When you hear the names Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn you think of two entertainment legends: Kelly, an actor, dancer, singer, filmmaker, comedian and choreographer and Strayhorn a jazz composer, pianist, lyricist and arranger.
What doesn’t come to mind is that both individuals were being monitored by the FBI. This juicy nugget came up as I was listening in on a conversation between Patricia Ward Kelly, official biographer and wife of Gene Kelly and David Hajdu, official biographer for Billy Strayhorn as they met for the first time during a Zoom call I arranged with KDKA TV & Radio Reporter Lynne Hayes Freeland. We all got together to chat about the live moderated conversation that the three of them will have during Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Suite Life 2020 Concert on November 28th where, for the first time, we will pay tribute to both of the organization’s namesakes.
During the virtual meet and greet, Mrs. Kelly casually asks Mr. Hajdu, “Do you have Billy’s FBI files?” And he replies, calm and matter-of-factly, “Why yes, they are over here in these boxes.” He returns the question back to her, “What about you? Do you have Gene’s files?” She says, “Yes, they are right here in my office?”
Wait? What just happened? FBI files? I had so many questions: Why did the FBI have files have on Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn? What did they do? Why was the FBI watching them? What did the files say? How many files did they have each?
Realizing this opportunity was not for me to get my questions I answered, I quickly started searching for information on my laptop. There I found a treasure trove of information that the FBI’s focus on musicians and entertainers has its roots in the agency’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which led to the surveillance of several of the most important entertainers and Black jazz musicians of the mid-20th century. The bulk of this activity took place when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover unleashed this program which aimed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” subversive political groups.
The bureau had been keeping close tabs on the civil rights movement, accumulating massive files on leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI also spent countless hours investigating thousands of celebrities, entertainers, writers and other prominent individuals during the Cold War. The official story was that the effort rooted out communists and others who wanted to overthrow the government. The reality is that countless citizens who had not committed wrongdoing found their lives under the bureau’s lens of hyper-acuity.
Like many others in Hollywood, Gene Kelly was under investigation for his presumed “Communist” activities. He, of course, was not a Communist, but he was under constant surveillance by the FBI under the heading “Security Matter C.”
Among the earliest entries are those for Duke Ellington, reaching back to the 1930s. Agents compiled a dossier that runs as a counterpoint during his life, that had little to do with his musical achievements. The first entry is from 1938. Jazz historians mark this as the year Ellington first met Billy Strayhorn. For the FBI, it was when he performed for the All-Harlem Youth Conference, a progressive gathering that included well wishes sent by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Ellington’s band would play at a variety of concerts, but if the FBI didn’t like what group was hosting the event – for them that meant the entertainers were not only supporters, but participants of the groups.
Mrs. Kelly and Mr. Hajdu also talked about what influence the City of Pittsburgh had on both artists, how both felt like outcasts and navigated discrimination, and so much more! I was amazed on how much I didn’t know about our namesakes outside of their celebrated talents, and how watching the interplay and connection between both biographers would be so engaging.
I invite you to join me and listen in on a LIVE moderated conversation led by KDKA-TV & Radio Reporter Lynne Hayes Freeland, with Mrs. Patricia Ward Kelly and Mr. David Hajdu on Saturday, November 28 at 6:00pm, right before the Suite Life concert that will feature music from both entertainment giants, performed under the musical direction of Pittsburgh’s own Poogie Bell!
For more information, visit Kelly-Strayhorn.org/suitelife