Riskin & Wray: A Hollywood Memoir

By Steven Libowitz   |   February 21, 2019
Victoria Riskin’s biography on her parents Fay Wray and Robert Riskin will be released by Pantheon on February 26 (photo by Gabrielle Mannino, The Martha’s Vineyard Times)

Victoria Riskin’s life would be plenty worthy of an autobiography. The 30-year Montecito resident, who is married to filmmaker-writer-producer David W. Rintels, has had a storied career as a practicing psychologist, screenwriter (My Antonia, The Last Best Year) who served as president of the Writers Guild of America West, and director of Human Rights Watch, not to mention her local endeavors that include chairing the Board of Trustees of Antioch University Santa Barbara for seven years during its recent period of expansion, and helping to bring the NPR station KCRW to the Central Coast.

But her new memoir is actually a dual biography of two of early Hollywood’s most intriguing, colorful, and perhaps undervalued personalities, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, the actress and screenwriter who also happen to be her parents. It’s a journey through at least all three of their lives, one with many twists and turns and moments of discovery as Riskin interweaves the stories of her parents with the formative period in Hollywood and the nation circa the Great Depression. She writes as a loving daughter but also as a historian who has done her homework, in the process performing a delicate juggling act.

“I realized that I wanted to write about my parents much more so than about myself,” Riskin explained recently about the project that got its start during Riskin’s two years in a weekly Montecito memoir writing group. “I could look at these interesting people with fresh eyes with the distance of time, and could learn things about them that I had not known or appreciated.”

Riskin said the story blossomed out of her parents’ romance and marriage, as well as response to war, their commitment to FDR and to the New Deal.

“I also spent a lot of time thinking about what was their place in film history? What were their times all about? How do I weave that together with my own story, which is the framework of the book? Who were these people and how did they influence my life, and how do I feel about them as their child?… It was like going down a rabbit hole, and I found myself on all these interesting detours, and then having to put it together as a cohesive book.”

But it took one more act of juggling by nature for the book to make it to publication, as key material was almost lost in the January 2018 Montecito debris flows, which destroyed Riskin’s home on Randall Road.

“Before we evacuated, I’d set aside lots of photos for the book, notes, and other things that were precious to me and put them in a plastic file box upstairs in our house. Three days later, we discovered there was no house at all. The top had flown onto our neighbor’s roof and then collapsed. But three weeks later, when we had a crew going through the debris, they found the box, perfect and untouched, all of it safe. So the book itself is a little bit of a miracle.”

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, which will be released by Pantheon on February 26, will be celebrated at an event at the Music Academy on February 23 that launches Riskin’s national book tour, and at the Santa Barbara Club on February 26. Contact Allie Lebos at aelebos@gmail.com or 1-(972)-922-8239 for more information. Signed copies of the book will also be available at Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito and Chaucer’s Books. 

Q. What does the world perhaps get wrong or not understand about each of your parents?

A. Most of the world thinks of my mother as having made one movie (King Kong). But it was 120 films within a career that spanned 60 years from the silents to early TV. And she was a multidimensional person, so much more than just a movie star. I feel I portrayed her with all her facets. You get to know the human being beyond the surface understanding.

With my father, most people say he did the Frank Capra movies – but really, Frank Capra did the Robert Riskin films. Capra was an archconservative. He’s been given the title as creator of the common man/populist romantic comedies of the 1930s, but it was my dad’s writing and value system at work. Capra did a wonderful job directing those screenplays, but it was my father’s ideas. But Capra hired a publicist to advance his image and was very successful at it.

There’s a famous story often told about my father walking into Frank’s office after that, put 100 pieces of blank paper on his desk and said “Here. Put the Capra touch on that!” My father swore it wasn’t true, but my uncle swore it was. Either way, writers do have that issue (of directors getting the credit for their stories)… When I was president of the Writer’s Guild, I was happy to advocate for the family of screenwriters. I think it’s deeply imbedded in that sense of what Capra did with creating the impression that he was the writer/creator of these movies.

I am also curious about both what you learned about your parents that you might not have known in completing this project, and even more so, what you learned about yourself, what resonated the most, in writing the book.

My father died when I was six, so he was frozen in time, and put on a pedestal. I had deep grief over losing him, a thread of mourning that never really left or was fully resolved. I think for me, finally at this point in my life, going back and getting to know him as a human being and a writer, a key figure in Hollywood who played an important role, with his gifts, his value system, and the themes in his movies – he became a multidimensional man who I could now know as a completely real person. And that put him in the right place I needed him to be in my life.

Some people spend their whole lifetime playing out a theme that was imbedded when they were a child. I feel like I’m finally a significantly more balanced adult. It took a while.

How does your dad’s movie and what your parents represent resonate in today’s world?

One of the films I’ll be showing on tour is Meet John Doe, in which the overarching theme is about people trying to control the public, a powerful newspaperman and demagoguery. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a subtle conversation about people who want to suck up all the money while others are starving and need it. These are Robert Riskin themes, and they are themes for today. So when we show the movies, we’ll have a conversation about how we’ve already been there and we can survive this if we stick together and maintain clarity about our values rather than demonize each other. 

From the early reviews, it seems like people are enjoying the story, your writing, and your perspective in capturing the era and the story of these two people who happen to be your parents as individuals, plus their love story, and your relationship to them.

It’s heartening that it’s being received as a warm and engaging and fascinating journey into old Hollywood, one with no emphasis on scandal but where the people are likeable and interesting.

How do you sort through family stories and find out what’s legend and what’s real, and not overdo the writing? People have said it’s a book that’s easy to read and engaging. I’m relieved to hear that, because it took a lot of hard work to get it that way. 

Has writing the memoir got your creative juices going again? Do you foresee another book or screenplay?

It seems that when I develop a passion or keen interest, I follow it. But there is a clean beginning, middle, and end. Not that you end the fight for human rights – I’ve carried that with me all these years whatever I was doing. But now I play a different role and find a different outlet or direction for where that energy goes, whether it’s the radio station, Human Rights Watch, writing, or education in general.

I used to think I had ADD, but it’s more that I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to follow what captured my fascination and interest and passion. I haven’t felt slaved to anything. I’m always looking forward.

Next up is being on the road, talking about the book and seeing how my story touches others. Who knows where that might lead? I’m excited to be going to places like Austin or Omaha and meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise. We’ll see what comes of that. It’s a whole different endeavor. Having a website for the book, and learning about social media at my stage of life is like trying to roller skate. It’s a new set of skills. It’s an adventure and whole lot of fun.


You might also be interested in...