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The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall

The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall

eve golden
with kim kendall
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall
    Book Description:

    " Comedic film actress Kay Kendall, born to a theatrical family in Northern England, came of age in London during the Blitz. After starring in Britain's biggest cinematic disaster, she found stardom in 1953 with her brilliant performance in the low-budget film, Genevieve. She scored success after success with her light comic style in movies such as Doctor in the House, The Reluctant Debutante, and the Gene Kelly musical Les Girls. Kendall's private life was even more colorful than the plots of her films as she embarked on a series of affairs with minor royalty, costars, directors, producers, and married men. In 1954 she fell in love with her married Constant Husband costar Rex Harrison and accompanied him to New York, where he was starring on Broadway in My Fair Lady. It was there that Kendall was diagnosed with myelocytic leukemia. Her life took a romantic and tragic turn as Harrison divorced his wife and married Kendall. He agreed with their doctor that she was never to know of her diagnosis, and for the next two years the couple lived a hectic, glamorous life together as Kendall's health failed. She died in London at the age of 32, shortly after completing the filming of Once More with Feeling!, her husband by her side. The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall was written with the cooperation of Kendall's sister Kim and includes interviews with many of her costars, relatives and friends. A complete filmography and numerous rare photographs complete this first-ever biography of Britain's most glamorous comic star. Eve Golden is the author of several biographies of actresses, Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld's Broadway, as well as a collection of essays on silent film stars.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4655-3
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword How This Book Came to Be
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Maraday Wahlborg

    The concept for this book was born in a far-off country in 1959, when Kay Kendall died so tragically. I was a teenager living in South Africa, and I idolized Kay. Her devil-may-care attitude, flamboyant personality, zest for life, beauty, and radiant smile were all captivating to a spotty-faced, gangling teenager. Her death stunned me and, far from forgetting about her, I decided that someday, somehow, her story would be told. My boxes of memorabilia grew through my life, changed countries with me and always remained part of me. Newspapers, magazines, and friends of Kay’s received letters over the years...

  4. Prologue June 23, 1957, Universalist Church of the Divine Paternity, New York City
    (pp. 1-4)

    It was getting on toward midnight, but the Reverend Dr. Charles Francis Potter had agreed to keep his Upper West Side church open for this special, top-secret wedding. The bride and groom rushed in, accompanied by a small group: the bride’s sister was matron of honor, the groom’s lawyer was best man, the groom’s dresser, and actress and friend Margaret Leighton lent moral support. Near the doorway of the small chapel, newsman Earl Wilson crept in with a camera. The press had known since the day before—when the couple had obtained a marriage license—that the ceremony was in...

  5. Chapter One “If anyone suggested anything, she was game for it.”
    (pp. 5-13)

    It took him twenty-seven hours to cross the Atlantic after leaving Roosevelt Field in Long Island. By mid-afternoon, crowds were waiting at Le Bourget airfield northeast of Paris. By the time he was due over southern England, traffic was backed up for more than a mile outside his arrival place. It was nearly 9:00 P.M. when he flew over Cherbourg—by that time, some 150,000 people had gathered to greet him. French, American, British; reporters, well-wishers, cynics. The tiny, droning plane finally appeared as a dot on the horizon, and deafening cheers echoed asThe Spirit of St. Louisswooped...

  6. Chapter Two “Of course, there was nobody in London.”
    (pp. 14-17)

    All through the late 1930s, the possibility of war was in everyone’s mind. Like most families, the Kendalls listened to their radio and read their newspaper; and like many families, they were so busy with their own lives that they tried to push thoughts of war to the back of their thoughts. The theatrical family paid less attention to politics than most: King George VI’s coronation just before Kay’s tenth birthday and the Wallis Simpson crisis beforehand pretty much passed them by (though Kim remembers her mother wondering what the Prince of Wales saw in “that woman”). But by 1939,...

  7. Chapter Three “That’s Kay Kendall and she’s supposed to be in the chorus!”
    (pp. 18-27)

    Kay developed early, and the neighborhood boys were not slow to notice. Tall and thin, she could put on full stage makeup and look like a woman in her twenties. Cousin Joy Drewery recalls the dance hall where teens would congregate with their beaus. “Kay would walk in and sort of lean up against the doorway or something like that and the boys would leave us and flock to Kay. She was so much more glamorous, her clothes were nicer. She just had an air about her that attracted everyone. . . . We would turn around in disgust and...

  8. Chapter Four “We’re going to take a chance with you . . .”
    (pp. 28-34)

    In 1944, Kay made her entrance into films. There was simply too much leisure time between stage shows, and the studios looked to be a promising source of income. Despite her unusual height, a beautiful young girl like Kay was bound to get well-paying work as an extra, at least. Both sisters got an appointment with producer and director Alexander Korda around this time—it didn’t lead to any jobs, but “he gave us each five pounds,” Kim recalls. “I haven’t the vaguest idea why!”

    Ealing Studios had a number of war-related successes (The Big Blockade,The Foreman Went to...

  9. Chapter Five “You have no talent. Find some nice man and get married.”
    (pp. 35-42)

    London Townhas gone down in history as such a notorious flop that it is surprising to see that not all reviews were negative.The London Timescalled it “a triumph in its own class,” adding that Sid Field had “ten times the talent” of Bob Hope.Varietyfelt it a “misfire” but praised Field and Tessie O’Shea—Kay was even mentioned by name as “a good-looking newcomer.” Most critics, however, sided withThe Observer,which calledLondon Town“a sad error of judgment . . . a series of indifferent scenes.” Viewed today, the film is not so much...

  10. Chapter Six “I need someone to look after me, wifey.”
    (pp. 43-47)

    Late in the 1940s, Kay took a step that would change her appearance and, she hoped, her career, for the better: she had her nose done. Rhinoplasty was nothing new—Fanny Brice had her nose bobbed back in the 1920s. And plastic surgery had made great leaps during the war. Kay was a believer in going right to the top, so she used her many social and government friends to approach the father of British plastic surgery, Sir Archibald McIndoe. McIndoe had established the Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead and did...

  11. Chapter Seven “We made ourselves ill with laughter.”
    (pp. 48-52)

    Films did not seem to be welcoming her back as 1951 began, but Kay had two lucky breaks in the still-infant television industry. On March 20, she was given a marvelous showcase role, as Martha Handsford in the BBC productionSweethearts and Wives,a comedy by Gilbert and Margareth Hackforth. On April 29 she played Mary, a farmer’s daughter, in L. du Garde Peach’s The River, a drama about a flood threatening a village (according to theRadio Times,it was a thinly veiled metaphor about the recent war). The BBC at the time had no casting director overseeing dramas,...

  12. Chapter Eight “People think I’m the gayest thing on two legs, but I get awfully depressed at times.”
    (pp. 53-58)

    While Kay’s social life took off, her career was languishing. Still another stinker of a low-budget crime melodrama followed withStreet of Shadows(filmed in 1952 and released in 1953). Kay had the pleasure of playing the second-billed love interest to Cesar Romero, to whom she’d been merely a nameless stooge inHappy Go Lovely. Romero was the manager of a “pintable saloon” and Kay the unhappy wife of a crooked police captain. She looks glamorous and sulky and barely changes facial expression throughout the film.

    The next film Kay made in 1952 was her most enjoyable—for audiences, anyway...

  13. Chapter Nine “Come on, come on, getcher autographs here!”
    (pp. 59-65)

    Despite the clever script, no one was expecting very much whenGenevievebegan shooting in the fall of 1952. None of the cast were stars; the director hardly had a promising attitude; and even the producer made it known that he was unhappy with the way the whole project was unfurling. Still, at least, the four leads quickly befriended one another. Thirty-eight-year-old Kenneth More was Kay’s comic partner, playing the loudmouthed braggart to her increasingly annoyed fashion plate. More had been inching along in his acting career since his debut inScott of the Antarctic(1948), and his films had...

  14. Chapter Ten “I have two hired killers looking for you at this very moment.”
    (pp. 66-72)

    If Kay thoughtGenevievewould rocket her to stardom, that she’d become queen of the Rank Organisation, her next film brought her back down to earth with a thump. WhileGenevievewas still being edited and promoted, while Kay was bouncing about in antique cars with reporters, Rank dumped her into yet another low-budget, black-and-white melodrama.The Square Ring(released in July 1953) was a run-of-the-mill boxing story, with Kay as the wife of a fight manager, still carrying a torch for a washed-up boxer. Billed just above her was twenty-year-old Joan Collins, also being built up by Rank. Kay’s...

  15. Chapter Eleven “You stupid, long-nosed English actor!”
    (pp. 73-79)

    Kay’s next film would not have too big an impact on her career as an actress, but it would change her life. In the light comedyThe Constant Husband,Rex Harrison plays a befuddled man who wakes up in a Welsh hotel suffering from amnesia—a doctor takes him back to London, where he slowly discovers he is a cad and a bounder, married to a successful photographer (Kay), a human cannonball (Nicole Maurey), and five other women. He goes on trial and, when all his wives offer to take him back and his own lawyer (Margaret Leighton) falls for...

  16. Chapter Twelve “Its about the worst case I know.”
    (pp. 80-85)

    Back at Portofino, the Harrisons were hosting Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont, one of Britain’s leading theatrical producers and managing director of the firm H.M. Tennant, Ltd. Socially ebullient, Beaumont was a close friend of the Harrisons’ as well as of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. At Portofino, Beaumont was going over the script ofBell, Book and Candle, which the Harrisons were to revive onstage in London late in 1954. As they went over the play—about a beautiful witch who entrances her neighbor, a publisher—friends flitted in and out of the house and the summer seemed to be wearing...

  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  18. Chapter Thirteen “I am not thinking of matrimony either with Mr. Harrison or anybody else.”
    (pp. 86-94)

    As it became more apparent to her friends that this relationship with Rex Harrison was not simply a passing fancy, they became concerned. Many of them looked fondly back on Sydney Chaplin, Bill Hanson, and James Sainsbury as much more suited to Kay than this pompous ladies’ man. “Oh, Rex wasneverthe love of her life,” snaps Kim Kendall. “She was so crazy about Bill Hanson she couldn’t see straight!” Other friends feel that Chaplin better fit that description. Decades older than Kay, Harrison was well past his prime as “Sexy Rexy.” But for once, she had latched onto...

  19. Chapter Fourteen “My career is still important, but it’s not that important.”
    (pp. 95-104)

    While Kay had been filmingQuentin DurwardandSimon and Laura, Harrison was dipping his toes into preparations forMy Fair Lady.It had all begun back in February 1955, when Dirk Bogarde’s friend, playwright Alan Jay Lerner, had begged for a meeting with Rex Harrison. Lerner had been working with his composing partner Frederick Loewe on a project based onPygmalion.Tentatively titledLady Liza, the show would be, Lerner felt, a perfect vehicle for Harrison—though he was hardly first choice for the role, as Harrison later loved to claim. Everyone from David Niven to Noël Coward to...

  20. Chapter Fifteen “I won’t be any good at it! She needs a strong person.”
    (pp. 105-109)

    In the autumn of 1956, as the new theatrical season started, the producers ofMy Fair Ladysuggested that Harrison check into Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center for a series of routine tests. Kay had been feeling weak, feverish, and headachy for some time, so she accompanied him. Their doctor was Dana W. Atchley, “physician to the stars” (and for whom Columbia-Presbyterian’s Atchley Pavilion was named). Atchley could be depended on to keep secrets, which, as it turned out, was a good thing. He told Harrison that he was concerned about Kay’s tests and that she needed to have further blood work...

  21. Chapter Sixteen “It is Kay Kendall who shines brightest . . . a constant pleasure and surprise.”
    (pp. 110-117)

    Kay arrived in Los Angeles and MGM’s press attaché took her to a rented apartment: she got one look at it and became hysterical. “It looked like an Amsterdam tart’s parlor,” recalled Dirk Bogarde, “swagged and buttoned satin, scatter cushions, an immense lilac nylon Teddy bear.” Particularly grisly, under the circumstances, was an undertaker’s sign in green neon opposite Kay’s bedroom window, repeatedly blinking the message, “It’s Later Than You Think.” The phone rang at Harrisons Long Island home: it was Kay, alternately laughing and crying. “I can’t stay a night here, I’ll slit my throat, wifey! Oh, I’se sick,...

  22. Chapter Seventeen “I just wanted that sense of being at home—my first real home.”
    (pp. 118-122)

    On the morning of June 23, Kim got a call from her sister: “Darling, Rex and I have taken out the banns and we’re going to get married after the show tonight, but I don’t want the press to know. So don’t wear anything too good-looking.” Kim attended that night’s performance ofMy Fair Ladyand noticed Harrison nervously flubbing his lines. Shortly before midnight, the wedding party took off for the Upper West Side: Harrison in a suit, Kay in a beige silk shantung dress with pleats, a scarf wrapped around her hair. Besides Kim, they were joined by...

  23. Chapter Eighteen “They were just lost, they were so deeply in love with each other.”
    (pp. 123-132)

    To celebrate the beginning of 1958—their first new year as husband and wife and, for all Harrison knew, their last—the couple took the Queen Mary from New York to Cherbourg. “We want rest, just rest,” Harrison said—but in fact, the two were already deep in negotiations for a film together. Laurie Evans and his wife, Mary, met them in Southampton in the middle of a snowstorm, and Kay was having fits because her pug dogs had to go into quarantine. Kay took her new husband to her hometown to show him off to the family. They took...

  24. Chapter Nineteen “Diggy, I think I’m dying . . . and they won’t tell me.”
    (pp. 133-140)

    Kay and Harrison returned to London on April 4 to prepare for the London opening ofMy Fair Ladyat the Drury Lane Theatre on April 30. They rented the home of the Earl of Warwick in Swan Walk but soon had a falling-out that resulted in Kay’s going house-shopping. “I’m looking for a home,” she told reporter David Lewin that spring. “Something for Rex and me—not too big. A study for Rex and a garden for me and the two dogs. We’ll be here for a year, and you can't live in an hotel for all that time,...

  25. Chapter Twenty “If you think I’m coming here to die, you’re wrong!”
    (pp. 141-151)

    An important but increasingly dreary chapter in Kay’s life closed on March 30, when Rex Harrison played his final London performance inMy Fair Lady.Kay finally felt herself free from Professor Higgins. She and Harrison could now start looking about for film, theater, and television projects to do together. While Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were hardly good role models for a working marriage, there was still Lunt and Fontanne to pattern themselves after. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (married since 1942) and youngsters Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (married just the previous year) were making a go of...

  26. Chapter Twenty-One “No one was ever born into the world with such a bright genius for living.”
    (pp. 152-158)

    Though many of the Harrisons’ friends had known Kay was dying, to her family it came as a complete and sudden shock. Her grandmother, Marie Kendall, was told by her daughter Moya. Gladys was staying in New York and was reached by transatlantic telephone. Kim was sailing with her husband off Nantucket for Labor Day weekend and had been trying to reach Kay through the local party line, with no success. The next day, her step-daughter Pauline heard of Kay’s death on the radio and broke the news to Kim. It was perhaps hardest of all on Kay’s father, Terry,...

  27. Filmography
    (pp. 159-168)
  28. Notes
    (pp. 169-182)
  29. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-184)
  30. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 185-186)
  31. Index
    (pp. 187-196)