Climbing up Gene Kelly’s Family Tree

This month’s COG (for which I am late…the dog ate my homework, Teacher Jasia!) asked us to Research From Scratch by starting a search on someone else’s family tree.   When I began my own family research about 21 years ago, there were not any records available on the internet.  Lately I’ve wondered how much I could have found if I had waited until today to begin my search and how much easier it would have been.  This challenge was an opportunity to find out. The subject of my experiment: actor-singer-dancer-director Gene Kelly.  As most visitors to this site have since surmised, Gene Kelly is what I call my “other gene hobby.”  Gene was well known for his smiling “Irish eyes”, but I was curious about his Canadian and German ancestry as well.  Starting from scratch, how much could I find in a few hours?  In that short amount of time, I learned a lot about his ancestry.  But I also learned some research lessons that I’d like to share.

Start by interviewing your family, but don’t believe everything they say as fact.

When I began my own research, I started by asking my parents questions about their parents and grandparents, and I also referred to an interview with my grandmother when I was in grade school and needed to complete a family history project.  That same advice holds true today – you need basic facts about a family to begin your research.  In the case of my subject, I couldn’t actually talk to Mr. Kelly.  So instead I turned to the only biography that was written during his lifetime in which the author interviewed Kelly himself.

The book is Gene Kelly by Clive Hirschhorn (Chicago : H. Regnery, 1975).  While it is not entirely accurate – especially since it begins with the incorrect birth date of its subject – it was a way to get basic information about his brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents – as close as I can get to acquring the info from Gene himself.

From the first chapter of the biography, I learned enough basic facts to begin my research on the Kelly family:

  • Gene’s parents were James Patrick Joseph Kelly and Harriet Curran.  They married in 1906.
  • Both came from large families; James was one of eleven children, and Harriet one of 13.
  • Harriet’s father, Billy Curran, “had emigrated to New York from Londonderry in 1845…via Dunfermline in Scotland.”  Billy met “Miss Eckhart”, of German descent, married and moved to Houtzdale, PA.  They later moved to Pittsburgh.
  • Billy died before 1907 from pneumonia after he was left in the cold at night after being robbed.
  • There were 9 Curran children, and 4 who died, but only 7 are named: Frank, Edward, Harry, John, Lillian, Harriet, and Gus.
  • James Kelly was born in Peterborough Canada in 1875
  • James died in 1966, and Harriet died in 1972.  Of Harriet, Mr. Hirschhorn says, “No one quite knows whether she was 85, 87, or 89.”

In addition to Gene’s parents’ info were the basics about their children.  In birth order, the Kelly family included Harriet, James, Eugene Curran, Louise, and Frederic.  Gene was born on August 23, 1912.  This is plenty of information to begin a search.  But, don’t believe everything you read or everything your family members tell you – sometimes the “facts” can be wrong, and only research will find the truth!

Census records are a great place to begin your research.

Back in 1989, my research began at the National Archives with the U.S. Federal Census records.  Of course, back then the first available census was from 1910, and none of the records were digitized.  Today, I still think census records are the best place to start researching a family.   I used and began with the 1930 census.  Despite many “James Kelly” families in Pittsburgh, PA, it was relatively easy to find the entire Kelly clan.  As I continued backward with earlier census records and Harriet Kelly’s Curran family, I found some similarities to issues I had in my own family research:

  • Names can be misspelled.  I expected this with Zawodny and Piontkowski, but not with Curran!  The Curran family is listed as “Curn” on the 1900 census.
  • Ages are not necessarily correct.  It seems that Harriet Curran Kelly has a similar condition to many of my female ancestors – she ages less than ten years every decade and grows younger!
  • Information can differ from census to census, and these conflicts can only be resolved by using other record resources.  Despite birth year variations for both Gene’s mother and father, James Kelly’s immigration year differed on each census as did Harriet’s father’s birthplace (Pennsylvania, Ireland, or Scotland?).
  • Finding in-laws is a bonus, and a great way to discover maiden names.  If I didn’t already know that Harriet’s maiden name was Curran (from Gene’s biography – and it is also Gene’s middle name), I would have discovered it on the 1930 census since her brother Frank Curran was living with the Kelly family.  Also, I knew Harriet’s mother’s maiden name was “Eckhart” from the biography, and the 1880 census of the Curran family lists her brother and sisters – James, Jennie, and Josephine Eckerd.

In the few hours of research on census records alone, I was able to trace Gene’s father only to 1910 after his marriage to Harriet.  In 1900 he was single, and I was unable to find a recent Canadian immigrant named James Kelly.  Gene’s maternal line ran dry with the Curran’s in 1880.  William Curran and Mary Elizabeth “Eckhart” married after 1870.  There are too many William Curran’s from Ireland to determine the correct one, and I was unable to locate the Eckhart family prior to 1880.

Naturalization records provide the best information – after 1906.

The signature of Gene Kelly’s father from his “declaration of intention” petition in 1913. also provided James Kelly’s naturalization record.  In addition to confirming his birth in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 1875 (also found in Ancestry’s World War 1 Draft records), the petition lists his immigration information and the birthdates of the first 4 Kelly children (youngest son Fred was not born at the time of his father’s naturalization).  Unfortunately the record does not list the birthplace of Harriet other than as Pennsylvania.  Was it in Houtzdale, PA, where her parents resided in 1880 or elsewhere?

Although Ancestry has Canadian census records, I was unable to definitely find James Kelly in Ontario on the 1881 or 1891 census.

The internet helps you find a lot of information, but not everything is online.

Census records can only get you so far before you need vital records.  While many states also have these records online, Gene Kelly’s ancestors settled in the same state as mine, Pennsylvania, which is not one of the “friendlier” states when it comes to accessing vital records.  If I were to continue with the Kelly research, vital records would have to be obtained offline.  It would be useful to obtain the marriage record for William Curran and Mary Elizabeth Eckhart, which may have occurred in Clearfield County since that was their residence in 1880.  Finding this record would reveal both sets of parents’ names and possibly birth information for William and Mary Elizabeth.  For the Kelly side of the family, I would likely attempt to obtain James Kelly’s birth record in Peterborough.

 [Side note: I have met several of Kelly’s relatives.  One cousin has delved deeper into the Peterborough roots of the Kelly family as well as James Kelly’s maternal line, the Barry family.  There is an interesting newspaper article on a house that may have belonged to the Canadian Kelly’s called One Little House Leads to Many Connections.]


I was able to confirm many of the intial facts I started with, but I didn’t learn any essential information in addition to those facts.  Specifically, I hoped to learn more about Gene’s maternal grandmother’s German roots, but I was unable to find out anything more about the Eckhart – Eckerd family using alone.  More offline research is learn more about this branch of the family.  I did learn more about Gene’s aunts and uncles – this is important because researching collateral lines can lead to important information about shared direct ancestors.  Finally, I learned that it is much easier to start from scratch now than it was 21 years ago.  Even though the record sources I used were the same, digitization and the internet has made it much faster to find information!  And easier, which is great because it will hopefully prompt more people to start from scratch!  What are you waiting for?  Start researching your family!

[Submitted (late) for the 97th Carnival of Genealogy: Research from Scratch]

I Remember Betsy

Today it was announced that actress Betsy Blair died on March 13 at the age of 85.  Unless you are a fan of classic film and/or Gene Kelly in particular, you might not recognize her name.  Her obituaries seem to highlight two main facts about her life: she was the first wife of Gene Kelly, and as an actress her most memorable role was her  Oscar-nominated performance in 1955’s Marty with Ernest Borgnine.  For me, the news of her death was more than just a headline because I had the opportunity to meet her on three different occasions.

In late 2001, I was contacted by Gene and Betsy’s daughter, Kerry, concerning a benefit showing of Singin’ in the Rain.  My Gene Kelly web site, The Gene Scene (1994 – 2012), was about seven years old and had a large enough following to be of use in promoting the event.  I asked Kerry a rather bold question: “I’m traveling to London in a few months…would your mother meet with me?”  I knew Betsy resided in London with her second husband, filmmaker Karl Reisz.  To my surprise, I received her phone number and the instruction to call her when I arrived.  I did, and I was further surprised with an invitation to her home for tea.  I wanted to meet her, but I didn’t expect such graciousness to a stranger.

Visiting Betsy Blair in 2002

Visiting Betsy Blair in 2002

Betsy Blair was always described in magazines or biographies as the plain “girl next door”.  When she invited me into her home, she became the “grandma next door” and immediately made me feel welcome.  As we chatted, I was a bit starstruck – here was a woman who, at the age of 18, was married to one of Hollywood’s hottest emerging stars and was the friend and hostess to many of the biggest film stars of the 1940’s and ’50’s.  Did it seem surreal to you, I asked, to have Judy Garland, Phil Silvers, and Lena Horne sitting around your living room on a Saturday night? She smiled and paused, as if thinking of how to describe it.  She finally shrugged and said, “It was all so normal – at the time, it was so new – I didn’t realize there was anything unusual about it!”

Betsy had the unique ability to immediately make me feel as if we had been friends for years.  She became as interested in my life as I was in hers.  I didn’t ask questions as if I was interviewing her; we merely conversed.  She understood that I admired the man who had once not only been a Hollywood star, but also the love of her life, and it was almost as if our mutual (if different) love for Gene bonded us together for that brief time.  We talked about many things over the course of an hour, including the old studio system for making movies, her current work, movies today, Gene’s widow, Stanley Donen, and Gene’s reputation as a perfectionist.  She told me that while filming On the Town, Frank Sinatra didn’t really want to rehearse the dancing, so he’d joke and fool around.  Gene and Stanley would pretend the cameras were rolling so they’d get some practice time in!

The Kelly Family, 1942

The Kelly Family, 1942

A few months after my trip, I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet her once again – this time with her daughter in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the benefit showing of Singin’ in the Rain.  At a dinner before the showing, it was Betsy who sought me out and rushed across a crowded room to say hello as if I was an old friend.  More of her “down to earth” personality emerged throughout the evening as she shared a smoke with fans outside the theater and answered questions from two young Gene fans.  One rather young fan excitedly asked a rather personal question, “What was it like to kiss Gene Kelly?”  She smiled in my direction and gave a rather eloquent answer to the child: “When you love someone, it’s very special to kiss them – no matter who they are.  Gene and I were married and in love, so it was very special.”

In 2003, Betsy published her memoirs, The Memory of All That.  She told me about it during my first visit with her – including that the title was not her first choice.  Her favorite title was Lucky in Love but since the book wasn’t only about her love life, the editors “didn’t like it”.  She said, “I’m not sure who’s really going to want to read it anyway – there’s no scandal in it!”   I met her again at a book signing in New York City, and again it was like a family reunion.

Betsy’s modesty is apparent even in her name – she wasn’t Liz, a flashy star’s name, but plain and simple Betsy.  She was born Elizabeth Boger in Cliffside, NJ.  After taking dancing lessons for years, she went to New York City at the age of 16 to get a job as a dancer.  She met Kelly when she auditioned for a show at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe.  There she mistook him, the show’s choreographer, for the busboy; he hired her anyway.  Gene was, at the age of 28, twelve years older than Betsy.  She appreciated his sophistication, and he became smitten.  Over the next two years, Gene advanced from choreographer to Broadway star to a Hollywood contract, and their relationship also grew.  The couple married literally on their way to Hollywood.  In 1942, their first and only child was born, Kerry.

In the late 1940’s, Betsy appeared in some films.  But her most famous “role”, at least according to news reports, seems to be the accusation that she was a communist.  It almost lost her the role in Marty, and she became blacklisted moreso for her support of others who were blacklisted rather than any involvement in communist activities herself.  Gene and Betsy divorced in 1957, but she never had anything bad to say about him afterwards (nor did he about her).  She later married Karel Reisz and continued to work in films in Europe.

This weekend, newspapers and film sites will remember Betsy Blair as Gene’s wife, Karel’s wife, Ernest’s co-star (despite other film appearances, that was her most lauded role), and more.  What you may not read about is her unassuming and gracious nature, her intelligence, and her wit.  I wish I could have known her better, or longer, but I am grateful that my life was able to brush hers briefly.  Good-bye, Betsy – I’ll miss you!  Requiescat in pace.

Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online

FamilySearchLabs has made Philadelphia Marriage Indexes available for 1885-1951.  This is great news for those of us searching our roots in Philadelphia!  It should be noted that these are the indexes only, not the actual marriage licenses.  Also, you are not yet able to search the records with the name search since they have not completed the indexing, but you can browse the collection.

The collection is divided into several groupings:

  • 1885-1916
  • 1917-1938
  • 1939-1942
  • 1943-1946
  • 1947-1951

If you are researching the years 1885-1938, you’re in luck – the record groupings that span those years are alphabetical (and typed, so they are easy to read).  Simply to to the first letter of the surname you want to search and click on the number of images available and the records will appear on screen.  Then, jump forward in the alphabet until you find the name you are looking for.

What information will you see?  Simply the last name and first name of either the bride or groom, the last name of the spouse in parentheses, the year, and the license number.  You can then cross-reference the spouse’s name to get a first name for that person.  While this may not seem like a lot of information, it did help me track down some maiden names and the year of marriage for quite a few couples.  Of course, you can find out much more information by getting a copy of the actual marriage license, and now that you have the names, year, and license number it should not be too difficult.  See the Philadelphia Marriage License Bureau for more information.  For older marriages (pre-1915), you can obtain copies at the Philadelphia City Archives where the records are available on microfilm.  Some of the older records are available at LDS Family History Centers as well.

For the indexes from 1939-1951, the records are not strictly alphabetical, and they are printed instead of typed (printed very neatly, I might add).  They are grouped by year, then by the first letter of the last name, then by the first letter of the first name.  So, you’ll find all of the Pinto’s, Pater’s, Parker’s, Petruzzelli’s, and Portnoy’s jumbled together, but if you know the person’s first name, you can jump right to the section for that letter (so all of the Joseph’s, John’s, and Jacob’s with a last name beginning with “P” are together).  Because of this, the indexes for these years will take more time to look through.  But, the fact that they go all the way up to 1951 means that I should be able to find the marriage records for many cousins to help fill in some bare branches on the tree.

My only “pet peeve” is that I can not seem to access one record group.  For the years 1917-1938, the surnames beginning with X-Y-Z simply will not come up.  I can’t access the records for Zawodny!  I’ve sent a message via the “Feedback” form, so I’m sure the smart folks at Family Search Labs will fix the link soon. Update: As of 25 July 2008, this problem has been fixed on the site and the X-Y-Z records can now be accessed!

One word of caution: if you can’t find a couple listed in the index, try elsewhere.  All four of my grandparents were born and raised in Philadelphia, yet both couples got married – and therefore got their marriage licenses – in Media, PA (the county seat for Delaware County).  My only great-grandparents to be married in the U.S. chose Camden, NJ – despite the fact they both lived in Philadelphia.  Also, one of the most popular “marriage destinations” back then was Elkton, MD – apparently the legal age for marriage was younger here, so you didn’t need your parents’ permission as you would in PA!

You never know who you might find in these records – and you may not even realize it’s someone famous!  I already have this particular marriage record, but I looked the groom up in the index anyway.  It’s also a good example of what the 1939-1951 indexes look like:

Future Famous Couple

Future Famous Couple

Did you know that actor Gene Kelly was married in Philadelphia?  He and Betsy Blair (that’s her “stage name”) chose a spot “in the middle” for her New Jersey family and his Pittsburgh family.  They were literally on their way to Hollywood where Gene would begin his career (bonus points if any readers know which film was his first…without snooping on the net).  At least I finally found a way to combine my two GENE hobbies!

Related articles: When You Can’t Find Grampa’s Marriage Record (alternate locations) and More on Philadelphia Marriage Records (pre-1885 records)