Married to Gene Kelly: 'He didn't seem that old to me'
Film star's widow on curating her husband's archive, and the 47-year age gap
Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which he also co-directed and choreographed
“Isabella is famous, because Ryan Gosling came to my house and accidentally left the gate open when he was leaving. She got out, and he and Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle were chasing after her through the traffic,” she recalls. Isabella was eventually rescued twice over by the stars and director of La La Land, and brought safely back to her owner.
The high-profile cast members of La La Land were visiting Patricia Ward Kelly at her invitation; to look at the archive of her late husband, Gene Kelly, who knew a thing or two about singing and dancing and choreography. I do a cursory search on YouTube for a clip of his most famous number, in Singin’ in the Rain, and the one I load at random has more than 25 million views.
His work is to be the subject of a special one-night show at the National Concert Hall later this month, Gene Kelly: A Life in Music, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Patricia, his widow, will host the evening, which will be interspersed with clips from his movies.
However, when Patricia first met her husband-to-be, in 1985, when she was 26 and he was 73, she had never heard of him. She had never seen Singin’ in the Rain or any of the other movies he had starred in (Cover Girl, An American in Paris), or directed (Hello, Dolly!). How did they meet?
“I was in Washington, working on a documentary about the Smithsonian museum. Gregory Peck was to be the host narrator. I had seen To Kill a Mockingbird, so I knew who he was. At the last minute, they said Gene Kelly was to be the host instead. The name meant nothing to me.”
‘Surreal’ first meeting
She describes their first meeting as “surreal”. It was an unlikely precursor to their eventual romance. “It was midnight at the air and space museum, and I was plonking my way into the ladies’ room and this very elegant man came out of the men’s bathroom. That was the first time I saw him.”
They worked together on the documentary for a week, during which time Patricia remained in ignorance of the background of the host narrator. “It wasn’t until the final day when he drove off in a limo, and the woman next to me said, ‘He was really famous, you know.’ And then I went to the video store and took out a ton of videos. I hauled all these videos home and watched them all. I just remember this kind of marathon of watching with my mouth agape, because the work is so brilliant. And timeless.”
Patricia doesn’t recall when she first watched Singin’ in the Rain, but does recall watching Brigadoon with her parents. “I was crying every time he came on screen, and that, I think, is when my mother first wondered if something was up.”
About six months after working on the documentary, Gene called her. “He asked me to come out to California, and he said he had some writing projects I might want to work on.” She duly went out. His house was located on the famous Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills: it is still there, although was sold on after his death. “It was really modest for Beverley Hills. No big fence, no security.”
By the end of the weekend, he had asked her to help write his memoir. That was the beginning of a relationship that led to marriage, five years later, in 1990.
What about the 47-year age gap? And the fact he had already been married twice, had three children and an entire life experience in the public eye?
“I know this sounds odd, but I never even thought about the age difference, until I started seeing the headlines in the tabloids in the grocery store,” she says now. “He was so terribly handsome. He didn’t seem old to me. He was the kind of guy who would bolt across the street when the light changed; he wouldn’t walk. He was just always in motion.
“I think he used word ‘Pygmalion’ about me. It just worked. He never expected it to happen, neither of us did. We didn’t go into it – we kind of backed into it. Gene had always swore he would never remarry.” (He had divorced his first wife in 1957. His second wife died in 1973.) “People say to me, ‘Don’t you wish you had known him when he was much younger?’ But the way I look at it is, I got him when he didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
Right from the beginning, Gene asked her to record their conversations. Astonishing as this sounds, she did that. “I recorded him almost every day for 10 years. And that’s really the core of the show that’s coming to Dublin; conversations we’d have. Anytime he spoke, I was supposed to be jotting it down. He looked over once, and said I wasn’t writing something time, and I said it was lunchtime and I had to eat my salad!”
It says something both about Gene’s ego, in considering his everyday conversation of such import he wished it to be recorded, and the depth of her corresponding patience in compliance. When he slept, she transcribed the endless notes. She says she has a staggering 85 filing cabinets of notes. Did this process not swallow all her time?
“That is kind of true,” she says. “But it is not only Gene’s story, it’s also my story of a decade from 26 to 36 and about our relationship.”
When they married quietly in Santa Barbara in 1990, Patricia gave her age to the press as 36, not the 31 it actually was. He was then 78. “It was a very unHollywood thing to do,” she jokes now. “Usually people are subtracting years from their age.”
Gene died, aged 83, of complications from a stroke. Patricia inherited his paper archive, and ever since, she has been working on it. “I inherited all the letters, the manuscripts, the photographs, the physical items. I am still finding new things and unpacking boxes. That’s what I am cataloguing, and ultimately, I hope to have an archive that is freely available to anyone.”
A recent find were letters between Laurence Oliver, Katharine Hepburn and Gene Kelly. “A lot of people tell me: ‘You should sell some of the stuff and pay your mortgage; but I believe the collection should stay intact.”
Apart from working on the 85 filing cabinets of papers and trying to get them into some shape, Patricia spends much of her time touring shows about her late husband. Is it strange to have one’s working life defined by someone who has been dead for such a long time?
“I don’t see the archives as an old dead thing,” she says. “At heart, I’m a researcher. I specialised in Herman Melville’s short fiction. I was the kind of girl who would get very excited over a semicolon. And because he was my husband, going through the papers packs an emotional punch as well as a research one.”
What the paper archive also represents is a way to connect with many other people. “People come to my house to see it. It is sort of a vehicle to have a very different life; to be connected to a lot of young people and artists.”
Among those from Ireland whom she has hosted for dinner and shown pieces of Gene Kelly’s archive to are cast members from both the Druid and Abbey theatres. Barry McGovern is a good friend. Pat Kinevane has also visited. However, unlike the stars of La La Land, they closed the gate after themselves when leaving and did not let her dogs out.
Gene Kelly: A Life in Music, hosted by Patricia Ward Kelly, is at the National Concert Hall on July 26th for one night. nch.ie