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Justine Kay Kendall-McCarthy

Also Known As: "Kay Kendall"
Birthdate: (32)
Birthplace: Withernsea, East Riding of Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
Death: 1959 (32) (myeloid leukemia)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Terry Kendall
Wife of Sir Rex Harrison
Sister of <private> Kendall

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Kay Kendall

Kay Kendall (21 May 1927 – 6 September 1959) was an English actress.

Kendall began her film career in the musical film London Town (1946). Though the film was a financial failure, Kendall continued to work regularly until her appearance in the comedy film Genevieve (1953) 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 – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her role in the musical comedy film Les Girls (1957).

She began a romantic relationship with actor Rex Harrison after they appeared together in the comedy film 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 at age 32.

Early life

She was born Justine Kay Kendall-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. Her brother, Cavan Kendall (born Cavan McCarthy), who died on 30 October 1999, was also an actor.

She was commonly known to family and friends as Kate, according to the memoirs of the actor Sir Dirk Bogarde.

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 London Town, notable for being one of the costliest flops in British-film history. She co-starred with Clark again in the drama film Dance Hall (1950), and was featured in a quick succession of minor films before gaining fame in Genevieve.

Kendall appeared in the first film in the Doctor series, the comedy film Doctor in the House (1954) with Dirk Bogarde; the drama film Simon and Laura (1955) with Peter Finch; the comedy film Abdulla the Great (1955) with Sydney Chaplin and Gregory Ratoff; and the epic historical film The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955), with Robert Taylor and Robert Morley. In October and November 1957, she appeared in two episodes of the short-lived American television series The Polly Bergen Show, a comedy-variety show on NBC.

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 comedy film The Reluctant Debutante. Kendall died in 1959 soon after completing her last film, the comedy Once More, with Feeling! (1960), starring opposite Yul Brynner.

Personal life

Early in her career, Kendall had a romantic relationship with actor Sydney Chaplin, the second son of actor Charlie Chaplin by his second wife, actress Lita Grey. In 1955, she starred opposite Harrison in the 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, actor Carlos Thompson, and married him instead.


Following her death, she was buried in the churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead Church, Hampstead, London.


Her life is explored in the biographical book The Brief, Madcap Life Of Kay Kendall (2002) by Eve Golden and Kim Elizabeth Kendall.

The Withernsea Lighthouse is situated a stone's throw from where Kendall once lived. No longer in use as a lighthouse, it has been turned into a museum and has many items associated with her life and times.


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Kay Kendall's Timeline

Withernsea, East Riding of Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
Age 32

<The Times, September 9, 1959>


Miss Kay Kendall, who died in London yesterday at the age of 32, was
not an actress of great range; but on her chosen ground of
sophisticated comedy she had a personal elegance and incisiveness,
which rapidly established her as one of the cinema's few outstanding

She was born in Yorkshire on May 21, 1927, of a theatrical family;
Marie Kendall, the singer, was her grandmother. From the first she had
her heart set on a theatrical career and it is recorded that she ran
away from her convent school at the age of 12 to go on the stage. Her
first job was with George Black revues on tour and when she was 14 she
and her sister Kim Kendall joined a variety act touring the halls.
They appeared together in several films during the war. Her first big
opportunity came with "London Town", an attempt by the Rank
Organization to break into the American market with a large-scale
musical. In spite of a large budget and a number of talented
performers the film was a distastrous failure, and though Kay
Kendall's performance had considerable youthful charm, her career
suffered something of a setback as a result.

From 1946 to 1949 she was back on the stage, appearing in plays and
revues in the West End or on tour and entertaining troops abroad. Then
in 1950 she returned to the screen, with small parts, showing a
distinctive gift for comedy; but it was not until "Genevieve" in 1953
that she was really given a notable chance to show her skill. Here her
own combination of style and grace and appearance and a strong feeling
for grotesque characterization came into full play - who will forget
her, a blase model, slightly drunk, after a veteran car ride to
Brighton, announcing that she could play the trumpet better than the
man in the band and promptly, electrifyingly, doing so ?

After a splendidly energetic comic performance in the film version of
"Simon and Laura", she went to America, where she married Mr. Rex
Harrison and with whom she had previously appeared in "The Constant
Husband". Her first Hollywood film, "Les Girls", produced perhaps her
best performance. Last year she starred with her husband in "The
Reluctant Debutante", from Mr. William Douglas Home's comedy, and made
a less successful appearance on the West End stage in "The Bright
One", produced by Mr. Harrison, which ran for only 10 days. Earlier
this year she was taken ill while filming "Once More, With Feeling" in
Paris, but recovered sufficiently to complete the film. However, her
illness was traced to a serious blood condition, and though she
continued to plan future appearances on stage and screen, its fatal
recurrence was not long delayed.