The Basics: When Did Gene Kelly Die?

This entry is part 1 of 15 in the series Gene Kelly: The Basics.

In July 1994, Gene Kelly suffered the first of two strokes. Although doctors at UCLA’s Medical Center labeled it “mild,” the stroke kept him in the hospital for nearly seven weeks.

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.

Sources:

  • TCM
  • Blair, Betsy.  The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris.  New York: Knopf, 2003.

 

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  • That was beautifully done, Kelli. Calm, measured, dignified, just like the man. I absolutely love this quote:

    "Together the complexity of his ambitions and the underlying innocence of his spirit constitute the inextricable weave of this dear man’s singularity."

    The "inextricable weave" of Gene's personality and spirit means that we can never unravel every aspect of his life here on earth, but at least we can enjoy and promote what he created, and the legacy which will never die; his strong belief that every person should have the opportunity to follow their dreams, and live their lives in love and joy.

    Thank you for your tribute, it is very moving.

    Sue.

  • Aw, thanks, Sue. =)

  • Ruth

    What a beautiful article. It made me cry while I was reading it. The world truly lost one of the greats when Gene died – but his work will always live on.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Ruth. It wasn't my intention to make readers cry though! =)

  • Marc

    Beautiful piece. I was living in Italy when Gene died and received the news via the tv while working on a monologue for class. Somehow, having the devestating news imparted in a foreign language made it all the more harrowing: "Gene Kelly é morta." I was a long way from home and a miserable student on a haphazard acting course that was unravelling by the day. Gene's death accentuated my desolation and misery, and I flew home that week.

    From childhood to adulthood the knowledge that Gene was still among us was strangely comforting; knowing that I was alive on the planet at the same time as him was, for a lifelong fan, hugely thrilling; especially during real time shots of him, like the closing ceremony of the 1994 World Cup where he and Frank took turns to stand and acknowledge the adulaton of the crowd while Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras desecrated 'Singin' in the Rain' and, if I remember correctly, 'My Way.' I must confess I had my fanboy moment: 'That's where Gene is right now, he's there… and we're watching him!'

    The tributes in the wake of his death were nice, but, in the UK, I felt they were rather insubstantial and, on one occasion, a little inflammatory: Kim Newman of EMPIRE magazine, a Sci-Fi and Horror buff and a strange choice to pen a Gene tribute, stated that he was 'overpraised as an artist and underrated as an actor.' Wrong on both counts. Newman's slighting of Gene's artistry, while causing me to throw the magazine across the room, fashion a doll in his likeness and repeatedly attack it with a hunting knife, then tarnish the air with various expletives, some of them my own creations, is little more than the ignorance of the uninitiated. British tv showed only one film in his honour, 'Singin' in the Rain,' instead of the season of films an artist of his stature deserved.

    The tribute at the Academy Awards, with a montage of his work and Savion Glover's dancing, was moving and delightful. I distinctly remember seeing Emma Thompson turn her head disinterestedly away from the screen during the montage… Is it churlish that I have never quite forgiven her for this? Probably.

    It was around 10 am when I learned that Gene had died. That night I watched 'Singin' in the Rain' alone in my flat, it was the only video I had taken to Italy, and mourned the passing of one of the most luminous figures in my life.

    • Thanks for sharing, Marc. I wasn't a fan of Gene's until 2002ish, so I recall nothing of his passing, the tributes, news reports, etc. At least I have YouTube and the like to reflect upon them now…

      • Now I\’m like, well duh! Truly thnafkul for your help.

    • Jennifer

      Emma Thompson did WHAT?!? Abominable. She was too busy worrying about her Best Adapted Screenplay speech, I suppose (which was quite good).

    • Michelle

      Thanks Marc for sharing. It's interesting to learn how Gene had affected others through his talent and even in death. He was truly one of a kind!

  • Michelle

    I know this is a late response but I must say that this is a well written tribute. It takes me back to Feb.1996; I remember feeling an overwhelming sadness when Gene's death was announced on the news. I spent the entire weekend watching his movies and in tears. I never shared this with my friends or family because I didn't feel they would truly understand. See, I was crazy about his man & his talent since I was around 10 yrs old so I guess (selfishly) my immediate feeling was a great loss. I remember as a kid running home from my neighborhood park cutting short playing handball games (I'm from NY), just in time for one of Gene's movies on tv, which I had already seen several times over!

    As I became older; I have developed more discernment about the progression of life and I feel Gene has left his indelible print given his time on this earth. I am so glad that we have videos, his films to enjoy his creativity and blogs like this one to reflect. Thanks for a great job, Kelli! RIP, Gene!

    • Hi again, Michele — thanks for your kind words about the post and for sharing your thoughts on how Gene's death affected you in '96 and now.

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  • Cynthia Williams

    So sad for the world, but oh so sad, for his children. Coming to their childhood home & finding
    him “Completely Non-existent”, how cruel would that be! No funeral, viewing & no resting place for their Father , it must have been mind-shocking. How could Patricia Ward Kelly be so heartless to the children Gene loved so much?

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