Gene suffered another, much smaller stroke in Feburary 1995. “He was neurologically stable, aware, and conversational,” the Associated Press reported the following day. But sadly, Gene would never fully recover from this one. He died in his sleep on Friday, February 2, 1996.
While Gene’s death is sad in itself — in that such an energetic man/body was overtaken by such a debilitating condition — it is also fraught with controversy, at least according to Gene’s first wife, Betsy Blair. For example, in the epilogue of her memoir (about which I’ve written at length here), Blair recalls that a few hours after Gene died, his third wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, phoned Gene’s children (Bridget, Tim, and Kerry) to discourage them from traveling to Los Angeles; after all, at this point, there was nothing they could do. But the children insisted and flew to California to pay their respects to their father and to visit their childhood home on Rodeo Drive once more.
As Blair tells it, Kelly’s adult children arrived to a somber house, “no friends, no food, no tears, and no embraces. They were given a tour of the flowers from famous people as if they were strangers” (6-7). Moreover, since Kelly’s widow had Gene’s body cremated that morning (a rather fast turnaround), the children never got to say goodbye. From Blair: “Kerry later told me they all felt as if ‘she threw him away — as if he were garbage to be incinerated and thrown away. There aren’t even any ashes'” (6-7). I do not know Patricia Ward Kelly’s side of this story.
But let’s move on to a (somewhat) happier note. Many tributes were put together during the days and week following Gene’s death. For instance, People published this lengthy photo-heavy tribute [PDF] and The New York Times, this one, which applauded all of the “inventive techniques that enabled Gene Kelly to create unusual and imaginative dance routines.” Similarly, The Independent remembered the many hats Gene wore: “As director and choreographer, dancer and singer, acrobat and actor, Gene Kelly was one of the most vital and indispensable figures in the history of the American film musical.” Finally, Time honored Kelly with their column, “White Socks and Loafers.” Here’s my favorite excerpt as well as the “I Got Rhythm” number that’s mentioned:
For all the effort he and directors like Vincente Minnelli put into balletomanic spectaculars like the 20 minutes that conclude An American in Paris, it is the sweet simple things like “I Got Rhythm” — just Kelly, some cute kids, a cobblestone street on Montmartre, a catchy little Gershwin tune — that lived most affectingly in memory. But this, too, is true: we could not have had the one without the other. Together the complexity of his ambitions and the underlying innocence of his spirit constitute the inextricable weave of this dear man’s singularity.
As well, news stations all over the globe marked Gene’s death with tributes. Embedded below is one from Headline News as well as another from The 68th Annual Academy Awards, featuring tap-dancer Savion Glover. Finally, on the night of his death, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in his honor. Rest in peace, Eugene Curran Kelly.
- Blair, Betsy. The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris. New York: Knopf, 2003.