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Did you know that the father and brother of Princess Grace were among the most accomplished American competitors in the history of rowing?

Kelly v. Beresford
Kelly v. Beresford, 1920 Olympics / Photo: International Olympic Committee Museum Collection / Wikipedia

When it comes to water sports, not so many families have such a rich heritage as Princess Grace of Monaco had. Grace Kelly’s father, John Brendan Kelly Sr. was a triple Olympic champion, the first to be so in the sport of rowing. The brother of Princess Grace, John Brenden Kelly Jr. was also an accomplished rower, a four-time Olympian, and an Olympic medal winner.

John B. Kelly
John B. Kelly (1889-1960), in his shell on the Schuylkill River in 1920 / Photo: Wikipedia

John Brendan Kelly Sr.

The Philadelphia-based John Brendan Kelly Sr., the father of actress Grace Kelly was a multimillionaire in the bricklaying and construction industry. He was also an athlete, one of the most accomplished American competitors in the history of  rowing. He was a triple Olympic champion, the first to be so in the sport of rowing.

Grace Kelly’s father was a gifted athlete and competed in football, basketball and boxing in addition to rowing, which he learned on the Schuylkill River.

Kelly won 126 straight races in the single scull in 1919–20. In 1920, Kelly applied to race in the Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta. At the time, he was one of the most popular figures in the sport: he had won six U.S. national championships and was in the midst of his 126-race winning streak.

The Henley regatta, which is held annually on the River Thames in Henley, England, was the most prestigious event in rowing. Kelly’s application was rejected in part because he had done manual labor as a bricklayer. The rejection became widely publicized. This led Kelly to seek and gain redemption by going to the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, which he had originally not planned to attend.

Kelly was surprised that his entry was rejected. Kelly always maintained that he had been assured by the United States rowing officials that his entry would be accepted. In the 1950s he wrote to Jack Beresford, the winner of the 1920 Henley Diamond Sculls race, the following:

“Russell Johnson, secretary of the NAAO [the governing board for U.S. rowing] had an arrangement with the Henley officials that they would approve all entries from the United States, which he had made during his visit to England in the winter of 1919–20… I asked him to check with the Stewards to see if they would accept my entry because in my earlier days I had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. He contacted four of them and they told him to send my entry in; the war had changed the old rule and everything would be all right”.

His application, however, was rejected. The minutes of the regatta’s Committee of Management for June 3, 1920 read: “The list of entries … outside of the United Kingdom under Rule iv was presented … and received with the exception of Mr J.B. Kelly of the Vesper Boat Club to compete in the Diamond Sculls, which was refused under the resolution passed by the Committee on 7th June, 1906 ‘viz’ ‘That no entry from the Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia, or from any member of their 1905 crew be accepted in future’: Mr Kelly was also not qualified under Rule I (e) of the General Rules (manual labour).”

The regatta committee’s reference to Vesper Boat Club related to a dispute which arose following the 1905 regatta when the Vesper’s entry to the Grand Challenge Cup for eights was deemed to have breached the regatta’s rule on amateurism for using a public subscription to raise travel money. The result was a ban on entries from Vesper which was still in force in 1920.

As the regatta committee’s minutes also note, it was rejecting Kelly because he was deemed ineligible because of his bricklaying work. The regatta’s rules on amateurism excluded anyone “… who is or ever has been… by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer.”

Two days before he was due to sail to the UK, with his passage booked and his boat boxed, Kelly received a telegram which said: “Entry rejected; letter follows.” He never received the letter. The Henley Stewards later declared that they had informed the governing board for the U.S. rowing as soon as Kelly’s entry was processed, and that it was not their fault if the information was not passed on.

The affair was widely reported, especially in London, New York and Philadelphia. The Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta came in for heavy criticism. One interpretation was that they had excluded Kelly because they did not want an American to win the Diamonds. The publicity made Kelly widely popular and would later help his bricklaying business. The ban on Vesper was rescinded soon afterward and in 1937 the references in the Henley rules excluding manual labourers, mechanics, artisans and menial duties were deleted.

When he first made his application to race at Henley, Kelly told the press that if his entry was accepted, he would go to Henley and most likely would skip the Olympics. On learning of his rejection, Kelly was surprised and angered and stated: “I had made all the arrangements to sail for England … I’ll go to the Olympics now for sure. I want to get a crack at the man who wins the diamond sculls.”

Kelly soon had his chance, representing the United States at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. In a hard-fought race, he won the single scull event, extracting a measure of revenge by defeating the winner of the Diamond Sculls, British sculler Jack Beresford. Beresford was one of the most talented oarsmen of the day and would go on to win medals at five Olympics. The race, one of the closest in Olympic history, featured a dramatic duel down the stretch with Kelly winning by a second. Kelly and Beresford would go on to become good friends. Half an hour after the singles final, Kelly teamed with his cousin Paul Costello to win the double scull (2x) race, a feat which has never been repeated at the Olympic games. After his Olympic victory, Kelly purportedly mailed his racing cap to King George V with the note, “Greetings from a bricklayer”, for having been snubbed at Henley.

In 1924, Kelly and Costello repeated their success, winning the double-scull event at the Summer Olympics in Paris. This made Kelly the first rower to win three Olympic gold medals and one of the most famous and successful athletes of his generation.

Sculpture of John B. Kelly
Sculpture of John B. Kelly, on Kelly Drive in Philadelphia. Sculpture 1965 by Harry Rosin / Photo: Wikipedia

In 1967, Philadelphia erected a prominent statue of Kelly by artist Harry Rosin near the finish line of the Schuylkill River course that Kelly rowed. It is located just off of the scenic Kelly Drive, which is named for Kelly’s son, Jack Jr. Every year, USRowing, as the governing board is now known, bestows the Jack Kelly Award on an individual who represents the ideals that Kelly exemplified, including superior achievement in rowing, service to amateur athletics and success in their chosen profession.

He was also introduced as a member of the United States Olympic Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2003, the Princess Grace Challenge Cup was launched as an event for women’s quadruple sculls both in recognition of John B. Kelly and in memory of his daughter, Grace. 

In 2004, Grace’s son (and Kelly’s nephew) Prince Albert of Monaco presented the trophies at the Regatta.


John B. Kelly Jr.
John B. Kelly Jr. in 1945 / Photo: Toronto Star archives / Wikipedia

John Brenden Kelly Jr.

The elder brother of the actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, John Brenden Kelly Jr. was also an accomplished rower in his own right who served as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Interestingly, John Brenden Kelly Jr.’s nephew is the Principality’s current monarch HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco.

In 1947, Kelly Jr. won the Diamond Challenge Sculls (single scull) at the Henley, the event from which his father had been excluded. In recognition of his accomplishment, Kelly was awarded the 1947 James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States.

Kelly represented the United States at the 1948 Summer Olympics at London, United Kingdom, the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland and the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia in rowing in the single scull (1x). He represented the United States in the double scull (2x) at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Kelly won a bronze medal at the 1956 Games. He also won gold medals at the 1955 and 1959 Pan American Games and in 1949 at the European Championships.

Kelly became a passionate advocate for athletes. He was elected president of the Amateur Athletic Union in 1970 and stirred controversy by arguing that the amateur code had become outmoded, thereby helping free the Olympics from sham amateurism.

John B. Kelly Jr and his father, John B. Kelly Sr. in 1945/ Photo: Wikipedia
John B. Kelly Jr and his father, John B. Kelly Sr. in 1945/ Photo: Wikipedia / Photo: Wikipedia

In 1980, Kelly’s sister Princess Grace of Monaco was invited to present the trophies at the Regatta.

In February 1985, Kelly was elected president of the United States Olympic Committee. The appointment was short-lived – Kelly died three weeks later in a fatal heart attack while jogging to The Athletic Club in Philadelphia after his customary morning row on the Schuylkill River.

John Brenden Kelly Jr.’s private funeral was held in Philadelphia. Among the attendees were his brother-in-law HSH Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, his nieces HSH Princess Caroline and HSH Princess Stéphanie, his nephew the-then HSH Prince Albert, Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode and former Philadelphia mayors Frank Rizzo and William J. Green III.

Kelly was posthumously inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame as a contributor. Kelly and his father are the only parent-child duo in the Olympic Hall of Fame.

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