On Meeting (Dissertation) Celebrities

It’s once again been a little over a month since my last post and, once again, much has transpired.

The good news is, I’ve passed the 15-page mark on my Gene Kelly chapter draft—and I’ve even been keeping up with the footnotes!

The bad news is, I don’t think this whole chapter will be edit-ready by June 21 as I’d hoped.  This chapter is going to be long (like, 60 pages long) and the writing is going slower than expected.  I’ve found that it takes me a good half-hour to get into the right mind space for my argument whenever I sit down to write.  I’m arguing so many things at once, using so many different kinds of evidence, that it’s really easy to lose track of myself as I go along.  I also find myself needing to rewatch a lot of scenes from films, hunt down the author or the month of publication for archival materials, re-read relevant paragraphs of secondary literature, etc.  My brain just can’t seem to hold everything all at once!

I’m told that the first chapter is always the slowest, mainly because of what I discussed in my last post regarding not being trained to write this particular kind of manuscript and therefore learning as I go along.  I think there’s also a rhythm to be found during the writing of the first chapter: every dissertator varies in terms of how much and what kinds of research we need (or think we need) to complete prior to writing, how much can be done along the way, how much this slows us down, etc.  In the case of my own first chapter, my outline breaks down Kelly’s DOS career into four periods, so once I’d watched all the media and read all the appropriate material from the first two periods, I decided I was ready to start writing.  But again, much of this requires re-viewing as I go along, so I didn’t save myself as much writing time as I thought.

But now for the actual subject at hand: meeting (dissertation) celebrities.  During my March & April travels, I was able to spend a week digging through the Gene Kelly Collection at Boston University.  Unfortunately, the holdings available to the public were somewhat scant—almost all newspaper clippings.  The rest of the archival materials on Kelly appear to reside with his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who has been working on Gene’s memoir since his death in 1996 (and for about 8 years prior as well).  Fortunately for me, both myself and Mrs. Kelly reside in Los Angeles so I was able to attend a special Hollywood screening of An American In Paris (1951) where Mrs. Kelly would be in attendance for the Q&A.  We exchanged cards and I told her a bit about my project; I told her I’d love to be able to look through some of the myriad Gene-related materials (like choroegraphic notes scrawled on envelopes) that she is holding on to.  I’m hopeful that this will work out; maybe I’ll be able to help her in deciphering some of Gene’s ballet shorthand (ballerina that I am) so that I can ‘give back’ in my little way.

Mrs. Kelly is also touring with a sort of 1-woman show about Gene's career and legacy

Mrs. Kelly is also touring with a sort of 1-woman show about Gene’s career and legacy

What was odd about this whole exchange was the celebrity factor.  In (historical) dissertation-land, the person who has control of the archival materials is some sort of demigod to be worshipped and revered, as this person holds the key to history.  Thus, Mrs. Kelly is my current dissertation celebrity.  And it just so happens that she is also the widow of an actual celebrity—so she’s also a regular celebrity by extension.  After the screening, some of my fellow audience members asked for photos and autographs, all bathed in bashful smiles and gushing praise.  It felt odd to be asking for none of those things, and instead asking for access—a much scarier request for sure!  I suppose I was starstruck in a different way; for me, Mrs. Kelly holds a lot of power over my baby, the project consuming my entire life for several years.  For them, she’s the last person who lived and daily conversed with the great Gene Kelly, and now she’s guardian of his legacy.  In all, I think I was the most nervous!!  Fingers crossed it all works out….

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