By Alison Ross
When Margaret Kelly died in 2004 at the age of 94, hundreds of women from all over the world sent messages of sympathy. Practically every one of these women was 5 feet 11 inches tall.
Margaret was born in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. She never knew who her parents were, but there was a story that they were going abroad and could not take the child with them. They would come back for her after three months, or so they said. They never returned. A priest put the child in the care of a Mary Murphy, who was a deeply religious woman and the eldest of three spinster sisters. Mary was a dressmaker.
A doctor was captivated by the infant’s blue eyes. ‘You’re my little bluebell,’ he declared, and that was how Margaret acquired the nickname.
In those days Ireland had a high rate of infant mortality. Because Margaret was not a strong child, Mary took her to England and settled in Liverpool. Margaret’s legs were very thin, and a doctor suggested that Mary should take her to dancing classes to strengthen the legs. It turned out to be a splendid suggestion. Not alone did the legs become stronger, but Margaret soon displayed a natural talent for dancing.
When she was 14, Margaret joined a Scottish touring company. This led her to be hired at £2 a week to join a line of 30 high-kicking girls at a club in Berlin. In 1930 she was a holiday replacement at the celebrated Folies Bergères in Paris. She made quite an impression with her self-discipline, and she was asked to form her own troupe for the Folies.
She herself was 5 feet 7 inches tall, and she engaged girls with an average height of 5 feet 11 inches. All the girls were trained dancers, but they had become too tall for ballet companies. On stage the girls wore skimpy outfits, but the shows were decorous and in no way erotic.
The Bluebells became very popular, too popular for Mistinguett, then one of the world’s highest paid artistes. She had them fired. So Margaret moved her troupe of 24 girls to the Paramount Club in Paris, and there they became an instant success. When the Folies asked her back, she formed a second troupe. Yet another troupe toured many parts of Europe.
In 1939 she married Marcel Leibovici, the pianist at the Folies. Then WW2 and the German invasion of France arrived. Margaret was arrested because she had a British passport but, fortunately for her, the Irish chargé d’affaires, Count O’Kelly de Gallagh, pointed out to the Germans that she had been born in Dublin and was therefore a neutral Irish citizen. She was released.
Her husband was less lucky. Being half-Jewish, he too was arrested. He managed to escape and, until the Germans were driven out of Paris, he hid with Margaret’s connivance in an attic in Paris.
After the war, she re-formed the Bluebell Girls and moved with them to the Lido where they quickly became the star attraction. It was at the Lido that the concept of the dinner show was introduced.
TIME magazine had this to say about the Bluebell Girls at the Lido. ‘Out from the wings prance abundantly healthy girls, strenuously smiling. They are big, leggy and bosomy. They can do a cakewalk. They can swivel through a Charleston to the music of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “Ain’t She Sweet?” They can shimmy, shake and kick their legs in perfect unison.’
Margaret was asked to send a troupe to the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas. There were fears that the venture would be a failure and that it would not appeal to American audiences. The opposite was the case. Her Las Vegas show was an immediate sensation.
She was insistent that her Bluebell Girls lived good lives. ‘I was always careful that they behave themselves in the way they should. The only way you can get respect is by behaving.’ In Las Vegas it was suggested to her that the girls should mingle with the guests, but she flew into such a towering rage that the suggestion was never repeated.
Her husband said of her, ‘She was a second mother to the dancers, and she looked after them with a mixture of discipline and motherly love.’ In 1961 he was killed in a car accident. He had fallen asleep at the wheel. Marcel had specialised in organising tours for her troupes and in looking after her business interests, and many thought that things would now become disorganised. They were wrong. Margaret was now in total control, and she excelled herself.
She retired at the age of 79, having hired 14,000 girls. Every week after retirement, until her health began to fail, she went to the Lido for dinner and champagne. At the age of 90 she had a private audience with Pope John Paul II.
Four years after her death, a bronze bust of her was stolen from her grave.