Now rumours of the glamorous star’s alleged affair with Prince Philip are set to be reignited as highly sensitive letters written to her by the Duke of Edinburgh are revealed in a controversial musical about her life.
The correspondence has been held until now by Royal biographer Michael Thornton, a beneficiary of the late actress’s will. But tomorrow, excerpts will feature in the one-woman show Pat Kirkwood is Angry as it premieres at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre ahead of its transfer to Leeds Grand Theatre’s Howard Assembly Room next Wednesday.
Acclaimed opera singer Jessica Walker, who wrote and stars in the play, said: “I am not using Prince Philip’s letters for sensational reasons, but the inescapable fact is Miss Kirkwood’s meeting with the Queen’s husband, which was not sought by herself, ruined her life and robbed her of official recognition for an outstanding career – so these letters are crucial to understanding her life and character.”
Hailed as the last great star from the golden age of British musicals, Kirkwood was the highest-paid entertainer in Britain in the 1940s and her legs were once described by critic Kenneth Tynan as “the eighth wonder of the world”.
But after an encounter with the Prince in 1948, she was haunted for almost 60 years by allegations of an illicit romance with him. The pair, then both 27, were introduced in her dressing room at the London Hippodrome and went on to dine together at a Mayfair restaurant before dancing the night away, cheek to cheek, at a West End nightclub. The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, was eight months pregnant with Prince Charles at the time.
Six further meetings followed, and the alleged romance made headlines worldwide, fascinating gossip columnists and royal biographers for six decades. The scandal is believed to have cost Kirkwood her chance of an honour and she passed away in relative obscurity in 2007 in an Ilkley nursing home, aged 86.
Jessica Walker told the Yorkshire Post she found it sad such a star had died more or less unknown. “It was as if she was almost written out of the history books because she was an inconvenience in some way,” she said.
“Personally, I don’t think they did have an affair but I’ll leave that to the audience to decide.”
Kirkwood, originally from Salford, settled in Yorkshire in 1981 when she married her fourth and last husband, Peter Knight.
Their first home was in the Yorkshire Dales village of West Burton and they later moved to a cottage on Mr Knight’s family estate, Beck House, in Bingley.
After Mr Knight died in 2010, his late wife’s letters from Prince Philip were given to Mr Thornton, who has guarded them ever since.
The Daily Mail columnist said: “My instructions, in accordance with Pat’s will, are that these letters are to be shown to no one except the Duke of Edinburgh’s official biographer, after his death. Jessica, therefore, has not seen the actual documents, but I have been so impressed by her research into Pat’s life that I have drawn her attention to brief significant pages in the letters, and these are what she will be quoting.”
Mr Thornton said the letters were “written in terms of concerned friendship by two people caught up in a media maelstrom”. The Palace’s refusal to issue an official denial allowed Kirkwood’s career to be overshadowed by the scandal and its unwillingness to protect her reputation angered her for the rest of her life, he said. “She vehemently maintained to her dying days it was a pack of lies,” he added.
He said he did not expect Prince Philip to be too dismayed by the play – and as for Kirkwood, he added: “Perhaps Pat might think a sort of justice is being done, posthumously.”
The production, financed by Opera North, will be staged in London next year and in New York in 2014.