Its Never Been Told
By Sidney Riley
Picture Play magazine, March 1937
TEN years ago, listed by New York artists as “too round-faced” to portray sophistication. Today the film’s Number One Brunet Interpreter of Urbane Ladies. Sometimes, Kay Francis must give a howl of glee, all to herself, at the way things were shaped by her destiny.
The story of Kay’s slim wardrobe—two street dresses, two evening dresses—had been told every time she has been persuaded to talk about herself. Which is not often. Occasionally, however, Kay’s advice on how to get along with a limited number of costumes creeps into print. She, herself, did it once she tells. But lively days surrounding those few, smart Patou frocks she seldom mentions.
The fact that Kay Francis cares little about retelling the story of her early New York triumphs probably means two things. One, that she is not vain. Two, that she doesn’t think it worth the breath it takes to recreate them. In this she becomes a feminine paragon. Few women could resist boasting that they were once “the bell of New York.” It would creep out in conversation. Not in Kay’s.
In the winter of 1925-26 a new beauty appeared on the horizon of New York’s artistic world. You are right. It was Kay Francis. Smartly dressed, with tremendous poise, she immediately took the art world by storm. Inasmuch as the art world in Manhattan is closely allied to the world of letters, music, theater, Kay soon became the toast of the entire colony. You can accept this as truth, because it was told by her long-time friend and apartment sharer, Lois Long, the redoubtable “Lipstick” of “The New Yorker.” More about her later.
Kay was nineteen or twenty then. She looked older because she was tall, dark, poised. Actually, she was as naïve as the young Western girl she was. Kay was born in Oklahoma City; schooled in New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. She was the owner of a Paris divorce, true enough, from Dwight Francis, and she had enjoyed a gorgeous time in Paris getting it. She had barged all around the ancient city, doing what the elite were supposed to do. But for all that, Kay was still only an overgrown girl who happened to look like a worldly-wise woman.
When Kay docked at a Manhattan pier ten years ago she knew that she would have to make some strenuous gestures about assembling a career for herself. She had no definite ideas about the theater. If it presented itself, alright. She was an adequate secretary; that she knew. She could always find work in that field. The biggest thing to her was that life held a lot of laughs, and was going to see that she got her quota. If Kay has more than her portion of beauty, she also is generously endowed with humor.
In no time at all, Kay was sharing and apartment with a girl named Virginia. Virginia Chambers, it is now. It wasn’t much of an apartment. A walk-up. The bedroom the girls shared was so tiny that they had to hurtle the bedstead ends to climb into the twin beds that stood side by side with a foot or so separating them.
To see her descend the walk-up steps on her way to a smart restaurant for lunch—popular girls like Virginia and Kay seldom had to worry about cooking their own meals—anyone would think that she had stepped from her boudoir, attended by two maids and a butler. A little beige number by Patou did the trick. It was trimmed with lynx, and a smart hat, the right gloves, shoes, handbag, went with it. Or if it wasn’t the beige ensemble, there was also a black, lynx-trimmed Patou frock.
For two years without another purchase, Kay wore the beige and the black costumes from one smart party to another, and she got away with it. Of course you have noticed Kay’s flair for wearing clothes. That was the answer. Also Kay’s non-chalance. If she had worn the same garments, time and again, with an apologetic manner, undoubtedly her admirers would have grown tired of Monsieur Patou’s ingenjous cuttings and stitches.
Instead, Kay wore them with supreme indifference. She didn’t care that they were all she had for street wear. She knew that they were the finest any one could buy; they were becoming; she liked them. It was the same way with her black lace evening dress, and her other one of black crepe. With only four complete costume changes, Kay became the toast of the town. A lot of debs don’t do her as well on the entire season’s output of their favorite couturier.
With that “tawny skin, those sea-green eyes, jet black hair”—these are Lois Long’s descriptive adjectives—Kay was in constant demand as an artist’s model. But nothing ever came of Kay’s posing. For all the rich coloring and warmth of her beauty, when the oil workers commenced to get Kay’s likeness down on canvas, they were startled to discover that painting Kay was like reproducing a forest fire on their canvases. She was too colorful, too flamboyant. Kay’s modeling days were short-lived.
“All right,” reasoned Lois, who by this time was one of Kay’s and Virginia’s cronies, “if you’re not good in oil, you’ll be marvelous for the camera.” At that time Louis was editorially employed on “Vogue,” the fashion magazine. She did all the string-pulling she could get to get Kay to the attention of the advertising photographers. They were as enthusiastic as was Louis about Kay’s distinctive style and beauty. Entranced, they looked again—shook their heads.
Kay, they declared, with her firm cheeks, her forthright look, her direct gaze, was not the sophisticated type. No, the sophisticated type, in predepression days had high cheek bones that showed above caved-in cheeks. Funny, the set ideals of the ideal-setters. Anyway, Kay didn’t get the job. Louis and Virginia thought it was a good laugh. Everything was a good laugh to the trio.
Kay’s first theatrical job came shortly after this. Basil Sidney was about to introduce an innovation to blasé Broadway. He was to present “Hamlet” in modern dress, discarding the ancient trappings. Kay got the part of the “Player Queen.” She received thirty-five dollars a week. She spent thirty-seven fifty. Just as thrift and simplicity mark Kay’s life today, ten years ago she was forever splurging her newly earned money.
Lois, earning fifty a week, and thinking she was practically plutocratic, met Kay the night of the annual Beaux-Arts Ball. Wrack her memory, she can’t think of what the costume motif was for that year, but she knew that one or two of the twelve young business and professional men that made up the gang that eddied about the girls, called for her and took her to meet Kay and Virginia.
She had on some sort of rose-colored velvet gown, made by one of the town’s leading costumers. It might have been Louis Quatorze, trimmed with gold lace. Whatever it was, it illuminated Kay’s beauty until it was almost breathtaking. The costumer realized this possibility. That is why he had created it expressly for Kay and secured her consent to wear it in the grand march. He knew that her appearance in his dress would bring him fame.
But Kay, always full of healthy fun, was restless in the velvet elegance. The gang milled about the small living room, putting off its departure until the last moment. Finally Kay could stand the formality of the dress no more. She retreated to the tiny bedroom and came out for a few moments later clad in the homemade page costume that her mother, the former actress Katherine Clinton, had made for her. At last she was comfortably attired. Of course she returned to the velvet masterpiece before the party went on to the Beaux-Arts rout. But the gesture was like today’s Kay. She would rather wear slacks or pajamas than the elaborate dresses that are created for her by Warners’ Orry-Kelly. She is not interested in fussy clothes.
About a year and a half after Kay met Lois, she and Virginia gave up their apartment, and Kay and Lois took one together. Kay was making thirty-five a week, Lois fifty; the apartment rented for seventy-five a month. It was in the predepression days and living costs were sky-high. Their one extravagance was that each girl had her own phone. They were taking no chances on losing an invitation because the other one was keeping Mr. Bell’s device busy with her date-making. That the girls barely got by on their joint earnings, didn’t bother them at all. They were having a big time for themselves. Kay’s beauty was attracting even more attention—men, screen tests, proposals of this, that, and the other thing.
Kay never bothered about patronizing the beauty salons to enhance her looks. Her short, smart haircut, which set the nation’s style as soon as it was seen on the screen, was contrived in a men’s barber shop. Gown designers begged her to wear their creations, knowing that Kay was present at all the places where the smartest people gathered. Unconcernedly, Kay danced all night, was up early the next morning to take a screen test. She never even thought about conserving her energies. She was distinguishingly healthy.
Kay still has fun, but it’s not the riotous fun of ten years ago. Her amusements are tempered to spectator sports, instead of active athletics; to dinners, a few parties.
When Kay went to Hollywood and a screen career, it spelled the end of the household of Francis and Long. Four years passed, during which much happened, before the girls met again.
Much happened, yes. Lois was divorced from cartoonist Peter Arno; Kay was married to actor Kenneth MacKenna. One morning, at a little ramshackle farmhouse that she had taken for the season, so her small daughter could have some country air, Lois had a wire from Kay saying that she and her new husband were coming to see her. Knowing Kay so well, Lois was nevertheless a little frightened at the prospect of entertaining a Hollywood star. Supposing Kay had changed? To add to her panic, the water main had burst, which deprived the house of water.
Lois, not without ingenuity, hurried to the small town’s general store and bought all available old-fashioned china receptacles and hastily thrust them in the conventional spots in the bedroom. She was relying on the healthy humor of the Kay she had known to help her over a discomforting situation. If Kay had grown star-conscious, she was lost. If Kay had not, she knew the scene would bring one of her hearty laughs. Kay and her husband arrived. Kay took one look, and laughed that throaty, lush laugh that Lois remembered from their Thirty-nine Street apartment days. The weekend was a glorious reunion for the friends. P.S. the water main was repaired that afternoon.
Their last meeting was this past summer. Lois Long made her first trip to Hollywood to write dialogue.
“Kay, for the first time, is thinking of tomorrow instead of spending all she makes today,” said Lois Long. But with her sense of humor Kay is still vastly lavish. A good joke is still worth a deep, throaty Francis-can laugh.