While the star's death is sad in itself, it is also fraught with controversy.
Twenty-one years ago today, the world lost one of Hollywood’s greatest entertainers, dancers, choreographers, innovators, cinematographers, and genuine movie stars. What follows is a brief tribute to Gene Kelly including an explanation of his death and the industry’s response(s) thereafter.
In July 1994, Gene Kelly suffered a stroke. Although doctors at UCLA’s Medical Center labeled it “mild,” the stroke kept him in the hospital for nearly seven weeks.
Kelly suffered another, smaller stroke in Feburary 1995. “He was neurologically stable, aware, and conversational,” the Associated Press reported the following day. But sadly, Gene would never fully recover from this one. At 84, he died on Friday, February 2, 1996.
No Friends or Embraces
While Gene Kelly’s death is sad in itself — in that such an energetic man/body was overtaken by such a debilitating condition — it is also fraught with controversy, at least according to Kelly’s first wife, Betsy Blair.
For example, in the epilogue of her memoir, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris, Blair recalls that a few hours after Gene died, his third wife phoned Kelly’s three children — Kerry, Tim, and Bridget — to discourage them from traveling to Los Angeles. After all, at this point, there was nothing they could do.
But the children insisted and flew to California to pay their respects to their father and to visit their childhood home on Rodeo Drive once more.
As Blair tells it, Kelly’s adult children arrived to a somber house, “no friends, no food, no tears, and no embraces. They were given a tour of the flowers from famous people as if they were strangers” (6–7). Moreover, since Kelly’s widow had Gene’s body cremated that morning (apparently a rather fast turnaround), the children never got to say goodbye.
From Blair: “Kerry later told me they all felt as if ‘she threw him away — as if he were garbage to be incinerated and thrown away. There aren’t even any ashes’” (6–7). I do not know the third wife’s side of this story.
Complexity of Ambition and Innocence of Spirit
On a (somewhat) happier note, many tributes were put together during the days and week following Gene Kelly’s death.
For instance, People published this tribute and the New York Times, this one, which applauded all of the “inventive techniques that enabled Gene Kelly to create unusual and imaginative dance routines.”
Similarly, The Independent remembered the many hats Gene wore: “As director and choreographer, dancer and singer, acrobat and actor, Gene Kelly was one of the most vital and indispensable figures in the history of the American film musical.”
Time also honored Kelly with its column “White Socks and Loafers.” Here’s my favorite excerpt:
For all the effort he and directors like Vincente Minnelli put into balletomanic spectaculars like the 20 minutes that conclude An American in Paris, it is the sweet simple things like “I Got Rhythm” — just Kelly, some cute kids, a cobblestone street on Montmartre, a catchy little Gershwin tune — that lived most affectingly in memory. But this, too, is true: we could not have had the one without the other. Together the complexity of his ambitions and the underlying innocence of his spirit constitute the inextricable weave of this dear man’s singularity.
Additionally, news stations all over the globe marked Kelly’s death with tributes. Embedded below is one from Headline News as well as another from The 68th Annual Academy Awards, featuring fellow tap-dancer Savion Glover.
Finally, on the night of his death, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in his honor. Rest in peace, Eugene Curran Kelly.