Success Couldn’t Keep Playwright George Kelly’s Sexual Orientation from Consignment to the Closet

Photo of George Kelly via the NYPL Digital Collections / The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

BY TRAV S.D. | In honor of Pride Month, we will be featuring one article per week on a different classic performer, one for each category: L, G, B, T, and Q! With only five weeks in June, that’s our limit. Check back with us next year, as our series picks up with “+” I, A, and beyond. . .

Following up on last week’s “L,” Alla Nazimova, today we introduce our “G,” playwright George Kelly (1887-1974). The uncle of Grace Kelly, and younger brother of famous vaudevillian Walter C. Kelly, George initially followed Walter onstage as an actor and vaudeville sketch writer. The Irish American Kellys were conservative to put it mildly. In addition to the rough and gruff Walter, another brother, Grace’s father John, was a building contractor and an Olympic athlete. This was not a family culture that would have taken kindly to a man-loving man among the relatives. Kelly was therefore closeted throughout his life, the details of his orientation not emerging publicly until after his death. His lover of 55 years, William Eldon Weagly, was spoken of as his “valet.” Kelly himself was referred to, in the custom of the time as a “lifelong bachelor.”

Described as a frail boy who “never went to a baseball or football game in his life,” Kelly began acting in stock companies around 1910. From 1915 through 1922 he performed in vaudeville, in one-act plays he had written for himself. He was considered the best writer of such sketches in the entire industry of big time vaud; entire bills were rearranged in order to accommodate them, to make them the highlight of the program. To clarify: These were not ordinary cross-talk routines we associate with comedy teams. These were proper one-act plays, some comical, some dramatic, but all of them obeying the conventional strictures of playwrighting: consistent characters, a believable plot, and so forth, though with the added element of a “wow” finish, a major twist, which was such a necessity in vaudeville. Kelly served during World War One (1917-1918) then returned immediately to the stage.

By the 1920s, Kelly felt that vaudeville was getting vulgar—a popularly held view at the time. Elements of burlesque and the revue were creeping in, with a little more bawdiness. His original experience had been in the legitimate theatre and so he sought to return to that stodgier terrain. He began fashioning full-length plays for Broadway. Many of them were satires and drawing room comedies or melodramas in the tradition of Wilde, Coward, Pinero, et al. Some were fashioned from his earlier one-act plays. His best-known and most successful works included The Torchbearers (1922), which starred Mary Boland and Alison Skipworth as housewives driving everyone up the wall by putting on an amateur theatrical. It was later made into a 1935 movie called Doubting Thomas, starring Will Rogers and Billie Burke. His biggest hit was probably The Show Off (1924), which was revived 7 times on Broadway and made into films in 1926, 1930, 1934, and 1946 (all but the 1930 version was called The Show Off; the 1930 one is called Men Are Like That.) It’s all about a hilariously bigmouthed liar who marries into a family and drives them up the wall, until his powers of persuasion finally gets them out a jam. This comedy and its many film versions remain viable laugh-getters. One can only assume it’s slipped into obscurity because it had been overdone by the middle of the last century. Kelly’s best-known drama was Craigs Wife (1925), which made into eponymous films in 1928 and 1936 as well as Harriet Craig (1950). This play about a controlling wife won the Pulitzer Prize that year. The title character is a plum role for a woman; it was played by both Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford in the movies.

Starting in the late 20s, Kelly’s Broadway plays fell out of favor on Broadway. His work continued to be produced there for years, only with much shorter runs, and fewer revivals and screen adaptations. In the ‘30s he worked as a Hollywood screenwriter and script consultant, and he also wrote for radio. By later decades Kelly’s stage vehicles, rooted in 19h century sensibilities were seeming creaky in the wake of guys like Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams (whose sexual orientation few had any doubts about.) Williams’ gayness was universally known at the time of Kelly’s death in 1974. By contrast, Kelly’s significant other William Weagly wasn’t even invited to his funeral.

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