Although Margaret Kelly (1910-2004) was not French, she was instrumental in developing Parisian cabaret, and established a dance troupe which conquered hearts all over the world, and which continues to influence how many shows are staged today.
Born in Dublin, she was adopted at birth by a dressmaker.
Mother and daughter left Ireland after the bloody 1916 Easter Uprising, and moved to Liverpool where Margaret was enrolled in dance classes.
It soon became clear that she was exceptionally talented, and in 1924, at the age of 14, she left school to begin her career as a dancer.
Her first job was with a company in Scotland called Hot Jocks, and her second was at the Scala in Berlin, where she stayed for five years.
In 1930, aged just 20, she moved to Paris to work for the Folies Bergère.
Originally built as an opera house, the Folies Bergère was a light entertainment venue originally offering operettas, comic opera, popular songs and gymnastics, until in 1886 Edouard Marchand came up with the idea of a music hall review starring scantily clad dancers.
The audiences were a mix of working-class and wealthy, and the shows staged there were designed to delight and amuse.
Productions were colourful, exuberant and extravagantly designed: just four years before Margaret Kelly arrived, Josephine Baker had caused a sensation by appearing in a costume consisting of little more than a string of fake bananas around her hips. Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett, and many others launched their careers at the Folies Bergère.
Read more: A brief history of the original Mistinguett
The new dancer from Ireland earned the nickname ‘Miss Bluebell’ because of her blue eyes, and after only two years at the Folies Bergère, founded her own troupe called The Bluebell Girls.
In contrast to the petite naked women at the review, from the beginning Mrs Kelly only employed tall girls, and added to their height with vertiginous high heels.
The routines were slick and rhythmic, very quickly making the Bluebells the stars of the show.
Wartime bravery made into film
In 1939, she married Marcel Leibovici, a musician working at the review, and during WW2 they had two sons, Patrick and Francis.
During the Occupation, despite being pregnant with her second child, she was briefly arrested and imprisoned in Besançon.
In 1942, her husband, who was Jewish, was arrested and taken to an internment camp in Gurs, south-west France.
Rescued by the Resistance and smuggled back to Paris, Margaret hid him until the Liberation.
She was interrogated several times by the Gestapo, who suspected that she was harbouring her husband. But she never gave away his location, and this romantic story formed the basis for François Truffaut’s 1980 film The Last Metro (Le Dernier Métro).
Starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, the story follows the fortunes of a small theatre in Montmartre during the Occupation.
Due to fuel shortages, audiences flocked to theatres to keep warm in the evenings, but due to the curfew, they had to catch the last metro home.
Long history of cabaret in Paris
Cabarets had appeared in Paris by the late 15th century, when they were regarded as a step up from taverns because they used tablecloths and served better food.
They were not particularly associated with entertainment, but by the 17th century had become the preferred meeting places for actors, artists and writers, including La Fontaine, Molière, and Racine.
By 1773, poets, painters, musicians and writers were frequenting a cabaret called Le Caveau in Paris, where they wrote and performed satirical songs.
By the 18th century, the café-concert had appeared, offering food along with music, singers or magicians.
Cabaret as we would recognise it today first emerged in Paris around 1881, in a club called the Chat Noir, which listed amateur entertainers offering readings, shadow plays, songs and comic skits, usually quite bawdy, which used the bourgeoisie as the butt of their jokes.
The acts were linked by a master of ceremonies. The great and the good mixed with bohemians and artists at the Chat Noir.
Writers, journalists, prostitutes, students, models, and aristocrats packed into the tiny club, which eventually moved into larger premises.
The entertainment included jokes against the government and the rich, and at one time Erik Satie provided the musical accompaniment.
A period of intense creativity and new ideas
By 1889, the Moulin Rouge had developed from a dance hall to a cabaret featuring performances of the risqué cancan.
The development of Parisian nightlife during this period went hand in hand with industrial advances (the construction of the Eiffel tower, the appearance of the first photographs and steam trains) and the blossoming of a unique artistic community around Montmartre.
Among them, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec immortalised the world of the Moulin Rouge in his graphic art.
It was a period of intense creativity in Paris, a city where creative thinkers gathered to exchange new ideas.
The cabarets of the past, filled with lowlifes, wealthy thrill seekers, political commentators, barflies, drinkers, and brilliant artists, morphed into cabarets with the addition of erotic dancers and the new jazz music.
By the end of the 1800s, there were dozens of cabarets, clubs and music halls across Paris, and they had started to specialise.
Some continued performing political humour, some were purely theatrical, and others focused on the macabre or the erotic. Only a few, like the Lapin Agile, still attracted artists and bohemians.
Dinner show concept for Bluebell Girls
In 1945, after the war, Margaret Kelly, Marcel Leibovici and their children remained in Paris, and began working with Donn Arden, an American choreographer and producer at the Paris Lido.
Together they came up with the concept of the dinner show. With their heels and headdresses, the Bluebell Girls towered over all the other dancers, and their shows presented a dizzying display of colour and movement.
The troupe soon became the stars of the cabaret at the Lido, and began building an international reputation.
By the 1950s, the Bluebell Girls were an international organisation with permanent dance troupes in Las Vegas as well as all across Europe, Africa and Eastern Asia.
Margaret rose to challenge after tragedy
In 1961, however, tragedy struck when Marcel Leibovici fell asleep at the wheel and was killed in a car crash.
He had been an integral part of the team, managing all the financial and orchestral side of the organisation.
As well as Patrick and Francis, he and Margaret had also had two more children, Florence and Jean-Paul.
Suddenly Margaret became responsible for the entire business as well as four children.
She rose to the challenge, however, continuing to grow the business, adding topless dancing to the show in 1970.
Fiercely protective of ‘her girls’
Over her career, Mrs Kelly trained more than 14,000 Bluebells, often employing ballerinas who had become too tall for ballet.
Fiercely protective of ‘her girls’, she insisted that they were dancers, not strippers, and that they were not allowed to get too close to the audience.
She was well-known for her charity work, and many dancers remained loyal even after they had stopped working for ‘Miss Bluebell’.
She retired in 1986 and sold the Bluebell name to the Lido, but still visited the cabaret regularly.
BBC drama series of her life
Over her 72-year career, she was awarded an OBE, became a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, and a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite.
The BBC made a drama series about her life, and numerous books have been published about the history of the Bluebell Girls and the Paris Lido.
She died in 2004, and is buried in the cemetery at Montmartre alongside her youngest son Jean-Paul, who died in 1996.
The Lido continued as a dinner cabaret venue until July 2022, when it finally closed its doors. After extensive renovations, it is due to be re-opened as a concert hall.
The Folies Bergère has already moved in this direction, offering a programme of concerts and musical shows with a bar open for an hour before the show.
The Moulin Rouge continues to offer dinner cabarets (starting at €205 per person) and late-night cabarets with a glass of champagne for €88 per person.
Margaret Kelly’s contribution to French culture is immeasurable.
Her chorus lines of glamorous dancers remain part of the image of ‘Gay Paree’: an ephemeral image of twinkling nightlife, daring dancers, erotic possibility and sophistication, even if the reality was somewhat less gilded.
Margaret Kelly’s former business associate, Donn Arden, ran the Lido de Paris show at the Stardust in Las Vegas from 1958 to 1991, proudly basing it on the original Paris show.