"It was always a challenge trying to equal my father," John
Brenden Kelly Jr. once said in a sweeping understatement. In
fact, it was hard trying to compete with most any of the Kellys,
including John's sister, Grace, a movie queen who became
Princess of Monaco, and his uncle George, who won a Pulitzer
Prize for his 1926 play, Craig's Wife. Yes, the Kellys of
Philadelphia were quite a family. It was dad, Jack Sr., who set
the pace and inspired the enduring Kelly legend--and Jack Jr.
who bore the burden of it.
This is an article from the July 27, 1996 issue
The familiar story goes something like this: In the summer of
1920 Jack Kelly, a poor but honest bricklayer and an expert
oarsman, seeks to enter England's snooty Henley Royal Regatta in
the single sculls race. But he is turned away at the dock by the
aristocrats in charge because as someone who "works with his
hands" he obviously is no gentleman. Wounded by this insult but
undaunted, Kelly two months later wins an Olympic gold medal in
the single sculls at the Antwerp Games, trouncing, in delicious
irony, the Henley champion, Jack Beresford. He then mails his
kelly-green racing cap to King George V with the note,
"Greetings from a bricklayer." Twenty-seven years later he gains
even sweeter revenge when, by now a multimillionaire, he sends
Jack Jr. to Henley, where, of course, the lad wins the very race
the snobs had previously denied his father.
As with all good stories, only parts of this one are true. Jack
Sr. was hardly a poor bricklayer in 1920. As a matter of fact,
he hadn't laid a brick in 10 years and was by then the owner of
his own brick manufacturing company. He had been assured by
American rowing officials that his application to race at Henley
would be accepted, but two days before he was to sail to England
with a new shell, he received a cryptic wire saying he had been
excluded from the race. So he never did get to Henley. The
reason for the rejection, he himself concluded, was that his
rowing club, the Vespers of Philadelphia, had been at odds with
the Henley people ever since 1905, when, in an apparent
violation of Regatta rules, the club doled out money to its
oarsmen for a postrace tour of Europe.
Far from being obscure, Kelly was at that time the world's
premier oarsman in a sport at the very peak of its popularity.
His Olympic victory was one of 126 consecutive races that he won
in 1919 and '20, and it didn't come easily: Kelly crossed the
finish line one second ahead of Beresford in a thrilling stretch
duel. Both men were so exhausted afterward that they couldn't
even shake hands. Yet just 30 minutes later Kelly won his second
gold, this time with his cousin, Paul Costello, in the double
sculls. (The single and double sculls are among the rowing
finals that will be held today at Lake Lanier.) He and Costello
returned in 1924 to the Paris Games and won yet another gold in
the doubles. Then, at age 35, Kelly retired to make his
millions, run unsuccessfully for mayor of Philadelphia and raise
a family that included a princess and another oarsman. He died
in 1960 of intestinal cancer.
After his initial victory in '47, Jack Jr. returned to win again
at Henley two years later, but he fell far short of his father's
achievements in Olympic competition. He rowed out of contention
in 1948 and '52 before winning a bronze at the 1956 Melbourne
Games. He had promised Grace, who had married Prince Rainier III
of Monaco that April, a medal as a wedding gift. "I finally got
one," he said later, "but it was the wrong color." Jack Jr.
tried again at the 1960 Rome Games and once more finished out of
the running. Finally, in 1964, he did, in a sense, get his gold,
acting as sponsor for the Vesper Club's eights crew that won in
Then, like his father before him, he became active in
Philadelphia politics and as a spokesman for amateur athletics.
In 1970 he was elected president of the Amateur Athletic Union
and on Feb. 9, 1985, he became president of the U.S. Olympic
Committee. Just 22 days later he suffered a fatal heart attack
while jogging near his Philadelphia home. He was 57. His famous
sister had died three years earlier in an auto accident.
In the end, the Kellys had everything except longevity.