Gene Kelly's reputation is about as spotless as any figure of his era. He had none of the uncomfortable allegations that plagued Bing Crosby, nor the supposed mob connections of Frank Sinatra. By contrast to many of his peers, Kelly embodied postwar American optimism. He's remembered as a phenomenal singer, dancer, and an all-around stand-up guy.
But Kelly undoubtedly had his flaws. Look no further than his relationship with Debbie Reynolds, who was cast in the beloved musical Singin' in the Rain at 19 years old. The 39-year-old Kelly allegedly intimidated her to the point of tears. This behavior was apparently typical of Kelly in the rehearsal room, where he was rumored to be a tyrant whose punishing work hours and complicated choreography stymied even professional dancers.
Off set, Kelly could be insecure, temperamental, and competitive. He had relationships with younger women, and his paternalistic streak reportedly made him a loving but overbearing partner. According to Hollywood lore, a number of his personal and professional relationships fell apart due to his relentless drive.
In the end, the very qualities that made Kelly one of the greatest entertainers of all time also made him a dark figure in the lives of his collaborators.
- Photo: Lipnitzki/Contributor / Roger Viollet/Getty Images
He Married A 17-Year-Old Girl When He Was 29
The marriage of Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair sounds like something out of one of his musicals. An aspiring young actor in New York, she showed up early to an audition and mistook Kelly for a hired hand. When she returned the next day, she discovered he was the choreographer. Two years later, in 1941, they were married. He proposed to her by the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel. She remembered, “I said yes immediately. I didn't have any reservations at all. You don't when you're in love."
The only wrinkle is that she was 15 years old when they met - he was 27. Like many men of that era, Kelly routinely dated younger women, but Blair was young enough to raise eyebrows even at that time.
Even Professionally Trained Dancers Left His Rehearsals Bruised
In contrast to the inexperienced Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse was a professional dancer when she worked with Kelly on Singin' in the Rain. But even a pro like Charisse was left literally bruised by the experience of working with Kelly.
In fact, Charisse said her husband could tell she had been working with Fred Astaire instead of Kelly if she came home unmarked.
- Photo: J. R. Eyerman/Contributor / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
He Married His Co-Director's Ex-Wife
When she began work as Kelly's assistant, Jeanne Coyne got to live a dancer's dream. Starting with On the Town, she helped Kelly develop his signature blend of precise technique and challenging, experimental innovation. After years of working for Kelly, Coyne married Stanley Donen, Kelly's co-choreographer and friend.
After Kelly's marriage to Betsy Blair began falling apart, Coyne confessed she was in love with him. Understandably, Donen was furious, effectively ending both his working and personal relationship with Kelly.
With Donen out of the picture, Coyne and Kelly were married in 1960 and stayed together until she lost her battle with leukemia in 1973.
He Couldn't Relax, Even During A Game Of Volleyball
Even off-set, Kelly was often alarmingly intense. Volleyball, a favorite game of his, often brought out the worst in the competitive showman. As Bob Fosse recalled, “I’d never seen anyone so fierce about a so-called friendly game in my life. He had a competitive streak in him that was quite frightening.”
On the court, Kelly was most dangerous to himself. After losing one game, he stomped his foot so hard his ankle broke. Because of the injury, Fred Astaire had to replace him in 1948’s Easter Parade.