Early life and silent film
McKenzie was born as Eunice Fay McKenzie on February 19, 1918, in Hollywood, California, to show business parents, film actor Eva (née Heazlitt) and Irish American actor/director Robert McKenzie. Her father had a stock company called the McKenzie Merry Makers', and was both an actor and director in stage productions and films. His company included such actors as Broncho Billy Anderson, Ben Turpin, and Victor Potel.
When she was ten weeks old, she appeared in an uncredited part in the film Station Content (1918) as Kitty's baby (played by Gloria Swanson). She appeared in four other silent films as a child: A Knight of the West (1921) as Fray Murten, When Love Comes (1922) as Ruth, The Judgment of the Storm (1924) as a Heath Twin, and The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924) as a young Sarah Lincoln (Abraham Lincolns second wife).
Fay's sisters Ida Mae McKenzie and Ella McKenzie, and her brother-in-law Billy Gilbert, were also actors. Ida Mae also played the character of Sarah Lincoln in The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, in the part of the film where she had become a teenager.
In the mid-1920s, McKenzie took a ten-year break from acting in order to focus on her education. She attended the Beverly Hills High School. She returned to films in 1934 in Student Tour as Mary Lou. That year she made her first short Western film, Sundown Trail, with wally Wales. McKenzie later recalled,
Oh my gosh, my first grown up role. My father took me. He knew everybody, and I got the job. Even though I was only 15 years old! We shot that in three days, and there was no script. They'd all ride one way and say this, then they'd all ride the other way and say that. It was very improvisational, but a great event in my life.
McKenzie appeared in numerous uncredited roles throughout the 1930s, with occasional credited roles in films such as The Boss Cowboy (1934) as Sally Nolan, and the anti-cannabis propaganda film Assassin of Youth (1937) as Linda Clayton. In 1938, she began to appear mainly in Western films, such as Ghost Town Riders (1938) as Molly Taylor (credited as Fay Shannon), and When the Daltons Rode (1940) as Hannah. She had a small part in the 1939 film Gunga Din, which was inducted by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1999 with the motivation of being "culturally significant."
In 1940, McKenzie appeared in the stage show Meet the People, which premiered in Los Angeles and ended up on Broadway.
Film with Gene Autry
In 1941, the president of Republic Pictures, Herbert Yates, met McKenzie through a mutual friend, and after a screen test he signed her to a contract to appear opposite the cowboy singer Gene Autry in Down Mexico Way (1941) as Maria Elena Alvarado. The film was a major financial success, and she received a lot of fan mail as a result.
McKenzie went on to appear in four additional Gene Autry films as his leading lady: Sierra Sue (1941) as Sue Larrabee, Cowboy Serenade (1942) as Stephanie Lock, Heart of the Rio Grande (1942) as Alice Bennett, and Home in Wyomin' (1942) as Clementine Benson. McKenzie sang duets with Autry in each of these films. She later remembered:
I loved working with Gene, he was terrific! I could sing and that was something the earlier girls couldn't do. Yates knew I had done Broadway; that helped! I could do more than smile and wave at the cowboy!
Theatre and touring
During World War II, McKenzie left Republic Pictures to work in theater and pursue other projects. She appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream and later appeared in Broadway in Burlesque with Bert Lahr. Much of her time during the war was devoted to shows and public appearances to support the war effort—working for the Hollywood Victory Committee. McKenzie also toured extensively entertaining the troops alongside Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, James Cagney, and old family friends Laurel and Hardy. She also entertained the troops with her former screen partner, Gene Autry.
After the war, McKenzie retired from films to raise her two children. In the 1950s, she traveled to New York to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, appeared on radio shows with Groucho Marx, and toured with the songwriter Harry Ruby. She appeared in the television series The Millionaire (1959) as Ruth Spencer and Mr. Lucky (1960) as Sheila Wells, and Bonanza (1961) as Victoria Gates.
McKenzie was married twice. Her first marriage to the American actor Steve Cochran in Acapulco, Mexico, on January 1946. It ended in divorce in 1948, although they had separated nine months into the marriage. Her parents' disapproval of him was cited as one of the reasons.
Her second marriage to the screenwriter Tom Waldman lasted from 1948 to his death on July 23, 1985. They had two children: the actor Tom Waldman Jr. and the writer Madora McKenzie. McKenzie is a Christian Scientist. She turned 101 on February 19, 2019.
Year Title Role
1918 Station Content Babe in Arms
1921 A Knight of the West Fray Murten
1922 When Love Comes Ruth
1924 The Judgment of the Storm Heath Twin
The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln Sarah Lincoln
1934 The Boss Cowboy Sally Nolan
Ferocious Pal Girl at Dog Fight
Sundown Trail Mickey Moore
Student Tour Mary Lou
1935 Arizona Bad Man Girl at Barn Dance
Lawless Riders Girl in Candy Kisses Booth
1936 Lucky Terror Young Girl Spectator
Ride 'Em Cowboy Stamp Buyer
1937 Assassin of Youth Linda Clayton
Tex Rides with the Boy Scouts Girl at the Dance
1938 Swingtime in the Movies Girl from Dallas
Freshman Year Student
Slander House Anna
Ghost Town Riders Molly Taylor
1939 Gunga Din Girl at Party
Man of Conquest Young Lady
It's a Wonderful World Guest
Unexpected Father Chorus Girl
What a Life Student in Lunchroom
Disputed Passage Nurse
Little Accident Woman
Laugh It Off Chorus Girl
Death Rides the Range Letty Morgan
The Big Guy Waitress
1940 Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me Brooklyn Girl
It's a Date Young Girl
Mad Youth Escort Girl
Love, Honor, and Oh Baby! Waitress
When the Daltons Rode Hannah
1941 Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day Nurse
Down Mexico Way Maria Elena Alvarado
Sierra Sue Sue Larrabee
1942 Cowboy Serenade Stephanie Lock
Heart of the Rio Grande Alice Bennett
Home in Wyomin' Clementine Benson
Remember Pearl Harbor Marcia Porter
1944 The Singing Sheriff Caroline
1946 Murder in the Music Hall Singer in Mom's Café
Night and Day Singer
1959 -30- Mrs. Jason
1961 Breakfast at Tiffany's Party Guest Laughing in Mirror
1962 Experiment in Terror Hospital Superintendent (uncredited)
1968 The Party Alice Clutterbuck
1981 S.O.B. Woman on the Beach
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