Two days ago, January 31st, 2021, marked what would have been British actress Jean Simmons’s 92nd birthday. Along with the Three Enchanting Ladies (Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn), Jean has always among my top favourite actresses. Even though she never shared the screen or the stage with any of the previously mentioned actress, I’ve been reflecting upon the fact that Jean Grace Kelly had some similarities regarding different aspects of their lives. I thought it would be pertinent to write about it.
Their favourite actress
Jean Simmons and Grace Kelly were not only born both in 1929, but they also shared the same favourite actress: Ingrid Bergman. I have written a full article about the time Grace and Ingrid met, but the princess was not the only one who had the chance to exchange words with her idol. Indeed, three photos taken on three different events depicts the encounter between Jean and Ingrid Bergman. The first occasion took place in 1948 when Ingrid signed Jean Simmons’s autograph book. Then, they met two years later in 1950 at a festival. I believe it was at the Venice Film Festival, although the information about this photo is not entirely clear. Finally, they met again in 1952 at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey, England. They had tea with British actor Michael Wilding.
Coming back to Grace Kelly, she and Jean Simmons were also both honoured at the 1956 Golden Globes Awards ceremony. Grace received the Henrietta Award for the World Film Favorites (Female) and Jean Simmons, the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Comedy or a Musical for her portrayal of Sarah Brown in Guys & Dolls (Joseph L.Mankiewicz, 1955). Interestingly, Grace Kelly was also there to accept Marlon Brando’s Henrietta Award. The actor had starred in two films with Jean Simmons: Desirée (Henry Koster, 1954) and Guys & Dolls.
The links we can make between the two actresses via other stars don’t stop here. Indeed, they also both shared the screen with Stewart Granger. Grace Kelly was Granger co-star in the forgotten Green Fire (Andrew Marton, 1954). Although it is probably considered Grace’s lesser film, it is not that bad. Good entertainment but nothing more. On her side, Jean, who was married to Granger from 1950 to 1960, was the actor’s co-star in three films: Adam & Evelyn (Harold French, 1949), Young Bess (George Sidney, 1953) and Footsteps in the Fog (Arthur Lubin, 1955). Jean was also an extra in Caesar and Cleopatra (Gabriel Pascal, 1945) in which Granger also played, but I wouldn’t call that teamwork between the two.
Another similarity one can observe between the actresses were their elegance and impeccable pronunciation. Jean’s education at Aida Foster Theatre School probably favoured that. 1 Also, according to an article by Pierre Bowman in Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Jean was sent to finishing school by the J. Arthur Rank Organization to get rid of her cockney accent. 2 The article doesn’t give the exact that, but I understand it was between her first film, Give Us the Moon (Val Guest, 1944) and Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946). As for Grace Kelly, her voice training took place while she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. The admission’s officers judged her voice inappropriate, so she took speech lessons while attending the academy.3
However, putting these fun but trivial connections aside, what I find extremely interesting when comparing their life is their family background. Not only were Grace and Jean members of a family of four children and had both two sisters and a brother, but their fathers were also Olympic champions!
Jean’s father, Charles Simmons, was born on December 24, 1885, in Islington, North London and passed away on February 15, 1945, at age 59.4 Jean was only 16 at the time and had just made her first steps in the acting world. The sad part is that, due to his premature death, Jean’s father was never really there to see his daughter becoming a champion of the performing arts just like he became a sports champion. Charles Simmons excelled in gymnastic and participated in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm at 26. He competed in the Men’s Individual All-Around (gymnastic) during which he ended at the 28th position. This category included the horizontal bar, parallel bars, rings and pommelled horse.5 Charles Simmons’s moment of glory took place when he competed in the Men’s Team-All Around competition. He and the UK team finished at the third position, therefore being awarded a bronze medal.6
Aside from participating in the Olympics, Charles Simmons also worked as a physical training instructor. While Jean was raised in Cricklewood (London suburbs), the family was evacuated to the village of Winscombe in Somerset during the war years.7 We assume being in a small town was probably safer than being in London. In Winscombe, Charles Simmons taught physical education at Sidcot School.8
Sadly, I could not find a photo of Charles Simmons, but we assume he might be in the photo of the UK gymnastic team.
Dance, then acting
Jean’s relationship with her father is not as well-documented as those of the Three Enchanting Ladies. Indeed, there is no existing biography book about her (which is a shame), so one has to look for bits of information here and there. An article from Picture Show magazine explains that, despite having an acting career that lasted from 1944 to 2009, Jean’s initial ambition was to become a dancer. While in Somerset Jean’s sister, Edna, organised dance lessons for the other evacuees. Jean initially attended the lessons as a hobby, but quickly took the taste and was quickly able to help her sister with the teaching. Due to Jean’s apparent ambition to become a dancer, her mother, Winifred Ada Loveland, thought best for her to attend Aida Foster Foster School in Golders Green where she learned dancing and acting.9 Charles Simmons help her enrol at the school,10 which proves that he probably believed in Jean’s ambition. However, it seems that she took a taste in acting and only a few months after she entered the school, she was spotted by Val Guest who gave her her first on-screen acting role.11
Apart from dancing, young Jean Simmons also enjoyed spending her free time horse riding, skating and playing tennis.12 So, even though she didn’t become an Olympic athlete like her father, she inherited his taste for sports. After all, we could draw a lot of similarities between acrobatic dancing and artistic gymnastics.
John B. Kelly Sr.
On his side, John B. Kelly Sr., “Jack Kelly”, Grace Kelly’s father, was only four years younger than Charles Simmons, being born on October 4, 1889, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was part of a family of 10 children, and his parents, John Henry Kelly and Mary Ann Costello were Irish immigrants.13 Kelly arrived in the USA in 1869 and Costello, in 1867.14 Although Jack Kelly specialized himself in rowing, he also played football and basketball.15 While serving in the army during the First World War, he became a champion boxer.16 Kelly learned the craft of rowing on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.17
Kelly’s rowing career was a significant one. Indeed, by 1920 he had won six national rowing championships and had won 126 races consecutively in the single scull.18 Then, in 1920, he applied for the Henley Regatta, a major sculling competition in England. However, the selection committee rejected his application. They judged he had a physical advantage over the other athletes due to his considerably strong body, which he developed during his bricklaying career. However, that was a cover for the real reason for his rejection, being that English authorities didn’t want to award an Irish-Catholic athlete. 19 That reason is not so surprising if you are aware of the tensions between England and Ireland.
However, this wasn’t Kelly’s final word, and he was still determined to become an international champion. As a result, he entered the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, where he won two gold medals: the first one, for the single scull race, and the second one, for the double scull race.20 By winning his first medal, he defeated English sculling athlete Jack Beresford (which sorts of adds to the idea of revenge since he was the winner of the Henley competition).21 However, despite the competition, both men became good friends.22 For the double scull race, Kelly teamed up with his cousin Paul Costello, another sculling champion. They won the gold medal along 30 minutes after Kelly had won the single scull race.23 The cousins won another gold medal, four years later, at the Summer Olympics of 1924 in Paris. The outcome of winning these medals was that Kelly was the first rowing champion to win three gold medals. 24
John B. Kelly’s athletic career was well-recognized. He was included in the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. Then, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made him the National Physical Fitness Director. 25 He also became a member of United States Rowing Hall of Fame in the Single Scull and Double Scull in 1956 and a member of Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. Artist Harry Rosin honoured him with a statue, which was placed on Kelly Drive, next to the Schuylkill River in 1967.26
John B. Kelly Jr.
The Kelly’s relationship with the world of sports doesn’t stop here. Indeed, John B. Kelly Jr (Grace’s brother) also became an athlete and followed his father’s footsteps by becoming a rowing champion. He competed in four Summer Olympics games: in 1948 in London, in 1952 in Helsinki, in 1956 in Melbourne and, in 1960, in Rome. He won his only medal (a bronze one) during the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne and gave it to Grace as a wedding gift.27 Remember, Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier in 1956. Moreover, Kelly Jr. was able to enter the Henley Regatta in 1947 and won the Diamond Sculls.28
Although Jack Kelly Jr. later became a businessman like his father, his involvement with the sports was always present. After he retired from rowing, he became a manager for the United States Olympic 8-man boat in 1964.29 He also became president of the Amateur Athletic Union, in 1970, and was elected president of the United States Olympic Committee in February 1985. Sadly, John Kelly Jr. passed away the next month at age 57.30 Oddly enough, that was only three years after his sister Grace was the victim of a car accident at 52. So, John B. Kelly Jr, contrary to Charles Simmons, outlived two of his children.
Margaret Katherine Majer
Grace was not only the daughter and the sister of rowing champions, but her mother, Margaret Katherine Majer, the daughter of German immigrants, (Carl Majer and Margaretha Berg), was a swimming champion. She became an intercollegiate swimmer while doing her B.A. Temple University in Philadelphia. After completing her degree in 1921, Margaret Majer became the new Instructor in Physical Education for Women at the University of Pennsylvania’s College for Women. There, she became the first coach of women’s athletic teams. She formed and trained a women basketball team, organized gymnastics, softball, swimming, and tennis teams, and led a fundraiser to build a women’s tennis court.31 As Margaret Majer and John Kelly Jr. were both athletes, it was meant for them to meet in a sportive context. And that’s what happened when they made their first encounter at a swimming pool. Jack and Margaret married in 1924.32 So, I guess, Water brought them together.
Grace’s Artistic Mind
However, despite the strong sports heritage, Grace Kelly wasn’t that interested in them. She enjoyed swimming, but her mind was overall a creative and artistic one.33 Like Jean Simmons, she enjoyed dancing and even took ballet lessons as a young girl, but she eventually grew up too tall to become a professional ballerina.34 Donald Spoto relates that visits from international athletes at their home mostly bored the young Grace.35 Business, politics and sports – her father’s primary interests- did not appeal her. Her uncles George and Walter were the ones that had a significant influence on Grace. Indeed, Walter C. Kelly was a vaudevillian actor and comedian and created the music-hall number The Virginia Judge.36 His role was brought to the screen in an adaptation directed by Edward Sedgwick. He played in a few films in the 30s, therefore paving the way for his niece. However, it’s probably her uncle George that had the most significant impact on Grace Kelly’s career choice. George Kelly was a playwright and a Pulitzer Prize winner. As Wendy Leigh informs us, Grace and her uncle shared great complicity. He encouraged her to pursue an acting career, warned her of Hollywood studios and taught her some great values.37
Even tho Grace didn’t become a sports champion like her parents and her brother, she, however, shared their sense of determination which largely contributed to her rise to glory.
The athletic world of Jean Simmons’s was not as significant as Grace’s one, but it’s still one that was worth mentioning.
Charles Simmons vs. Jack Kelly
I like the idea that, despite being daughters of Olympic champions, Grace Kelly and Jean Simmons followed their voice. However, the main difference between Charles Simmons and Jack Kelly resides in the way they supported their daughter’s dream. Indeed, although Simmons passed away when Jean was still relatively young, he was there for a little while to encourage his daughter’s artistic dreams. The situation was slightly different between Grace and her father. Their relationship was a complex one. Although she admired her father, the latter had difficulty understanding her interest in the arts and who she was really, and it’s only later in his life that he acknowledged and understood Grace’s impact on the world.38 No, Grace’s father wasn’t absent from her life the way Jean’s or even Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn’s father, but Grace often had to look for his approval and admiration.
If Grace’s acting career would have last longer, one wonders if she and Jean Simmons might have ended shooting a film together. Well, one thing is certain: they certainly would have had a lot to talk about between takes.
We could also draw a lot of similarities between Jean Simmons and enchanting lady Audrey Hepburn. However, that would be for another time!
1 “Jean Simmons: Biography,” TCM, accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/177854%7C80631/Jean-Simmons/#biography
2 Pierre Bowman, “The Unretiring Jean Simmons,” Honolulu Stat-Bulletin, May 23, 1977, 19. Newspapers.
3 “Trivia about Grace Kelly’s Film & Acting Career,” Grace Kelly Online, accessed February 2, 2021, http://www.gracekellyonline.com/biography/trivia/movies/
4 “Charles Simmons (gymnast),” Wikipedia, accessed February 2, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Simmons_(gymnast)
5 “Gymnastics at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Games: Men’s Individual All-Around,” SR/Olympic Sports (Internet Archives), accessed February 2, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20200417184308/https://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/summer/1912/GYM/mens-individual-all-around.html
6 “Gymnastics at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Games: Men’s Team All-Around,” SR/Olympic Sports (Internet Archives), accessed February 2, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20200417184233/https://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/summer/1912/GYM/mens-team-all-around.html
7“Jean Simmons: Biography,” TCM.
8 “Charles Simmons (gymnast),” Wikipedia.
9 “The Life Story of Jean Simmons,” Picture Show, August 21, 1948, http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/Simmons/PictureShow.html.
10 “Jean Simmons: Biography,” TCM.
11 Tom Vallance, “Jean Simmons: Actress who dazzled opposite the likes of Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier,” Independent, January 26, 2010, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jean-simmons-actress-who-dazzled-opposite-likes-marlon-brando-kirk-douglas-and-laurence-olivier-1878829.html
12 The Life Story of Jean Simmons,” Picture Show.
13 Wendy Leigh, Grace Kelly: Les Derniers Secrets, trans. Violaine de Arriba (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2007), 23.
14 “John B. Kelly Sr.,” Wikipedia, accessed February 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Kelly_Sr.
15 “John B. Kelly Sr: A Historic Achievement in Antwerp, and a Legendary Dynasty,” The International Olympic Committee, September 7, 2020, accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.olympic.org/news/john-b-kelly-sr-a-historic-achievement-in-antwerp-and-a-legendary-dynasty.
16 Donald Spoto, High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly (New York: Crown Archetype, 2009), ch. 1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/highsociety.htm.
17 “John B. Kelly Sr: A Historic Achievement”, The International Olympic Committee.
18 “History,” Penn AC Rowing Association, accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.pennac.org/about/history/
19 Spoto, High Society, ch. 1.
21 Ron Firmite, “A stroke of genius in a racing shell,” Rat Island Rowing (Internet Archive), accessed February 2, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20061110180241/http://www.ratislandrowing.org/Kelly.html
22 Tijana Radeska, “John Kelly, Grace Kelly’s father, was one of the most accomplished American rowers,” May 23, 2017, accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/05/23/john-kelly-grace-kellys-father-was-one-of-the-most-accomplished-american-rowers/
23 Ron Firmite, “A stroke of genius”.
24 Spoto, High Society, ch. 1.
26 “John B. Kelly Sr.,” Wikipedia.
27 Ron Firmite, “A stroke of genius”.
28 “Jack Kelly Jr.,” SR/Olympic Sports (Internet Archives), accessed February 2, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20200418080828/https://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/athletes/ke/jack-kelly-jr-1.html
29 “John B. Kelly Jr.” Wikipedia, accessed February 2, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Kelly_Jr.
30 Ron Firmite, “A stroke of genius”.
31 “Penn People: Margaret Majer Kelly 1899-1990,” Penn University Archives & Records Center, accessed February 2, 2021, https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-people/biography/margaret-majer-kelly
32 Spoto, High Society, ch. 1.
34 Laura Jacobs, “Grace Kelly’s Forever Look,” Vanity Fair, March 30, 2010, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/05/grace-kelly-201005
35 Spoto, High Society, ch. 1.
36 Wendy Leigh, Grace Kelly, 25.
37 Ibid., 28.
38 Spoto, High Society, ch. 1.