Pat Kirkwood, actress from the golden age of the pre-war British musicals, died Dec. 25 in Ilkley, U.K. She was 86 and was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
During her career, which spanned more than 60 years, she originated the leading roles in musicals written by Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein, played opposite Van Johnson in a Hollywood screen musical, and broke box-office records in a cabaret season in Las Vegas.
As a straight actress, she won awards for her television portrayals of the music hall stars Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley, and as Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion.”
Her legendary legs were once described by critic Kenneth Tynan, as “the eighth wonder of the world,” and for more than half a century, her name was linked with that of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
She was born in Manchester and made her professional debut as a 14-year-old singer in BBC Radio’s “The Children’s Hour.” A year later, she made her first stage appearance at the Royal Hippodrome, Salford, billed as The Schoolgirl Songstress. The following year she starred in her debut film, “Save a Little Sunshine.”
After the success of the revue Black Velvet at the London Hippodrome in 1939 she was hailed as “Britain’s first wartime star.”
By 1945 she had been signed to Hollywood studio MGM, but the flop of her first film there led to a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. But she recovered, with a triumphant return to Britain in 1947 with Starlight Roof at the London Hippodrome.
Noel Coward wrote the West End musical “Ace Of Clubs” especially for her in 1950.
In 1954 she became the first female star to have her own one-hour series on British TV, “The Pat Kirkwood Show,” and the same year also broke box office records with a sell-out three-month cabaret season at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.
She is survived by her husband Peter Knight.