The free-winging life of an old-school film star
It has been a long journey from Hollywood to Hampstead
for the actress Betsy Blair, writes Gerald Isaaman
The Memory Of All That by Betsy Blair
Eliot and Thompson, £15.99
First husband: Gene Kelly
Betsy Blair and Ernest Borgnine in Marty
BETSY Blair, one-time Queen of Hollywood and teenage wife
of Gene Kelly, glides across the kitchen floor in stockinged feet,
a reminder in itself of her dashing days as a dancer. Then, aged
just 16, she was in the chorus line at New Yorks Diamond
Horseshoe night club, the unknown Gene Kelly putting her and the
high kickers through their paces.
She is now 81 and full of charm and delight, determination and
fortitude to go on, despite the death two years ago of her husband,
the radical film maker Karel Reisz, with whom she spent the latter
half her life.
No, I dont mind old age creeping up on me, she
insists. I never minded getting old. Even when you are 50
and all that happens then to women you still try
to seem young to yourself.
There are some people who are old at 65. The danger is if
you become much too interested in just yourself and concentrate
on nothing else. Thats when youre on the way to the
But then Betsy has had what she describes as a free winging
She had a mother she adored, enjoyed three remarkable men as her
partners, lived triumphantly amid a cavalcade of stars in Hollywood
in its post-war heyday, then in Paris too, and faced the horror
being black-listed for her communist sympathies.
Names she can drop like confetti, fascinating and ironic inside
stories too fill her conversation. She was, after all, Gene Kellys
bride at 17, and still admires his artistry.
At Christmas, Gene was on television, hes always on,
she says. It was On the Town, and I sat there thinking how
wonderful he was, what a great artist, so incredibly full of life
and so terribly serious about what he did.
And she remembers Marty, the beautiful Paddy Chayevsky film that
won her international acclaim in 1955 for her role as Clara, the
schoolteacher girlfriend of Ernest Borgnine in a movie that had
men goggle-eyed and yearning to meet her.
I was lucky with that, she claims, recalling how she
only got the part because Gene Kelly threatened to pull out of
an MGM epic. I knew it was a wonderful part when I got the
script, she says. It was such a surprise Hollywood
doing a film about real people, normal people. It did so well
winning the Gold Palm at Cannes and made such an enormous impact
Betsy is in reminiscing mood because she has written a book about
the first half of her exuberant life, poignantly called The Memory
Of All That, a compelling social saga of life and lies behind
the world of make-up believe.
Sometimes she wept as she patiently wrote it all down in longhand
over three-and-a-half years, at her home in Chalcot Gardens, Hampstead.
I thought nobody is ever going to publish this as theres
no Hollywood scandal in it, she declares. Im
the only one who behaves badly. I said I never wanted to write
a memoir about being married to a movie star. I dont think
She confesses too that she wanted to seek revenge for Gene Kellys
sad death, at 83, cremated the same day without any of his past
family there, their daughter Kerry protesting that Kellys
third wife threw him away as if he were garbage to
Hollywood, where she and Gene arrived on Pearl Harbour Day, 1941
was eventually forsaken for Paris.
There, at 32, she fell for the French actor Roger Pigaut, taking
only $18,000 dollars by way of a divorce settlement from Kelly.
She lived with him in Paris before being introduced to Reisz,
the Czech refugee who had been a young communist too and was yet
to shake the British cinema with explosive films like David Storeys
This Sporting Life.
It was only later that she discovered the FBI had spied on her
for 20 years because of her left-wing passions, despite Kelly
telling her once that she would make the worst communist
in the world.
The red-head from New Jersey who started out as a child model
seems imperturbable and fragile in a world where the paraphernalia
of life, like paying the gas bill or even brushing her teeth,
frustratingly takes too long. I never thought I was going to be
a sex symbol, she muses. That wasnt my style because
I wasnt silly or stupid, and knew I couldnt be Katharine
Hepburn. She pauses and then adds: But the actresses
I really admired, who had great careers, usually didnt have
such good lives themselves.
Not like flourishing Betsy Blair, you bet.
Betsy Blair is at the London Review Bookshop next Thursday.
See Things to Come, page 15, for details.