Kendall, Kay (1926–1959)

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Kendall, Kay (1926–1959)

English actress of sophistication whose drunken trumpet solo in Genevieve launched her career. Born Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy on May 21, 1926, in Withernsea, near Hull, England; died in London, England, of leukemia on September 6, 1959; buried in St. John's Parish Churchyard, London, between Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, actor, and George Du Maurier, author and artist; daughter of professional dancers; married Rex Harrison (an actor), in 1957.

Selected filmography:

Fiddlers Three (UK, 1944); Champagne Charlie (UK, 1944); Dreaming (UK,1944); Waltz Time (UK, 1945); Caesar and Cleopatra (UK, 1945); Spring Song (Spring Time, UK, 1946); London Town (My Heart Goes Crazy, UK, 1946); Night and the City (UK, 1950); Dance Hall (UK, 1950); Happy Go Lovely (UK, 1951); Lady Godiva Rides Again (UK, 1951); Wings of Danger (Dead on Course, UK, 1952); Curtain Up (UK, 1952); It Started in Paradise (UK, 1952); Mantrap (also known as Man in Hiding, UK, 1953); Street of Shadows (Shadow Man, UK, 1953); The Square Ring (UK, 1953); Genevieve (UK, 1953); Meet Mr. Lucifer (UK, 1953); Fast and Loose (UK, 1954); Doctor in the House (UK, 1954); The Constant Husband (UK, 1955); Simon and Laura (UK, 1955); The Adventures of Quentin Durward (also known as Quentin Durward, 1955); Abdullah the Great (Abdullah's Harem, Egypt, 1956); Les Girls (U.S., 1957); The Reluctant Debutante (U.S., 1958); Once More with Feeling (U.S., 1960).

Kay Kendall was born in Withernsea, near Hull, England, in 1926, the daughter of professional dancers. This stylish English actress joined the chorus line at the London Palladium at age 13, then toured with her sister Kim in a music-hall act. A sophisticated comedian, Kay Kendall played minor roles in film early in her career, before turning to stage repertory. Seventeen forgotten movies later, she burst forth with a showy role and a drunken trumpet solo in the engaging comedy Genevieve with Dinah Sheridan and Kenneth More; it was chosen as Best British Film of 1953.

In 1955, during the filming of the aptly titled The Constant Husband, Kendall met and fell in love with Rex Harrison, while his wife Lilli Palmer was in Munich making her first German film. This was not the first extramarital indulgence of Harrison's but certainly the most serious. When a doctor told Harrison that Kendall had leukemia and only three years to live, he divorced Palmer and married her. Kendall was not informed of the seriousness of her illness.

In her first U.S. picture in 1957, Kendall teamed up with Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor and

Taina Elg for MGM's Les Girls and was a rollicking success with both the critics and the public. She then played wife to husband Harrison in the film The Reluctant Debutante. Wrote Jay Nash and Stanley Ross: "Let's all say a prayer for the immortal soul of Kay Kendall, who died a year after this film was released, and whose few performances captured on screen continue to be a delight for anyone who sees them.…It's Kendall's film from start to end as she is charming, loveable, bubbly, and funny in what was to be her penultimate motion picture. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, let Kendall come back soon." Kay Kendall's life was cut short by myeloid leukemia in 1959; she was 32.


Nash, Jay, and Stanley Ross. Motion Picture Guide. Chicago, IL: Cinebooks, 1986.