Withernsea, on the East Yorkshire coast, is a funny little town.
Alan Ross, a radio broadcaster who set up an oldies station in nearby Hull, describes it this way: “It is a typical English blue-collar seaside resort, not as famous as Blackpool or Skegness, and it has certainly played second fiddle to its more illustrious neighbors, Scarborough and Hornsea. But neither of those have a lighthouse smack in the middle of town. In fact, Withernsea is the only place I can think of with that particular feature!”
And right in the shadow of that eccentrically placed lighthouse were born two exceedingly glamorous sisters.
Movie star Kay Kendall arrived on May 21, 1926.
Remembered today by film buffs for her ability to combine high glamor and low comedy in such films as Genevieve, Les Girls, and The Reluctant Debutante, Kay was married to Rex Harrison and her life was cut short by leukemia at thirty-three in 1959. A few years ago, critic Rhoda Koenig paid her this tribute:
“As they say about crime victims, Kay Kendall was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In her case, the crime was a waste of talent. One of the most delightful of British actresses….few of her films gave her a chance to shine. A natural screwball heroine, Kendall was born too late for the Thirties comedies in which she would have been the equal of the scatty but scintillating Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert, and too soon for the naughtiness and absurdity of the sixties….Kendall was beautiful and funny. She was a true comedian, unafraid to compromise her ladylike appearance with pratfalls, pop eyes ,and comic drunk scenes. Kendall could get away with such antics without looking vulgar.”
Equally beautiful, and with an equivalent if less madcap sense of humor, Kay’s sister Kim was born in the same Withernsea house a little earlier, on March 31, 1925.
Now Mrs. Rolla Campbell, a widow living much of the year in Florida, Kim was relaxed on a small pastel-colored sofa with Lulu, her Jack Russell Terrier, when I was talking to her a few years ago.
“It’s a love/hate thing between show business and Society,” she says, and having been a part of both, the lady knows about which she speaks.
“Our real name was McCarthy, but we took the name of my paternal grandmother, Marie Kendall, who’d been a big musical star of the Edwardian era. Her theme song was ‘Just Like the Ivy I’ll Cling to You.’ (See video at the bottom of this page.)
“My father, Terry, was one of her four children and he took her surname when he decided to go on the stage as well. He and his sister Pat became a very famous dance team. In those days, we’re talking about the early twentieth-century, there were three famous brother-and-sister dance tams: Fred and Adele Astaire, Buddy and Vilma Epson, and Terry and Pat Kendall.
“When he was twenty-three, my father married a little Yorkshire girl, Gladys Drewery. It was a shotgun wedding, but they were crazy about each other in the beginning.
“My brother was their first-born, I was the second, and Kay the third. I was named Kim because when my mother was pregnant with me, my parents met Rudyard Kipling on the boat going out to Australia. Mother told him how much she’d enjoyed reading about Kim, the jungle boy, and that the child she was expecting, girl or boy, would be called Kim.
“The house we were born in was the home of my maternal grandparents and was just a stone’s throw away from the lighthouse. As a little girl I could see the revolving lights from our bedroom window.”
Withernsea history tells us that a promenade next to sand dunes along the coast was extended some years after the lighthouse was built in 1892; this explains the structure’s current unconventional placement right in town.
“I really loved it there. Mother was of one of ten, so we had a lot of cousins. We’d go and visit the different farms and walk for miles. We’d even try to swim in that cold water, but most of the time couldn’t manage it.”
Petting Lulu, Kim continued.
“As young as twelve I was away from home and in a pantomime in the south of England. Every town in England has a pantomime at Christmastime.
“It was my first job. I was a student at the Lydia Kyasht ballet school and I was selected to be one of the children in the village square. I played a boy because I was so tall but apparently not everybody was deceived. After a performance I remember a box of chocolates arrived with a note ‘for the tall girl’—my first fan mail!
“As soon as you got to be eighteen in England you were called up. You had a choice of the Army, the Navy, Land Girls, or ENSA—the UK’s ‘Entertainments National Service Association.’ And I went into ENSA, which was sort of like the USO here in the States.
“We traveled all over and some of the troops would say, ‘ENSA is coming! Every Night Something Awful!’
“We’d go to different places where the soldiers were and we’d put on a show. We traveled in three ton lorries all the way and arrive some place after eighteen hours and be white with dust because the lorries were open on the sides. The soldiers would look at us and say, ‘Have you seen what ENSA sent us this time?’ But we’d go and get cleaned up and change into our mufti and they couldn’t believe how great we looked.
Expectedly enough, things were not always quite so amusing in those years.
“Toward the end of the war, I was in Italy and I was crossing the Po River on a pontoon bridge and I saw the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, hanging by their heels. They had tried to flee but had been caught and their corpses were hung upside down. I can remember the Po River and that pontoon bridge and seeing Mussolini and his mistress hanging on a makeshift structure at an old gas station.”
After the war, Kim spent time in London and met a great many people. During those post-war years, everyone was celebrating—happy to be getting on with their lives without bombings, evacuations, air raids, and miscellaneous threats around every corner. Kim and her sister Kay, beautiful and vivacious and still in their late teens and early twenties, were understandably popular.
“At that time, before Kay became well-known, we were both young and very attractive and places like the Ambassador’s Club, places where upper-class people went, made us Honorary Members. I didn’t have many aristocratic boyfriends but Kay did. She had a lot of them. Billy Wallace was absolutely crazy about her. They called him ‘the chinless wonder,’ and it was thought that he was going to marry Princess Margaret. That was until the gossip columns revealed that he was seen leaving Kay’s apartment in the wee small hours.”
And that certainly wasn’t Kay Kendall’s only dalliance before her marriage to Rex Harrison according to one more recent recollection of Kim’s.
“They gave a big party in Palm Beach for Prince Philip a few years ago. It was for some English charity. I was on the committee and I’d arranged for the famous Palm Beach Pipes and Drums and things like that to make it especially festive. Then the chairman asked me if I wanted to meet Prince Philip, so I went over and she presented me: ‘This is Mrs. Campbell. Her sister was Kay Kendall, the film star.’ He, politely, said, ‘Oh really. How interesting.’ That kind of thing. Later I heard that Kay had had a big romance with him!
“I hadn’t heard about Prince Philip. I’d heard about lots of others, but never about him.
“In truth, as my grandmother would have said, ‘She had more men than hot dinners!’”
Laughing, Kim shifted seamlessly to the subject of travel.
“In those days, when we were young, not so many people moved about from place to place as they do now.
“I remember my mother saying that no matter what, you shouldn’t travel in black—maybe you could if you were in mourning, but otherwise you couldn’t.
“The first time I went to America, I went on the Ile de France. It was about 1950 and was my first trip apart from the troop ships during the war. I was in steerage, but I had so many friends in first class that I’d find my way up there almost every day.
“I was in the US for six weeks and I can remember going to the Stork Club and 21 and the Horse Show and places like that. And when I got back to England, I thought ‘Wow! This is it!’ I really loved America and I wanted to go back.”
Kim was to have her wish.
“My first marriage was to a man named Ludlow Stevens. I met him in England but later he wrote to me from America and suggested I come over. I did and we were married. But it didn’t last because he was a complete alcoholic. Since I hardly drink at all, I hadn’t really known about that sort of thing. That’s a part of my life I don’t really like to think about.
“After the divorce, while living in the States, my best friend was a very beautiful girl, Fern Tailor. I’d met her through some friends in New York and then, later, when I was staying in California, she wrote and asked me to come and stay with her on Long Island. I thought that was a good idea and it was. It was such a funny time!
“At one point Fern told me she was going to a coming out party and suggested I come along. She also told me that her Uncle George had just separated from his wife and that he’d be along as well. And that’s how I met George Baker. He was Fern’s uncle and I was his date. It turned out that I saw him for about two years and then he asked me to marry him.”
George Fisher Baker, Jr., a banker and sportsman from a distinguished American family, was the grandson of the financier and philanthropist who provided much of the original funding for the Harvard Business School. Married to him, Kim moved into a very rarefied world.
“We had fourteen in help—gardeners, chauffeurs, laundresses, all that kind of thing. And I remember when we were first married that they were all fighting. I would sit outside and cry. It was too much for me at that time. But I soon learned how to deal with things.
“I learned everything I had to do. I learned how to shoot, not very well, but I learned. I learned to play bridge and I still play bridge today. I learned a certain amount of French.
“We’d be in Tallahassee shooting in the winter, then we’d be on our boat in the summer. We’d go skiing in February and be on Long Island in the summer. I gave up trying to learn to ski after I broke my leg a couple of times trying. But I did learn to love golf and I’m quite a good golfer.
“George and I went to a party at the Whitneys given by Joan and Charles Payson. The theme was ‘Come as Your Favorite Myth.’ George went as Uncle Sam and I went as Britannia. Joan argued, ‘That’s not a myth!’ but I quipped back, ‘It’s as big a myth as anything else!’”
Kim’s expression changed and she became more thoughtful.
“When George died my whole world changed. He was supposed to have committed suicide, but we, his family, all think that he was murdered. It’s quite a story.
“We had had the most perfect night—everything was fine. We were both very happy and I never saw any signs of depression. We knew that we had the most perfect life. I never saw him depressed. To me, he was always so great and we were both so happy.
“George had inherited the place, Horseshoe Plantation in Tallahassee, when his mother died. During the war, he had put an airstrip there so that he and his friends could fly up from Pensacola where he was teaching aviation.
“We never used the airstrip but kept it open. And George thought that drug dealers had started to take advantage of it, that something strange was going on. He even thought that many of the people we’d told about our concerns and were supposedly investigating them might very well be on somebody’s payroll.
“You see, the shooting season is relatively brief, and we weren’t in Tallahassee most of the time. Who knew what went on when we weren’t there?
“The night before he died, George and I were going up to New York the following day; our bags were packed. We watched the movie W.C. Fields and Me on TV and off we went to bed.
“In the middle of the night, the dogs started barking like crazy, so I asked George to see what was going on. He’d gone into the gun room, picked up a gun, and was found at the bottom of the stairs.
“I had a letter from an authority on guns who wrote to me to explain why George could not have turned that particular kind of gun on himself.
“It just couldn’t have been suicide. We had everything in the world and had been roaring with laughter at that silly movie and then were both fast asleep when the dogs started barking.
“So many people down there were said to be on the drug payroll. I went to the coroner, but it did no good. Later, we heard that George Harden, who had been the superintendent on the plantation at the time George inherited it, was charged with drug smuggling and went to jail and had been killed there.
“We’ll never really know what happened that night.”
Several days later my next conversation with Kim turned to religion and things spiritual.
“In London, when I was young, we lived next to St. Martin-in-the-Fields for a time and we’d often go there. I’m a believer, but I don’t understand most of it. Perhaps my favorite biblical quote is ‘Cast your bread upon the waters and it will be returned you 1,000 fold.’
“A few years after I’d lost George, I was in Saint John’s of Lattingtown in Locust Valley. I’d been at the early service and Rolla Campbell was in the pew behind me. I guess I was crying because he handed me a hankie. His wife had left him and I was a widow.
“I’d met Rolla on Long Island and I’d see often him in church. We were also thrown together, being two single people. Seven months after George died I was diagnosed with breast cancer and knowing that Rolla was a doctor, I turned to him for advice. He really impressed me with his concern and caring. We eventually married and had some wonderful years together.”
Over time Kim has become very involved with various charities.
“The zoo in Palm Beach was an organization that nobody wanted anything to do with. It was the most unsocial of charities. Palm Beach people don’t go across the bridge into West Palm Beach. They love their animals but they don’t love them enough to care about the Palm Beach Zoo. But I’d been on the women’s committee for the Bronx Zoo and I’d developed an interest in zoos.
“Today the little Palm Beach Zoo is lovely; there’s a lot to do and a lot to see. But when I first started there was really nothing there. It is still a relatively small zoo, but is now considered one of the best in the country. I gather I’m known as ‘the Zoo Lady’ in Palm Beach.
“There’s a huge Hispanic community and it’s wonderful for me to see busloads of local children all enjoying themselves tremendously. That’s very satisfying.”
Kim was also instrumental in setting up the very successful Posh Sale for the Lighthouse for the Blind (certainly an appropriate charity for a Withernsea girl), and was specifically honored at their annual dinner on May 9 of this year.
Listening to Kim Kendall Campbell, I was riveted by the perspective she offered on the middle twentieth century and amused by her stories about some of the most well-known characters of that period.
“One summer when I was about four or five, I was with my father and his sister Pat who were working in Deauville. I wandered off one day and my mother was quite frantic. She was searching all over and finally found me in a chemist shop on the boardwalk. I was sitting on the lap of a very corpulent dark gentleman. Mother calmed down when she discovered that he was the Aga Khan. He was apparently quite besotted with me and told my mother that he wished he could adopt me since there were no girls in that family.
“Later on I’d read that the Aga Khan received his weight in diamonds every year. I used to tease my mother that she should have let him adopt me!
“I knew the Duke and Duchess of Windsor very well. George played golf with the duke regularly and even I played with him once when they were desperate for a fourth. The duke hated playing with women, but he played with me that day. And the local paper came out with the headline ‘Duke of Windsor Plays Golf with 3 of His Old Cronies.’ I was thirty-four!
“The Duchess of Windsor was a tough one. She had very ugly hands—like spatulas. But she could be charming and she was a wonderful housekeeper. Everything was of the best.
“I knew the Gabors. I even knew Mama—Jolie Gabor. Kay had said, ‘Come and have lunch with me at the Waldorf. I’ve got Zsa Zsa, Eva, and [Porfirio] Rubirosa.’ Everybody had heard about him. Well, the Gabor girls were all in pink satin and looked like the inside of a box of chocolates. And with them was this little nut-brown man and I couldn’t believe that he was the great lover everybody talked about.
“It was funny, when we lived in England and were going through one of our poor periods (I remember we had pawned my mother’s wedding ring so that we could have baked beans on toast), somebody had given me a magazine article about the Gabor sisters. And I remembered a quote from Zsa Zsa saying that getting the first mink coat was fun but that after that it’s strictly routine. It was pretty impressive stuff for a twelve-year-old. Later she was quoted as saying that she and I were the same age. Obviously that couldn’t be.
“Robert Montgomery, the movie star, was a friend of George’s and mine. I can remember him saying quite clearly that when he was at the height of his career he complained about having to pay such high taxes. At that point his daughter Elizabeth retorted, ‘Oh Dad! You’re so lucky to be popular and to be earning so much money.’ Of course when she became a big star and was playing in Bewitched on television she changed her tune. ‘This is awful! I have to pay all these taxes.’ Bob had a wonderful sense of humor and told that story very well.
“Rex Harrison was a horrid, horrid person and very selfish. He’d been a no-no in Hollywood because Carol Landis was said to have committed suicide over him. He wasn’t that attractive and didn’t have much money. When My Fair Lady was first put on, he was offered shares in it but he took a salary instead. Can you imagine? All these years and they’re still playing it!
“But he did have an elegance.
“After one performance of My Fair Lady, I saw Lauren Bacall coming out as we were leaving. Humphrey Bogart had just died, but she was in a bright red/cerise dress with black beads on it. I remember it very well. With her was a little boy in a grey flannel suit—I thought it was her son. When I went backstage to say hello to Rex and Kay, Lauren Bacall was already there. And she was with Truman Capote! I’d thought she was with a little boy.
“When Brenda Frazier was married to Shipwreck Kelly, they stayed in George’s mother’s house on Long Island. Brenda was a sad character. She was so emaciated and hardly ate anything. She had very bad legs and her mother had made her have an operation to make them thinner.
“Audrey Hepburn and I were at ballet school together. She was almost plump, solid but beautiful. She’d just come over from Brussels having been in Holland during the war. I knew her mother, Baroness van Heemstra, and later, when I was in New York, I’d take the baroness out to lunch and she’d confide, “I just wish Audrey would eat something!’ She was very worried about her because Audrey dieted like crazy. She’d have a fig Newton before she went to bed. That was her big treat.”
Interviewing Kim, the most impressive thing I noticed had nothing to do with the glamor girl she was, the celebrities she knew, or the philanthropist she has become. The most impressive thing about Kim is her astonishing strength of character, her extraordinary resilience.
“It was right in the middle of the war. I was fourteen or fifteen and I worked in a nightclub. I used to go to work on my bicycle and I’d go home dressed in an old coat and hat on so I’d look like a man and wouldn’t be bothered. I’d bicycle all the way to Hampstead Heath at two or three in the morning.
“Why my mother ever allowed it, I don’t know. But of course we didn’t have any money so it was necessary. My parents were divorced, my father may have remarried by then; my brother was still in the war and Kay was too young.
“The most amazing part of my life is that I could do that at that age. I can remember a tough lot of girls at the club, but they were all very nice to me. Of course nobody knew I was the age I was—I looked eighteen.
“When I think of myself in the middle of the war, riding that bicycle from Hampstead Heath to that nightclub and then coming home again, and all the time dressed like a guy…
“It’s amazing that I could do that at that age. But if you’ve got to survive, you’ve got to survive.”