Ann Keeley-Kavanagh obituary: Trailblazing Irish-American TV executive

She directed coverage of everything from JFK’s assassination to Watergate

Ann Keeley-Kavanagh: forged a career in television when women were simply not in the business

Ann Keeley-Kavanagh: forged a career in television when women were simply not in the business

 

Born: March 14th, 1922
Died: August 20th, 2019

If Ann Keeley-Kavanagh, who has died aged 97, had not married Dr Peter Kavanagh, brother of the Irish poet Patrick, she would have come to the notice of Irish media anyway due to her ground-breaking career. She was the daughter of Irish emigrants to the United States and one of the first women to break the gender barrier in American national media, just as television was taking off in that country in the late 1940s. She would play a pioneering role in the industry.

Keeley-Kavanagh was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1922 to parents Michael Keeley from Co Galway and Catherine (nee Conaboy) from Co Mayo. She had a colourful childhood. Her father ran a speakeasy in Prohibition America, having previously been a proprietor of nightclubs. He managed the difficult business of the unlawful bar trade with the assistance of a local politician, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, so notorious a fixer that his character was recreated fictionally in the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire.

Keeley-Kavanagh left Atlantic City for the University of Pennsylvania in 1939 – an education paid for by a cousin of her mother’s, as her father did not believe in the value of a university education. She graduated with a BA in English literature in 1943, followed by an MA in 1945, after which she worked in public relations – then itself an infant industry – in Philadelphia, before moving to New York in 1949 to join the nascent NBC television service, initially as a secretary. She clearly impressed her employers: within two years she was working as an associate director on live programmes, and it was in this connection that she first met her future husband.

Blazing a trail

Seeking an appropriate angle for a St Patrick’s Day programme, she enlisted the help of Peter Kavanagh, then a relatively unknown academic specialising in teaching Irish literature, who was already a noted scholar of Irish theatre history. He went on to assist her in producing the regular twice-hourly news bulletins for NBC’s local New York service.

Keeley-Kavanagh’s work with NBC was to last a phenomenal 64 years; she didn’t fully retire until 2014, aged 92. Throughout this period she blazed a trail at the US national broadcaster, working as an associate producer, director or producer on famous television shows including Hi Mom with the puppeteer Shari Lewis, Galley Proof and the Today Show, NBC’s main news programme for New York.

In 1960 Keeley-Kavanagh transferred to NBC’s national network, where she was responsible for the coverage of all of the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions from 1964 until 1984, inclusive, and directed coverage of many of the most famous media events of the last 60 years, including the assassination of President Kennedy, the Watergate scandal in 1974, the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul 11 in 1981, the 9/11 attack on New York in 2001 and the historic election to the presidency of Barack Obama in 2008.

As well as this distinguished work as a behind-the-scenes broadcaster, Keeley-Kavanagh played a crucial role in the scholarly work of her husband, whom she married in 1964. It was a partnership that became an early example of the house-husband practice, her job at NBC allowing her to support her husband and their two daughters after Peter gave up his position at the University of Wisconsin, following Patrick Kavanagh’s death in 1967, to devote himself to the editing and publication of his brother’s work.

Matter-of-fact

Working from a tiny one-bedroom New York apartment, and borrowing against her pension to fund the enterprise, Keeley-Kavanagh’s support allowed her husband to publish a long series of her brother-in-law’s works as well as two of her husband’s autobiographies and, in 1996, a documentary, Pilgrimage of a Soul.

Speaking this week, Keeley-Kavanagh’s eldest daughter, Keelin, remarked how matter-of-fact and realistic her parents’ modus operandi had been when they started out in the then straight-laced 1960s America.

“My mother was really an extraordinary person. She forged a career in television when women were simply not in the business, and she was the financial head of the household starting in the 1960s, when this was simply not done. But in our family this was just how it was … There was never any discussion of feminism or of women’s rights, or splitting childcare duties, or housekeeping, that 55 years after I was born we in the western world are still talking about.”

Ann Keeley-Kavanagh was one of six children, all of whom predeceased her. Her siblings were Mary, Agnes, Kathleen, Joseph and John. She is survived by her daughters, Keelin and Caomh, and three grandchildren.