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Unravelling secrets of man who dressed the stars

Australian born Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly on board the Mariposa on 10 July 1939. Click for more photos

Orry-Kelly Australian Oscar winner

While few people have heard of the costume designer Orry-Kelly, he won three Oscars in the 1950s - for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like it Hot. 

IT'S A mystery that involves Australia's most prolific Academy Award winner, a missing manuscript and the Hollywood star who was once his lover.

While few Australians have heard of the costume designer Orry-Kelly, he won three Oscars in the 1950s - for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot - and was nominated for Gypsy.

He also worked on such classic movies as Casablanca, Oklahoma!, The Maltese Falcon and Arsenic and Old Lace, designing dresses for the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner.

Costume designer Orry-Kelly with Tony Curtis on <i>Some Like It Hot</i>.

Costume designer Orry-Kelly with Tony Curtis on Some Like It Hot.

Growing up in Kiama as ''Jack'' Kelly, the budding actor adopted a more stylish single name when he sailed to the United States and became a designer, firstly on Broadway then in Hollywood in the 1930s.

His career was so successful that the pallbearers at his 1964 funeral were Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and directors Billy Wilder and George Cukor. The eulogy was read by studio boss Jack Warner.

Director Gillian Armstrong, whose own films have included My Brilliant Career, Little Women and Oscar and Lucinda, is planning a cinema documentary on his remarkable life.

''It's the story of this boy from Kiama who always had a visual flair and interest in theatre,'' Armstrong says. ''He was very well known in the '30s and '40s. He was a great wit, quite outspoken. They say in America that people either loved or hated him.''

Armstrong and writer Katherine Thomson have discovered that Orry-Kelly wrote a memoir, wittily titled Women I've Undressed, during the last 10 years of his life.

While he once wrote that the publishers loved the book, it never reached print - reputedly because of legal issues.

Just one chapter that he sent to a friend survives, featuring witty observations of Hollywood history.

Armstrong believes the sole copy of the full manuscript passed down through Kelly's family to a relative named Ephron Manasseh, who has proved impossible to track down.

''It still exists somewhere,'' says Armstrong, who believes the memoir to be a treasure trove of Hollywood memories and secrets.

''There was this whole hidden gay thing that went on,'' she says.

''The big secret is that when Orry first got to New York and was trying to get his start, painting murals on walls and selling hand-painted ties, he ended up rooming with a young British actor called Archie Leach. They definitely became lovers and were living together for about five years.''

After Orry-Kelly's designing career took off, Leach became as famous in Hollywood as Cary Grant.

Armstrong says it is rumoured that Grant's estate put a hold on the book.

''There are secrets there about Cary they didn't want out,'' she says. ''He denied forever that he was bisexual.''

In the surviving chapter, Orry-Kelly praised the perfect greyhound-like looks of Jean Harlow, the 1930s star of Hell's Angels, Platinum Blonde and Red Dust, with her ''small head, a swan's neck, a stomach like a lyre and long, long nervous legs'' that outshone Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marilyn Monroe.

''Mama Gabor's pretty ducklings may have pretty faces,'' he wrote. ''It's too bad her Zsa Zsa has such short, stocky limbs.

''Marilyn Monroe suffers from the same trouble. Marilyn and Zsa Zsa may be able to stand up to a hound dog but never to a greyhound.

''Marlene Dietrich, the bird of paradise, has all that the great Don Juan described and legs that no greyhound can stand against.''

Orry-Kelly also wrote about the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw visiting a Hollywood film set and meeting the actress Ann Harding. ''She said, 'Mr Shaw, I did your play Androcles and the Lion','' Orry-Kelly wrote.

''Shaw looked at her and said, 'It must have been a pirated version.'

''Miss Harding rushed to her dressing room and had hysterics, unable to work for the rest of the afternoon.''

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