Kay Kendall

Kay Kendall

from the trailer for the epic historical film The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955).
Born Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy
(1927-05-21)21 May 1927
Withernsea, East Riding of Yorkshire, England, UK
Died 6 September 1959(1959-09-06) (aged 32)
London, England, UK
Cause of death Leukaemia
Resting place Churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead Church, Church Row, Hampstead, London, England, UK[1]
Occupation Actress, singer
Years active 19441959
Spouse(s) Rex Harrison (19571959; her death)
Parent(s) Terrence McCarthy (aka Terry Kendall) and Gladys Drewery
Relatives   Marie Kendall (maternal grandmother)
  Cavan Kendall (brother)

Kay Kendall (21 May 1927 – 6 September 1959) was an English actress and comedian. She began her film career in the musical film London Town (1946). Although the film was a financial failure, Kendall continued to work regularly until her appearance in the comedy film Genevieve (1953) brought her widespread recognition. Most prolific in British films, Kendall also achieved some popularity with American audiences, and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her role in the musical-comedy film Les Girls (1957).

She began a romantic relationship with actor Rex Harrison after they appeared together in the comedy film The Constant Husband (1955) and they were married in 1957. Harrison learned from Kendall's doctor that she had been diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, a fact that was kept from Kendall, who believed she was suffering from an iron deficiency. The actor cared for Kendall until her death at the age of 32.

Early life

She was born Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy,[2] at Stanley House, Hull Road, in Withernsea, a coastal resort in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Kendall's father was Terrence "Terry" McCarthy (aka Terry Kendall), the vaudevillian son of music hall star Marie Kendall. Kay's mother was the former Gladys Drewery.[3]

She had two elder siblings, Terrence Justin "Terry" Kendall McCarthy (born 1923) and Patricia Kim "Pat" Kendall McCarthy (aka Kim Kendall, born 1925). By her father's second marriage to his professional dancing partner, Dora Spencer, she had a younger half-brother, Cavan Spencer Kendall McCarthy (aka Cavan Kendall) (1942-1999). Young Justine attended various schools, including St Leonard's (Brighton), St Margaret's (near Oban, Scotland), and the Lydia Kyasht Dancing Academy (London). The actress's distinctive nose, an aristocratic swoop, was the result of plastic surgery after a car crash.


Her first major screen role was in the Sid Field, Petula Clark London Town, notable for being one of the costliest flops in British film history. She co-starred with Clark again in the drama film Dance Hall (1950), and was featured in a quick succession of minor films before achieving fame in Genevieve (1953).

She followed this up with the even more popular first film in the Doctor series, the comedy Doctor in the House (1954) with Dirk Bogarde. She was under contract to the Rank Organisation but unhappy with the parts offered, turning down Value For Money (1955), As Long As You're Happy (1955) and Doctor at Sea (1955).[4]

She did appear in the drama Simon and Laura (1955) with Peter Finch; the comedy Abdulla the Great (1955) with Sydney Chaplin and Gregory Ratoff; and the epic historical film The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955), with Robert Taylor and Robert Morley. In October and November 1957, she appeared in two episodes of the short-lived American television series The Polly Bergen Show.[5] and also starred as herself in Series 3 episode 17 of The Phil Silvers Show on 17 January 1958.

In 1958 Kendall won a Golden Globe Award for her performance as Lady Sybil Wren in Les Girls  probably one of the best-known films of her career  the story of three showgirls in postwar Paris (with Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg). The following year she starred opposite Harrison in the comedy The Reluctant Debutante.

Kendall died in 1959, aged 32, soon after completing her last film, the comedy Once More, with Feeling! (1960), starring opposite Yul Brynner.[5]

Critical assessment

"As they say about crime victims, Kay Kendall was in the wrong place at the wrong time", wrote Rhoda Koenig, a critic, in The Independent in 2006. "In her case, the crime was a waste of talent. One of the most delightful of British actresses [...] few of her films gave her a chance to shine. A natural screwball heroine, Kendall was born too late for the 1930s comedies in which she would have been the equal of the scatty but scintillating Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert, and too soon for the naughtiness and absurdity of the 1960s .... Kendall was beautiful and funny. She was a true comedienne, unafraid to compromise her ladylike appearance with pratfalls, pop eyes and comic drunk scenes. Kendall could get away with such antics without looking vulgar.”[6]

Personal life

Early in her career, Kendall had a lengthy romance with actor Sydney Chaplin, the second son of actor Charlie Chaplin by his second wife, actress Lita Grey. She also had affairs with a Swedish prince and grocery heir James Sainsbury and reportedly had a romance with the future Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.[7][8]

In 1955 she starred opposite Harrison in The Constant Husband, and an affair soon followed. Harrison was married to actress Lilli Palmer at the time. However, when he learned from Kendall's doctor that she had been diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, he and Palmer agreed to divorce so that he could marry Kendall and provide for her care. Kendall was never told of her illness and ended up believing she merely had an iron deficiency. As for the divorce, Palmer said she was not upset because she had a lover too. Palmer and Harrison planned to re-marry after Kendall's death, but Palmer ended up falling in love with her companion, actor Carlos Thompson, and married him instead.


Kendall was buried in the churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead Church, Hampstead, London.[1]

In September 2013 her final resting place was restored by the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America.[9]

Kendall's grave in October 2016


Her life is explored in the biographical book The Brief, Madcap Life Of Kay Kendall (2002) by Eve Golden and Kim Elizabeth Kendall.

Withernsea Lighthouse is situated a stone's throw from where Kendall once lived. No longer in use as a lighthouse, it has been turned into a museum and has many items associated with her life and times.[10]

The Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund supports scientific research into leukaemia.

On 6 September 2014, a blue plaque commemorating Kay Kendall was erected by the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America and unveiled at her former home in Withernsea to mark the 55th anniversary of her death.[11]

Complete filmography

See also


  1. 1 2 Golden, Eve; Kendall, Kim Elizabeth (2002). The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2251-9.
  2. Eve Golden (6 December 2013). The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall. University Press of Kentucky. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-8131-4655-3.
  3. http://www.thomasleejones.com/fromthelighthouse
  4. "Glamor star strikes for better roles.". The Australian Women's Weekly (1933-1982). 1933-1982: National Library of Australia. 12 January 1955. p. 28. Retrieved 19 May 2012.
  5. 1 2 Kay Kendall at the Internet Movie Database
  6. Profile of Kay Kendall in The Independent, www.independent.co.uk
  7. "Kay Kendall's Grave Restored". The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  8. Baxter, Dale (May 2008). "To the Lighthouse". BBC. Retrieved 30 August 2014.
  9. "Blue plaque for Kay Kendall, Genevieve star who died tragically young". Hull Daily Mail. 6 September 2014. Retrieved 7 September 2014.
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