Kay Kendall, Genevieve
Most classic film lovers in America, while we certainly know who Kay Kendall was, lack a thorough understanding or knowledge of the woman behind the beauty and the spirit behind the talent. We know the name, we know the face, and we certainly know she never failed to entertain or amuse us. But how much about Kay Kendall, herself, do we know.
After watching her in Genevieve and Les Girls, I found myself always wanting to know MORE this charismatic actress. Fortunately for me, an excellent biography exists, The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall. Now, I know…. not ALL biographies can be completely trusted, but this one’s different. Not only is the author, Eve Golden a devoted fan of the actress who put in exhaustive research with countless interviews with friends and loved ones, Kay’s own sister, Kim Kendall Campbell, was involved with this biography.
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 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 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 with her husband by her side shortly after completing the filming of Once More with Feeling!.
This book 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 rare photographs complete this first-ever biography of Britain’s most glamorous comic star.
Kay Kendall was born Justine Kay Kendall-McCarthy on May 21, 1927 in Withernsea, Yorkshire, England. In spite of being remarkably beautiful (same can be said of her sister Kim for that matter… the photos of them from the book show two very beautiful sisters who were obviously very close), she never seemed to realize just how lovely she was.
Kay was both a comedienne and actress, as impressive in a dramatic role as she was in a comedic one. Her gift for physical comedy was on par with the greats – Lucille Ball, included. Kay is best known for Genevieve (1953). She also starred in The Constant Husband (1955), Les Girls (1957). Her role in Les Girls led her to winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy!
When doing biography and autobiography reviews, I am always uncommonly cautious about giving too much away (preferring for future readers to discover things along the way as I had the privilege of doing). Suffice, however, to say that Kay’s journey into show business and fame makes for a fascinating, often laugh out loud journey. The colorful people you meet along the way are almost as interesting as lovely Kay, herself.
One person in particular would go on to become Kay Kendall’s husband, Rex Harrison. They met and fell in love when they appeared together in Marriage a la Mode (1955). Rex learned of Kay’s leukemia from her doctor a couple of years later and married Kay in 1957. He agreed with the doctor that they would never to tell her the true reason for her failing health, protecting her from her last days being clouded by thoughts of dying.
While Kay Kendall led an eventful and colorful life, it was a very brief one. She was only 32 when she died from leukemia. THIRTY-TWO.
Before reading this wonderful biography, the only things I knew about Kay were…
- She was married to Rex Harrison.
- She died very, very young.
- She died from leukemia.
To know more about someone’s death than their life is a perfect tragedy – of Shakespearean proportions. I am so glad I got to know this charismatic and colorful actress through the intensive efforts of Eve Golden and the generous way in which Kay’s loved ones (including her sister Kim) shared their stories. It isn’t always easy to relive parts of your life and it can feel a bit intrusive when people poke around in your family tree. What’s more, when we have lost people we loved dearly (and still love), we feel very protective of them and almost want to keep them for ourselves. The fact that Kim Kendall’s loved ones cared enough about her legacy to share their stories is a beautiful thing. It helps those of us on this side of the words get to know and understand their loved ones better.
- The very interesting history of Kay’s life is fun to read and is presented in a manner that allows the book to flow smoothly and quickly. Not long ago I read a biography that had me in such a fit of boredom by chapter 3 I nearly didn’t journey into chapter 4! Many authors seem to think a subject’s childhood has to read like a textbook. Holy cats, a textbook is the last thing I ever want to see again in my lifetime! Eve Golden makes the historical aspects of the book as interesting as the pages involving household names.
- The fascinating personal accounts and stories are so entertaining, I read many of them more than once!
- There are so many extraordinary photographs! Surely I’m not the only one who stares at photos and dissects every star’s feature, clothing, jewelry, and setting. Heck I even examine everyone in the photo with them, star or not. In this book, I found the similarities between the beautiful sisters Kay and Kim particularly fascinating. They resembled each other in many ways, but each had her very own look. Kim was always every bit as beautiful as her famous sister.
I’ve mentioned on Hollywood Yesterday that I have my own particular favorite actresses and actors. The ones who I “collect” by making a point to acquire their every movie on dvd, every book about them, and as many photographs as I can get my hands on. Before reading this book, Kay Kendall was dangerously close to being one of these elite favorites. Now that I know how truly colorful, charismatic, hilarious, and special she was… well, suffice to say my first photograph ordered from eBay is on the way.
There will be many more. I’m so very honored to have met you, Kay Kendall.
You can buy The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall on the Kentucky Press Website.