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An unchoreographed dance with Hollywood

In a breezy memoir, Betsy Blair offers a dazzling portrait of glamorous life in L.A., her career and her marriage to Gene Kelly.

May 11, 2003|Margy Rochlin | Special to The Times

London — In her new memoir, "The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood and Paris," stage and screen actress Betsy Blair describes her chance meeting at age 16 with Gene Kelly -- then a 28-year-old first-time choreographer -- at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe club in New York City.

This encounter, and how it led to Kelly's hiring, then marrying, the naively self-assured New Jersey-born hoofer, isn't new to anyone who's ever skimmed one of Kelly's many biographies. What's different is the direction the anecdote takes: Instead of existing as an early detail in Kelly's rise to America's preeminent song-and-dance man, the Diamond Horseshoe story sets up Blair's parallel view.

While still in her teens, Blair is whisked off to Hollywood by her soon-to-be-megastar husband, where she will raise their only child, daughter Kerry, piece together a midlevel acting career and immerse herself in leftist politics (for which she was blacklisted during the McCarthy-era "Red Scare.")

What she doesn't do -- until she gets a quickie Vegas divorce from Kelly in 1957 and flies off to a lover in Paris -- is figure out who she is. In this way, "The Memory of All That" is ultimately the story of a young girl who's willing to forfeit a great deal to become an adult. This being a show-biz saga, however, Blair first has to show just how great the "great deal" was -- and thereby offers a dazzling Hollywood travelogue.

Her tone -- casual reportage mixed with girlish delight -- makes the book a breezy read. Of some of the gold-star guests who attended the Kellys' regular Saturday-night get-togethers, Blair writes: "I don't remember who brought Noel Coward, but there he was." She then goes on to recount a typical shindig, where, after Judy Garland belts out a few tunes and Kelly improvises a dance number, Coward takes his place behind the grand piano and delivers a greatest-hits recital of his witty, sophisticated songs.

Blair is 79 now, with a gray flyaway pageboy and a voice husky from cigarettes. But spend two hours with her in the cluttered kitchen of her five-story brick house in London's exclusive Primrose Hill district and it's easy to imagine her as a bright, energetic ingenue who took in everything that unfolded around her. It's something to do with the intelligence in her blue eyes and the way she tends to lean her chin on her fist coquettishly when she's listening. Or maybe it's how she tells a story: Fixing you with her direct gaze, she blows past the dross and hones in on all the right details.

What's her memory, for example, of a not-yet-iconic Marilyn Monroe? A breathy starlet who arrived at their house on the arm of director Nicholas Ray and made a beeline for the living room couch. "They were necking the whole evening," Blair says, tossing her head back and laughing. "I can't say I saw a great spark. I just thought she was a sweet, pleasant, jazzy girl that Nick was dating at the time. Now, the prettiest one that ever came over was Elizabeth Taylor -- she was just ravishing."

Trying a novel first

"The Memory of All That" isn't the first time Blair set out to put her full life on paper. During her frustrating blacklist years, Blair tried filling up long stretches of free time by writing a novel that came to naught.

It wasn't until Kelly's death in 1996 that Blair turned to writing fiction again. "It wasn't, um, very pleasant after Gene died," says Blair, referring to a rift that began when daughter Kerry Kelly Novick, along with Tim and Bridget Kelly (Kelly's children from his second marriage, to Jeanne Coyne), went to pay a last visit to their father. Kelly's final wife, Patricia Ward Kelly -- they married in 1990 when she was 36 and he was 77 -- informed them that their father had been cremated just hours after his passing and that no funeral would take place.

"We weren't given any opportunity to say goodbye," says Novick, a psychoanalyst living in Michigan. "My mother knew how sad that was for my brother, sister, me and the grandchildren. She wanted to give us back the whole person of who my father was."

Blair's plan was to return Kelly to his brood by penning an entertainingly trashy Hollywood novel. "I thought, 'Everyone will know who it's about,' " says Blair, who completed 40 pages of a Jackie Collins-style page-turner before good friend John Lahr, a New Yorker theater critic and profile writer, persuaded her to switch to nonfiction.

"She was at the center of the great flourishing of the American film musical at the time it was taking shape," says Lahr, who lives in the top two floors of Blair's London home and thinks of her as a surrogate mother. The people she met were "major players in the story of American entertainment. She knew William Saroyan; she walked on the beach with Brecht; she understudied in the first production of 'Glass Menagerie.' I mean, who has had that kind of life?"

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