The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall

The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall
The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall, by Eve Golden with Kay Kendall, is written like a bittersweet love song honoring the brief life of actress Kay Kendall.

Born into a family of entertainers, Kay Kendall got into show business at a young age. Starting off in chorus roles with her older sister, she began to secure roles as an extra and eventually moved up to bit parts in film.

Attractive and thin, Kendall blossomed early and as a young woman, she quickly gained a reputation as a “party girl,” often seen around town with royals and the rich at some of the best hotspots in London. The “wild child” moniker didn’t seem to faze Kendall; she worked hard during the day and the evenings were her chance to play.

Her big break came with a role in a low-budget film called Genevieve. The completion of the film became uncertain when the producers ran out of money. According to the book, the actors didn’t have high hopes for the film’s success.

But in the role of Rosalind, Kendall had the opportunity to shake her “all glam, no ham” typecasting. Rosalind gets silly drunk on champagne, grabs a trumpet, and plays an upbeat version of the tune Sweet Genevieve. As luck would have it, the film opened during the week of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and London was packed with people in celebratory moods. This light-hearted comedy fit into the spirit of the festivities, and was well attended as the audience and critics fell in love with this glamorous young actress/comedienne.

It was light comedy where Kendall excelled, often being compared to screwball comedy legend Carole Lombard.

With this boost to her career, Kendall went on to do several films, including The Constant Husband in 1955 where she met and fell in love with Rex Harrison. Harrison, who was married to actress Lilli Palmer at the time, was known for his dalliances and infidelities. He and Palmer became estranged and Kendall looked forward to one day becoming his wife.

As their courtship continued, Kendall spent time in the United States to be near Harrison while he performed in My Fair Lady.

The following year, as Kendall prepared for hosting Christmas, she reportedly began to feel weak, with a fever and headache. When the symptoms didn’t pass, blood tests were performed and her physician relayed the grim news to Harrison. Kay Kendall had chronic myelocytic leukemia and two years at the most to live.

It was Harrison who decided to keep the prognosis a secret.

It was at that time that Harrison and Palmer agreed to a divorce, and he and Kendall became engaged. After Kendall finished filming Les Girls in Hollywood, the two were married in a secret ceremony in 1957.

As Kendall continued to work, her health began a rapid decline. Her symptoms were explained away by Harrison as a blood disorder similar to anemia, or pneumonia. But, after so many hospitalizations, treatments, and transfusions, Kendall herself began to suspect that she may be seriously ill.

She barely finished her final film Once More With Feeling before succumbing to the disease. She died September 6, 1957 at the age of 32, five months before the film was released.

The Brief Madcap Life of Kay Kendall offers more details about Kendall’s personal and professional life including her friendships with Roddy McDowall and Carol Matthau. It is a quick read and gives a good sense of who Kendall was as an individual, as well as an actress. When dealing with Rex Harrison, the author is objective; but, she makes it clear that Harrison’s choice to keep Kendall’s condition a secret was shocking and hurtful to her family.

Kendall is not painted as a saint nor sinner, but one who was beloved for her passion for living and her gift for making others laugh.

** I purchased this book with my own funds and did not receive any remuneration of any kind for this review.

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