His father came from County Mayo, and he started life as a manual labourer. Some of his grandchildren live in a palace and have royal titles. But his statue on Boathouse Row in Philadelphia honours him for what he did best: scull faster, and win more races in a row, than any man alive.
Kelly for Brickwork
When they unveiled the statue 'The Rower' alongside the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia in 1965, Mrs Kelly got a chuckle. Some wag had draped a T-shirt over the figure of her late husband. The T-shirt read 'Kelly for Brickwork'. 'Kelly for Brickwork' was the slogan used by the ambitious young bricklayer as he started out in what became a successful construction business in the 1920s, financed in part by two of his ten siblings – the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George Kelly, and his vaudevillian brother Walter.
The Kellys were go-getters: before long, John was a millionaire. He married well, too – his bride was a former fashion model and physical education instructor at the Ivy-League University of Pennsylvania. Kelly was civic-minded, becoming president of the Fairmount Park Commission, running for mayor of Philadelphia (unsuccessfully), and serving as National Physical Fitness Director under Franklin Roosevelt. But it wasn't his money, his charm, his connections, or even his striking good looks that made Jack Kelly famous. It was his rowing skill.
Rowing was a popular sport in the early 20th Century. Kelly's 126-race winning streak made him a household name. In fact, he was as famous as the boxer Gene Tunney, whom he knew. During the First World War, Gene Tunney won a military boxing tournament – but not before the leading contender (with a 12-0 record) broke his ankle and had to retire. In later years, Kelly teased the World Professional Boxing Champion about this.
Philadelphia is a rowing city. The east bank of the Schuylkill River is lined with boathouses that belong to clubs dating back to shortly after the Civil War. There, Kelly rowed for Vesper, a premier club that had already sent eight-man teams to the 1900, 1904, and 1908 Olympics, winning gold each time1.
Jack Kelly wasn't planning on attending the 1920 Paris Olympics. Why not? He was much more interested in the Henley Royal Regatta, a prestigious rowing event, which, although not that much older than the boat clubs on Boathouse Row2, was much fancier than anything Philly could boast. For one thing, it was in England, making it obviously superior to a US affair. For another, it had royal patronage. Then, too, it had a dress code, very important for a do that was part of the English social season. Kelly planned to go over there and impress some Englishmen with his rowing skills. In fact, he was already packed to go when he was hit with the news: they didn't want him at Henley.
Why wasn't Kelly good enough for Henley Royal Regatta? There were two reasons. One was procedural: according to Henley rules, any member of the 1905 Vesper team was disqualified for not being an amateur. This had to do with the team's raising their travelling expenses by public donations that year. (It didn't make Kelly a professional in anybody else's book.) The second reason was one which would make a critically-minded person question whether this wasn't a class issue. Henley barred anyone who had ever been a manual labourer from participating in a river race with the crème de la crème. (Also people who engaged in 'menial activity'.) This meant John B Kelly was out.
When they found out, people in the US were outraged. The word went round that the Brits just didn't want to lose. Kelly was cross. As he was already packed for a transatlantic steamship journey, he made the best of it. 'I'll go to the Olympics now for sure,' he said. 'I want to get a crack at the man who wins the Diamond Sculls3.'
In 1936, there was another Henley incident in which the Australian rowing team, made up of policemen, were barred on the grounds that policemen were 'manual labourers'. In 1937, they changed the rules, removing this requirement and the words 'menial activity'. Kelly never raced at Henley – but his son, Jack, Jr won the Diamond Sculls in 1947 and 1949.
Kelly did get a crack at the man who won Henley in 1920. He beat him, too, in one of the closest rowing races in Olympic history. Half an hour after winning the singles event, Kelly teamed with his cousin Paul Costello to win the doubles race – making more Olympic history that day. In 1924, Kelly and Costello won the double-scull event again. Kelly was now the first rower to win three Olympic gold medals.
Today, the Jack Kelly Award honours those who have contributed to society in the areas in which Kelly excelled: success in one's chosen profession, service to amateur athletics, and superior rowing skills. His statue on Boathouse Row greets the scullers who work out on the river every weekend. The boathouses have new addresses now – Kelly Drive, named after John B Kelly, Jr, who was also president of the US Olympic Committee in 1985. Perhaps fittingly, Kelly Drive is frequently closed to traffic – every time the Schuylkill floods, in fact.
Oh, and the grandchildren? One of them is running a country. Prince Albert II, ruler of Monaco, is the grandson of John B Kelly through his mother, Grace Kelly. One suspects that the Grimaldi Family are always welcome at Henley Royal Regatta4.
At least, if they dress properly.