The Strange Case of “Killer Kelly”

Some things in Hollywood just don’t add up.

I was reminded of this last night while watching an enjoyable forgotten B-Western called When a Man’s a Man (1935), which co-starred actor Paul Kelly.

Kelly’s story is an interesting one.

He was born in 1899, and began his career as a child actor in silents at Vitagraph’s studios in Brooklyn. During the 1920s, he successfully transitioned to teen and young adult roles, appearing in several hit films and Broadway plays.

He was on his way to certain stardom until the fateful day of April 16, 1927.

Kelly, while on Broadway, had met a pair of Jazz-age party people named Ray Raymond and Dorothy Mackaye. Raymond was a song-and-dance man for the Ziegfeld Follies, while Mackaye was an actress and playwright.

The Raymond-Mackaye marriage was a shaky one due to Ray’s heavy drinking. After the trio later reconnected on the West Coast, Kelly stepped in to offer Dorothy support, and the two were soon involved in a steamy affair.

The illicit relationship was seemingly known to everyone in Hollywood, except for Mackaye’s husband Ray. When he found out, he got drunk and confronted Kelly, earning a savage beating in the process.

Raymond stumbled to his home where after joking about the beating he had just taken, he fell into a coma. He died three days later of a brain hemorrhage, having never regained consciousness.

Kelly and Mackaye tried to cover up the true cause of Raymond’s death blaming it on his alcoholism, but were found out and prosecuted for murder. Kelly was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years at San Quentin. Mackaye also went to jail, serving 10 months as an accessory after the fact.

After serving just two years, Kelly was released for good behavior. The attraction between Kelly and Mackaye survived stir, and the two were married in 1931.

One would assume that a scandalous love-triangle that ended with the death of one of the players and the incarceration of the other two, would surely doom the Hollywood fortunes of the survivors, right?

Not so fast.

Kelly was back on Broadway within a year of his release. A year later, he was back in Hollywood where he was rarely out of work for the remainder of his life.

(Ironically, in 1936 he appeared in a film called Song and Dance Man, which must have reminded viewers of the profession of the man he once beat to death.)

During the time Mackaye spent in jail she wrote a play called Women In Prison, which was later made into the film Lady Gangster in 1942. She wouldn’t get to see her work on screen, as she was killed in a car crash in Northridge in January, 1940.

To deal with his grief, Kelly threw himself into his work, usually playing the role of a “heavy.” A year after Mackaye’s death, Kelly married an actress named Claire Owen who would be with him for the rest of his life.

On November 6, 1956, the 57-year-old Kelly suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after returning from the polls, where he had just voted for Adlai Stevenson for president.

About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

2 responses to “The Strange Case of “Killer Kelly”

  • jlp

    Whatever became of Actress Claire Owen?

  • Zsa Zsa Gershick

    Thank you for this fascinating bit of Hollywood history. Miss Mackaye did get to see a version of her play onscreen: Warner Brothers’ pre-Code “Ladies They Talk About” (1933), starring Barbara Stanwyck & Lillian Roth.

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