Kay Francis by Scott O'Brien
The story of Kay Francis is rooted in New York City where her parents were married in 1903. In the fall of 1904, Joseph Sprague Gibbs and his actress wife, Katharine Clinton Franks, traveled to Oklahoma City on a wild goose chase. Joseph had hoped to buy a string of wild ponies from the Sioux Indians, but soon found out the U.S. Government had beat him to it. To make ends meet, Joseph was hired as a hotel manager, while Katharine gave birth to their only child, Katharine Edwina Gibbs on January 13, 1905. By the time young Katharine was four her dad had left. Joseph, at 6’ 4”, would leave Katharine (Kay) the legacy of being Hollywood’s tallest leading lady (5’ 7”) in the 1930’s. Her mother claimed that Kay got her unique presence and personality from her father.
After relocating back on the east coast Katharine returned to the stage and was associated with such groups as Boston’s Castle Square Stock Company. Theatre trouping in the early 1900’s was rough. Kay was out on the road with her mother and attended Catholic Schools when it was affordable. After attending Miss Fuller’s School for Young Ladies in Ossining (1919) and Cathedral School (1920), Kay enrolled at the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School (no relation) in New York City. It was here she acquired her astute business sense. Kay landed her first job working for two businessmen. She later referred to herself as “a most excellent secretary” and “well worth every penny of the salary” paid to her.
At age 17, Kay was swept off her feet by the dashing, well-heeled young man from Pittsfield, MA., James Dwight Francis. Their December, 1922 marriage at New York’s St. Thomas Church was not to last. Dwight’s roaming eye and Kay’s dissatisfaction with life in Pittsfield (“I hated every dust rag I owned and took a very hearty and very personal dislike to every egg I fried and every potato I boiled”) had Kay Paris bound for divorce in the Spring of 1925. While there, she was courted by a tall, good-looking ex-Harvard athlete and member of the Boston Bar Association. Bill Gaston also became Kay’s second husband (a secret she would not divulge until 1934, when she filed for divorce from her fourth husband!) Kay and Bill only saw each other on occasion, as he was in Boston and Kay had decided to follow her mother’s footsteps and go on stage. She made her debut in a modern dress version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in November, 1925. She claimed she got the part by “lying a lot, to the right people.” One of the “right” people was producer Stuart Walker. Walker hired Kay to join his Portmanteau Theatre Company and she soon found herself commuting between Dayton, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, playing wise-cracking secretaries, saucy French floozies, walk-ons, bit parts, and heavies. Kay considered the experience invaluable. By February, 1927, she was ready to return to Broadway in the play Crime. Sylvia Sidney had the lead in Crime and would later say that Kay stole the show.
When she wasn’t acting on stage, Kay played the part of the quintessential Jazz Age woman. She had bobbed her hair in a strikingly short style that attracted attention wherever she went. She made money modeling, and posing for such artists as Charles Baskerville and Sir Gerald Kelly. Her portrait by Kelly was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1926. Kay was known for creating a stir at such nightspots as Tony’s and Texas Guinan’s. She took copious notes of the “goings-on” at various clubs and her roommate Lois Long included Kay’s observations in her column for The New Yorker. At 21, Kay was ahead of her time -- a sexually liberated woman who enjoyed love-making and frequenting the speakeasies. ”
After Kay’s divorce from Gaston, she became engaged to society playboy Alan Ryan Jr. She also promised Alan’s uppity family that she would not return to the stage. Her promise only lasted a few months and she was back on Broadway as an aviatrix in Rachel Crothers’ play Venus. Kay’s biggest success came in George M. Cohan’s Elmer the Great starring Walter Huston. Huston was so impressed with Kay that he encouraged her to take a screen test for the Paramount film Gentlemen of the Press. Released in early 1929, Photoplay magazine considered Kay’s screen debut “one of the most astonishing first performances in the history of motion pictures.” She was soon on the train for Hollywood.
Hollywood. Kay never really liked tinsel-town and what she called the “swank” that went with it. Upon her arrival she bought a Ford, learned to drive and rented a small bungalow. Kay lived modestly with her lady-in-waiting, Ida, a black woman she had hired en route to California. Ida would prove a devoted friend and fan for Kay in the years ahead. Kay was rushed into a Clara Bow feature playing a trapeze artist in Dangerous Curves (1929). It was Bow who suggested Kay shorten her name from Katharine so it would fit snugly on the marquee. So christened, Kay was featured in vamp parts before hitting her stride opposite William Powell in Street of Chance (1930). It was her first sympathetic role and the on-screen chemistry between Kay and Powell proved big box-office. The pair were to be teamed six times. Fan magazines built up a Powell-Francis romance, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Kay had hastily chalked up another marriage to writer-director John Meehan in New York. She never would admit to the marriage and must have assumed it had been annulled. Soon after her arrival in Hollywood, Kay consummated an affair with actor Kenneth MacKenna. The pair married in January, 1931. When MacKenna’s Hollywood career foundered he found himself spending more time in New York. Although Kay commuted frequently to New York herself, the ties that bind had loosened considerably by 1934 and they divorced. It was through Kenneth that Kay acquired a passion for sailing. Kay often navigated the Pacific on her own schooner until she left Hollywood in 1946.
Kay’s career at Paramount changed gears when Warner’s promised her star status at a better salary. In many of Kay’s Paramount films she was only on screen for 8-15 minutes. None-the-less she did some fine portrayals in such films as George Cukor’s rollicking Girls About Town (1931) and the darkly excellent melodrama Twenty-Four Hours (1931). After Kay’s career sky-rocketed at Warner’s she would return to Paramount for what many consider her best film, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932). Kay’s silky, serene edge in this film had critics raving.
Kay’s star status at Warners was complimented with stories that were focused on her unique natural persona. 1932’s One Way Passage, her last teaming with Powell, is considered the teams best. The Oscar-winning screenplay was enhanced by Kay’s understated, wistful portrayal and Powell’s suave and understanding presence. Designer Orry-Kelly always created a dozen or so eye-catching gowns for Kay’s films that rapidly turned her into a fashion icon. In 1936, Kay was crowned “The Best-Dressed Woman in America” by New York’s Fashion Academy. Kay always brushed off such accolades as nonsense. During World War II, Kay was asked for the umpteenth time about being the best-dressed woman. Kay, who had worked hundred’s of hours on behalf of the hospital unit of the Naval Aid Auxiliary exclaimed, “When you see fine young men lying on hospital beds with their legs missing, how can you make yourself believe a wardrobe is important!”
One cannot overlook the giving spirit of Kay Francis off-screen. She always gave a party for cast and crew after film production that provided them with their personal favorite dishes. Kay would go to the front office to save the job of an electrician; buy a car for a wardrobe mistress who had been scrimping; provide the money for a young acting couple to adopt a baby; travel daily to a hospital until a young film attendant was on her feet again; and, Kay made sure that her mother was relocated to Hollywood and in a comfortable home of her own. Kay preferred keeping these stories from the public. She did not like the publicity game and wagged that she liked to keep a secretary-like silence regarding her employer who happened to be herself. She even requested that one close friend/writer not mention that he considered her to be one of the “most intelligent” women in Hollywood. She felt it would create a barrier and that people would be less inclined to be relaxed around her. Kay’s most generous gift was a blank check to Perc Westmore whose construction for the House of Westmore was about to fold due to lack of funds. “Fill it in for whatever you need,” Kay told him. He wrote the check for the needed amount: $25,000.
After her divorce from Kenneth MacKenna, Kay declared herself, “Lousy Wife, Happy Lover.” After a year fling with Maurice Chevalier, Kay settled in more permanently with screenwriter Delmar Daves. They were happy companion-lovers for three years -- traveling to Europe and socializing privately with other duos such as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Happy lover Kay had her fill of miscarriages and abortions. Although she loved children, Kay knew that, for her, raising a child and pursuing a film career did not mix.
At Delmar’s urging, Kay tackled the role of Florence Nightingale in The White Angel (1936). Kay gave a focused and sincere portrayal of the woman who made the nursing profession accessible to women world-wide. Nightingale saw nursing as a calling, and Kay’s focused performance personified Nightingale’s vision. However, the script, direction and Kay’s performance were highly censured by British advisors and further hampered by the Production Code which claimed that independent women such as Nightingale could only be portrayed as being noble and sacrificing. A fully fleshed-out Nightingale with a few demonic edges was not permissible. Although reviews were mostly favorable, the film failed to reach the heights of it’s predecessor the Oscar-winning The Story of Louis Pasteur.
Although Kay’s career at Warner’s had continued to flourish as she was handed the rejects of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ruth Chatterton, she was simmering underneath. Things came to a head after Kay signed a new contract in 1936-37 with the understanding she would have the film lead in the sparkling Broadway comedy Tovarich. When the role was suddenly handed over to Claudette Colbert, Kay took her bosses to court. Mysteriously, the suit was soon dropped and Kay, the studios lead female star, was relegated to studio B films unworthy of her status or talent. Roles intended for Kay in The Sisters, Dark Victory and Juarez were handed over to Bette Davis. By the time King of the Underworld (originally titled Lady Doctor) was filmed, Kay’s name was listed below the advertisement title as a featured player, while Humphrey Bogart’s name blazed above the title. At the time, her salary was nine times that of Bogart.
After leaving Warners Kay made an impressive comeback as Cary Grant’s bitchy wife in In Name Only (1939) and proved she still had the glamour and wit in It’s a Date (1940). Despite her success, Kay put her career on the back-burner. Like James Cagney and William Powell, Kay considered film-making a good way to make money. Like them, she took her work seriously. However, Kay often mentioned in interviews the importance of being of some service to others. She felt life was only worth living, through giving. In the fall of 1939 she enrolled for courses with the Red Cross, an association which continued through World War II. Kay worked with the USO, Bundles for Britain and became part of the first troupe to entertain in the war’s combat zones. Kay, along with Martha Raye, Carole Landis and Mitzi Mayfair, took flight from the US in October, 1942 to entertain in the British Isles. They begged to take their show to North Africa where servicemen’s lives were more at risk. Once permission was granted, they arrived in Algiers only to be told that they were to play in designated areas that were considered safe. Kay met with General Eisenhower and persuaded him otherwise. Eisenhower listened and granted permission. The GI’s were absolutely transfixed by the apparition of real live Hollywood glamour girls risking their lives to bring the touch and reminder of home into their lives. Later, Kay made several more tours to entertain troops, most notably an Arctic Tour in Alaska. The hallway in her home was filled with photos and mementoes from appreciative GIs. Kay claimed that it was the warmth and enthusiasm of GI audiences that gave her the courage to return to the stage.
Kay’s career in Hollywood ended as a producer and star at Monogram Studios. Kay was one of the first female producers in Hollywood. Her Monogram films were shot in 10 days using mostly the same film crew. Allotment Wives (1945) is considered the best of the lot. The story was Kay’s idea after she read a news item about an organized scam to marry servicemen for their allotment checks. The film has a gritty noir quality and Kay does a grand job getting bumped off at the end, while descending a staircase. “Nice shooting,” she tells her assassin.
When film offers weren’t forthcoming, Kay accepted a stage role in a vehicle titled Windy Hill. Ruth Chatterton directed and the play premiered in Montclaire, New Jersey. While Kay got excellent reviews, the play itself was found unworthy of a spot on Broadway. But, it wasn’t long before Kay was offered to take over the lead role in the Pulitzer Prize winning play State of the Union. She co-starred with Ralph Bellamy at the Hudson Theatre and scored a great success. After the plays run, Kay took the play on tour very successfully. When the play reached Columbus in January, 1948, according to Kay’s diary, “All hell broke loose.” Kay ended up in the hospital with third degree burns. It created a scandal, as her lover at the time, Hap Graham, was arrested on assault to kill. When things were all cleared up, Hap was freed and also out of Kay’s life. It took her several months to recover.
Kay redefined her life. She moved to New York and decided to permanently resume her career on stage. Her appearances brought in the crowds and were great at the box-office. She was frequently invited back due to public demand. From 1948-1953 she toured in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Let Us Be Gay, Favorite Stranger, Good-bye, My Fancy, The Web and the Rock, Mirror Mirror, and a much acclaimed performance as Julia Lambert in the production of Somerset Maugham’s Theatre, co-starring Anthony Perkins. (In 2005 the role of Julia Lambert would garner Annette Bening an Oscar nomination in Being Julia).
Television and radio were also a part of Kay’s resume. She made at least a dozen TV appearances from 1950-53, but her career came to a stand-still in 1954. Kay’s close friend from 1945 until her death, Jetti Ames (who toured in Windy Hill), says that Kay’s injuries from the 1948 accident had taken it’s toll. Kay loved the theatre and hated giving it up, but it just wasn’t doable anymore. Kay had a beautiful apartment on East 64th St., she had a lovable companion Dennis Allen (who co-starred with her in Theatre), and she was the godmother of Jetti’s two sons. Kay’s retirement was spent in traveling, going to the theatre and enjoying one of her favorite places on earth: the seaside on Cape Cod’s Popponesset Beach. Kay rented a cottage each summer at Popponesset and relished the sea and relaxing atmosphere. Kay also pursued her life-long avocation of needlepoint and rug making. When in New York she organized a group that called themselves the “Monday Night Hookin’ Society -- Kay Francis, chief hooker.”
When Kay learned that she had cancer, she judiciously let go of her relationship with Dennis Allen in 1961. Dennis was 17 years Kay’s junior and he later claimed that she didn’t want him wasting his life holding the hand of a sick woman. Kay and her maid Eunice Hawkins (who Kay employed in 1949) stuck it out until end. Her health had reached a crisis in 1967-68 and she no longer took visitors. She would call Jetti for long talks to assuage her loneliness, but Kay was always very philosophical and was intelligent enough to realize it was all grist for the mill. She took care of all the final details with her lawyer and bequeathed her $1,000,000 estate to The Seeing Eye to train guide dogs for the blind. It was the gesture of a woman who believed in the relief of suffering, being of some service to others, and in her words “doing something useful in this world.”
Kay Francis died August 26, 1968, age 63. Today, her bequest to The Seeing Eye accounts for 75% of the organizations annual costs. Her legacy continues on film and in the lives of the blind who are able to lead more independent and self-confident lives as a result of Kay’s generosity.