Life betweenthe sheets
Kevin Kelly 'played with the big guys' when he ran magazines such as 'W' and 'Women's Wear Daily'. The raconteur extraordinaire, now 75, tells Barry Egan of his path to the high life and reveals the secrets of his 50-year marriage
Henry Porter, London editor of Vanity Fair, once noted, not inaccurately: "This guy Kelly, who is a very good salesman, would sell me, and I'm a young guy, a set of dentures in anticipation of old age and decay!" Today in the Shelbourne Hotel, 75-year-old Kevin Kelly doesn't look remotely in a state of old age, and certainly not decay. He is wearing an immaculately tailored suit. He sips on his vodka and tonic with a certain upmarket joie de vivre.
For the remainder of the afternoon, this guy Kelly will tell me the remarkable stories of his life ... He recalls meeting John Fairchild (the charismatic publisher and founder of W, who Time put on their cover in 1970) in Paris in the mid-Eighties.
"Fairchild was frightfully grand," says Kevin not a little grand himself, "and very WASP-y. 'Mr Kelly,' he said, 'I look at every magazine in the world and there is only one that comes on my desk and that is yours, World Of Interiors'."
He offered Mr Kelly a franchise to do his famous American fashion magazine, Women's Wear Daily, in the UK. Kevin was at that time in partnership with global publishing giant Conde Nast. They bought 50pc of his magazine Hibernia, World Of Interiors.
"Conde Nast were unhappy because they said, with W, I was competing now directly with Vogue for advertising. I played with the big guys -- and had great fun with it -- but I never made the big time."
Kevin is a raconteur extraordinaire. He is also enjoyably charming: I have seen him work the room and it is a sight to behold. Kevin is one of Ireland's great romantics. In September, he and his wife Rose will have been married for 50 years.
"It is quite amazing, isn't it?" he smiles. "I look at this girl and we are together all these years. But, you know, I don't look back."
I persuade him to do just that, however, for the next three hours. Derry-born Kevin met Rose from Kilkenny when he was 24. They met at a rugby dance in Kensington Town Hall in London. "I just asked her for a dance," he recalls. "I just thought she was very beautiful and she was with a few pals of hers. She was going out with an English guy -- and fairly seriously I think."
But not that seriously if she was dancing with you? "Ah yeah," he laughs. "But it was Patrick's Night, I think. Maybe she had a pass. He was a rugger bugger. I didn't like him."
I'm sure he didn't like you either after you took his girlfriend.
"That's true. But we had fun times."
Rose had a good job running a hotel in the West End. She was making more than Kevin. Then Kevin earned better money as area manager with Unilever in west London. "I disliked it. They were very boring people. We won the sales team of the country [award]. We won a prize to go away for the weekend. I was so bored with these people with their very boring wives. Rose couldn't go with me. We weren't married. In those days, you didn't shack up together."
A year later on September 1, 1962, they got married in Dublin. They went on honeymoon to Benidorm. I express amazement that two of the poshest newlyweds in Ireland would go to that part of southern Spain for their most special time.
"Could you believe [it]?" he chortles. "But we didn't have a lot of money in those days. And there was some pukka English people and some working class English people and there was ourselves. We always were outsiders, which is the very exciting thing. I am not an outsider in this town," he says meaning Dublin, "but in England, I was. But a very acceptable outsider because the Irish were very well received."
That is to put it mildly. Years later, when Kevin was a partner on Hibernia, World Of Interiors with Conde Nast and setting up the British edition of Women's Wear Daily ("I lost a bucket of money on it") as well as setting up a business magazine with the Financial Times, he and Rose lived a life straight out of a novel by Evelyn Waugh or F Scott Fitzgerald.
"They were incredible times. I spent one St Patrick's Day with Princess Margaret at lunch and I put my hand upon her," he laughs.
Another night, he was with his pal, the late Sam Stephenson in London. "We had dinner with Princess Margaret one night. We went to see Dancing at Lughnasa with her," Kevin says, adding that the late royal liked Rose.
"My wife had been ill at the time and we were going to dinner. Generally speaking, you don't leave until the royals leave. She wanted to drink all night. But she said, 'Mrs Kelly, I hear you haven't been too well. Any time you want to go, you go.' And the next day Rose got a letter from her in her own hand signed 'Margaret'. That was the kind of world we were in. I met the Queen Mother a few times. London was a golden time," he adds.
Daniel William Kevin Kelly was born on August 29, 1936, in the Waterside in Derry. His father Daniel was the local GP. His mother, Tracey, he recalls as "very stylish."
Kevin remembers his early youth in Northern Ireland as "being part of a very split society. Catholics and Protestants didn't mix. But my father did."
Like a lot of middle-class Catholics in the north -- "and there weren't that many -- they tended to send their children down to school in the South," he says.
Kevin had a brother Maurice; a sister Marion in Dublin and a sister Dolores, who is a nun. "My parents when she said she wanted to be a nun had the good sense to send her to Paris for six months to the Sorbonne. So she could see what life is about. But she still wound up being a nun."
Kevin was sent to Castleknock College as a boarder when he was 11. He found it a happy time. After leaving Castleknock, Kevin describes himself "as a bit of a wild child. I wanted to be a doctor, but I was a party animal. I drank. I went to all the parties and I didn't go to any lectures at UCD where I was studying medicine. My father was an easy- going guy. He just wanted me to be happy."
Not surprisingly, Kevin thought UCD was brilliant in terms of the social life.
"I was a bad worker. I never worked. Myself and my friends were the guys who never went to lectures."
He recalls with a certain guilty pleasure he and his equally reprobate pals being actually applauded as they walked past the windows of UCD -- "which in retrospect was horrendous. But I was having a good time. I was a bit of a 'Jack the lad' in college, looking back."
No one was enormously surprised when bon viveur/bounder Kevin Kelly didn't complete his degree. He went to work for his uncle in Derry in The Electric Bar at the entrance of the Bogside.
How did your mother feel about her son, who was supposed to become a doctor, leaving to work in a pub?
"She was very disappointed. My uncle said he'd put manners on me. He did, I think. I worked there for nine months." Then he went to London to study at the London School of Economics "but I got bored of that and I started working. I decided I better get a job."
He secured a position at Unilever -- selling margarine products.
"I hated the margarine but I was a bloody good salesguy."
By this stage, he was romantically involved with Rose, and soon got a better job working for Eireann Foods as area manager for the north-east of England. He and Rose had to move to Manchester.
"It was very exciting for me, but less so for Rose. She told me afterwards that she was very lonely as a young woman. I was always away."
They were to live in far more glamorous places in the future but they weren't always happy. When Kevin sold part of his British publishing operation, he and Rose decided to move to Monte Carlo for three years.
"Being a Kelly in Monte Carlo is a tremendous plus. Because of Grace Kelly!" he smiles. "I met the son and the eldest daughter. But Monte Carlo is very boring. I don't think Rose enjoyed living there. It was mostly lunching every day."
He and Rose lived "fairly close to Michael Smurfit." This might have had certain uncomfortable emotional resonances for both men.
"I wasn't exactly on Michael's Christmas card list for a few years," he smiles. The reason, Kevin says, was a joint venture in an international business magazine, Vision, printed in four languages, that didn't go according to plan. Kevin owned a third of the magazine, Smurfit another third and editor John O'Neill the final third. Kelly had bumped into Smurfit's right hand man David Austin one night outside mass when Austin asked him what he was up to. He said an international finance magazine. Austin said that sounded like something that might interest Smurfit. Smurfit was interested.
"I gave it my all. I worked very hard. I was flying around the world. We had offices all over the world, Paris, Milan, New York, and an amazing rate card of £6,000 a page," Kevin rexcalls. "Suddenly I was a big-time publisher all over the world. After about three years I sold my shares for a pound to Michael and I wrote off my investment. I lost about £120,000. They kept it on without me and they wound up losing a few quid too. Michael was upset, understandably, because this was the only blot on his copy book. I am a huge fan of Michael Smurfit's. He was a great business guy when there was no business guys in this country," Kevin says.
"So, when I went to live in Monte Carlo, I would say hello to him. He wasn't inviting me around to dinner. Eventually, he phoned up and we made up. We had dinner in the K Club six years ago. He is a great guy, very smart."
Kelly is not so bad himself. He sold Image a few years ago but kept on the extremely lucrative Checkout. (He set up with his son Mark, ESM: The European Supermarket Magazine, a European version of Checkout aimed at senior management in the supermarket sector.)
Recently, Kevin and Rose sold their famous home in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin. The late Tony Ryan, a regular dinner guest, once famously referred to it as the little palazzo. It was on the market at €4,750,000. He won't tell me what it sold for or to whom (the buyer is rumoured to be Tony Ryan's granddaughter Danielle Ryan and her husband, Richard Bourke).
"Does anyone in Ireland get a price they are happy with today?"
"No. I got a price I sold it at."
Kevin and Rose have moved to a new palazzo in Elgin Road. I remark that their whole life thus far seems to be constantly moving around.
"That's right. Rose said to me recently: 'We're travellers'."
I have been out for dinner with Kevin and Rose a few times over the years in Dublin. They light up in each other's presence; their chemistry is hard to miss.
Asked how they have kept their love alive for 50 years, Kevin's smile is firmly in place when he says: "We have certainly had a difference of opinions on a lot of things. Rose is very low-key. I remember years ago when Robert O'Byrne did a series on the 10 most stylish women in Ireland and included her and she was horrified.
"Any one of her half dozen friends would have died to have been included. We had a driver when we were in London but she wouldn't even use it when she went to the hairdresser. So, she is totally different to me. That's how we are. We are very different people."
How would she describe you?
"That I'm a social animal and that I like being with people. That's the great Irish strength."
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