Exclusive Q&A: The Vintage Life Of Patricia Kelly
Patricia Kelly offers a captivating insight into her life with husband and dancing phenomenon Gene Kelly, and her love of the vintage life.
How would you sum-up your style?
Patricia: I work in Los Angeles with a lovely young guy who is very inspired by Dior and Charles James and it’s funny because if you look on my Facebook at the clothes that I wear it’s a mix of a very vintage but also contemporary look. I wear gloves and I always carry a vintage handbag, Gene always had a very old school look and I was always thinking ‘oh I love that’.
It’s great to think of you looking so classy everyday…
P: It’s so interesting because it really stands out and people always comment, I mean I would go to the opera and wear a ball gown and a friend who was performing would say thank you for the way that you dress because in dressing formally it’s an honour for us as performers. People forget when they wear jeans that you really owe it to the performers when you go the opera or to a symphony to dress respectfully; I wear gloves and the whole lot. I speak in a lot of high schools and it’s good for kids to have that as a model, I think creating your own style is important as a way of defining who you are, and think it’s what people expect and look forward to seeing. You know a lot of celebrities today don’t have their own sense of style, unlike an Audrey Hepburn or a Grace Kelly, and I think we’ve lost something to that fact so I think vintage seekers are trying to preserve that.
We certainly are, what do you think of London fashion?
P: I look at the fashion magazines in the UK and I like what I see, I don’t know what’s on the streets there but I can’t wait to go so I can experience London fashion and absorb it all a bit more.
The worlds so small these days and I’m sure the West Coast and London are doing similar things, if you are in London please look us up! We are in Covent Garden right in the heart of it… Where is your favourite place abroad?
P: Oh sure I know, the place where I feel most at home and inspired is called the ‘Chesa Grischuna’ in Klosters, Switzerland.
When did you first discover this place?
P: I started going after Gene died, it was a place that was very special for him in the 1950s, he went every year and the place was a Swiss chalet boutique type hotel which was family run and very romantic. We were supposed to go and then he got sick, and after he died I wanted to see this place that was so important to him so I started going 8 years ago and I have been every year since. It’s a place that really gets inside of you, and you must return, it’s so interesting because I feel so at home there and I knew no one there initially. You hear Swiss, Dutch, Italian, and a lot of people from the UK also go, this time I met 6 doctors from Liverpool who were there skiing. When I go it’s like family there, you always meet new people and yet it’s very private and not a glitzy resort like St Moritz; it really feels like home to me, it’s fun.
Is there a possession on its own or as part of collection that you have had throughout your life and would like to pass down?
P: It has to be the Cartier Tank watch that Frank Sinatra gave to Gene as a present.
That sounds amazing, what’s your favourite piece of jewellery?
P: I love vintage men’s watches and primarily that’s the jewellery I wear, Gene used to give me some form of watch for my birthday and I have a collection of all the different ones, sometimes he would be given them or given them after he performed, it used to be a little bit of a joke that he passed the watches onto me.
Any particular brands that you’re fond of?
P: My favourite pieces are 2 gold wedding bands that I wear, they’re very plain, one is mine and one is Gene’s. After he died I got it cut down and it’s a very comforting pair. I don’t wear much jewellery I just wear men’s watches and these 2 bands.
Men’s watches for women are really quite special, they look great on a woman. You’ve mentioned lots of amazing gifts, would there be any others you’d like to mention as the greatest gift you’ve ever received?
P: This one will surprise you, Gene gave it to me very early after we got married; it’s a Victorian skirt lifter. Gene saw it in an advert in the New Yorker and he just loved the idea of it. A skirt lifter is a little object that the women would attach at the waist, with a string all the way down it and a little clasp at the bottom. You attach it to your skirt so you can pull up the long hem of your dress which I assume is for if you were going up the stairs or if you didn’t want it to get dirty. That to me epitomizes Gene, just the fact that he would buy this thing is enchanting. Something like this was thoughtful and Gene wasn’t a guy that would go out and buy you lots of diamonds or big statement gifts, this little Victorian piece took extra thought. I love it because it says so much about who he was.
A lovely item to retain elegance at all times!
P: That’s right!
If there was a film you could watch again and again, what would it be?
P: People always ask me my favourite film, and I’ve seen ‘Singing in the Rain’ many many times, but what I prefer more than watching a particular film over and over is watching certain numbers over and over. I’ve done a montage of numbers in my one-woman show which I do about Gene’s breadth of work and his study of dance, such as the newspaper dance in Summer Stock, the roller skating number in It’s always fair weather, the I got rhythm number with the kids in An American in Paris, and an obscure number in a construction site seen in Living in a big way, which was a wonderful number and one of Martha Graham’s favourites of Gene’s, something I could watch again and again…
I’d love to see your show, I found myself on YouTube watching the key clips from Singing in the Rain last weekend, it’s such a thrill to have them at your fingertips like that
P: It’s funny because I chose them for the show then what I do is weave the longer clips throughout the 2 and a half hour show that Gene shared with me over our decade together, and it’s a very intimate behind the scenes look at what moved and inspired him, where you get to see his many dimensions. His character and creativity, the depth of his creative strength and innovation in combining his live action and animation were part of these dimensions. When he does dancing with himself and cover girl these things were revolutionary and that’s what he wanted to be known for. I mean I can see Summer Stock every year or so but I am so passionate about seeing an array of clips that show the many sides of him.
I heard in some ways he preferred dancing with the animated characters because they kept up with him so well…
P: (Laughs) Well it was a joke because people always asked him who his favourite dancing partner was, and he would never say it was Judy Garland or Debbie Reynolds because he insisted each person was always there to play a particular role so you couldn’t inter-mix them in that way. So in the end he would always say his favourite partner is Jerry the mouse because he always shows up on time, remembers his lines and works his tail off, so that’s probably where it came from… Those were the most innovative but hardest things [dancing with Jerry the mouse and cover girl] he did in his life. It was very strenuous, the camera operators got ulcers and it was very difficult, but that was the joke of liking jerry as a partner.
That’s brilliant! I’m going to steer the conversation onto art quickly, do you own (or if you would own) a 20th century art piece, what would it be?
P: The piece that I own is a sculpture, by a sculptor from Mexico named Javier Marin, and the piece is called ‘Torso Azul’. The last piece of art that Gene and I bought together was this and it’s a really powerful and imaginative piece. We’d gone to a friend’s house who owned a Javier Marin, and was asked where they got it from. We went down to a little gallery on Park La Brea here in LA, and saw these 2 sisters who had his work and all they had left was this ‘Torso Azul’, this nude blue man, then Gene says ‘What are we going to do with a nude blue man standing in our house?’ we decided it didn’t matter it was just so extraordinarily beautiful, so we took it. Then after Gene had his stroke Javier came to the house to put the sculptor together and had met Gene before, so I’m very privileged to have this piece.
That’s a wonderful story, how big is it? I’m trying to imagine this huge blue man…
P: It’s big, stands full height and is not full figured, a kind of fractured shape, it’s hard to imagine. It’s the torso, a strong piece, certainly not subtle which is on a stand. [Javier] Was such a young talented man and I’m so glad Gene and Javier got to meet. Gene didn’t speak Spanish well and Javier didn’t speak English but there was this extraordinary connection between them.
That must be such a pleasure for Javier to have one of his pieces in Gene’s house now, what a captivating story. I’m going to take it back to the holiday and travel theme, apart from Klosters as a holiday spot which one over the last century, and in what time and place, would you take yourself to?
P: Ah there’s so many… I’d love to be a time traveller. My first pick is Paris in the early 50s, because a lot of that comes from descriptions of Gene’s time there and the jazz clubs where you could hear great artists like Sidney Bechet and Claude Buter. We’d stay in places like the Hotel Lancaster and meet ex-patriots and lots of writers writing for the newspaper. A lot of people congregating there gave Paris a tremendous energy which made it extremely fun. The way he described it sounded like they just had a ball and it seemed like a great time to be there.
If only we were both time travellers, I’d join you!
Now I’m going to give you the possession of a car in your time travel, a road trip you and Gene took together, I know there’s a fantastic west coast drive in a Classic which I plan to do one day, which road trip sticks in your mind?
P: That’s the one, we had a classic 280 Mercedes SL convertible which we both loved. We took the drive on our anniversary on the 20th July and took the coast highway when it was sunset, it was so beautiful. I remember we had Frank Sinatra and Count Basie on the stereo and it was just…looking out on the waves and the light hitting the water was the most glorious of recollections, the joy, the celebrations were unforgettable. We went to dinner in one of the Wolfgang Puck restaurants on the coast and it just sticks in my memory as a beautiful time, I hoped it would go on and on, however Gene got sick a few days later so that was our last road trip.
What year was that?
The final run of these questions is related to a bar or restaurant, it can be any era, so is there a bar or restaurant in the world that you wish you had a drink at or in fact did?
P: This one goes back to the Chazer bar which is world renowned, it’s funny because I go and sit in the bar now and overhear people say that Gene Kelly would dance in that bar… I would’ve loved to have seen him in the 1950s in the Chazer bar, so many different people lived there and you hear so many stories. Robert Capa the photographer took Gene their initially, and writers like Irwin Shaw would all come and dance in their ski boots, have après ski and dinner and then do some more dancing. I see it now and it doesn’t have what it had then, I just love hearing the stories about it but I would have loved to have been there.
You mentioned you wish you’d seen Gene dancing there, you didn’t actually know Gene was a celebrity until quite soon after actually meeting him in the flesh, is that true?
P: I didn’t have a clue who he was! I spent a week with him and had no idea, I just fell in love with his use of language, words and knowledge of poetry.
It’s quite astonishing and hard to believe but I just wasn’t a movie or musical person, I was more with my head in a book in a library. I honestly think it was a better way to meet him; the real Gene, rather than the Gene up on the big screen, but I think he was surprised because I don’t think he’d met many women that didn’t fall over when they saw him, I was just doing my job!
Often the best approach… and that’s quite sobering! That leads nicely onto his public and private persona, often with performers you get this stark contrast between their performance face behind the curtain. Is this true of Gene?
P: Definitely, he was a very very private person despite this very gregarious open character you see on the screen. He was almost a reclusive person who liked to be at home by the fire curled up on the couch with a book, where we would read with each other and sit next to each other on Sunday and do crosswords puzzles in ink. Whenever he left the house he had to be on, he loved to be home. I think the one thing that’s different about Gene as opposed to other celebrities is Gene was interesting no matter what, even as a dinner partner or at an event he was an interesting person who had the ability to converse on a variety of subjects; this I wouldn’t say for a lot of the other celebrities. Gene had such a breadth of knowledge and was such a bright man, he knew so much about so many different things whether it be history, popular music, politics or economics; he was really well read.
How did he have time to be skilled in so many areas? It’s very impressive. Even as a performer he’s just such a household name even to this day and I was wondering especially in your line of work when you studied his career and knew him so well as a person, what do you think makes a performer endure like Gene Kelly has?
P: Gene always said that the real challenge is about making something classic but also contemporary, making something timeless which holds true. Even in Singing in the Rain; the choreography even though it’s a period piece, is extremely contemporary, and choreographers and dancers today still use it as a reference and I think that’s something very important. In regards to what makes someone a star; Gene always said that the public dictates who they want as a star, you can’t control who’s going to be a star or not, and a lot of the people who he felt were the best in their field never made it, like Eleanor Powell, who he thought to be the best tap dancer around, but who the public didn’t buy as a romantic lead. Even Donald O’Connor who was an unsung hero was never taken as the romantic big star. It’s kind of an unpredictable thing, Gene had an unusual quality and was like a quadruple threat, I mean he did everything, I think that’s a very rare thing which you don’t see today; someone who can dance, act, direct, sing and choreograph.
Well he’s yet to be challenged in having such a wealth of talents that’s for sure. In saying this, that’s a wonderful conclusion Patricia, thank you so much for your time!
Thank you so much!