Margaret Kelly – The bluebell

After her birth in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, Margaret Kelly (Dublin, 1910 – Paris, 2004) was quickly given up for adoption by her parents to a dressmaker named Mary Murphy who made ends meet by doing some house cleaning. Murphy moved to Liverpool some time after the Easter Rising in 1916, taking with her ‘Bluebell’ (a nickname given to her by a Dublin doctor).

Bluebell was contracted by Scottish dance company manager Alfred Jackson to dance in Berlin in the late 1920s. In the summer of 1930 and again in 1931, Jackson asked her to go as a holiday replacement to the Folies Bergères in Paris (rue Bergère, 9th arrondissement). While in Paris, Bluebell was offered a job at the Casino de Paris in the rue de Clichy (9th arrondissement) by Alfred Jackson’s brother, John William, but she soon left and returned to the Folies Bergeres as ‘captain’ of her own dance group, the Bluebell Girls. 

In March 1939, at Trinité church (place de la Trinité, 9th arrondissement) Bluebell married a stateless Jew of Romanian origin called Marcel Leibovici, who led the house orchestra at the Folies Bergères. They lived close by, at 83, rue Blanche (9th arrondissement), overlooking the Moulin Rouge. 

Le Moulin Rouge from rue Blanche

The former Chantilly

Leibovici proved to be an astute businessman and was instrumental in ensuring that Bluebell and her dancers carved out a place for themselves on the Paris cabaret scene from the 1930s on. For a period starting in December 1933, she worked with a troupe at the Paramount Cinema on the Boulevard des Capucines (9th arrondissement) while also managing another troupe at the Folies Bergères. 

With the German army fast approaching, Marcel and Bluebell joined the exodus from Paris to Bordeaux in June 1940, but they returned to Paris when they failed to secure a passage to the UK. On December 1, 1940, the French police came looking for Bluebell at her flat in rue Blanche. It was ordained that, as a British passport holder, she should be sent to an internment camp in Besançon, even though she was pregnant. However, she was released on New Year’s Eve 1940 after Count O’Kelly de Gallagh of the Irish Legation took up her case and convinced the authorities that Bluebell was Irish and thus a neutral.

For much of the Occupation, Bluebell produced a show in the Chantilly, a small cabaret at 10, rue Fontaine (now Théâtre de la Fontaine, 9th arrondissement) but she refused an offer to perform in Germany. In early 1942, Marcel was rounded up in Marseille and sent to Gurs internment camp in the south of France. When he escaped, he made his way back to Paris. For the next two and a half years, Marcel had to remain hidden, first in a top-floor attic at 37, rue de la Bûcherie (5th), very close to the Prefecture of Police, and then, when he felt the authorities were closing in, at an address in rue Berthollet (5th arrondissement). 

Bluebell’s grave in Montmartre

During this time, Bluebell managed to keep her husband fed and clothed, and also managed to become pregnant—twice. In June 1943, she was hauled before the Gestapo who were looking for her husband, but she managed to survive the ordeal without giving away the secret of Marcel’s whereabouts. She later learned that the concierge in the building where her husband was hiding had betrayed several other residents. Only the 60 francs a week and the eggs and milk she received regularly from Bluebell stopped her from doing the same with Marcel. But one day a Jewess who claimed be “a daughter of Marcel’s aunt” was arrested in the street by plainclothes policemen while walking with Bluebell. The story of theatre owners Marion and Lucas Steiner in the classic François Truffaut film, Le Dernier Métro, was inspired by the real-life experiences of Bluebell and her husband during the war.

Early in 1948, Bluebell was asked to choreograph for the Lido (at that time situated at 76-78 Champs Elysées, 8th arrondissement). In the same year, Bluebell and her family moved to 27 rue Marbeuf (8th arrondissement), where they were to stay until 1972. Marcel ran the business side of the ‘Bluebell Girls’ and also looked after the musical orchestration, but his constant womanising meant that Bluebell increasingly distanced herself  from him until he was killed in a car crash near Sens in March 1961—not far from where Albert Camus had met his death (also in a car crash) just a year earlier. 

In 1972, Bluebell moved to a penthouse apartment in a newly-built block in rue de la Faisanderie (16th arrondissement). She died in August 2004 and lies buried in Montmartre cemetery, right beside the writers and critics Edmond and Jules de Goncourt who gave their name to the ‘Prix Goncourt’, the most prestigious literary prize in the French language. A bronze bust of Bluebell placed on her headstone was stolen in 2008.

Comment from Joe Arty Kelly. 46th April ‘21

The article about Bluebell is essentially correct and seem to be mainly drawn from her Biography by George Perry with the addition of addresses used by Bluebell.

What I can dispute is that she was born in Rotunda Hospital in 1910.  This again is taken from the Biography which states that she was born in Rotunda On 24th June 1912 . Her parents were shown as James Kelly and Margaret Brien.  These were my grandparents and I am absolutely sure that the Margaret Kelly born in Rotunda on 24th June 1912 was in fact my Aunt Peggy. So if Bluebell wasn’t born in the Rotunda, where was she born?.    I searched all the Margaret Kellys born in Dublin between 1908 and 1911 and found that I could account for all of them in the 1911 Census – living with their parents except for one – a Margaret Mary Kelly born to Mary Kelly (Servant) in 17 Portland Place on 21st July 1910 – no father mentioned. It may be significant that the head of house for that address in the 1911 Census was Margaret Nolan – a  widow and 49 year old Maternity Nurse. There were a number of boarders in the house including a 23year old married woman and her 4 day old son Henry – no mention of husband.  It seems likely that the house was being used as a mini and possibly unofficial maternity unit.

Margaret Mary Kelly (above)  8 months only appears in the 1911 Census as Reta Kelly at 2 Pembroke St with a Mary Murphy as head of house. No other occupants shown for that entry.

CONCLUSION: There is no doubt that Reta in Pembroke St with Mary Murphy is Bluebell, WE cannot be absolutely sure That she is the same person as the the child born  in Portland Place but it seems like a  strong possibility