The Bias of All That: Gene Kelly and His Wives

The Bias of All That: Gene Kelly and His Wives

In the first half of her memoir, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris, actor/activist Betsy Blair writes fondly about her relationship with and marriage to Hollywood song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. The reader learns, for instance, what Gene was wearing when the sixteen-year-old Blair first laid eyes on him: “an open-necked white shirt, a dark long-sleeved sweater, dark trousers, and moccasins. He seemed to be balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to spring like a cat” (9). More broadly, Blair recounts the couple’s Catholic wedding and arrival in Hollywood (Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941) as well as the birth of their only child (a girl, Kerry) and the infamous cutthroat games of charades, volleyball, and ping-pong the two hosted regularly at their Beverly Hills home on Rodeo Drive.

Despite the couple’s divorce in 1957 (stemming from extramarital affairs), Blair writes positively about Gene Kelly as a person, husband, father, and Hollywood star. Regarding the latter, “He was, for all his talent and intelligence, a man of the people. He never lost sight of his vision or succumbed to film-star vanity. He fulfilled his youthful wish. He democratized dance in movies” (192). And more generally, “Gene was lively, smart and funny, tender and loving, a natural teacher. (I admit he was old-fashioned and paternalistic, but then so were most men at that time). He loved life, he loved children, he loved games, he loved books and museums, he loved to travel, he loved to sit home and drink beer” (3). For the most part, Blair maintains such praise for Kelly throughout her memoir.

But there is one person about whom the author does not speak favorably: Gene’s third wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, who was forty-seven years his junior. In fact, Blair’s memoir opens with an “explanation” (yes, that’s what it’s titled) about Gene’s “new, very young wife who betrayed him and his children” and ultimately “took away his pride, joie de vivre, and most of his fortune” (4). Moreover, Blair explains that after Gene suffered his second stroke, his young wife not only cut him off from all family and friends, but also changed the locks on the door and hired a new housekeeper, doctor, business manager, and lawyer. As well, on the day after Gene died, his three children arrived in Beverly Hills to a most “bizarre half hour.” As Blair tells it, “There were 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 [...] Gene’s children, who loved him, never got to say goodbye to their father. It would have saddened and, I imagine, enraged him, because he loved his children deeply” (6-7).

Whoa. What a way to kick off a memoir. Granted, every star autobiography (as well as biography) is biased. It is, after all, “a production centered on the presentation of self” (Amossy 673). But rarely does one begin with such a loaded prologue as Betsy Blair’s (right); at least none of the dozens I’ve read in the past few years starts this way. Although only three pages, Blair’s “By way of explanation…” packs a punch in terms of persuasion and establishing the reader-author relationship. For example, it immediately

  • positions Blair as “the good wife” and Ward as “the villain”;
  • invites the reader to side exclusively with Blair as well as her child and grandchildren, the latter of whom are represented here as “grief-stricken” victims of Ward’s apparent callousness and disregard; and it
  • suggests that Blair, who “knew Gene intimately for seventeen years,” is the true/ultimate authority on his life.

Thus, before engaging with The Memory of All That, the reader has already formed diametrically opposing opinions of Blair (good/truthful) and Patricia Ward Kelly (bad/disloyal). And why shouldn’t she? The author’s words are clear: “I cannot forgive his widow, not because she got almost all of the children’s inheritance, but because I don’t think Gene had the happy ending he deserved” (6). Furthermore, why would the author lie about any of this? If these things were ultimately discovered as falsities, they would negate the integrity of the memoir, Blair, and potentially the publisher. And certainly that’s nothing Blair (or her family) would want to happen. Right?

These are questions I’ve thought about over the past year as I’ve considered Gene Kelly and his star image from the perspective of a fan and an academic. (Sorry, Henry Jenkins, but I refuse to use the term aca-fan.) They are also questions I’ve discussed with people who personally knew Gene Kelly, Betsy Blair, and his widow. And finally, they are questions I’ve explored with hardcore GK fans, none of whom ever met the man or his three wives (Gene’s second wife, Jeanne Coyne, died of leukemia in 1973) but who’ve read and seen everything published about him, his family, etc. I suppose it’s no surprise that virtually all of the people with whom I’ve conversed about this matter side with Blair and simultaneously refer to Kelly’s widow as deplorable, a “bitch,” a “gold-digger.” Ouch. That’s gotta smart.

My colleagues who study Hollywood stardom might suggest this information about Gene Kelly’s widow is immaterial to his star persona and is therefore unnecessary to consider in any analysis of him. But I’m not so sure that’s the case. After all, Patricia Ward Kelly currently controls her husband’s image, oft describing herself as “the sole Trustee of The Gene Kelly Image Trust.” She also speaks on behalf of Gene at events like the Gene Kelly Awards, a prestigious high-school musical-theatre competition held annually in his hometown of Pittsburgh, and the 2011 TCM Classical Film Festival, which opened with a digitally restored version of Kelly’s Oscar-winning film An American in Paris (1951).

Further, a few years ago, Ward Kelly was in the news for (rather oddly) defending her late husband against NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd who, in passing, compared President George W. Bush to Gene Kelly. This is “not only an implausible transformation but a considerable slight,” Ward Kelly writes in the Huffington Post. “For George Bush to become Gene Kelly would require impossible leaps in creativity, erudition and humility.” Last, Gene’s widow is active on Facebook and Twitter, where she informs friends/followers about DVD releases of Gene’s films, posts pictures of Gene Kelly Awards winners, and promotes musical theatre in general. So, yes, I think she does function as an extension of or a commentary on Gene Kelly’s star image, particularly when she’s the one deciding whether to allow Volkswagen to cut/paste Gene’s face on another dancer’s body.

Despite the flack she receives from Blair’s prologue and some hardcore GK fans, it appears Patricia Ward Kelly is successfully carrying on her dead husband’s legacy, introducing and reintroducing people, young and old, to Gene’s onscreen work and talent. Just this week, as another example, she spent two hours with a group of Pittsburgh high school students, explaining to them how she met her husband, why he often lied to the media about her age, what they ate together on dates (boiled hot dogs!), why he preferred to dance in form-fitted clothing (like sailor pants), and how devastated she was after Gene died in 1996. “There was really no reason to live,” she confessed to the students. “My whole life was about Gene. And then I started to come out here to the Kelly Awards and I just fell in love with all of you.” (Read the entire piece here.)

From a distance, I can hear the exasperated sighs of hardcore Gene Kelly/Betsy Blair fans as they read that last quote above. “Your whole life was about Gene?” they cry out in unison. “Then why did you maintain your own apartment the entire time you were married to him? Why did you fire his secretary of 50 years? Why did you not kiss or touch him when his health was failing? Why did you dispose of his ashes before his children could say goodbye to their father? And why have you still not penned the Gene Kelly biography you were hired to write in the late ’80s, the reason you met Gene in the first place?” Perhaps there are valid answers to these questions. For instance, maybe Gene, I’ve heard, was rather cranky in his latter years and actually did not want visitors or people fussing over him. Maybe Ward Kelly kept a separate condominium because Gene purchased it for her and that was their agreement; at least that’s what biographer Alvin Yudkoff implies in Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams (254). I don’t know. I know what Gene’s friends and family have graciously shared with me. I know what a friend of a friend of Patricia Ward Kelly has shared with me. But ultimately, I do not — nor will I ever — know the full truth, but such is a part of star studies.

Here’s what we do know. For Gene Kelly’s family, some friends, and most of his fans, it seems Patricia Ward Kelly represents a stain in the otherwise happy, productive, creative life of one of Hollywood’s greatest musical talents. She is, I’m speculating, a part of his life and star image they’d just as soon forget. And as someone who has befriended several of these people (in real-life and virtually), I completely respect that. Yet as an academic, I also must consider the thousands of students, audience members, YouTube browsers, Facebook users, etc. who’ve been introduced to An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), or Invitation to the Dance (1956) because of his widow’s appearances, lectures, and tweets. And yes, as much as I despise those Gene Kelly Volkswagen commercials and what they ostensibly stand for (e.g., making money off dead people, selling out), I also find some solace in the fact that after they aired, many people turned to Twitter, YouTube, Netflix, and to find out more about my favorite song-and-dance man. And that, I believe, is a good thing.