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pictured in 1931
Katherine Edwina Gibbs
January 13, 1905
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.
|Died||August 26, 1968
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||breast cancer|
|Spouse(s)||James Dwight Francis
Kay Francis (January 13, 1905 – August 26, 1968) was an American stage and film actress. After a brief period on Broadway in the late 1920s, she moved to film and achieved her greatest success between 1930 and 1936, when she was the number one female star at the Warner Brothers studio and the highest-paid American film actress. Some of her film-related material and personal papers are available to scholars and researchers in the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives.
Francis was born Katherine Edwina Gibbs in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1905. Her parents, Joseph Sprague Gibbs and his actress wife Katharine Clinton Francis, had been married in 1903; however, by the time their daughter was four, Joseph had left the family. Francis inherited her unusual height from her father, who stood 6 feet 4 inches, she was to become Hollywood's tallest leading lady (5 ft 9 in) in the 1930s.
While she never discouraged the assumption that her mother was the pioneering American businesswoman who established the "Katharine Gibbs" chain of vocational schools, Francis was actually raised in the hardscrabble theatrical circuit of the period. In reality, her mother had been born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and eventually became a moderately successful actress and singer under the stage name Katharine Clinton.
Young Kay was often out on the road with her mother, and attended Catholic schools when it was affordable, becoming a student at the Institute of the Holy Angels at age five. After also attending Miss Fuller’s School for Young Ladies in Ossining, New York (1919) and the Cathedral School (1920), she enrolled at the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York City. At age 17, Kay became engaged to a well-to-do Pittsfield, Massachusetts man, James Dwight Francis. Their December 1922 marriage at New York's Saint Thomas Church ended in divorce.
In the spring of 1925, Francis 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 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. She made her Broadway debut as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Hamlet in November 1925. Francis 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 wisecracking secretaries, saucy French floozies, walk-ons, bit parts, and heavies.
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