Deborah Jane Kerr-Trimmer was born in a private nursing home (hospital) in Glasgow, the only daughter of Kathleen Rose (née Smale) and Capt. Arthur Charles Kerr-Trimmer, a World War I veteran who lost a leg at the Battle of the Somme and later became a naval architect and civil engineer. She spent the first three years of her life in the nearby town of Helensburgh, where her parents lived with Deborah’s grandparents in a house on West King Street. Kerr had a younger brother, Edmund (“Teddy”), who became a journalist. He was killed in a road rage incident in 2004. Deborah Kerr was educated at the independent Northumberland House School, Henleaze, and at Rossholme School, Weston-super-Mare. Kerr originally trained as a ballet dancer, first appearing on stage at Sadler’s Wells in 1938. After changing careers, she soon found success as an actress. Her first acting teacher was her aunt, Phyllis Smale, who ran the Hicks-Smale Drama School in Bristol. She adopted the name Deborah Kerr on becoming a film actress (“Kerr” was a family name going back to the maternal grandmother of her grandfather Arthur Kerr-Trimmer). Deborah Kerr’s first film role was in the British production Contraband in 1940, but her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. With her next two British films—Major Barbara and Love on the Dole (both 1941)—her screen future seemed assured and her performance, said James Agate of Love on the Dole, “is not within a mile of Wendy Hiller’s in the theatre, but it is a charming piece of work by a very pretty and promising beginner, so pretty and so promising that there is the usual yapping about a new star”. She went on to make Hatter’s Castle (1942), in which she starred opposite Robert Newton and James Mason, and then played a Norwegian resistance fighter in The Day Will Dawn (1942). She was an immediate hit with the public: British exhibitors voted her the most popular local female star at the box office. In 1943, she played three women in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. During the filming, according to Powell’s autobiography, Powell and she became lovers: “I realised that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for”. Kerr made clear that her surname should be pronounced the same as “car”. To avoid confusion over pronunciation, Louis B. Mayer of MGM billed her as “Kerr rhymes with Star!”
Although the British Army refused to co-operate with the producers—and Winston Churchill thought the film would ruin wartime morale—Colonel Blimp confounded critics when it proved to be an artistic and commercial success. Powell hoped to reunite Kerr and lead actor Roger Livesey in his next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), but her agent had sold her contract to MGM. According to Powell, his affair with Kerr ended when she made it clear to him that she would accept an offer to go to Hollywood if one were made. Her role as a troubled nun in the Powell and Pressburger production of Black Narcissus in 1947 did indeed bring her to the attention of Hollywood producers. The film was a hit in the US, as well as the UK, and Kerr won the New York Film Critics’ Award as Actress of the Year. British exhibitors voted her the eighth-most popular local star at the box office. Soon she received the first of her Academy Award nominations for Edward, My Son, a 1949 drama set in England that co-starred Spencer Tracy. In Hollywood, Kerr’s British accent and manner led to a succession of roles portraying refined, reserved, and “proper” English ladies. Kerr, nevertheless, used any opportunity to discard her cool exterior. She starred in the 1950 adventure film King Solomon’s Mines, shot on location in Africa with Stewart Granger and Richard Carlson. This was immediately followed by her appearance in the religious epic Quo Vadis? (1951), shot at Cinecittà in Rome, in which she played the indomitable Lygia, a first-century Christian. She then played Princess Flavia in a remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (1952). In 1953, Kerr “showed her theatrical mettle” as Portia in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar (1953). She then departed from typecasting with a performance that brought out her sensuality, as “Karen Holmes”, the embittered military wife in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which Burt Lancaster and she romped illicitly and passionately amidst crashing waves on a Hawaiian beach. The organisation ranked it 20th in its list of the 100 most romantic films of all time.
Thereafter, Kerr’s career choices would make her known in Hollywood for her versatility as an actress. She played the repressed wife in The End of the Affair (1955), with Van Johnson; a nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) opposite her long-time friend Robert Mitchum; a mama’s girl in Separate Tables (1958) opposite David Niven; and a governess in both The Chalk Garden and The Innocents (1961). She also portrayed an earthy Australian sheep-herder’s wife in The Sundowners and appeared as lustful and beautiful screen enchantresses in both Beloved Infidel and Bonjour Tristesse. Among her most famous roles were Anna Leonowens in the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956); and opposite Cary Grant as his shipboard romantic interest Terri McKay in the bittersweet love story An Affair to Remember (1957). She reunited with Grant and Mitchum for a sophisticated comedy, The Grass Is Greener, and then joined Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a love triangle for a romantic comedy, Marriage on the Rocks. In 1966, the producers of Carry On Screaming! offered her a fee comparable to that paid to the rest of the cast combined, but she turned it down in favor of appearing in an aborted stage version of Flowers for Algernon. In 1967, Kerr starred in the comedy Casino Royale, achieving the distinction of being, at 46, the oldest “Bond Girl” in any James Bond film, until Monica Bellucci, at the age of 50, became a “Bond Girl” in Spectre (2015). In 1969, pressure of competition from younger, upcoming actresses made her agree to appear nude in John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths, the only nude scene in her career. Concern about the parts being offered to her, as well as the increasing amount of nudity included in films, led her to abandon the medium at the end of the 1960s in favour of television and theatre work.
Deborah Kerr’s first marriage was to Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley on 29 November 1945. They had two daughters, Melanie Jane (born 27 December 1947) and Francesca Ann (born 20 December 1951 and subsequently married to the actor John Shrapnel). The marriage was troubled, owing to Bartley’s jealousy of his wife’s fame and financial success and because her career often took her away from home. They divorced in 1959. Her second marriage was to author Peter Viertel on 23 July 1960. In marrying Viertel, she became stepmother to Viertel’s daughter, Christine Viertel. Although she long resided in Klosters, Switzerland and Marbella, Spain, she moved back to Britain to be closer to her own children as her health began to deteriorate. Her husband, however, continued to live in Marbella. Deborah Kerr died on 16 October 2007 in Botesdale, a village in Suffolk, England, from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. She was 86. Less than three weeks later, on 4 November, her husband Peter Viertel died of cancer. At the time of Viertel’s death, director Michael Scheingraber was filming the documentary Peter Viertel: Between the Lines which would include reminiscences concerning Kerr and the Academy Awards. She is buried at St Mary’s Church, Redgrave.
- September, 30, 1921
- United Kingdom
- Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland
- October, 16, 2007
- United Kingdom
- Botesdale, Suffolk, England
Cause of Death
- Parkinson's disease
- St Mary the Virgin Churchyard
- Redgrave, Suffolk, England
- United Kingdom