Patricia Ward Kelly on her late husband Gene Kelly's Irish heritage – and why his mother tried to hide it
Published 21/04/2013 | 05:00
Soon after I met Gene, a friend told me about Ireland's Citizenship by Foreign Birth programme and suggested that I apply for Irish citizenship for him. As it turned out, proving Gene's Irish heritage was much more difficult than I imagined.
With a name like Eugene Kelly – and a middle name like Curran – I figured it would be easy to establish that Gene was of Irish descent. But his mother had done everything in her power to obscure those roots.
As far as Harriet Curran Kelly was concerned, they were Americans descended from her mother's proper German stock. "We're not Irish," she used to say, defensively, "we're the Ackards." As though they were the Rockefellers.
Because of his mother's disavowal of her lineage, Gene's origins were shrouded in mystery. As a result, he could never answer with certainty the question he was often asked: What county did your ancestors come from in Ireland? He would usually say, "I'm told it was Co Clare, but the records from the local church rectory burned leaving no clue."
"The Irishness in me certainly didn't come from my mother," said Gene. "It came from my father and the joy he had in being Irish."
James Patrick Joseph Kelly, or JPJK, as he was known, hailed from Peterborough, Ontario, and the stories he told his middle son "always had an upbeat ending". He bounced Gene on his knee, sang songs in Gaelic and often danced a little jig.
He was Irish through and through, it seemed, but we didn't have the documents to prove it.
Eventually, we were able to establish the necessary connection using a copy of a Pennsylvania census from 1900, stating that Gene's maternal grandfather, William Curran (incorrectly listed as 'Curn'), had been born in Ireland in May 1852 and that both of his parents had been born in Ireland as well.
The census also described William Curran's profession as 'Saloonkeeper'. Looking back, Gene was convinced that this personal history explained why his mother was, throughout her life, such an ardent "Ireland-phobe".
Honestly believing that all Irishmen were drunkards, wastrels and no-goods, she distanced herself from any association and constantly tried to elevate the family from what she considered "Shanty Irish" to "lace curtain".
When his burgundy-covered Irish passport finally arrived, with EIRE stamped in gold on the front, along with his foreign birth certificate printed in Gaelic and English, Gene was deeply proud. We had, at last, formally connected him to his Irish past.
In my near-daily recording of Gene's words over our decade together, I came to realise that Ireland, for Gene, was much more than genealogy. It was the core of his being.
The basis of this emerged one day as he told me a story about an afternoon he spent sharing a bottle of Paddy's Irish whiskey with Samuel Beckett in the playwright's "little spare sitting room" at the Hyde Park Hotel in London.
When I asked what transpired between the two men, he said: "We sat and talked. He'd pour me a glass, pour himself a glass and put the bottle down, and we sipped. It was a good sipping whiskey. We just talked. That's all we did."
The two spoke of mysticism and metaphysics, and of how a little country, "smaller in population than the city of Philadelphia, could have turned out the greatest writers".
"I have an awe and wonderment in my very soul..." Gene told me, reflecting on his conversation with Beckett, "having a lot of the Celtic and Irish mystery and metaphysics embedded in me."
Gene often listed his favourite book as 'The Crock of Gold' by James Stephens, but he also devoured the work of many other Irish writers, including Goldsmith, Swift, O'Casey, Shaw, Joyce, Synge and, of course, Yeats.
When I first met Gene – and, remarkably, before I knew he was famous – we came together in our shared love of words and poetry and, particularly, the poems of WB Yeats. Early on, Gene said to me, "I bet you don't know the opening lines of Yeats's poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'." To his surprise, I did, and that was the beginning of the romance that was to come.
Over the years, we frequently recalled passages together, quoting one phrase or another as it came to mind. I can still hear him saying to me, "When you are old and grey and full of sleep, take down this book".
He relished the sound of the words and the inimitable image of Love hiding "his face amid a crowd of stars".
Much of Gene's fondness for Ireland was rooted in the stories and songs that his father shared with him when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. It was James Patrick Joseph Kelly who taught Gene the Irish rebel songs, such as 'The Wearing of the Green', which Gene eventually sang with his friend, President John F Kennedy, in the private quarters of the White House, and 'The Minstrel Boy', the one that always made Gene cry.
When Gene studied dance in Chicago in the 1930s, he helped defray his expenses by singing in little joints around town that the writer John O'Hara would later coin "cloops".
Gene delighted the mostly Irish patrons by singing an upbeat version of 'It's the Irish in Me', belting out the lines "Knock me down and I'll get up again", and throwing his fist into the air at the end.
It was the song he used to audition for songwriter Richard Rodgers and producer George Abbott for the play 'Pal Joey', which opened on Broadway on Christmas night 1940 and made Gene Kelly a star.
Gene visited Ireland several times and loved it. He rented a small cottage in Puckane (Co Tipperary) with a peat fireplace and a little kitchen, and said he felt "a great aloneness there" – an elusive luxury given his fame.
He drank Guinness at Kennedy's Bar and listened to the fairy stories of JP Kennedy that reminded him of Yeats and of his father's tales growing up. He fished for salmon, trout and pike in Lough Derg.
Gene's close friend, the set designer Sean Kenny, of 'Oliver!' and 'Stop the World' fame, brought the 'Irish crowd' to California, including the great Beckett actor Jack MacGowran and the Shavian talent Siobhan McKenna.
"We would admittedly do a lot of Irish whiskey drinking all night and jump in the pool," said Gene, "and get up and go to work the next day."
MacGowran died unexpectedly on January 31, 1973, and Sean Kenny followed just six months later at the young age of 43.
Soon after, Gene made a special trip to Portroe to see Sean Kenny's mother and visit Sean's grave. It was, for Gene, an important pilgrimage, a way of honouring his friend.
Years later, as Gene sat on the couch next to me one night, I noticed tears slipping down his cheek. "I was just getting sad about Sean," he said, and I knew then how deep their friendship was.
In a speech Gene gave on March 17, 1989, when he received the annual award from The Friendly Sons of St Patrick, he spoke of the Irish character, saying it was difficult for those who are not Irish to understand.
"It appears to them to be full of contradictions," he explained, "but what they often mistake for contraries may in fact be complexities."
Ultimately, this is what I discovered in Gene – a man of many layers, woven of strands light and dark, of sadness and of joy.
On St Patrick's Day this year, my Dublin friend John Doyle posted a photograph of the beautiful National Concert Hall bathed in green light. When I re-posted it, he sent me a note saying, "It won't be green by then", referring to the upcoming RTE Concert Orchestra performance of 'Singin' in the Rain'.
"Yes," I said, "but with Gene smiling with that twinkle in his eye on the big screen inside, there will still be a hint of the green."
Gene once said: "With my good Irish name, I feel at home in the old country. I'm accepted there." On April 27 at the National Concert Hall, Eoghanin O Currain Ui Chellaigh will, indeed, be home.
© Patricia Ward Kelly
'Singin' in the Rain', with live performance of the orchestral score by the RTE Concert Orchestra, will be screened on Saturday, April 27, at the National Concert Hall, 3pm and 8pm. Biographer and film historian Patricia Ward Kelly will introduce it and give a pre-concert talk. She is completing a memoir about her late husband.
Tickets from €25 at nch.ie