Fay Kanin died yesterday at the age of 95, and I suspect that her accomplishments have long since faded from the memory of most people. But, beyond her career as a movie and television writer and playwright, she was a remarkable woman – graceful, gracious, and determined that women should steer their own lives.
A lifelong feminist, she was only the second woman to head the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Bette Davis had been president for a few weeks in 1941.) And no woman has been elected president since Fay served for the maximum four years on a board that had 34 men and one other woman.
I interviewed her many times and, when she was in her eighties, I wrote her advance obituary for the New York Times. Two stories that she told me seem to me to illuminate her.
As a seventh grader in Elmira, New York, she was a finalist in the state spelling bee. When she didn’t win, she spent the next 12 months studying vocabulary words. The next year she won the contest, and Governor Franklin Roosevelt, who presented Fay with her trophy, was so charmed by the 12-year-old girl that he invited her to visit him in Albany. When she graduated from high school, President and Mrs. Roosevelt sent roses.
Years later, when no one would hire her as a screenwriter, she got a job at RKO as a reader of other peoples’ scripts. “I stayed for two years and learned everything about the studio there was to learn,” she said. “I walked on dead and live sets, invaded the cutting room, snooped in the music department. I worked all day and stayed on at night.”
She also found a husband at RKO, a writer of B movies named Michael Kanin. They spent their honeymoon in a rented house in Malibu writing scripts together. Perhaps the most successful of those scripts was “Teacher’s Pet” about the collision between a strong-willed journalism teacher played by Doris Day and a hard-boiled city editor, Clark Gable. Their most successful play was “Rashomon,” based on Riuunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories about a rape and a murder --or was it a seduction and a suicide?-- in the forest outside Kyoto. The 1959 play became their annuity, turned into a Paul Newman western, “Outrage,” and performed by more than 60 amateur and regional theaters.
Then Kanin found a niche of her own, writing by herself Emmy and other award-winning television movies about a blue collar housewife who wants more from life than cooking and cleaning for a husband (“Tell Me Where It Hurts”); a candid look at prostitution in Manhattan (“Hustling”); and, the most controversial of the lot, “Friendly Fire,” based on New Yorker articles about a Vietnam War soldier, killed accidentally by his own troops.
During her four years as president, she dragged the Academy into film preservation. Warner Bros. had taken an ax to George Cukor’s 1954 “A Star is Born,” starring Judy Garland, after the movie opened poorly. In 1981, she decided that the Academy should spearhead a treasure hunt to put Cukor’s original version back together. A masterful diplomat with a pixie smile, Fay even got Warner Bros. to finance the eight-month hunt through film laboratories and Warner warehouses.
I had written a book about the making of “Casablanca” and had become an admirer of one of its writers, Julius Epstein. Julie was a good friend of Fay’s. When he suffered the stroke that caused his death in 1990, she summed up bittersweet endings with her usual elegance.
“They’re calling our class,” she said.
On March 27, 2013, class ended.