September 21, 1887 – George Kelly
People of a certain age know all about the stately, beautiful actor Grace Kelly (1929-1982), who became the Princess of Monaco at 25 years old, walking away from Hollywood at the height of her career. It didn’t matter if she was playing an heiress in To Catch A Thief (1955) or a Quaker pacifist in High Noon (1952) or an amusedly detached career girl (a term still used in the 1950s) in Rear Window (1954), Kelly presented herself to audiences with straight back and clipped-voiced self-assurance.
She remains a Film Icon, a remarkable achievement for an actor who only made 11 films.
She was nominated twice for an Academy Award, and she won for her performance in The Country Girl (1954). She was up against Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones, Judy Garland for A Star Is Born; Audrey Hepburn for Sabrina, and Jane Wyman for Magnificent Obsession. Garland was heavily favored, but chose not to attend the ceremony, having just recently given birth to her third child. Cameras were set up in her room so she could express her thanks; the studio was so sure of her winning. There is a certain irony that Kelly won her Oscar, not for her portrayal of another detached beauty but for playing a frumpy, bossy, belligerent older woman trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Her talent was obvious, and Kelly was much in demand, but just as swiftly as her film career blossomed, it ended abruptly in 1956 when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco, the tiny principality on the French Riviera.
The year before she was in Cannes filming To Catch A Thief with Cary Grant and it was at the Cannes Film Festival that she met her Prince, a member of the Grimaldis, Europe’s oldest royal family. Their friendship made for good stuff in the gossip columns: Hollywood star meets handsome prince, and both drive off into the Mediterranean sunset. But it soon became clear to everyone that there was more than that to the relationship. He went to Philadelphia to spend Christmas with her family. She went to Monte Carlo to visit him in his 200-room pink palazzo.
In 1956, shortly after she completed the movie musical High Society, they were married in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Monaco. It was a media event of staggering proportions. With marriage, she abandoned acting.
Before becoming a movie star and then European royalty, Grace Kelly made her acting debut in 1949 in The Torch-Bearers at the famed Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The play, a satire of the egos and foibles of community theatre, was written in the early 1920s by her uncle, George Kelly.
From what I have read, Princess Grace adored her uncle, and the two were together often, George accepting invitations to Monaco and Princess Grace visiting her uncle at his home in California.
Three years after the The Torch-Bearers, George Kelly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for the play Craig’s Wife (1926). His earlier play, The Show Off (1924) had been nominated for the Pulitzer.
There have been at least three films based on Craig’s Wife: a 1928 silent version was directed by William C. deMille, Cecil B.‘s brother; Columbia Pictures made a film adaptation directed by pioneering lesbian filmmaker Dorothy Arzner starring Rosalind Russell in 1936, and it was made again in 1950 as Harriet Craig, starring Joan Crawford.
Craig’s Wife is about 24 hours in the life of Harriet Craig, and the home life she has created for herself and her husband. Harriet values material things more than her husband and goes to great lengths to protect her life as she has created it, regardless of what the outcomes are to those around her, as one by one, all her disgusted family and servants abandon her, leaving her on her own. It was a breakout role for Russell, and it also proved an excellent role for Crawford. I like the Russell version, but both are worth watching.
Gregory Kelly (no relation, but first husband of Ruth Gordon) played the lead on Broadway and in the 1926 silent film version of The Show Off. Gregory Kelly is worth mentioning because he was a much-loved Broadway actor who had hit with The Butter And Egg Man (1925) written by George S. Kaufman. This Kelly died of a heart attack on stage while on tour with The Butter And Egg Man. He was just 36 years old.
My point is, George Kelly was a big deal in his era, but what few people knew at the time was that he was a gay guy. He was referred to as a “life-long bachelor,” even though he had a 55-year relationship with William E. Weagley, who was often referred to in the press as Kelly’s personal secretary or valet, popular euphemisms for gay lovers of famous men. Kelly’s gayness was a closely guarded secret and went unacknowledged by his family, to the point of their not inviting Weagley to Kelly’s funeral in 1974 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Weagley quietly slipped in and took a seat in the back of the church and cried while being totally ignored. As with many longtime couples, Weagley couldn’t make it on his own. He died a year later.
The Kellys were an affluent and influential Philadelphia family. Grace’s father, John B. Kelly Sr., won three Olympic gold medals for sculling and owned a successful brickwork contracting company. As Democratic nominee in the 1935 election for mayor of Philadelphia, he lost by the closest margin in the city’s history. During World War II, he was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as National Director of Physical Fitness.
The Philadelphia Kellys, who seldom missed an opportunity to pass moral judgment on others, forced Weagley to eat in the kitchen with the servants when George and Weagley were visiting, their way of acknowledging that Weagley was to be regarded as nothing more than George’s employee. So sad, the couple were loyal, devoted partners who were deeply in love.
When Kelly and Weagley hosted dinner parties at their home in Laguna Beach, the two men sat at opposite ends of the table as equal co-hosts and partners. Many of the righteous Irish Catholic Kellys refused invitations from Uncle George.
Kelly and Weagley met in 1919, when Kelly kept a suite at the Concord Hotel in Manhattan. From what I can find, it seems that Weagley was working as a bellhop, and the two became lovers soon after meeting. Kelly taught his new boyfriend the rules of etiquette so that the pair could appear in high society as social equals.
Kelly’s play Reflected Glory (1936) was also about theatre people, and it provided Tallulah Bankhead with her first major stage role, playing a woman with a difficult choice between marriage and a showbiz career.
My research shows some tasty Kelly tidbits:
At first, he insisted on directing his own plays, giving line readings to his actors, enacting every role.
His writing desk had to be maintained in perfect order. An out of place piece of paper bothered him (I get that).
He wrote his plays at the typewriter in marathon 18-hour stretches.
He loved to travel, but he hated trains, preferring boats.
He collected watches by the drawer full.
Like all good Philadelphia Kellys, he was an expert at horseback riding, bridge, tennis and golf.
He seldom attended the theatre, going out to a play about once a year. He never saw his own plays from the house; he watched them from the wings.
He had a remarkable memory and knew every line of all his plays. Once he jumped into the lead role of his play Behold The Bridegroom (1927) with only five minutes’ notice.
Craig’s Wife, The Torch-Bearers, and The Show Off are still frequently produced. Four Kelly plays remain un-produced.
The two men retired to Sun City, California in the 1960s. When Weagley passed in 1974, the San Bernardino County Sun newspaper obit stated the he was the late Kelly’s ”traveling companion of 55 years”.