When Grace Kelly, legendary beauty, classic Hollywood star and Princess of Monaco, was asked if she would write an autobiography, her reply was telling. “No,” she said, “but I would like to write one about my father, in which I am only a postscript.” For most of the world, this must have been baffling: how could her father possibly be more significant than one of the most famous women in the world? For Americans of a previous generation, particularly those from Philadelphia, it would have been wholly understandable, however. John B. ‘Jack’ Kelly was a legend in his own right.
A self-made multi-millionaire, influential politician and classic American patriarch, Kelly was also the greatest rower of his time, winner of three Olympic gold medals. Until his retirement in 1924 he dominated the sport at home and abroad, and remains the only rower in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. However, it’s for a race he didn’t win — in which he didn’t even compete — that he is most renowned. A living embodiment of the American dream, he also came to symbolise the snobbery and class division in sport, and his treatment shone a light on the hypocrisy that underlay the supposed idealism and purity of that world.
John Brendan Kelly was born in 1889, one of 10 children of Irish immigrants who settled in Philadelphia. Having worked from a young age, he became a bricklayer in his late teens, but also spent much of his time playing sports. He could have been an American football player, but chose rowing, particularly highly regarded in Philadelphia, where the boat clubs along the Schuylkill River dated back almost to the Civil War of 1861. Kelly joined the most prestigious of these, Vesper, and became a national champion in the single sculls, nicknamed the Iron Man.