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Kay Kendall

from the trailer for the film
The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955).
Born Justine Kay McCarthy
21 May 1926(1926-05-21)
Withernsea, East Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died 6 September 1959 (aged 33)
London, England
Years active 1944–1959
Spouse(s) Rex Harrison (1957-1959) (her death)

Kay Kendall (21 May 1926 – 6 September 1959) was a British actress.

Kendall began her film career in the 1946 musical London Town. Though the film was a financial failure, Kendall continued to work regularly until her appearance in the comedy Genevieve 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 in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her role in Les Girls (1957).

She began a romantic relationship with Rex Harrison after they appeared together in The Constant Husband (1955), and they were married in 1957. Harrison learned from Kendall's doctor that she had been diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, a fact that was kept from Kendall, who believed she was suffering from an iron deficiency. Harrison cared for Kendall until her death in 1959, at the age of 33.


Early life

She was born Justine Kay McCarthy at Stanley House, Hull Road, in Withernsea, a coastal resort in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Her maternal grandmother was Marie Kendall, a musical-comedy star known for her vivacious personality and diction while singing. Her father was Terry McCarthy, a vaudevillian. She was commonly known to family and friends as Kate, according to the memoirs of the actor Sir Dirk Bogarde. Her brother, Cavan Kendall (born Cavan McCarthy), who died on October 30, 1999, was also an actor.

Kendall's distinctive nose, an aristocratic swoop, was the result of plastic surgery after a car crash. As she told Bogarde, the surgeon had only two noses in his repertoire, "this one and the other one." The one she chose, Kendall explained, made it difficult to photograph her in profile.


Her first major screen role was in the Sid Field-Petula Clark musical London Town (1946), notable for being one of the costliest flops in British film history. She co-starred with Clark again in Dance Hall (1950), and was featured in a quick succession of minor films before gaining fame in Genevieve (1953).

Kendall appeared in the first film in the Doctor series, Doctor in the House (1954) with Dirk Bogarde, Simon And Laura (1955) with Peter Finch, Abdulla the Great (1955) with Sydney Chaplin and Gregory Ratoff, and the epic film The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955), with Robert Taylor and Robert Morley. 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 (the other actresses were Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg). The following year, she starred opposite Harrison in The Reluctant Debutante. Kendall died in 1959 soon after completing her last movie, Once More, with Feeling! (1960), starring opposite Yul Brynner.

Personal life

Early in her career Kendall had a romantic relationship with Sydney Earle Chaplin, the second son of Charlie Chaplin by his second wife, Lita Grey Chaplin. In 1955 she starred opposite Rex Harrison in the comedy 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 Kendall had been diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, he and Palmer agreed to divorce so 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 remarry after Kendall's death, but Palmer ended up falling in love with her companion, Carlos Thompson, and married him instead.

Kay Kendall succumbed to her illness on 6 September 1959, at the age of 33, and is buried in the churchyard of St John's Church, Church Row, Hampstead, North London.[1]

Kendall's life is explored in The Brief, Madcap Life Of Kay Kendall by Eve Golden, Kim Kendall, and Kim Elizabeth Kendall (University Press of Kentucky, 2002).


  1. ^ Golden, Eve; Kendall, Kim Elizabeth (2002). The brief, madcap life of Kay Kendall. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813122511. 

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