Over a sixty-year career as a writer, actor, coproducer, and activist, Fay Kanin was awarded several Emmys and Peabodys, the ACLU Bill of Rights Award, the Crystal Award from Women in Film, the Burning Bush Award from the University of Judaism, and nominations for Oscar and Tony awards. She served as President of the Motion Picture Academy for an unprecedented four terms (1983-1988).
Born Fay Mitchell in New York City in a year she never disclosed, her parents, American-born Reform Jews, were Bessie Kaiser Mitchell, a housewife and activist, and David Mitchell, whose work managing small department stores took the family to Elmira, New York.
Resourceful and fearless, Fay was enchanted by films and performers. An only child, she benefited from her parents’ encouragement but “grew up fast,” mediating in their unhappy marriage.
At age twelve, she won a state spelling contest and met New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was “smitten” with both Roosevelts, who maintained a connection with her. Although too young to vote, Kanin was a speaker for FDR in the 1932 presidential campaign and afterward visited the Roosevelts at the White House.
At Elmira College, Fay “joined any activity involving words” (including radio). After her father took a job in Los Angeles, she completed her B.A. at the University of Southern California (1937).
Soon she became a script reader at RKO studios, where she “stayed on at night to do my own writing. I walked on sets, invaded editing rooms, snooped, made friends. Hollywood was like all your childhood fantasies come true, full of beautiful people having a simply marvelous time.”
At RKO, Fay and Michael Kanin met. They married in 1940 and spent their honeymoon writing a screenplay. Aided by a vogue for husband-and-wife teams (among them Michael Kanin’s brother Garson Kanin and his wife, Ruth Gordon), they became established screenwriters. They had two sons, Joshua and David, who were sent to the Brandeis Camp Institute for a Jewish education.
During World War II, with Roosevelt’s support, Kanin produced a radio series encouraging women to contribute to the war effort. After the war, she wrote Goodbye, My Fancy, a play whose congresswoman hero was modeled on Eleanor Roosevelt. By 1949, Kanin had a Broadway hit.
The Kanin screenwriting team went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Teacher’s Pet (1957). A frothy romantic comedy, the film also expressed Fay Kanin’s valuation of women’s worth and of civil liberties. Doris Day’s feisty journalism professor character upholds the allure of brains in an era when “sexy” and “smart” were considered incompatible. She treasures free speech at a time when left-leaning Americans were blacklisted from employment. When the Kanins themselves had appeared on “red” lists, they turned for work to Broadway. Rashoman (1957), their version of the Japanese film, became a staple of theater repertory. After some twenty years, the professional Kanin team broke up. “We decided we would have to keep the working collaboration or the marriage. We decided on the marriage,” Fay Kanin explained.
Kanin took on responsibilities for the Writers Guild and, as president of the Screen Branch, sat on the Motion Picture Academy board. With director Martin Scorcese, she led the American Film Institute’s effort to preserve films. Because prevalent Hollywood wisdom deemed women fit to write only “women’s pictures,” “small” stories of character and relationships supposedly unsuited to the big screen, Kanin turned to the new TV movie genre, where a writer (especially if she coproduced) could see her conception realized. She wrote (or adapted) and coproduced Tell Me Where It Hurts (1974), Hustling (1975), Friendly Fire (1979), and Heartsounds (1984), movies featuring women’s lives and issues.
Kanin rightly calls her television films “the blossoming of my own personal statements.” As a veteran of a high-risk field, Kanin speaks through the journalist in Hustling, who tells a prostitute, “Everybody hustles. Some of us just don’t get arrested for it.” Kanin, the socially entrenched daughter-wife-mother-partner, is heard in the prostitute’s declaration of interdependence: “It’s okay to owe somebody. It’s good.” In Friendly Fire, Lieutenant Schindler uses the words of the Talmud to speak for Fay Kanin, liberal Jewish-American: “If you save a single person, you save the world.”
Fay Kanin has combined a journalist’s curiosity, a dramatist’s appreciation for points of view, and a rabbi’s gift for teaching through the word to interpret her times for a mass audience. Embraced by women as a model and trailblazer, she responded, “I don’t think you think of yourself as a pioneer. I just felt very fortunate.”
The Gay Life. Katharine Cornell Collection, New York Public Library of the Performing Arts; Goodbye, My Fancy (1949); Grind; Rashoman, with Michael Kanin (1957).
Friendly Fire (1979); Heartsounds (1984); Hustling (1975); The Opposite Sex (1956); Teacher’s Pet, with Michael Kanin (1957).
Atkins, Irene Kahn. Fay Kanin. Oral history for American Jewish Committee, July 15, 1980, August 20, 1980, July 31, 1981. Jewish Collection, New York Public Library; Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television. Vol. 4 (1987); Fay Kanin: An American Film Institute Seminar on Her Work (1977). Microfilm, New York Public Library of the Performing Arts; Froug, William. A Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter (1972); International Motion Picture Almanac (1966); Kanin, Fay. Interview with Ally Acker. Transcript, Museum of Modern Art Film Study Collection, NYC; Kanin, Fay. Telephone interview by author, August 21, 1996; Notable Names in the American Theatre (1976); Notable Women in the American Theatre. Edited by Alice M. Robinson, Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger (1989); Reilly, Sue. “Fay Kanin Throws a Party for Tout Hollywood and the World: She’s Oscar Night’s First Lady,” People Weekly (April 21, 1980): 45; Smith, Sharon. Women Who Make Movies (1975).