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Kendall, Kay [real name Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy]free

  • Alex Jennings

Kay Kendall (1927–1959)

by Sir Cecil Beaton, 1957

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Kendall, Kay [real name Justine Kay Kendall McCarthy] (1927–1959), actress, was born on 21 May 1927 at Stanley House, Hull Road, Withernsea, near Hull in Yorkshire, the youngest child in the family of two daughters and one son of Justin McCarthy, professionally known as Terry Kendall, and his wife, Gladys Drewery, both entertainers. Kay's paternal grandmother, Marie Kendall (1873–1964), was a great star of the music-hall, married to Stephen McCarthy, a Canadian. When her father formed a song and dance team with his sister Pat, they retained their mother's famous name, performing in revue as Pat and Terry Kendall.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Kay and her sister Kim, who was two years older, were evacuated to a convent school in Oban, Scotland. The family had often been separated through work, and in 1940 their parents divorced. The girls joined their mother in London, where, having the height and looks to find work as chorus girls, they followed their parents into show business. Kim appeared in revue at the Holborn Empire with Ben Lyon, Bebe Daniels, and Tommy Trinder, and she went with them to the London Palladium in a new review, Gangway (1941). Kay joined her in the chorus. After two years, touring in George Black revues, the sisters formed a double act, appearing in troop shows and on the variety circuit. Kay also worked as a fashion model, and in 1944 began to get small parts in films—Fiddlers Three and Champagne Charlie, both with Trinder; Dreaming with Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen; and then London Town (1946), a reckless attempt by Rank Studios to emulate the Hollywood musical. It starred another comic, Sid Field, and Kendall was his leading lady. The film was a disaster, and 'when it flopped—I flopped with it' said Kendall (Films and Filming, vol. 2, no. 6, March 1956, 10).

With this set-back Kendall returned to the stage, entertaining the troops in Europe and learning her craft in provincial repertory theatres. Trying films again she could only get small roles, until an admired performance on television—in the play Sweethearts and Wives—was seen by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who cast her in Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951); she got good notices and more offers. Under contract to Rank, her first picture was Genevieve (1953). Kendall's performance as a trumpet-playing fashion model, taken along by Kenneth More on the London to Brighton vintage car rally, was widely praised and the film a massive hit. The part was tailor-made and the first to exploit her gift 'for remaining soignée while being bumped or slapped around' (Shipman, Story of Cinema, 807). But she was unlucky with her next few films and the momentum was lost. She returned to the stage playing Elvira in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit with Dennis Price and Irene Handl, a performance that pleased the author, and began to fight for better film roles. Suffering salary suspension for her pains, she was finally loaned to London Films to appear as one of the wives of Rex Harrison [see Harrison, Sir Reginald Carey] in The Constant Husband (1955). This was a role she would soon play out in life, as she and Harrison began to live together.

In Hollywood Kendall scored a huge success in a musical with Gene Kelly, Les Girls (1957); the critics compared her to Carole Lombard, she was flooded with offers, and finally she was a star. But Kay Kendall was already ill with leukaemia, a fact kept from her by her doctors and by Harrison. He had remained married to the actress Lilli Palmer (his second wife), but confronted with this knowledge she agreed to a divorce to allow Harrison and Kendall to marry, which they did in New York on 25 June 1957. Kendall made one more good film, The Reluctant Débutante (1958), with her husband, and he directed her in a play, The Bright One, which closed after a few days. She had been undergoing treatment, as she thought for anaemia, for some years; admitted to the London Clinic, Devonshire Place, London, she died there on 6 September 1959. She was buried in St John's churchyard, Church Row, Hampstead, London. Her relationship with Harrison was the basis of the play After Lydia by Terence Rattigan. The Withernsea lighthouse (her maternal grandfather, a fisherman, had helped in its construction) is home to the Kay Kendall Memorial Museum.

Kendall's premature death robbed the cinema of a uniquely gifted comedienne. Elegant, witty, and zany, she was a sophisticated clown; the studios did not know what to do with her, but in her few films of quality she made an indelible impression.


  • D. Shipman, The great movie stars: the international years (1972)
  • R. Harrison, Rex (1974)
  • R. Harrison, A damned serious business (1990)
  • R. Moseley, Rex Harrison (1987)
  • D. Shipman, The story of cinema, 2 (1984)
  • L. Palmer, Change lobsters and dance (1976)
  • D. Bogarde, Snakes and ladders (1978)
  • E. Katz, The film encyclopedia, 3rd edn (1998)
  • The Noël Coward diaries, ed. G. Payn and S. Morley (1982)
  • G. Wansell, Terence Rattigan (1995)
  • private information (2004)
  • The Times (7 Sept 1959)



  • BFI, London


  • C. Beaton, photograph, 1957, NPG [see illus.]
  • F. W. Daniels, photograph, NPG
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£2313 16s. 7d.: probate, 3 March 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]