Gene Kelly, Creative Genius

A personal celebration of his life and work

FAQ

Personal

  1. Where and when was Gene born

    He was born Eugene Curran Kelly in the Highland Park area of Pittsburgh P.A. on 23rd August 1912

  2. Did he have brothers and sisters?

    He had one older sister and brother,  Harriet (known as Jay) and James, and one younger sister and brother, Louise and Fred

  3. Was Gene really Irish?

    He was of Irish descent on both sides of his family. His father was born in Canada, but of Irish immigrant stock. His mothers maiden name was Curran (Gene's middle name). Her father's family moved to the U.S. from Northern Ireland, but her mother's family came from Alsace-Lorraine in Europe.

  4. What kind of social background was Gene born into?

    He was what we would probably now call upper working class, aspiring to become lower middle-class. His father earned a good salary as a travelling phonograph salesman for Columbia. It was his mother who had ambitions to improve their social status. She wished to be disassociated from their Irish roots as there was stigma attached at that time.

    When his father lost his job in the crash of 1929, they might easily have gone under, but Gene's mother took control, with Gene's help, and ensured their survival and progress as a family unit.

  5. Was Gene a good student?

    According to reports, he did quite well in school, but could have done better if he had not been more interested in sports than in his studies. He was a good all-rounder, and an avid reader. It appears that he did not take advantage of his great mental capacity until he left full time education.

    He obtained a degree in Economics from the university of Pittsburgh and was all set to continue in law studies when he decided to quit, in order to pursue a career in dancing/dance teaching/choreography..

  6. How did he earn a living before he became 'famous'?

    He paid his way through college by doing any job he could get, digging ditches, rolling tyres, bricklaying, being a summer-camp counsellor and a soda-jerk among other things.

    He and his brother Fred formed a dance-act and worked in clubs and bars in the Pittsburgh area. they also entered and won various 'Amateur Night' shows.

    After college he took over the running of the two family-owned dance studios.  He made a good living for a few years, until he left to try his luck in New York.

  7. Was he always as healthy as he looked?

    No, he was very accident prone, and had at least one severe childhood illness and several broken bones. In adult life he was plagued by sinus problems, with frequent colds and infections. He had appendicitis in 1952, eye problems and prostate cancer later in life. He had severe back and joint problems - a result of his years of punishing his body in pursuit of excellence. He had several strokes also.

  8. Was Gene married?

    He married three times. In 1941 he married Betsy Blair. They divorced in 1957. In 1960 he married Jeanne Coyne. She died from leukaemia in 1973. In 1990 he married Patrica Ward.

  9. Did Gene have children?

    He had three children. Kerry was born to Gene and Betsy in October 1942.

    He and Jeanne had two children. They also lost a child through miscarriage. Tim was born in 1962 and Bridget in 1964. 

    Gene was an excellent father, giving all of his children 'roots and wings' and bringing up Tim and Bridget alone following Jeanne's tragic passing.

  10. Did Gene fight in the war?

    Gene was conscripted into the Navy in November 1944. His call-up was delayed because he was thought to be more useful making films in Hollywood, which would cheer and distract the population in a time of great worry and upheaval. Gene was angry about this but eventually got his way and entered the Navy through boot camp in San Diego. He worked his way up to Lieutenant, junior Grade, and was put into the Navy Film unit, much to his disgust. But he did his duty for the war effort, making training films and researching into the effects of various explosives and what we now know as post traumatic stress.

    He was finally on his way to the Far East on active duty when the atom bombs were dropped. He stayed on in order to complete his work and was discharged in July 1946. He was a reservist until he was discharged due to age.

  11. Did Gene have a Hollywood mansion?

    No. He and Betsy bought an old farmhouse on Rodeo Drive following his release from the Navy in 1946. Gene lived there until his death in 1996. The house was improved, extended, and sadly had to be totally rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1983. He did not have a pool until 1957 or '58. It was always a home, never a show-place.

  12. What sports did Gene play?

    He was always an avid sportsman, adept at many, excelling at several. When young his gymnastic ability was good enough for him to teach and give displays. He played semi-pro ice hockey when in his early teens. His first love seems to have been baseball. He often said his burning ambition was to be short-stop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was taught boxing as a boy, by champion Harry Greb, and used his skills on more than one occasion when provoked!

    He had a volleyball court in his garden and played every weekend. He also played softball with the neighbourhood kids.

    Throughout his life, until well into his sixties, he skated and played tennis. He was never a golfer, thought of it as an 'old man's' game.

  13. In real life, was Gene anything like his on-screen persona?

    Not really. He was much more complex and even more attractive. Although he was seemingly outgoing, friendly and outspoken, he was intrinsically shy in company, and much preferred the peace and quiet of his home, where he was happy to entertain friends and family. He said it was hard to be stared at when eating his soup! But he was always gracious in public, with a ready smile, because he saw it as part of his job. 

    He was a warm, loyal  and loving friend to have, a fact confirmed by many written sources. In fact, his wife Betsy said that 'he loved humanity.'

  14. Did Gene travel abroad often?

    Gene's first trip overseas was in 1947, when he and Betsy vacationed in Europe, seeing some of the places they had longed to visit, especially in France. Previously he had visited Mexico and Canada before he moved permanently to California.

    In 1952 he left the U.S. and moved to France, and then to England, where he and his family lived, in London, for 18 months. 

    Thereafter he was a regular vistor to France, and also visted Ireland on several occasions

  15. What hobbies did Gene have?

    His main preoccupation was sport. But he was a highly intelligent man and a knowledgeable patron of the arts. He read every day, mainly biography, war novels and factual - sometimes one book a day!. He spoke several languages - Fluent French; Italian; German; some Spanish, Yiddish and Russian. He loved classical music, poetry, and painting. He had a collection of Impressionist paintings, some of which were lost in the fire which destroyed his home in 1983. He loved word games, crosswords etc., and in 1940s and '50s he and Betsy hosted fiercely competitive sessions of 'The Game', an intense and complex form of charades. He liked to go camping, up into the mountains, away from the Hollywood scene. He enjoyed sailing and boats in general. He loved to spend time with his children, doing whatever normal dads do with their kids. 

    He was never part of the Hollywood night club scene, disliking the noise and crowds.

  16. Did Gene get involved in politics?

    Yes. Throughout his life he was a social democrat, never wavering in his ideals of freedom, equality, and justice for all.

    He was left-wing, but was never a communist, in spite of his wife Betsy's frustrated desire to join the Party. 

    He was closely involved with Roosevelt, and the Kennedys. He was always ready to speak out in support of those whom he felt were being treated unjustly. This willingness to stand up and be counted, meant that he came to the attention of the House Unamerican Activities Committee during the time of the anti-communist movements in the late '40s and early '50s. He was never blacklisted but his wife Betsy was. 

    He had a great love for his country and sought to use what influence he had, for the good of his fellow citizens.

  17. Was Gene very rich?

    I cannot answer that. But he always said he was not as rich as he might have been.

    His primary interest was not money, but artistic integrity. His dancing schools were making around $10,000 when he left for New York in 1938. He struggled for a while, until his talents were recognised, on occasion finding it hard to buy food, but of course, when he was given a movie contract he found himself with a vastly increased income, I think in the region of $1000 a week.

    On leaving the Navy, he used all of his savings to buy the house in Rodeo Drive, with no mortgage. But that meant they had no cash for furnishings etc. So he had to make furniture and call on friends to help with decorating etc.

    He was on a good salary at MGM, but given that he was doing the jobs of actor, singer, dancer, director, choreographer and sometimes writer, they did pretty well out of him. 

    In 1957 he decided to ask for his contract with MGM to be terminated. If he had stayed for 2 more years he would have received a good pension for the rest of his life. He and Betsy divorced in 1957, so he had to pay her alimony.

    In later life he supplemented his income with lectures and retrospectives.

    He never wasted his money on fast cars and high living, but he said that he did not make best use of investments. (He invested in oil and cattle and utilities.) This is strange, considering that he majored in Economics!

    He was very generous to those he loved and to those in need, giving lavishly but privately to charities and to friends who had fallen on hard times.

  18. Did Gene have any pet hates?

    He hated shaving, dressing up, people who turned up late, loud women and heavy make-up. He also hated vegetables throughout his life.

  19. What was Gene's most embarrassing moment?

    When his pants fell down during his stage portrayal of Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream, when he was in high school.

  20. What were Gene's favourite film and dance?

    His favourite film was The Three Musketeers, with Douglas Fairbanks. Of all his own films he liked On The Town best. His favourite movie dance was Dancing In The Dark, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, from The Band Wagon. He liked his own dances with Cyd in Brigadoon.

  21. Who were Gene's favourite movie stars?

    Among those he has mentioned: he thought Esther Williams was the most beautiful female star; He loved Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra's voice. He looked up to Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, and was thrilled when he had the opportunity to work with them both in Inherit The Wind.

    He vastly admired Buster Keaton, but his all time favourite was Douglas Fairbanks. I think he admired anyone who made the most of their talent by working hard and using their imagination.

  22. What was Gene's favourite food?

    He had a very sweet tooth, often eating candy bars for breakfast. He liked ice cream also. He enjoyed sandwiches with bologna and cheese, potato and onion, or even pickle, cheese, liverwurst and peanut butter, late at night! He liked steak and potatoes and other simple foods, hated vegetables but enjoyed fine dining on occasion.

  23. Was Gene religious?

    Only he could answer that. He was born and raised in the Catholic faith. His mother was very devout, so the rituals and traditions were something he was very comfortable with. His children were raised as Catholics. When he thought he faced death in an out-of-control plane in 1959, he said he had not prayed as he did not want to be hypocritical, but later in life he gave an in-depth interview in which he said he believed in God and that his faith helped him through the tough times, such as when he lost his dear wife Jeanne, but he did not agree with many aspects of  Church laws and traditions.

    I always see him as a deeply spiritual man, rather than religious in the accepted, more rigid sense. But that is merely my own feeling.


  24. What was Gene's philosophy on life?

    Do unto others as you would have them do to you. And live and let live.

  25. When and where did Gene die?

    Gene passed away in his home in Rodeo Drive on 2nd February 1996, following a series of strokes. He was 83 years old and had been in failing health for some time. He has no known grave or memorial.

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Professional

  1. What was Gene's first stage appearance?

    Hard to say, he started young! He took part in several Grade school plays - they named the auditorium at St. Raphael's school  'The Gene Kelly Auditorium'. Possibly earlier than that, he sang and danced as part of The Five Kellys, with his brothers and sisters, under the direction of his mother. 

  2. How did he get involved in dancing?

    He was made to go to classes, along with his siblings, from around the age of seven, until he objected so violently that his mother relented and let him stop.. His real interest began when he realised being a good dancer was a neat way to get the girls! As a teenager he gradually became consumed by the need to be the best, and to learn all that he could about dance and dance creation. 

  3. Where did he get his training and experience?

    His brother Fred taught him tap dancing. They watched acts who visited Pittsburgh and stole steps, jokes etc. For several summers he went to Chicago and studied ballet with Berenice Holmes, a great ballerina. He learned Spanish dancing from Rita Hayworth's uncle, Angel Cansino. He studied modern dancers such as Martha Graham and had a Russian teacher in New York. He used all of this knowledge to formulate his own unique style.

  4. How did Gene become a dance teacher?

    His mother took over the running of a failing dance school which the family had been involved with. He and his older siblings taught there from an early age in order to build up the business. It was so successful - largely due to Gene's personality and skill with children, and his mother's administrative abilities - that they opened a second school in Johnstown. 

  5. Was he good with children?

    He had a childlike, almost magical quality which drew children to him. Apparently he could get them to do anything he asked. He was a great encourager. Some disabled children were sent to the dance school and were greatly helped by Gene's wisdom and care. He made dancing fun, even for boys, llike himself, who hated the thought of being called 'sissy'. His love for children remained throughout his life.

  6. Did he perform in Pittsburgh?

    He both performed in and produced musical shows in and around Pittsburgh until he left for New York in 1938. He played a big part in the Cap & Gown shows produced by the university, and staged many children's shows with his own dance school and with the children of Beth Shalom tabernacle, where he taught dance for several years. All of his work had wonderful reviews. He was often singled out for praise in the local Press, both for creative and performance skills.

  7. Why did Gene go to New York?

    He said that he wanted to try his luck in a larger arena. He was a big fish in a small pond, in Pittsburgh. He felt he had more to offer, as a dance director and choreographer. He was encouraged to make the move, by professional acts and choreographers - including Robert Alton - who visited his studio while working in the Pittsburgh theatres.

  8. Was Gene successful on his arrival in New York?

    His first visit, in August 1937, was a disappointment. He was offered only a place in a chorus when he had expected to be a dance director, so he returned home to continue with the schools for a while, as he was earning much more there than he would have been on Broadway.

    He tried again in August 1938 and this time decided to take more time. Again he obtained only a chorus part, in Leave It To Me, but accepted, in order to make a start. His second role, in One For The Money, was a speaking part and his third was a good dancing and character role, in The Time of your Life, which drew attention to his varied talents. His fourth role, in December 1940, was the lead in Pal Joey. So his rise to prominence was amazingly rapid.

  9. What was the catalyst for Gene's move to Hollywood?

    According to Gene it was solely for the money!

    Gene caused quite a stir on Broadway when he played the role of Pal Joey. It was clear to those 'in the know' that he had something very special. He was a great stage actor who could also sing, dance, choreograph and direct. He was reportedly offered movie contracts by several studios, including MGM. But he took a dislike to Louis B. Mayer, the head of the studio, so he refused. Eventually he accepted a contract with David O.Selznick, who had produced Gone With The Wind. He went with Selznick because the contract was flexible, allowing him to return to New York for stage work when he wanted. He expected to go to Hollywood for one movie only, simply to make some money.

  10. What film did he do for Selznick?

    He didn't! There was nothing suitable in the pipeline and the studio did not make musicals. He was, ironically, loaned out to MGM to make For Me & My Gal with Judy Garland. His contract was then bought by them.

  11. What was the public's reaction to his first film performance?

    They loved him. He had acquitted himself well, considering that it was a whole new set of skills he had to learn. He got generally good reviews from the critics. The film was very popular with audiences, with the title song becoming a huge hit. His personality came across strongly and many women were attracted by his good looks and winning smile.

  12. Did MGM put him in more musicals right away?

    No. He was given what he described as Robert Taylor rejects - parts in straight movies such as Pilot #5 and Cross of Lorraine. He was also loaned out to Universal for Christmas Holiday, with Deanna Durbin.

    But he continued to hone his skills and gather new fans. He also had a swashbuckling type role in Dubarry Was A Lady, a dire film with Lucille Ball and Red Skelton, in which he did a very accomplished stage dance in formal attire. It was the last time we would see him perform a 'characterless' dance on film. Another film musical which did not set the world alight was Thousands Cheer, with a cast of what seemed like thousands of established stars. however, it did his career no harm, as it was said, by many at the time, that he was the best thing in the film, in which he did his famous 'mop' dance.

  13. What film gave him his first star billing?

    In Cover Girl he shared top billing with Rita Hayworth, though her name appeared first. In Anchors Aweigh he had only third billing, behind Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson. But it was clear even then that he was the real star of the show. He said he was never too worried about which position his name appeared in on screen. 

    His first top billing was Living In A Big Way, the first film he made after he left the Navy. In On The Town he shared top billing with Sinatra, though this time Gene's name came first. Only Judy Garland would outrank him from then on.

  14. Did Gene create his own dance numbers?

    Yes, almost invariably. Though on a few occasions others choreographed numbers. Busby Berkley had some input, in For Me & My Gal and Take Me Out To The Ball Game,  and Jack Cole choreographed Les Girls, until he got jaundice and Gene took over. It is easy to spot the difference between Gene's creations and anyone elses. For example, Cole did the title number, and Gene looks quite uncomfortable - possibly because the dance had no meaning, was merely a succession of steps. Gene did a Marlon Brando parody in the same film. It set the screen alight, with humour, power and sex appeal.

  15. How did Gene and Stanley Donen meet

    Donen had a small role in Pal Joey. Gene liked the way he handled himself and asked him to help with dance direction on Broadway. Donen went to Hollywood but was fired by his studio. Gene gave him work as his assistant and the relationship grew from there. Gene later gave him the opportunity to become his directing partner. They were a fromidable team but almost all of their contemporaries say that Gene had the creative input, was the senior partner. Stanley was at his best behind the camera. I have a theory that Donen sometimes brought out the worst in Gene - but that is merely my personal opinion. 

  16. What was Gene like when working?

    There are conflicting reports, depending on who is reporting! most say that he was tough, a hard taskmaster. Everything had to be as near perfect as possible. He did not suffer fools gladly, and gave short shrift to those who did not put their all into their work. He was very serious about his work, but said later in life that he wished he had done it with less temper. Though there are many reports of riotous laughter and joking during the making of Kelly films.

    But any director or choreographer had to be hard and often ruthless in order to get the job done within time and monetary constraints, and Gene was by no means the worst of the bunch.

    Most people loved to work with him, especially professional dancers. Betsy says almost everyone he worked with adored him. He made many lifelong friends among those he met and worked with on film sets.

  17. Did he get royalties from all of his films?

    No, none from MGM. He was employed, earning a weekly salary like a factory employee. In fact he had multiple roles, according to his contract, but was paid the same salary as a straight actor with no responsibilities other than learning lines. So the studio was getting a good deal. He also missed out on a pension, because he ended his contract just before he qualified for it.

    He did get Royalties from his audio recordings. The childrens' records were particularly successful.

  18. What part of his job did Gene enjoy most?

    He always said he enjoyed creating, making something from nothing. That would include dance creation and choreography, and directing. He was passionate about ensuring everything was as good as it could be, so he got involved in costume and set design, music, sound, cinematography etc, even if not strictly his concern on a particular movie.

    Dancing acting and singing were chores he had to do because the studio - and the public - demanded to see him on screen.

  19. Were there Gene Kelly fan clubs during his time at MGM?

    Yes, he had a huge fan following, fed by all the articles and pictures in the film magazines, in America, Britain and elsewhere. Fans would discover where he was staying and camp outside just for a glimpse. He never quite came to terms with the adulation, his shyness making it difficult for him to cope with the emotional outpourings of hormonal females! But he was always sweet and polite when the situation required him to be. He saw it as part of his job.

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