Remarkable life of Miss Bluebell

The intercom for Margaret Kelly's apartment near the Bois de Boulogne says "Bluebell"

The intercom for Margaret Kelly's apartment near the Bois de Boulogne says "Bluebell". She was a sickly child when early in the last century a Dr O'Connor in Dublin exclaimed one day, "You're my little Bluebell!"

The name stuck, and Margaret Kelly made it famous, though she was also known simply as Miss.

Nearly 70 years after she led the first Bluebell Girls at the Folies Bergere, Miss Bluebell was awarded the French Legion of Honour on her birthday last June.

In the intervening years, she had recruited and trained thousands of Bluebell Girls and Kelly Boys.


Nearly 200 of them, along with the Irish and British ambassadors, came to her award ceremony at the Lido, the Paris nightclub that was her headquarters for 41 years.

"Don't you dare put 90 candles on the cake or I won't go!" she told her nurse, Alice Marionaud, before the reception.

Miss always fibbed about her age. She has difficulty walking, but refuses to use a cane or wheelchair, and insisted on going to the hairdresser before we called on her.

"You should see me kick!" she said winking a startlingly blue eye when I complimented her appearance.

A photograph in her office shows her dancing a can-can at age 68. There is Bluebell receiving an OBE from Queen Elizabeth, Bluebell with Pope John Paul II, with Sammy Davis Jr and Ginger Rogers.

Paris dance halls must keep people young. Mistinguett and Josephine Baker - with whom Bluebell worked in the 1930s - both danced in their 70s. Miss did not retire until she was 79.

Her son Patrick and her daughter Florence begged her to move to Las Vegas, where they both live with their families. But she cannot tear herself away from Paris.

When the weather is fine, she asks Ms Marionaud to drive her around Montmartre, the Marais and the Eiffel Tower.

Until last year, she dined out several times a week, indulging her taste for fine food and champagne. And she still smokes a pack of Stuyvesants daily.

Bluebell's baptismal certificate shows she was born on June 24th, 1910, at the Rotunda Hospital. She never knew why her parents did not keep her, but a priest placed her with a spinster seamstress named Mary Murphy.

Around the time of the 1916 rising, Miss Murphy took her young charge to Liverpool. She enrolled Bluebell in convent school, and dancing lessons to strengthen her spindly legs.

Bluebell was a good dancer, leaving school at 14 to go on tour in Scotland. She called Mary Murphy "Auntie" and supported her until Miss Murphy died in 1948.

After performing in Germany, Scandinavia, Spain and Hungary, Bluebell settled at the Folies Bergere in 1932.

The pianist at the Folies, a Jewish Rumanian immigrant named Marcel Leibovici, took a fancy to her.

By the time they married in 1939, Bluebell was managing two highly acclaimed dance troupes.

When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Bluebell, who was pregnant with her first son Patrick, was taken to an internment camp at Besancon because she had a British passport. Marcel appealed to the Irish legation in Paris.

The Charge d'Affaires, one Count O'Kelly, obtained the release of Bluebell and three Sisters of Mercy on the grounds they were citizens of neutral Ireland.

In 1942, Marcel was imprisoned in a camp for Jews in the Pyrenees. A friend from music school helped him escape, and for 2 1/2 years, until the liberation of Paris, Bluebell brought food and fresh laundry to him in the Paris attic where he was hiding.

She survived questioning by the Gestapo, a shoot-out between black marketeers in a nightclub and a gun battle between the Resistance and the Germans on the Place de la Concorde.

Miss Bluebell's extraordinary life was recorded in an eight-part BBC drama in the mid-1980s, and in a biography by Georges Perry. She has outlived her husband and one son, but the singers and dancers of the Lido who often drop by are a family to her.

"I was born in Ireland and I was abandoned and I did all this on my own," she says gesturing at the medals, ribbons and photographs in her sunny penthouse apartment. "I never had time to be proud. But I'm happy for what I did."

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor