The personification of class and cultivation on the movie screen, comely actress Kay Johnson forsook a prominent stage and film career in order to play wife to actor John Cromwell and mother to their two children. Still and all, the elegant actress, reminiscent in looks and style to that of Irene Dunne and Judith Anderson, contributed to a number of important ’30s and early ’40s films and is deserving of a richer place in Hollywood history than has been acknowledged thus far.
Born Catherine Townsend Johnson, the daughter of a Michigan architect (Thomas R. Johnson–who worked in the firm of Cass Gilbert the architect of the impressive Woolworth Building in NYC), Kay received her early education at the Drew Seminary for Young Women and later, intent on becoming an actress, studied at Sargent’s Dramatic School of the American Academy of Dramatic Art (AADA). Her first professional role came with the Theatre Guild’s Chicago production of “R.U.R.” in the role of Helena, a robot. From there she appeared on Broadway in “Go West, Young Man” and continued on with stage roles in “The Morning After,” “One of the Family,” “No Trespassing” and “Crime”.
Kay met actor/producer/director Cromwell while she was appearing in the play “A Free Soul” in 1928 and he was involved in another play. They married later that year (October) and moved to California, where he directed her in a stage production of “The Silver Cord”. Her showy role as Christine earned the attention of none other than Cecil B. DeMille, who cast her in his film Dynamite (1929) opposite Charles Bickford and Conrad Nagel. While the movie received lukewarm reviews, Kay, who suffered from appendicitis and had surgery during filming, was instantly noticed. She continued on with The Ship from Shanghai (1930), This Mad World (1930) (directed by William C. de Mille, the brother of C.B.), The Spoilers (1930) (opposite Gary Cooper), the title role as Madam Satan (1930) (again for C.B. DeMille), and Billy the Kid (1930) starring Johnny Mack Brown as the legendary gunslinger.
Kay alternated between stage and film parts in the following years. She toured with another production of “The Silver Cord” and appeared as Roxanne opposite Richard Bennett’s lead in “Cyrano de Bergerac”. Later she was on stage in “When Ladies Meet” and “Living Dangerously”. On screen Kay appeared in the mediocre films The Single Sin (1931) and The Spy (1931) before glowing onscreen in such fare as American Madness (1932) and This Man Is Mine (1934), the latter directed by husband Cromwell.
Kay’s most noteworthy career assignment came with the screen role of Nora in W. Somerset Maugham’s classic Of Human Bondage (1934)–again, directed by her husband Cromwell–with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis completing the romantic triangle. Cromwell went on to direct Kay on screen again in Village Tale (1935), Jalna (1935) and Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942). Other notable Kay Johnson films included White Banners (1938), Mr. Lucky (1943) and her last, The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944). Her final acting appearance was in a prime role opposite Ralph Bellamy in a stage production of “State of the Union” in 1945.
Kay never aggressively pursued her career, instead focusing on her marriage to Cromwell and the raising of their two children. The couple’s first child was adopted in 1938; their second son, born in January of 1940, became the noted character actor James Cromwell. Following her divorce from Cromwell in the late ’40s, Kay decided to remain out of the limelight. She died just short of her 71st birthday at her Waterford, CT., home on November 17, 1975, long forgotten.