Kay Francis emerged as the Epitome of Glamour during the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her onscreen romances with William Powell, Ian Hunter, and George Brent were watched by millions, and she reigned as the highest paid employee on the Warner Bros. lot for three years (PL). Her work in One Way Passage (1932), Give Me Your Heart (1936), Confession (1937), and In Name Only (1939) made her one of the town’s most respected actresses, with the box office draw to prove her stature as one of the era’s most sought-after stars.
However, Kay Francis’ years as an actress weren’t without complications, often being dampened by private tragedies and an emptiness she never filled. At the height of her popularity, she dismissed her career and insisted she wanted to be forgotten.
Thought of as a quitter and sellout for decades, Kay’s memory went into a major eclipse after her death, with only knowledgeable film buffs knowing of her work. But in recent decades, Kay’s memory has begun to resurface, with new fans being drawn to the woman that their parents and/or grandparents were captivated with back when her movies could have been seen in the theater.
This is the story of Kay Francis.
Katharine Edwina Gibbs was born in Oklahoma City on Friday, January 13, 1905. Faced with bitterly cold temperatures, that week’s edition of the Daily Oakie had reported that one citizen had frozen to death that Wednesday (PL). On the day Katharine was born, the local forecast was zero with a high of 14 (PL). Katharine’s father, Joseph Gibbs, was an eccentric 42-year-old steward living at the Hotel Threadgill. (A rumor still persists that Joe Gibbs rode a horse through the lobby of a hotel and up the stairs to his wife’s room to greet his newborn.) Her mother was Katherine Clinton, a former stage actress who was 28 years old when she gave birth to her daughter.
By November 1905 the family had relocated to Santa Barbara, California, and then to Los Angeles soon after. It was after Joe Gibbs relocated his family to Salt Lake City, Utah that Katherine Clinton made the decision to leave her irresponsible husband (PL). Katherine and Kay last saw Joe Gibbs in New York in 1908; thereafter he remarried and died on January 20, 1919 of pneumonia (PL)
The Lindsay Morison Stock Company employed Katherine in 1909, and Kay accompanied her mother throughout theater tours, growing up in hotels and boarding houses (CR). It was an unconventional childhood, and the two were in constant financial trouble, though being raised in the theater world was excellent training for a girl who would grow up into one of the theater’s most delightful personalities. But it was not easy, as Kay later elaborated:
My childhood was a constantly shifting scene. Mother was on the stage and we were never in one place very long. She sent me to one convent school after another and none of them is clear in my mind. Only bits of pictures come to me now, like the time I had measles in one school and mumps in another and chicken pox in another (PL).
Records of Kay’s education remain uncertain. For instance, Kay claimed to have attended the Ossining School for Girls from the time she was ten to fifteen, but no records of her attendance for these dates could be found (PL). But Kay did attend Ossining in 1919 and the Cathedral School of St. Mary in 1920, so it‘s possible she could have exaggerated her attendance in both schools. Schooling was never a priority in the eyes of Katherine Clinton, who later told interviewer Helen Starr, “Kay failed in geometry and I was pleased over that. I’ve always thought it ridiculous for an attractive, glamorous woman to study Latin and Greek” (PL). But Katherine was not a neglectful mother. In fact, Katherine had first envisioned a musical career for Kay, and was slightly disappointed when her daughter took up stenography.
Leaving the business world only weeks after she had entered it, Kay found work as an assistant to Juliana Cutting, one of the most elite party planners for the crème de la crème in Manhattan. It was through her association with Cutting that Kay met the man who would become her first husband, James Dwight Francis (BF). The two met on January 3, 1922 and began dating soon after (PL). Eight years older than Kay, Dwight was the wealthy son of Henry Francis, manager of the Pontoosuc Woolen Company. After getting intimate in late April, Kay aborted three of Dwight’s children before they were married on December 4, 1922. A short union, they were separated in early 1925, and were divorced on March 26 of that year.
After her divorce from Dwight, Kay went on a European jaunt that seems to rival her similar venture in Transgression (1931). After months of partying in Europe, Kay Francis returned to New York on September 26, with the dreary thought of her future ahead of her. With nothing else to lose, Kay Francis set her sights on acting.
Prior to her decision to go to the stage, Kay had done some modeling for Harper’s Bazaar and other notable portrait artists. But her mother and friends seriously doubted her ability to make a successful actress of herself.
“Shakespeare’s Hamlet (In Modern Dress)” opened on November 9, 1925 at the Booth Theater in New York. Running for eighty-eight performances, the New York Times concluded that Kay “did not rate a mention.” After closing in early 1926, Kay was employed with the Stuart Walker Company until September of that year (CR). None of Kay’s work for Stuart Walker was too distinguishable, though the production of “Love Is Like That” featured an up and coming Basil Rathbone as one of Kay’s costars.
“Crime” was Kay’s first major success of her career. Costarring Chester Morris, Sylvia Sydney, and Douglass Montgomery, among others, reviews for Kay were largely favorable. “Crime” was the production that got Kay Francis noticed, but her work in “Elmer the Great” could be written off as the stage production that made her unforgettable. Costar Walter Huston took immediate interest in Kay’s combination of legitimate talent and personality. He saw her potential, and, along with director Millard Webb recommended Kay’s casting in Paramount’s latest all-talking picture, Gentlemen of the Press.
Kay was surprisingly unenthusiastic about her film debut, suggesting that from the beginning she had opted for a movie career only because of the major increase in salary. But working on a film set was a learning experience Kay would never forget. “It was while we were making Gentlemen of the Press that I had my first real taste in studio jargon,” Kay later elaborated. “I was wearing a pink silk chiffon dress and thought I looked pretty nice. When I came on the set one of the electricians shouted: ‘Take the silk off that broad.’ I jumped and looked around to tell the man what I thought of him. ‘He’s talking about a light,’ a prop boy told me” (PL).
Gentlemen of the Press was completed in February 1929 and released on May 11. Reviews were mostly favorable. Photoplay even credited Kay with giving “one of the most astonishing first performances in the history of motion pictures” (CR). The Cocoanuts, Kay’s second movie and only film with the Marx Brothers, was an even bigger success.
Realizing that they had a possible star on their hands, Paramount’s Astoria Studio in Queens decided to transfer Kay out to Hollywood. At first she refused, but changed her mind and packed her bags for the West Coast. Boarding the 20th Century Limited on April 11, 1929, Kay arrived in Hollywood on the fifteenth, and soon began her rise to the top of the Hollywood scene.
(BF) Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to Be Forgotten, Scott O’Brien, 2006, BearManor Media.
(CR) The Complete Kay Francis Career Record, Lynn Kear & John Rossman, 2008, McFarland.
(PL) Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, Kear & Rossman, 2006, McFarland.