Published August 27, 1968 in the NEW YORK TIMES
Kay Francis, one of the foremost motion picture actresses of the 1930s, died yesterday of cancer in her apartment on East 64th Street. She was 63 years old.
Miss Francis had returned to her home on Saturday after having been a patient at New York Hospital. At her request, there will be no funeral service.
The actress, who quite frankly, wanted to make it to the top, went from the Broadway stage to Hollywood, where she was quickly established as one of the screen’s busiest, best-paid and most popular actresses.
Her tall slender figure and raven black hair, which framed a face dominated by large, moist eyes, were seen in more than 50 motion pictures from 1929 to 1945, and were frequently admired as of an almost regal beauty.
When she started, the lexicon of the screen had not jelled, and talking pictures were sometimes called “audible pictorial transcriptions” and actresses were said to “impersonate” characters. In 1931, as in one or two subsequent years, Miss Francis made seven pictures, whose titles suggest their distinction:
“Ladies’ Man” (with William Powell); “Scandal Sheet,” “Twenty-Four Hours,” “The Vice Squad,” “Girls About Town,” and “Guilty Hands” (with Lionel Barrymore).
MORE THAN A LIVING
It was, as it proved, more than a living. In 1937, Miss Francis received $227,500 in salary, in a year when F.A. Cudahy Jr., president of the Cudahy Packing Company, received $75,000 and Harvey S. Firestone, chairman of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, got $85,000.
The actress, who sometimes submitted to but loathed interviews, held strongly to the right of personal privacy for public figures, but there was a point in the mid-thirties when hardly a wink of her eyelash went unreported—especially if the wind seemed to be aimed at one or another of her swains or suitors.
Miss Francis, who could at times blaze up in anger, was not always at pains to be polite to reporters and film crew members. In 1934 it was reported that she “flew at a news photographer who snapped at her picture” at Newark Airport.
The actress had a way of landing near the top of various lists. In addition to the salary list, she was often included on the lists of the best-dressed women in films, and, in 1933, Maxwell Arnow included her, with Katharine Hepburn and Helen Hayes, as one of the “10 brainiest women” in motion pictures.
Her stately figure was sometimes wrapped in silken fur to the ear lobes; she would appear in a broad-brimmed hat with a pheasant’s feather curling smartly from its band; she was deemed the epitome of glamour and sexiness in the slinky evening gowns in which she often portrayed “the other woman” on the screen.
Miss Francis, who was afflicted with a faint lisp and could not always count on pronouncing her r’s correctly, tried something a little different in playing Florence Nightingale in “The White Angel.”
The New York Times critic called the film “dignified reasonably accurate, deeply moving and displaying pompous” and wrote that Kay Francis as the founder of modern nursing “talks, walks, and thinks like a historical character; when she speaks she is speaking for posterity.”
Miss Francis played the top roles in “Raffles,” “First Lady,” “One Way Passage,” “Mandalay,” “British Agent,” “Wonder Bar” (with Al Jolson) and “The House on 56th Street.”
“The Goose and the Gander” proved to be an especially perilous adventure since, as a critic wrote, its chief impediment to an evening pleasantly unimportant in the cinema comes from its insistence on cramming r’s, which have an embarrassing habit of becoming w’s when Miss Francis goes to work on them.”
Some of the most popular of her films had to do with frustrated mother love, as in “I Found Stella Parish” (1935) and “Give Me Your Heart” (1936).
In 1941 she appeared with Jack Benny in “Charley’s Aunt.” Miss Francis’ film career, which have been so notable, ended rather sadly with her departure from the major studios to Monogram, where she made what one film collector here described yesterday with grim sarcasm, as “The Monogram Trilogy:” “Divorce” (1945), “Allotment Wives” (1945), and “Wife Wanted” (1946), low-budget melodramas, in which she acted as well as was co-producer with Jeffery Bernerd.
Before going to Hollywood, Miss Francis had appeared on Broadway in “Venus,” “Crime,” and “Elmer the Great,” opposite Walter Huston. In 1946 she returned to the stage after an 18-year absence in “State of the Union,” the Howard Lindsay-Russel Crouse Pulitzer Prize comedy.
She ended her acting career in summer stock.
OKLAHOMA CITY NATIVE
Verity is rarely stressed in motion picture biographical data, and Miss Francis was listed as having been born at three places, but Oklahoma City appears to have been the site, on Jan. 13, 1905. She was educated in private schools and convents. A teenage marriage to Dwight Francis, scion of a socially prominent Massachusetts family, ended in divorce, as did her marriages to William A. Gaston, a lawyer, and Kenneth MacKenna, a Broadway actor.
Miss Francis had lived a rather secluded life here lately and expressed some bitterness at how her Hollywood fortunes had risen so high and sunk so low.