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The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall

Eve Golden

Publication Year: 2014

" 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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

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...

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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 grooms lawyer was...

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Chapter One: "If anyone suggested anything, she was game for it."

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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...

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Chapter Two: "Of course, there was nobody in London."

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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...

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Chapter Three: "That's Kay Kendall and she s supposed to be in the chorus!"

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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...

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Chapter Four: "We're going to take a chance with you. . ."

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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...

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Chapter Five "You have no talent. Find some niceman and get married."

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pp. 35-42

London Town has gone down in history as such a notorious flop that it is surprising to see that not all reviews were negative. The London Times called it "a triumph in its own class," adding that Sid Field had "ten times the talent" of Bob Hope. Variety felt it a "misfire" but praised Field and Tessie...

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Chapter Six: "I need someone to look after me, wifey."

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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...

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Chapter Seven: "We made ourselves ill with laughter."

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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 production Sweethearts and Wives, a comedy by Gilbert and Margareth...

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Chapter Eight: "People think Im the gayest thing on two legs, but I get awfully depressed at times."

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pp. 53-58

While Kays social life took off, her career was languishing. Still another stinker of a low-budget crime melodrama followed with Street 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 in Happy Go Lovely. Romero was the manager of a "pintable...

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Chapter Nine: "Come on, come on, getcher autographs here!"

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pp. 59-65

Despite the clever script, no one was expecting very much when Genevieve began 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...

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Chapter Ten: "I have two hired killers looking for you at this very moment."

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pp. 66-72

If Kay thought Genevieve would 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. While Genevieve was still being edited and promoted, while Kay was bouncing about in antique cars with reporters, Rank dumped...

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Chapter Eleven: "You stupid, long-nosed English actor!"

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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 comedy The 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...

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Chapter Twelve: "It's about the worst case I know."

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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 of Bell, Book and Candle,...

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Chapter Thirteen: "I am not thinking of matrimony either with Mr. Harrison or anybody else."

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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 was never the love of her life," snaps Kim Kendall. "She was so...

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Chapter Fourteen: "My career is still important but it's not that important."

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pp. 95-104

While Kay had been filming Quentin Durward and Simon and Laura, Harrison was dipping his toes into preparations for My 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...

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Chapter Fifteen: "I won't be any good at it! She needs a strong person."

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pp. 105-109

In the autumn of 1956, as the new theatrical season started, the producers of My Fair Lady suggested 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...

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Chapter Sixteen: "It is Kay Kendall who shines brightest. . . a constant pleasure and surprise."

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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...

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Chapter Seventeen: "I just wanted that sense of being at home—my first real home."

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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 of My Fair Lady...

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Chapter Eighteen: "They were just lost, they were so deeply in love with each other."

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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...

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Chapter Nineteen: "Diggy, I think I'm dying. . . and they won't tell me."

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pp. 133-140

Kay and Harrison returned to London on April 4 to prepare for the London opening of My Fair Lady at 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...

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Chapter Twenty:"If you think I'm coming here to die, you're wrong!"

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pp. 141-151

An important but increasingly dreary chapter in Kays life closed on March 30, when Rex Harrison played his final London performance in My 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...

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Chapter Twenty-One: "No one was ever born into the world with such a bright genius for living."

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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...


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pp. 159-168


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pp. 179-182


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pp. 183-184


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pp. 185-186


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pp. 187-196


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pp. 197-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780813146553
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813122519

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2014