds and similar little knick-knacks. Yes, for a pretty girl Kay has been very intelligent.
Though “society” to her finger tips she has always refused to live according to the Hollywood tradition. When all the other Glamour Girls go mad for Duesenbergs, Rolls, and town cars, Kay buys a Ford, and not very often either. She drives it herself. She has never had a chauffeur. Her one but of jewelry is a wrist watch, which she sort of excuses by saying that it’s a hardly little gadget. She has beautiful clothes, of course, though not the most expensive, and very few of them.
She usually gives one big party a year and in that way pays off all her social obligations—the rest of the time she contents herself with small dinner parties of four or six. The past year she has taken very little interest in Hollywood’s social whirl, as she usually goes to a friend’s cabin at Lake Arrowhead for the weekends when she is working, and as soon as her pictures are finished she dashes off to Europe. These European trips are practically her one great extravagance. She has chosen for her friends the cream of the social set in Hollywood—the Countess de Frasso, Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn, Dick and Jessica Barthelmess, Ronnie Colman and William Powell—and if she is of a mind to she can be one of the gayest of gay party girls, provided of course that there are no candid camera around to spy on her private life.
Her chief fault, people who work with her will tell you, are her moods. It seems that she can sink rapidly into the very depths of despair and despondency, and the further she sinks the more ill-tempered she becomes. When Miss Francis is in a mood the “hired help” of the studio keep their distance. But just to show you what a contrary personality she has Miss Francis is also one of the most thoughtful and generous of the movie stars to the same “hired help.” Her generosity is not accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets and banner lines in the newspapers. Her generosity, my dears, belongs to that sacred private life, and it took a great deal of prying about before I could discover it. Kay Francis may be Hetty Green to the jewelry salesmen and the real estate brokers, but she’s the Good Samaritan to many a bit of broken humanity.
And here’s a believe-it-or-not for you and Mr. Ripley: Kay Francis who stands for all that is glamorous and languorous on the screen was once pushed about the Mad Marx Brothers in a harum sacrum flicker called “The Cocoanuts.” How times do change. Though she is one of the best read of the movie stars, she has a perfect passion for detective stories and never misses one of them. She is crazy about small animals and has a regular menagerie of dogs, with a marked preference for dachshunds and Scotties, as well as cats, gold-fish, canaries, and a parrot. George Brent gave her a couple of pigeons, but they weren’t homing pigeons and flew away.
She got a job as a model for clothes once (before she went on the stage) but had to give up modeling because her feet were too small. Her feet aren’t that big. Somebody once told her she had bad legs so she is very sensitive about them—but they’re really not bad at all. She has a perfect back. She is also sensitive about that little trouble she has with her R’s.
She has a keen sense of humor but often-times has trouble telling a joke—somehow or other the point comes out first, or else there isn’t a point. She loves bridge and backgammon, isn’t the athletic type, but plays a very good game of tennis. The last thing she did before leaving for Europe in December was to have her legal name changed from Katherine G. Mielziner to Kay Francis. If she intends to marry Delmer Daves it seems she would hardly have taken the trouble to go to court to secure a legal name change which marriage would speedy change again. But don’t ask me—I know from nothing.