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In the 1930s, Merle Oberon wasn't the only exotic-looking woman of color who graced the silver screen. Perhaps one of Hollywood's mega-stars was as well. The glamorous Kay Francis, who starred alongside the top leading male performers of the day, including William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Coleman, and Leslie Howard.
Kay Francis would never think of herself as passing; she was Kay. And in her mind's eye, the little tinge of café au lait smoldering beneath her creamy fair-complexion was just a mere coincidence.
The actress charmed American moviegoers with her startling beauty, larger-than-life attitude, lisp, sophistication, extraordinary wardrobe, graceful manner, and diction. Moreover, she had a magnetic quality about her that drew the audience in, entranced by the fantasy she conjured up for her cinematic characters.
As Kay blossomed and matured into an attractive young lady, Katherine Clinton having separated from Kay's father, Joe Gibbs, was determined for Kay to marry advantageously, ingratiate herself among the wealthy, and secure a trade to support herself.
Katherine Clinton, a theater actress, and the world around Kay contributed to the Kay Francis mystique. Kay was most likely coached in elocution by Katherine. And her daily encounters provided the young Kay opportunity to observe her mother's diction, articulateness, and broad vocabulary. And by osmosis, Kay absorbed Katherine's speech practices.
Also, Kay's exposure to the stage and the behind-the scenes preparation provided her with insight about wardrobe, makeup application, posture, and carriage. Likewise, Kay's modeling jobs contributed to her grace, assuredness, and poise.
At some point, the great racial divide in America was explained to Kay. It's unclear whether Katherine or Kay in her youth fraternized with black people. Given Katherine Clinton's social and economic agenda for Kay, it seems highly improbable.
It's possible that Kay was sexually abused as a child. Since Katherine worked odd jobs to make ends meet, more than likely she left Kay in the care of others. Or perhaps one of Katherine's male suitors, a rooming house boarder, or someone affiliated with the theater, took advantage of her sexually. Hence, her possible molestation as a child would account for Kay Francis' over-the-top promiscuous behavior as an adult.
Kay Francis' six-month secretary course at the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School provided the actress with an entree into the business world, where she eventually parlayed a position with Juliana Cutting, the Dean of Social Secretaries of the New York affluent. Cutting booked debutantes' coming out parties and organized social events for New York's elite. Consequently, Kay developed contacts within that realm and soaked up their mannerism.
When asked about her family, Kay Francis' stories were filled with twists, turns, and untruths in some instances. However, her expressive eyebrows, large gray eyes, aristocratic nose, and petulant lips, along with her skillful ability to BS, infused the falsehoods with the believability required to quell her affluent chums' curiosities.
Katherine Clinton breathed a sigh of relief when Kay married James Dwight Francis, the son of a wealthy Massachusetts family. The marriage was brief, and Kay's trip to Paris to obtain a hush-hush divorce from James, an alcoholic who physically abused her, provided an opportunity to rub shoulders and hobnob with young aristocrats.
In time, Kay was solidly entrenched within the white world of the stage and the film industry. As well as chummy with segments of the East Coast upper class. Furthermore, all of Kay's husbands were Caucasian as well as her male and female lovers. Consequently, Kay's mindset, outlook on life, and frame of reference were Caucasian.
But Kay couldn't shake the persistent rumor that Katherine Clinton, her mother, was the product of a black Trinidadian mother and Caucasian father. It irritated Kay to no end. Although quite fair, Katherine Clinton appears biracial in the available black and white photographs of her.
From time to time, Kay Francis would mention having Spanish blood attributed to her grandmother, Isabel Franks, to squash the rumors that she was part black because of her raven hair and dark skin.
It seems the black community was quiet as a church mouse when it came to Kay Francis. Even though many suspected some black blood coursed through her blue veins.
However, Maya Angelou in her autobiography mentioned she and Bailey, her brother, thought Kay Francis resembled their mother, but felt she was much more attractive than the actress.
Katherine Clinton commented in a 1936 interview that she and Kay were the last line of their family. Was Katherine's mother, Isabel Clinton Franks, passing, and cut-off all communication with her family members? Did Katherine's mother change her first and last names?
Apparently, Katherine Clinton struggled financially when she separated from her husband, Joseph Gibbs. It seems all of her known relatives were deceased.
Professor Allyson Hobbs, a Stanford History Professor, and author of the book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing (Harvard Press), argues that passing, the act of living as another racial identity, also encompasses transitioning into a higher economic class, anglicizing one's ethnic surname, a gay individual living as a heterosexual, or an individual living as the opposite gender. Moreover, she infers those passing usually terminate all ties with their family, to keep their deception safe and hidden. Thereby erasing their existence and leaving those they left behind traumatized.
Was it possible that Katherine Clinton was unaware of the other relatives on her family tree?
Curiously, Kay Francis was very close to her maid, and secretary, Ida Perry, a West Indian. In fact, it was thought Ida Perry was her mother when Kay brought her to Hollywood. Was Ida Perry, a black woman, one of Kay Francis' relatives?
It is said Kay Francis was quite mean-spirited when intoxicated, and the side of Kay that grew up in sordid rooming houses and that ate popcorn and drank loads of water to keep her stomach from growling slipped out. Just like her African ancestry smoldering beneath the surface of her skin. . . No doubt, Kay Francis and Katherine Clinton had many secrets which they kept to themselves like we all do.
For more in-depth details about Kay Francis and her movie career, there are lots of articles available on the Internet, and there are several Kay Frances biographies available at your local library and bookstores.
1. Kear, L. and Rossman, J. (2006). Kay Francis, A Passionate Life and Career. McFarland & Company, Inc.
2. O'Brien, S. (2007). Kay Francis, I Can't Wait To Be Forgotten. BearManor Media.
3. Eells, G. (1976). Ginger, Loretta and Irene who? Penguin.
I'm I. Cowthern -- I enjoy watching old black and white movies and listening to jazz, pop, rock, R&B, and classical music.