She was a barely-16-year-old schoolgirl dancing in a chorus on Broadway as a summer job before college. She mistook him for a busboy, not realizing he was the show's choreographer, dashing, handsome and 12 years her senior.
In a little over a year, Betsy Blair became Mrs. Gene Kelly. If this story had a typical Hollywood ending, they would have danced their way to fame and fortune and a happily-ever-aftering life. But as Blair tells us in "The Memory of All That," a more bittersweet fate awaited her.
The early romance between Blair and one of America's most famous song-and-dance men cries out to be acted on the silver screen. To be young and beautiful and in love in New York, dancing up a storm and staying up to all hours -- who could ask for anything more? Somehow, reading Blair's story, lyrics from all the old love songs come to mind. Yet her writing is anything but cliched or rehashed.
One of the true pleasures of reading this book is listening to Blair's voice, absorbing her intelligence, originality and natural honesty. Her work does not sound ghost-written, nor does it possess that "as-told-to" tedium. Her prose spills onto the page with a kind of bounce, as though she is living her experience again as she writes and seeing her life with fresh vision.
And what a life! She married Kelly on the eve of World War II, but that did not mar their happiness. Happiness is expressed throughout the book, recounting her childhood and marriage and afterward. "We ate when we were hungry," she writes, as they started out on their honeymoon. "We made love wherever we were, we drove through the night if we felt like it ... I wasn't surprised by all this freedom and joy."
They drove to Hollywood and set up housekeeping in a charming farmhouse on Rodeo Drive. At that time, a bridle trail ran down the middle of the road, but no one was ever seen on horseback. Kelly was just getting started at MGM, creating the great musicals of his brilliant career. In fact, their life there sounds like a musical. Blair remembers "California sunshine and flowers, a great daughter, a happy house overflowing with love and fun and friends, and no worry about money -- all this stemmed from Gene's work."
She would take her daughter Kerry to school in the morning as Adolph Green and Betty Comden were arriving at the house to work on some great show such as "Singing in the Rain." Leonard Bernstein insisted they buy a new piano for their constant parties and he spent an entire day choosing the perfect one for them. She had a gardener, a cook and a housekeeper. She could buy anything she wanted or do whatever she wished.
One thing she did was act occasionally. She had an unusual quality on the screen -- not quite the young ingenue but something edgier. She looked sweet with her creamy skin and voluminous red hair, yet she chose parts with depth and complexity. Her greatest performance came when she won the role of Clara in the film "Marty" with Ernest Borgnine. A beautiful young woman in reality, for the character she became a shy, repressed teacher who falls in love with an overweight butcher. The movie, of course, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955.
It was a perfect life with nothing exactly wrong or bad. Yet Blair was experiencing what uber-feminist Betty Friedan would later call "the problem that has no name." It is the problem that exists for women whose identity somehow gets lost in marriage.
Betsy still loved Gene, but "it was his life that I was becoming part of, not my life nor even our life, but his." Something had to happen. She began having small affairs. "I spent my whole adolescence as a married woman and was completely happy," she writes. "The inevitable forces of nature, growth and rebellion were postponed. But they came later."
When those forces arrived, she found herself in love with another man. She left her marriage and Hollywood and took her daughter to live in Paris. She experienced a "mysterious feeling of relief, of serenity, even," she says.
Surprising, but at this point, her story becomes even more fascinating. As she faded away from the movie and celebrity scene, she came alive in Europe, acting with famous and difficult directors, becoming more active in leftist politics and allowing herself fulfillment as a woman. She speaks with candor and with complete kindness toward her lovers and family. This lady became a real grownup.
Blair eventually married again, not to the runaway Paris lover, but to director Karel Reisz. She has known many fascinating and famous people whom she describes in illustrative vignettes. She takes full responsibility for her choices, saying, "I paid a price for my good life." By the end, my imaginary background music had shifted from "Me and My Gal" to Edith Piaf's "Je ne regret rien."
Blair has written a terrific book. She captures an era along with her own life. I've added her to my ever-growing list of people with whom I'd love to have dinner. She manages to put an honest face on a fairy tale marriage without spoiling it. There is one fabulous scene in which she, Kelly and their daughter dance across a street in London while a crowd serenades them with "Singing in the Rain." If life could always be like that!
Several weeks before I read this book, I happened to catch "Marty" on the Turner Classic Movies channel. I was struck by Blair's strong performance, by what a nuanced, fine actress she is. It's ironic that such a beautiful, sexy, interesting woman is best known for playing the consummate, homely wallflower.
I also thought: "Marty" is a perfect movie. I hope no one ever gets the dumb idea to remake it.
("The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood and Paris" by Betsy Blair, Knopf, 329 pages, $25)