Gene Kelly’s ‘teenage bride’ Betsy Blair dies, aged 85

Betsy Blair
LAST UPDATED AT 11:41 ON Mon 16 Mar 2009

The American actress Betsy Blair, who rose from New Jersey chorus girl to become the teenage bride of Gene Kelly, went on to star in one of the classic Hollywood films of the 1950s, and later became a Londoner when she married the film-maker Karel Reisz, has died in London after suffering from cancer. She was 85.

Blair first met Kelly (pictured with Blair and the actor Montgomery Clift, left) when she was only 15 and he was choreographing shows for a New York nightclub, long before he became a Hollywood star with such films as On the Town and Singing' in the Rain. In a 2001 Guardian interview she recalled how she inadvertently turned up a day early for an audition and spoke to a man moving tables and chairs. "I thought he was a busboy. I said, 'I'm here to see Mr Rose' and he asked me if I was a dancer. I said I was and he told me the audition was the following day."

Blair started to leave when the 'busboy' asked her, "Are you a good dancer?"

Said Blair: "I turned round and said, 'Very'. The next day, I went to the audition and it was Gene moving the tables and chairs around. He was the choreographer." Needless to say, Blair got the job and the two fell in love, spending the next year and half working in nightclubs and in musical comedies on Broadway.

When she was 17, Gene asked Betsy to marry him. "It was in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York. We were sitting by the fountain and he said he couldn't leave me to the mercy of New York when he went to Hollywood. I said yes immediately. I didn't have any reservations at all. You don't when you're in love."

They arrived in Hollywood as husband and wife on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Kelly, 29, was contracted to David Selznick but before long MGM asked him to be in For Me and My Gal and a star was born.

Betsy claimed not to be fazed by his increasing fame. "I loved his work and he was a great dancer and he was also a really interesting, educated fellow. The fact that he was a star didn't matter to me. I was a snippy kid, I never thought of him as an icon."

After the war, when the couple lived on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Betsy also broke into films, appearing in The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947) and The Snake Pit (1948) alongside Olivia de Havilland. But the parts dried upafter she became involved in union politics and, like so many other Hollywood left-wingers, was subject to investigation by Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

However, she had one big film part to come - that of Ernest Borgnine's plain-Jane girlfriend in the 1955 classic Marty, which won all the big prizes at the 1956 Oscars. It was always said that she got the part only because Kelly threatened to stop shooting at MGM if his young wife was not allowed to work.

The marriage came to an end in 1957 and Betsy moved to Paris where she made films with such European directors as Michelangelo Antonioni (The Cry). While filming at Pinewood she met the Czech émigre Karel Reisz. They married in 1963. He had already directed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and would go on to make Morgan and The French Lieutenant's Woman.

In 2003, Blair published her autobiography, The Memory of All That. "I have nothing bad to say about Gene in any way," she said. "We were married 16 years and it just came to an end."

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