Patsy Kelly: The Queen of Wisecracks

Sarah Veronica Kelly (aka “Patsy”) was born in New York to Delia and John Kelly in 1910 – but she should have been born in Mayo like her older sisters, Bridget, Mary and Annie. The fact that she was born in New York, a year after her brother John W. “Willie”, is part of her interesting story.

John Sr. was an Irish policeman -RIC- from Mayo who, after having run afoul of the local IRA, was told in no uncertain terms that “If you are not out of Ireland by “All-Saints’ Day”, we’ll all by praying for you on “All-Souls‘ Day”, hence his overnight departure in 1900 for New York. He left behind his wife Delia and three daughters. He came back quietly in 1906 to retrieve them and from what we can tell, only his wife Delia joined him  and then two years later, two of the three girls also emigrated to New York, Mary and Annie.  In the interim, the girls had lived with and were raised by their paternal uncle, Henry Kelly, a prominent horse-trainer in his day. The youngest of the sisters, Bridget, did not make the trip and remained instead in Ireland for the rest of her life—she was my Grandmother. Bridget and her sister Patsy would ultimately meet for the first time in 1969 in New York!  At one point in the 1930s, Patsy was quoted in a movie magazine in her inimitable style saying: “ I have a sister in Ireland that I have never met, isn’t that crazy? I’m told she has never seen one of my movies—someone must have told her I’m no damned good…”

John became a NYC policeman and neither he nor his wife Delia ever returned to Ireland.

Sarah Veronica–“Patsy”– who acquired that name as a teen for her “tomboy tendencies”, was put into dance classes with her brother Willie sometime in the early 1920s. As so often happens in life, “one thing led to another” and she ended up in a local vaudeville show with a successful local (and highly controversial) impresario Frank Fay, as his dancing and wise-cracking sidekick.  She continued in the late 1920s and early 1930s to appear in a few other more dramatic roles on Broadway before an opportunity arose in Hollywood with the director and producer, Hal Roach, himself a New York born 2nd generation Irish figure in the burgeoning movie business.

Patsy’s style of comedy (sarcasm, style of delivery) made her a perfect fit for a series of Hal Roach “Shorts”, movies that were shown before feature-length movies-a spot relegated to ads and trailers for upcoming films today.  She was paired with a variety of characters in these shorts and one of those partners, Thelma Todd, the popular blonde “starlet”, became her comedic partner and for longer length films until her untimely death in 1935–that story being another famous Hollywood mystery. Patsy always played the wise-cracking “sidekick” in such films and this then led to a long series of portrayals of the sassy Irish maid in many other feature-length films of the 1930s and early 1940s for MGM, Paramount and Warner Brothers Studios.

When not on set, Patsy honed her comedic skills at night as a “standup” in clubs and bars, including those quietly catering to the gay and lesbian community. It was this latter involvement that led eventually to a fateful meeting in the office of Jack Warner, chairman of Warner Brothers Studios, wherein she was told to cease and desist her extra-curricular activities. Patsy had a tendency to not be discreet about her sexual orientation, a stance that caused public relations headaches for the studio in the late 1930s.   Apparently Patsy told Jack Warner -in fairly colorful terms- that she would not be heeding his warnings in this regard and this, in turn, led Patsy to be “Black-listed” in Hollywood for the next two decades.

Denied roles in movies, Patsy moved back to New York and became a live-in companion for her old friend and Broadway star, Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead, herself a controversial figure was often linked romantically to scores of male and female stars of the day. That said, she was independent enough to have her own show on Broadway—“Dear Charles”—and she cast Patsy in a role there during the mid 1950s. Patsy worked a bit in other “Summer stock” shows and appeared occasionally in the relatively new medium of television on various shows.

Her first role again in a feature-length film came in 1960 when she acted alongside David Niven and Doris Day in ”Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, a film popular enough to inspire a tv series by the same name that aired in the mid 1960s.

Patsy went on to appear in television and various movies until the early 1970s when she returned to Broadway in the highly popular remake of the 1928 play, “No No Nanette”-again as the wise-cracking (and singing and dancing) Irish maid, Paulette. Her portrayal earned her a “Tony” award, the Broadway equivalent of an “Oscar” in the movie business.

A series of other plays, films and guest tv spots arose from that success and so Patsy finished her career on a high-note. She passed away in 1978.

All the while, Patsy lived openly, and at times quite out-spokenly, as a lesbian. While this was known by the older generation of my family, this became “news” to me one day when I was walking through a bookstore and say her picture on the cover of the book, “Hollywood Lesbians.” Immediately I opened the book to the chapter on her and alongside her picture sat the quote, “I’m a dyke, so what, big deal..”  This discovery was in a pre-cell phone world, so I had to wait until I got home to call my Dad.  After initial pleasantries, I told him about my discovery in the bookstore that afternoon and read him a few paragraphs before asking, “So Dad, did you know about this?” His response, “Oh yes, we knew all of that…”

Story submitted by Marty Fahey
In retrospect, I am proud of Patsy’s courage to stand up for herself and not instead, to hide references to her sexual orientation–something so many of her colleagues in the entertainment business felt they needed to do and, indeed, were often compelled and required to do by virtue of the contracts with their studios. Her honesty caused her to lose much in her professional life during the course of her twenty-year long “Blacklist” status—all the while, it seems, maintaining her integrity and pride.