Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kelly, Orry George (1897–1964)

by Joel Greenberg

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Orry George Kelly (1897-1964), dress designer, was born on 31 December 1897 at Kiama, New South Wales, son of William Kelly, a tailor from the Isle of Man, and his Sydney-born wife Florence Evaleen, née Purdue. Orry attended Kiama Public and Wollongong District schools. His distinctive first name (later hyphenated with his surname for professional use) was derived from a variety of carnation in his mother's garden and from that of an ancient Manx king. After working briefly in a Sydney bank, Kelly was attracted to the stage. He studied art, acting, dancing and voice, and became a protégé of Eleanor Weston. Moving to New York in 1921, he found employment first as a tailor's assistant, then as a painter of murals for nightclubs and department stores. He also formed a friendship with a young Englishman Archibald Leach, later known as Cary Grant, sharing living quarters with him and another Australian expatriate Charles ('Spangles') Phelps, a former ship's steward.

Kelly's murals soon led to employment as a title designer for silent films for the Fox Film Corporation, and to designing stage sets and costumes for players like Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Barrymore and Jeanette MacDonald. In 1931 he moved to Hollywood where Grant helped him to gain entry into First National Pictures Inc. Between 1932 and 1944 Orry-Kelly was chief costume designer at Warner Bros, working on hundreds of films and forming—with 'Adrian' at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Travis Banton at Paramount Pictures Inc.—a triumvirate of the leading men in his profession. Kelly dressed many major stars, but his most distinguished work was done for Bette Davis, whose 'red' ball gown in the black-and-white film, Jezebel (1938), was probably his best-known single creation.

An uneasy relationship with studio chief Jack L. Warner, caused chiefly by Kelly's alcoholism, came to a head in 1944 when Warner discharged him. Orry-Kelly subsequently secured a three-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation to dress Betty Grable. From 1950 he freelanced with several studios and established private workrooms. Despite declining health and mounting personal problems, he maintained his professional status, designing for Rosalind Russell, Leslie Caron, Kay Kendall, Shirley MacLaine and Natalie Wood among others. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him three Oscars for best costume design for An American in Paris (1951, shared with two others), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959).

A quarrelsome, hot-tempered man of slightly less than middle height, with brown hair and large blue eyes, Kelly was brilliant but difficult, a versatile perfectionist who used only the finest hand-finished fabrics. His period costumes were noted for their richness and authenticity; those he designed for Davis helped to define her strongly individualized screen characters. His style was marked by its felicitous balance of realism and artifice, and achieved glamour without vulgarity. A talented amateur oil-painter, he also designed ties, cushions and shawls. He enjoyed contract bridge and watching prizefights. Witty, popular and gregarious when not affected by alcohol, Kelly was known to his intimates as 'Jack'. He never married. Leaving an unfinished memoir, 'Women I've Undressed', he died of cancer on 26 February 1964 at Los Angeles and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Filmlexicon degli Autori e dell Opere (Rome, 1962)
  • W. Stine, Mother Goddam (NY, 1974)
  • C. Higham, Bette (Lond, 1981)
  • W. R. LaVine, In a Glamorous Fashion (Lond, 1981)
  • J. Finler, The Hollywood Story (Lond, 1989)
  • C. Higham, Cary Grant (NY, 1989)
  • W. Stine, I'd Love to Kiss You (NY, 1990)
  • S. Cook (ed), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol 4 (Detroit, US, 1993)
  • Vogue Australia, Jan 1994, p 162
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 1934, 29 June, 1, 11 July 1939, 6, 21 May 1952
  • New York Times, 27 Feb 1964.

Citation details

Joel Greenberg, 'Kelly, Orry George (1897–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelly-orry-george-10677/text18979, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Orry-Kelly, George
Birth

31 December 1897
Kiama, New South Wales, Australia

Death

26 February 1964
Los Angeles, California, United States of America

Cultural Heritage
Occupation