Looking for Mrs Kelly

Betsy Blair

I was a blacklisted Hollywood fellow-traveller, a champagne socialist, a Pinko. Not that I wasn’t serious about my ideas and ideals. I was as serious as a 17-year-old arriving on the Coast, newly and ecstatically married to the about-to-be movie star Gene Kelly, could possibly have been. That is to say, I was easily and happily serious, feeling good about myself, rebellious and righteous and pure. I was also being spied on by the FBI.

I was reminded of it all when 87 pages (out of ‘92 pages reviewed’) came at last, almost two years after I had asked to see my file. The 87 pages reveal about 30 per cent of what the file on me contains. Another 40 per cent is blacked out to ‘protect their sources and foreign agencies’, and the rest is made up of inter-office communications – New York, Washington, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Madrid – and checklists of dates, number of copies sent to those offices and a reprimand or two when they arrived late. The hard information is pathetic.

On each page the word ‘confidential’ is crossed out in heavy black ink and marked ‘Declassified on 11/4/97’. Page 1 reads:

Foreign Service of the United States of America
American Embassy
Paris 8, France.
Date: December 28, 1955
To: Director FBI
From: Legat, Paris
Subject: ELIZABETH WINIFRED B. KELLY
               nee Boger, aka
               Mrs Eugene Curran Kelly,
               Betsy Blair
               SECURITY MATTER – C
               Re: Bulet 12/8/55 captioned “BETSY
BLAIR, SECURITY MATTER – C”

The rest of the page, three long paragraphs, is blacked out with some magic formula that covers it totally.

Page 2 would have been informative to any investigator who had somehow missed out on Time, Life, Photoplay, the Ladies’ Home Journal, Picture Post, Paris Match, the NY Times, the New Yorker or any other newspaper or magazine:

It will be noted that EUGENE CURRAN KELLY, husband of ELIZABETH WINIFRED B. KELLY, is better known as GENE KELLY, the well-known motion picture actor. His wife, whose stage name is BETSY BLAIR, played the leading role in the recent motion picture MARTY.

A long blacked out paragraph follows, and then:

Upon receipt of additional data positively identifying BETSY BLAIR with ELIZABETH WINIFRED B. KELLY, a report will be submitted.

Finally, handwritten at the bottom of the page: ‘Still no ident. or background on Betsy Blair – Mrs Eugene C. Kelly.’

On page 3, dated 17 January 1956, they admitted that I had ‘never attracted attention from a political point of view’. On page 4 they cite a report from the Herald Tribune (so someone did read newspapers):

‘The film director Juan Antonio Bardem was arrested in Spain on suspicion of having leftish tendencies, and as a result, Betsy Blair, star of the film “Marty”, has been sitting in her Madrid apartment doing nothing.’

For the information of the Madrid office, subject has been reported to have been associated with several C.P. (Communist Party) fronts.

On page 5, three sentences: ‘Betsy Blair (Mrs Gene Kelly) is in Cairo. She is involved in the Commy investigations. Kelly isn’t.’ Then a handwritten notation: ‘Hoover, is this true?’ The following page explains that the person asking the question was Walter Winchell. It’s no longer a surprise that Winchell was a slimeball, but it’s still a shock to see evidence of his familiar and direct contact with the FBI. That the page was not blacked out was probably an oversight on the part of today’s FBI.

Eight pages state that they have ‘not yet positively identified BETSY BLAIR as MRS KELLY’. On two pages they wonder where I am. The Hollywood Reporter would have been an obvious source for this.

Several pages list the organisations with which I was associated that the FBI considered Communist fronts. Some may have been, but the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the Congress of American Women, the Sleepy Lagoon Committee, the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, and the Civil Rights Congress were widely based liberal-left organisations. There is a list of contributions I made in 1947, 49, 50. Modest contributions they were, too: the Civil Rights Congress, $40, $25 and $25; the Hollywood Ten Defence Committee – more generously – $250, $200, another $250 and, in August 1950, another $10. Several contributions of $10 to the Russian-American Club in 1944, when the Soviet Union was our ally and Uncle Joe was popular even in the Hearst press. They must have spent twenty times more in taxpayers’ money just gathering and disseminating this information than I ever gave to their so-called Fronts.

In October 1956, a report entitled ‘Residence and Employment’ states: ‘An agent of the F.B.I. determined through a suitable pretext on Oct. 12 that ELIZABETH KELLY returned to the US from Europe about Sept 10th, and is currently residing at 725 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, Calif.’ – where we had lived since 1945. ‘Information was also developed during this pretext interview that she is currently unemployed, and is considering several motion picture offers at the present time.’

When the thick envelope arrived I was gleeful. Democracy was alive and well: I would finally see it all. As I started to read I felt weird, as if I were a historical character. As I read on, I got angrier: the manhours, the money that was wasted, the pettiness, self-importance and stupidity. Why should they have established a file on me? Of what importance to the US Government was my personal, political or professional life?

Well, as they eventually seem to have found out, I was of no importance to them at all. And perhaps the most ludicrous thing is that for all their bureaucratic, repetitive and boring reports, they didn’t begin to know the half of it. The Freedom of Information Act works, in that they did send my file. But there is nothing in it – or almost nothing. I probably made the day of the agent who found my photograph in L’Humanité, the official paper of the French CP, with a New Year greeting to its readers. Can you imagine his joy?

Today, they don’t need to set up fake interviews or have a spy on the set of a film being made in Spain. They cannot lose track of my whereabouts if I have a mobile phone or a credit card. My date of birth, my various names – family, professional, married, divorced, remarried – my employment record and address are all on the Internet, available to anyone. Even an FBI agent must know that.

The Internet is of course about as reliable as the FBI was sure-footed. Although I’ve been living in London for 35 years, happily married to Karel Reisz, on the Internet it seems we were married from 1963 to 1969, and I am now married to an Italian psychoanalyst and living in Rome. Misinformation? Disinformation? Who cares. I quite like having something completely wrong about me on the Internet.

I don’t, however, like the feeling I have had since my file arrived: I don’t like to think about the violation of my privacy that lasted almost twenty years and I don’t like the fact that I am now filled with suspicion without knowing who to suspect. Who did spy on me – in my own house, on movie sets, in hotels and airports? Most of all, I loathe the informers. So I guess it’s a good thing their names are blacked out. There can be no repercussions as there were when the Stasi files were opened, no discoveries of best friends, or teachers, or lovers, or neighbours. I’m beginning to realise that the whole episode – requesting the file, waiting for it, receiving it – is a comedy, of sorts. I plan to laugh a lot later.