A Romance for All Seasons
Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, explores their May-December romance and his artistic legacy onstage at the Pasadena Playhouse.
By Bettijane Levine 02/07/2014
You may be too young to know the name Gene Kelly. Or perhaps you remember him as the actor, singer and hoofer who danced his way into the hearts of millions in such classic films as Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris. Either way, it’s a good bet you know next to nothing about the person Gene Kelly was offstage, or his lasting contributions to the worlds of film and dance. And you almost certainly don’t know the poignant inside story of his May-December romance with his third wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, whom he met when she was 26 and he 73.
But it’s all worth discovering, according to online observers who’ve already seen Gene Kelly: The Legacy, the live performance Kelly’s widow will present at the Pasadena Playhouse on March 1 and 2. The show is both an intimate portrait of a love affair and an informed look at the innovations created by Kelly, who transformed the way dance is choreographed, directed and filmed. Described as “a rarity… I felt privileged to be there,” by Entertainment Tonight’s Leonard Maltin, the show has also been called mesmerizing, uplifting, entertaining and informative by some of the few who’ve seen the performances the Los Angeles–based Mrs. Kelly has given thus far.
She created the evening at the theater for the year 2012, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her husband’s birth. (He was born in 1912, she in 1959.) Since then, she’s performed it only about a dozen times, in Europe and the U.S., and says she’s now booking dates around the country and the world into 2015.
Not a formal show in the traditional sense, it’s an intimate two hours packed with film and audio clips, dance history, memories and mementos. It’s a kind of unscripted Valentine to her husband, in which she extemporaneously discusses both the personal and professional sides of the man who experts agree revolutionized the look and style of dance during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and whose legacy endures in the work of some of today’s top artists and performers — not just in film, but on Broadway and in ballet. His career achievements were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1952 with an honorary Oscar, which was lost in a fire in 1983 and replaced at the 1984 Academy Awards ceremony.
Kelly died in 1996, after he and Patricia had spent 10 years together, the last six as man and wife. She seems to have continued to live her life for him and about him ever since. And in some ways, she’s every bit as fascinating as he was. She’s a Gene Kelly scholar, with an encyclopedic knowledge of every film he made, right down to specific movements he choreographed and directions he gave to cinematographers. In an interview with Arroyo Monthly, she says that during their decade together she audiotaped and took notes on a daily (and nightly) basis, recording all his comments about every aspect of his personal life and career. Even conversations with his friends — Frank Sinatra and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof director Richard Brooks were among the closest — were jotted down on cocktail napkins when the couple was out at dinner or at a club listening to music. “Sometimes he’d say to me, ‘You’re not writing.’ I’d say, ‘That’s because I’m eating,’” Kelly recalls with a laugh.
Listen to her vibrant Skyped responses to reporters or Gene Kelly fans on Youtube, and you’ll hear the passionate voice of an intellect and academic — someone eager to teach an important subject. Of course the subject is her husband, now dead 18 years, who would be 102 if still alive. This dedication does not seem extraordinary to his widow, who makes her life trajectory sound logical and inevitable.
The 46-year age difference between her and her spouse was not an issue, she says. “There have been many similar love stories,” she says. “I think of Françoise Gilot and Picasso, or Oona O’Neill and Charlie Chaplin.” The couple met in 1985, at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She describes her young self as a “nerdy Herman Melville scholar” who’d been hired to write a TV special about the Smithsonian, which Kelly had been hired to narrate. “I had no idea who he was. I’d never heard of him,” she says.
Cooped up together for days working on the project, they talked about literature, played word games, quoted poetry to each other and had fun. They bonded in a way that had nothing to do with Hollywood movies or dance, and everything to do with incipient love.
The job over, they exchanged a kiss and phone numbers, and about six months later he called and asked her to come to L.A. and write his memoir. “In fact, I have a couple of projects I’d like to discuss,” is what she remembers him saying. She was living and working in Washington but flew to L.A. and stayed in his house to discuss the projects. She never left. “The odd thing is, neither of us dreamed anything [romantic] would evolve. We both were very intent on working together… He’d said in interviews that he would never remarry. So it was lovely that it evolved into something unexpected.”
In 1990 they wed at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and honeymooned at the Hotel Bel-Air. The couple remained together for six more years, until his death. “I do get frequent questions about the age difference,” Kelly says. “People think, gee, that’s a bit odd. But I talk about that in the show… and I think people leave with a greater understanding of how it worked. They leave the theater thinking it was not odd at all.”
Kelly’s first marriage, to actress Betsy Blair, lasted 16 years and produced a daughter, Kerry. His second, to choreographer/dancer Jeanne Coyne, lasted from 1960 to 1973, when she died at 50 of leukemia; they had two children, Timothy and Bridget.
In her 2003 memoir, The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood and Paris, Blair praised Kelly as a husband and father. She told the Los Angeles Times about the rift that surfaced with his widow after his death, saying that when Kelly’s three children went to pay a last visit to their father, Patricia informed them that their father had been cremated just hours after his passing, and that no funeral would take place. Kelly’s daughter Kerry Kelly Novick, a psychoanalyst, told the paper, “We weren’t given any opportunity to say goodbye.”
The third Mrs. Kelly responds that she followed her husband’s written wishes, which were also conveyed to his family and his agent. She declines further comment, saying, “I wish them all the best. My story stands on its own, and I don’t feel the need or have the time to respond…” She adds emphatically that much of what’s quoted in the press and on the Internet, “even IMDB and Wikipedia,” is inaccurate and says it’s “not very productive” to try and correct all the records. “I feel it’s best to just tell a beautiful story, and people will come to their own conclusions. That’s why I want to get this [show] out there as much as possible. I think it reveals the truth about the situation.”
Left in charge of Gene Kelly’s archive and legacy — she is sole trustee of The Gene Kelly Image Trust and creative director of Gene Kelly: The Legacy, a corporation established to celebrate Kelly’s artistry worldwide — she says her goal is to “present Gene as he wished to be remembered. He was very specific about that with me. People generally thought of him as the guy up on the screen. But he wanted to be remembered for being behind the camera, for actually creating what you see, both as a choreographer and as a director… After hearing my show, people say they never knew Gene Kelly, or how revolutionary and ahead of his time he was… They never knew him as a man who spoke fluent French and Yiddish, who read Latin, who wrote poetry and often read a book a day, who was an economics major in college, who studied modern and classical dance.”
Yes, but what about her own life since her husband’s death? Isn’t it a bit too retrospective to constantly place her focus on the past? “The past is not what my life is about,” she replies, explaining that promoting Gene’s legacy is what keeps her moving forward. “It is not retrospective, it is not looking back.” Moving the legacy ahead and “into perpetuity,” she says, is wonderful, life-affirming work.
“Doing that just expands my horizons and my life. I get to meet the greatest dancers in the world. I get to hear them say their lives were touched by Gene. I see them when they’re here, or when I travel. It is actually a sort of blossoming” of her own life, she says, “and it grows exponentially. It’s not about Gene dead at 102. It becomes about this incredibly riveting and inspirational living body of his work.”
Look at the diversity of people she meets in person, online and by mail — college students who idolize Gene Kelly’s work, great artists from the dance and theater worlds who claim Gene Kelly as an inspiration and ordinary folks from places like Tennessee and Michigan who attend Kelly film festivals.
In May 2012, Patricia Kelly hosted the motion picture academy’s two-night “Centennial Tribute to Gene Kelly.” That evening’s performers lauding Kelly’s genius were not old-timers, as might be expected, but some of the hottest current stars, who said their careers were inspired and enriched by Kelly’s creativity. Hugh Jackman, in his tribute, recalled his own youth in Australia, where his father brought home Singing in the Rain. Jackman says he watched it at least 150 times, then watched “everything Gene Kelly had ever done… He made me dream of being in movie musicals. He was everything I ever dreamed of being, and then some… To me he is a hero.”
Justin Timberlake called Kelly a “master poet in motion,” whose work is “timeless” and whose presence remains vivid. “He was pure magic, but also masculine and human and earthy and true,” he said, admitting to being “one of millions” who had stolen dance moves from the great master. Kelly’s admirers also included Kenny Ortega, who choreographed Dirty Dancing and the High School Musical films, as well as tours for Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones.
In July 2012, Patricia Kelly presented her show on two sold-out nights at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, as part of its 23-film centennial salute to her husband’s body of work. With such personal exposure to today’s A-list entertainment world, she says her life is anything but dull. And it’s taking her a long time to write the biography of her husband that she’s long claimed is in the works. “People ask why it’s taking me so long to write the book,” she says. “I miss him terribly, and every time I open these boxes and files and pull out these notes and records, it can be joyous — but it’s also heart-wrenching. He was a great romantic. He loved Valentine’s Day. He would start at around midnight and leave little notes all around the house. I pull out a Valentine and it takes me right back to the moment I discovered it. The grief will knock me to the floor. But I wouldn’t trade that memory for anything. It was an extraordinary time, and so intense, but you really don’t want to go through life without experiencing something that deeply.” She says she plans to finish the book sometime soon.
Would she consider marrying again? “I think it would take a very interesting figure. Gene’s a hard act to follow. And I love my life just as it is. I don’t live alone. I have three extraordinary dogs — Lucia di Lammermoor, a yellow lab; her sidekick, Chooch, a lab mix; and Francesco, a lab-mix rescue. I come home and they’re always glad to see me.” For now, she says, that’s more than enough.