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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 York’s 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 don’t 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. That’s when you’re on the way to the end.”
But then Betsy has had what she describes as a “free winging life”.
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 Kelly’s bride at 17, and still admires his artistry.
“At Christmas, Gene was on television, he’s 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 in Europe.”
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 there’s no Hollywood scandal in it,” she declares. “I’m the only one who behaves badly. I said I never wanted to write a memoir about being married to a movie star. I don’t think it’s becoming.”
She confesses too that she wanted to seek revenge for Gene Kelly’s sad death, at 83, cremated the same day without any of his past family there, their daughter Kerry protesting that Kelly’s third wife “threw him away – as if he were garbage to be incinerated”.
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 Storey’s 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 wasn’t my style because I wasn’t silly or stupid, and knew I couldn’t be Katharine Hepburn.” She pauses and then adds: “But the actresses I really admired, who had great careers, usually didn’t 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.