The Basics: Was Gene Kelly Religious?

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Gene Kelly: The Basics.

It is only natural to be curious about the beliefs of someone we admire from afar.  We want to know what the person was really like and whether or not we would have anything in common with him/her if we were to know him/her personally.  As to the question of Gene Kelly and whether or not he was religious, the short answer is no, but the longer answer is much more complicated.

Gene was part of a large “lace curtain”1 Irish Catholic family.  He grew up in the Church and attended a private Catholic school (right).  We can’t know for certain what his beliefs were as a child, but we can surmise that he accepted the teachings of the Church as truth.  It wasn’t until Gene took a trip to Mexico in 1939, and witnessed firsthand the poverty of the local people and, in stark contrast, the riches of the Church, that he began to question his faith and its teachings.  This, along with other experiences, compelled him to renounce his faith and declare himself an agnostic.  Even so, there is evidence that he continued to go to mass on occasion and would defend Catholicism to those who denigrated it.

When he moved to New York City shortly thereafter to begin his career on Broadway, he began to socialize with a “free-thinking” intellectual set, and it is doubtful that any ideas he exchanged with them promoted the faith he had learned as a boy.  His first wife, Betsy Blair, became part of this set, and after their marriage (in a Catholic church, to appease his mother) they moved to Hollywood, where they continued to socialize with like-minded people.

After their daughter Kerry was born, Gene and Betsy made an effort to bring her to church, but only when his mother was in town.  They taught her Catholic prayers, but only shortly before a visit from Mrs. Kelly.  When the family visited Rome, they sought a blessing from the Pope for Gene’s mother.  Gene was clearly anxious to make “Mom Kelly” happy, even if it meant keeping up false appearances.  When he had only himself to consider, he tended to avoid such hypocrisy.  During a frightening plane ride, when there was genuine fear that the plane might crash, Gene momentarily considered praying to God, but decided that he couldn’t be a “death-bed Catholic and a coward.”  Thankfully, a tragedy was averted and Gene lived almost 40 more years, during which time he portrayed a Catholic priest in the 1962-63 television series Going My Way (right).  We don’t know if he ever fully committed one way or the other, but there is little evidence to suggest that he was a “vocal atheist,” as his Wikipedia entry states.

1. “Lace curtain” is a term used to describe Irish immigrants who were generally poorer than their (usually Protestant) neighbors, but who aspired to prosperity.  

Sources

  • Blair, Betsy.  The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
  • Hirschhorn, Clive.  Gene Kelly: A Biography.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
  • Yudkoff, Alvin.  Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams.  New York: Billboard Books, 2001.

About 

Jennifer can point to the exact day and time that she fell in love with Gene Kelly: February 24, 2002, probably about 8pm CST. She was watching An American in Paris, and Jerry Mulligan (Gene) was flirting with Lise (Leslie Caron). Jennifer is infatuated with almost everything from Hollywood's golden age of cinema. Her other loyalties (after God, nation, and family) are old music, literature, history, vintage pop culture, vintage baseball, and hanging out in the kitchen with a glass of wine. Her Tumblr covers much of the above.

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  • Marc Orr

    You know, I have never seen a clip of his 'Going My Way' series. Not one. I know it was shortlived, but I can't believe that after all this time I still haven't seen a second of it. The fact that he still defended Catholicism despite his own faith slowly disintegrating made me smile – nothing is more deeply ingrained than Catholic guilt. Been there.

  • Mark

    I don't think Gene was very religious since he believed in killing women and children.

    • Michelle

      what?

      • Mark

        Gene Kelly was a major supporter of the terrorist IRA in their bombing of Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

        • Marc

          I'd be interested in finding out which sources you used to form this opinion and would ask you to cite them. I haven't found anything remotely credible on the matter and have only stumbled upon variations of your statement on sites like 'youtube.' I remember one of Gene's nephews discussing his understanding of the IRA on the BBC's 'Hollywood Greats' series, but that revealed nothing more than the romanticised notion of Irish Republicanism that many Irish-Americans held.

          To state that he was a 'major supporter' suggests you have absolute confirmation of this and, like I said, I would be very interested indeed to see what you have. I sincerely hope your retort isn't something along the lines of: 'It's widely known,' or 'it's common knowledge.' That would be extremely disappointing.

          • Mark

            It all came out after Kelly's death. He even left money to NORAID in his will. He was also a close friend of IRA fundraiser Peter King.

        • Hi, Mark. Thanks for reading. I've found a couple of sources that cite GK's affiliation with the IRA. The first is from a "daily news" source and is arguably more gossip-oriented than factual. Here's the blurb:

          Friends of the late screen legend Gene Kelly are taking aim at a report that the song-and-dance man gave the Irish Republican Army money for weapons. A Dublin paper claimed this week that Kelly presented an IRA leader with a $30,000 check, saying: "This money is for guns. I certainly don't want it going to any do-gooders." The Sunday World sources the story to John Campbell, a friend of Irish writer Dominic Behan. According to Campbell, Kelly's friend Behan introduced the actor to Official IRA head Cathal Goulding during a covert fund-raising mission to the U.S. in 1970. Campbell says the "Singing in the Rain" star told Behan his favorite song was Behan's IRA anthem, "The Patriot Game." Friends of Kelly, who died in 1996, think it's all blarney. His long-time agent, Mort Viner, tells us Kelly never expressed any interest in Ulster's Troubles to him. "I was involved with his finances," Viner adds. "If he wrote a check, he would have told me."

          The second source, part of a 2002 interview with Gene's daughter, Kerry Kelly Novick, and his grandson, Ben, seems to confirm his connection with the organization:

          In the '70s, he gave money to the North American Aid for Ireland, an IRA front group in the U.S. However, this was not completely due to allegiance to Ireland, for Gene also donated money to Israeli groups in the '40s and '50s. As Ben said, "He was motivated by not so much by helping the Irish or the Israelis as by being against imperialism by helping the underdog." Kerry added, "He had no religious or ethnic affinity with Israel, but he supported people he perceived as freedom fighters rather than a function of Irishness per se. He would have made a connection being part of a minority group and struggling against oppression."

          So with the above in mind, I guess we might ask the following: should we simplify GK's apparent donations to the IRA and fight against imperialism to the statement "he believed in killing women and children"? Moreover, how do his fights against blatant racism at MGM (see history of The Pirate) as well as the time/money he spent supporting worthwhile causes (helping mentally disabled children, the Make-a-Wish foundation, etc.) figure in here?

          Again, thanks for reading and stopping by. Always glad to see discussion on the site… =)

          • Mark

            The IRA were not fighting "imperialism", they were drug dealers planting bombs outside schools.

          • Marc

            I note the publication cited in the first source is the Sunday World, that particular newspater has as much credibility as the National Enquirer. The second source seems to suggest his donations were motivated by his general political beliefs, rather than an affiliation with Irish terrorism.

          • Rob Cohen

            If Gene Kelly was intent on fighting imperialism, why did he not speak out against US imperialism in Indochina (death toll 4.4 million people)?

            A shame his concern for global injustice didn’t run to the regime-change, destabilization and hegemony-building sponsored by his own country (USA – not Ireland). But, it didn’t.

            Face it. He was just another “plastic paddy” Irish Republican wannabe who sought the approval of REAL Irish Republicans for reasons of vanity and self-agrandisement.

            http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Hollywood+legend+Gene+Kelly+handed+thousands+to+the+IRA.-a060883541

  • Kimd

    What a wonderful blog.And to be honest,I think it pretty much describes what all Catholics go through.We all lapse…some stay away,some come back.And some go back and forth.It's what makes us human.

    • jj

      Which is why everyone is lost and needs a savior. And JESUS CHRIST is the only one that saves, not the catholic church.

  • Great piece, Jen. It is interesting to note that Gene thought of becoming a priest, when in his teens. He was inspired by the young, active and caring priests in his neighbourhood. He said he based some of his characterisation in Going My Way, on the priests he had known when young. I read that he was gently persuaded from that idea by a wise priest, who could see that he needed more love and warmth and human contact than priesthood could offer. My thanks to that person!!!!!

    Much later, having married Jeanne, who was also Catholic, he expressed discontent with certain aspects of church dogma, especially the fact that he and Jeanne could no longer take communion because they had been divorced, and their marriage was not recognised. He said murderers could be absolved, why not divorcees.

    I know he hated any form of regimentation, but – and this is solely my unsubstatiated idea – I believe he was a deeply spiritual person, in spite of not fitting comfortably into established religious confines.

    Who can say what is in the heart and soul of any person? Especially such a multi-layered and private individual as Gene. That is part of what makes him such a fascinating topic for discussion.

    • jj

      God can say and he has said so in his word that mans heart is sinful and in need of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ!

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