The life of Kay Kendall, the Withernsea-born film actress, was brief and poignant. Shortly after she began an affair with Rex Harrison, she was diagnosed with leukaemia. As was often the custom in the 1950s, the diagnosis was concealed from her – she apparently thought she had an iron deficiency – and Harrison divorced his second wife, Lilli Palmer, in order to marry Kay and take care of her. The agreement was supposedly that Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer would get back together after Kay’s death, which occurred in 1959, but by that time Lilli had found another lover.
This story sheds an interesting light on Rex Harrison, who is often portrayed as an unpleasant character. Sheridan Morley told a story of his father, the actor Robert Morley, bumping into Rex Harrison in the Burlington Arcade the day after Morley’s appearance on This Is Your Life. Harrison congratulated his brother actor with the remark, “So brave,– and not a programme I would ever dare have done, not with all my divorces and the suicides. But for you, Robert, life has been so different: one wife, one family, one house and, if I may say so, one performance.”
There was a similar encounter between John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave, shortly after Redgrave’s belated knighthood in 1959. Gielgud would have known a thing or two about Redgrave’s private tastes, because he breezily greeted him, “Ah, Sir Michael Redgrave, I’ll be bound!”
There’s also a wonderful street-scene involving Noël Coward. Being gay and wealthy, Coward was in great demand among his straight actor colleagues as godfather to their children: he gave good presents and customarily took the young ones out for tea on their birthdays.
David Niven’s story is that as Noël and Niven’s young daughter walked towards Harrods on her birthday they encountered two dogs copulating on the pavement. The little girl asked, “Uncle Noël, what are the doggies doing?” to which Noël replied in the blink of an eye, “Well, my dear. The front little doggy has gone blind, and his friend is pushing him all the way to St Dunstan’s.”