The story behind Orry-Kelly’s memoir Women I’ve Undressed is nearly as good as the stories inside it. Kept by his niece in a pillowslip, the manuscript was long rumoured to exist before it came unexpectedly to light during the making of Gillian Armstrong’s recent documentary about the boy from Kiama, NSW, who became one of Hollywood’s finest costume designers.
Noting in his introduction that ‘‘Hollywood dislikes naked truths’’, Orry-Kelly dishes up plenty. Some glittering reputations were protected for half a century by that pillowslip, not least that of Orry-Kelly’s one time lover, a vaudeville performer named Archie Leach, who, in this account, treated him rather shabbily after he became the movie star Cary Grant.
Born in 1897, Orry Kelly (Hollywood added the hyphen) began his career at the age of six or seven, designing scenery for a toy theatre and creating costumes out of coloured silk from a Lady’s Companion he had demanded for Christmas.
Kelly’s father, a tailor, either wouldn’t or couldn’t see the story unfolding before his eyes. Coming inside one day after gardening, he ‘‘said something to me about a boy, seven years old, playing with dolls. He broke the cardboard figures and kicked the Lady’s Companion to smithereens. Taking me outside, he put a huge wheelbarrow in my hands and ordered me to go to the Point and fetch manure for his garden.’’
Thereafter, except for a brief and ludicrous stint in the US Army, Orry-Kelly was nobody’s shitkicker. He made it to the top by sheer professionalism and talent: the filmography at the end of the book lists an extraordinary 295 credits as costume designer, including three for which he won an Oscar. In 1934 he received 56 credits, more than a movie a week. His salary as Warner Bros chief designer was eye-watering.
He writes with deep affection about many of the female stars he dressed: Bette Davis, Ethel Barrymore, Barbara Stanwyck and Bebe Daniels, to name a handful. But woe betide those, such as Joan Fontaine, who behaved badly.
After Fontaine was heard complaining to studio boss Sam Goldwyn that Orry-Kelly was never around on the set when he was wanted (by her), the designer ‘‘sent a message to the set by her wardrobe girl, telling Miss Fontaine that I was too old, too tired and too successful to fetch and carry for her on the set. Naturally, I never dressed her again.’’
Contrasting Fontaine with her sister Olivia de Havilland, Orry-Kelly writes archly: ‘‘What a difference … they were direct opposites. Olivia was kind, considerate, sincere, loyal and full of charm. I dressed Miss Fontaine as the young girl in The Constant Nymph. On screen she was charming.”
Another star he fell out with was Marilyn Monroe. Hired by Billy Wilder to do the costumes for Some Like It Hot, Orry-Kelly claims to have been ‘‘shocked’’ by how much weight Monroe had put on. He wanted to use fabrics — ‘‘shiny satin on her top shelf and dull crepe on her bottom’’ — that would not make her look Women I’ve Undressed By Orry-Kelly Ebury Press, 425pp, $39.99 too heavy in comparison with her two crossdressing male co-stars, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. True to her reputation for being difficult on set, Monroe arrived three hours late and was reprimanded the next day by Wilder. OrryKelly writes: She blushed immediately. Temper, not temperament, took over. She pointed her finger at me and started babbling, ‘‘He said boys’ arses are smaller than girls’ arses and he said that Tony Curtis’s arse was smaller than mine, and I told that one’’ — pointing at me — ‘‘that some people like girls’ arses and some people like — ’’