Katharine “Kay” Edwina Gibbs was born January 13, 1905 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Her mother Katharine was a theatrical actress and singer, touring under the stage name of Katharine Clinton.
Her father was out of the picture by the time Katharine was four years old.
Kay tagged along with her mother on the road until she turned 16, enrolling in the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York City.
She never discouraged rumors that her mother, Katharine Gibbs, was the pioneering businesswoman who had established the school, though in fact there was no relation.
Then, at the age of 17, young Kay married a well-to-do Massachusetts man, James Francis in December of 1922.
Kay Francis separated from James in 1924.
In the spring of 1925, Kay went to Paris to get a divorce.
While there, she was courted by a former Harvard athlete and member of the Boston Bar Association, Bill Gaston.
Kay and Bill married, however the couple saw each other only on occasion; he was in Boston and Kay had decided to follow her mother’s footsteps and go on the stage in New York.
Kay Francis made her Broadway debut as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in November 1925.
Kay later claimed she got the part by “lying a lot, to the right people”.
One of the “right” people was producer Stuart Walker, who 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.
By February 1927, Kay returned to Broadway in the play Crime, stealing the show away from the lead Sylvia Sidney.
After Kay’s divorce from Bill Gaston, she became engaged to a society playboy, Alan Ryan Jr. She promised Alan’s family that she would not return to the stage – a promise that lasted only a few months before she was back on Broadway as an aviatrix in a Rachel Crothers play, Venus.
In fact, she appeared in her last Broadway production in 1928 with a play called “Elmer the Great.”
The play was written by Ring Lardner, produced by George M. Cohan, and Walter Huston was the star. Huston was so impressed by Kay that he encouraged her to take a screen test for the 1929 Paramount Pictures film Gentlemen of the Press.
Kay got the job which led to the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in New York.
Kay then married writer-director John Meehan in New York.
By this time, film studios had started their exodus from New York to California, and many Broadway actors had been enticed to travel west to Hollywood to make films, including Ann Harding, Aline MacMahon, Helen Twelvetrees, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard.
Kay also signed on to a Paramount contract, made the move to California, and created an immediate impression in the industry.
Soon after her arrival in Hollywood, Kay consummated an affair with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna, divorcing Meehan.
She frequently costarred with William Powell, and appeared in as many as six to eight movies a year, making a total of 21 films between 1929 and 1931.
Kay then married Kenneth MacKenna in January of 1931.
Kay’s career flourished in spite of a distinct speech impediment (she pronounced the letters “r” and “l” as “w”) that gave rise to the nickname “Wavishing Kay Fwancis.”
Her career at Paramount changed gears when Warner Brothers promised her star status as well as a better salary.
Both Kay Francis and William Powell switched studios and appeared in George Cukor’s 1931 films Girls About Town and Twenty-Four Hours.
After Kay’s career took off at Warner Brothers, she was loaned back to Paramount for Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Trouble in Paradise.
Soon Kay was getting roles that allowed her a more sympathetic screen persona than had hitherto been the case as she had been cast primarily as the villainess.
For example, in the 1932 film The False Madonna, Kay played a jaded society woman nursing a terminally ill child who learned to appreciate the importance of hearth and home.
Thus, from 1932 through 1936, Kay Francis became the queen of the Warner lot and increasingly her films were developed as star vehicles.
When husband MacKenna’s Hollywood career foundered, he found himself spending more time in New York, resulting in another divorce in 1934.
By the mid-thirties, Kay Francis had become one of the highest-paid people in the United States.
She frequently played long-suffering heroines, in films such as I Found Stella Parrish, Secrets of an Actress, and Comet over Broadway, displaying to good advantage lavish wardrobes that, in some cases, were more memorable than the characters she played — a fact often emphasized by contemporary film reviewers.
Too frequently, however, Kay’s clotheshorse reputation led Warner Brothers to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes, designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic, rather than on scripts.
Eventually, Kay herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles and began openly to feud with her employers, even threatening a lawsuit against them for inferior treatment.
This in turn led to the termination of her contract in 1939.
“Box Office Poison”
The Independent Theatre Owners Association paid for an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter that included Kay Francis on a list of stars nicknamed “Box Office Poison”.
Others on the list included Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Dolores del Río, and others.
After her release from Warner Brothers, Kay was unable to secure another studio contract.
Then good friend Carole Lombard, one of the most popular stars of the late 1930s and early 1940s (and who had previously been a supporting player in Kay’s 1931 film, Ladies’ Man) tried to bolster Kay’s career by insisting Kay Francis be cast in the 1939 film In Name Only.
It worked, and Kay was given a supporting role to Carole Lombard and Cary Grant, but wisely recognized that the film offered her an opportunity to engage in some serious acting.
After this comeback, Kay focused more on character and accepted supporting roles, playing catty professional women — holding her own against Rosalind Russell in The Feminine Touch, for example.
Kay eventually did land another lead role in the Bogart gangster film King of the Underworld.
World War II
With the start of World War II, Kay Francis did volunteer work, including extensive war-zone touring, which was first chronicled in a book attributed to fellow volunteer Carole Landis, Four Jills in a Jeep, which became a popular 1943 film of the same name, with a cavalcade of stars and Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair joining Landis and Francis to fill out the complement of Jills.
Despite the success of Four Jills, the end of the war found Kay Francis virtually unemployable in Hollywood.
She signed a three-film contract with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures that gave her production credit as well as star billing. The results—the films Divorce, Wife Wanted, and Allotment Wives—had limited releases in 1945 and 1946.
Kay Francis spent the balance of the 1940s on the stage, appearing with some success in State of the Union and touring in various productions of plays old and new, including one, Windy Hill, backed by former Warners colleague Ruth Chatterton.
Declining health, aggravated by an accident in 1948 in which she was badly burned by a radiator, hastened Kay’s retirement from show business.
In 1966, Kay Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had spread and proved fatal.
She died August 26, 1968 at the age of 63. Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered.
Having no living immediate family members, Kay Francis left more than $1,000,000 to Seeing Eye, Inc., which trained guide dogs for the blind.
Kay Francis married five times. Today, her diaries, preserved in an academic collection at Wesleyan University, paint a picture of a woman whose personal life tragically was often in disarray.
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