Before her 19th birthday, Gwynn Kellar performed ballet for U.S. troops throughout much of Europe, exchanged pleasantries with diminutive actor Mickey Rooney, and had even snuck into the Trial of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg. She also received a captain’s rank in the U.S. Army.
Kellar, who now lives in Flat Rock with her husband Jim, was one of 12 ballet dancers from New York’s Radio City Music Hall touring with the United Services Organization during the last leg of World War II. When her 83-year-old memory cannot recall the names of towns she visited or how many performances she gave (“139 in three months,” Kellar’s husband interrupts), she shakes her head and sighs. Luckily, she retrieves a faded envelope from a hall closet stuffed with letters home to her parents in Brooklyn dated between July 1945 and January 1946. Her parents kept every letter from their 18-year-old daughter.
“I have seen some terrible sights. Some of the boys are covered from head to toe in casts and bandages, with only slits for their eyes and mouths. They appreciate us more than anyone else,” Kellar wrote in a letter home from Germany dated October 13, 1945. In addition to performing, she also visited wounded soldiers in European hospitals three afternoons a week.
Kellar thumbs through the faded newspaper clippings and tattered letters with perfectly manicured nails, her petite loafers barely making an imprint on her spotless white carpet. Jim squints at the grainy newspaper photos of the ballet dancers and the leggy Rockettes as they depart for Europe in July 1945. He picks out his wife standing next to Athena Kellar, his sister and Keller’s former roommate during her years dancing ballet on point in New York. The couple met six months later when Athena introduced her brother to Kellar. Jim had recently returned to New York from his service in the Pacific. The couple married in 1949 and had four children and seven grandchildren.
Jim helps trigger Kellar’s memory, even teasing her about her pampered stint as an army captain. All the performers were automatically given the rank to protect them in the event of their capture.
“They [U.S. officers] were doing everything, and you were just sitting in the truck,” Jim chides Kellar, who blushes and nods her head. Jim recalls that USO shows were beyond description. “I was three years living in tents in jungles, and to see an American girl was just unbelievable,” he comments.
Kellar laced her first pair of point shoes when she was five years old and auditioned for the Radio City Music Hall when she was 16. After landing a regular spot as a dancer and a weekly $32 salary, she lived in a hotel and took time off from school. She performed in four shows a day, every day of the week. “The truant officer said my mother should be put in jail for letting me take a whole month off of school,” Kellar laughs.
After a request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to fulfill recreational needs for the increasing U.S. armed forces, six civilian agencies formed the USO in New York in 1941. Kellar was one of the 7,000 USO performers that traveled overseas to entertain U.S. troops during the war. She auditioned separately for a spot with the tour, which also featured famous faces like Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney.
“Guess who is sleeping in the room next to mine? Mickey Rooney! He’s a terrific person,” Kellar wrote in a letter home. “I had a really long talk with him last night. People say he’s a show off, but he’s not. He’s a sincere, down-to-earth boy. He writes his wife every day. Do you know he’s shorter than I am?”
Kellar often included accounts of destroyed buildings in bombed European towns and endless meals of “spam and beans” in her letters home. But they’re not all reflective of the horrors of war. She described her social activities during her off days, which most likely involved flirting with the U.S. soldiers, who were eager to set their eyes on American girls.
“Of course, at night I’ve been going out with GIs. Athena and I are very proud of ourselves as we haven’t given an officer a date yet,” she wrote home in a letter dated Aug. 1, 1945. “You should have seen us last night. The two dates we had took us to an enlisted man’s dance. Being that we were the only two American girls in the place, we were just mobbed. They all formed a line to dance with us. Most of the boys hadn’t danced with an American girl in two years.”
Kellar would eventually go on a date with an officer, one of the medics with a bronze and a silver star. The officer’s name was Jack Held, and he makes his first appearance in one of Kellar’s letters home on Sept. 21, 1945. In a letter dated four days later from Salzburg, Austria, Kellar wrote, “We’re very much alike in many respects. The only trouble is that he’s Catholic. Mom and Pop, what do you say about me marrying a Catholic?”
Kellar continued to write Held, mentioning in a letter dated December 20, 1945 that Held joked he was “chasing a girl all over Germany and Austria.” In the same letter, she wrote, “his religion means more to him than anything in the world, and as long as he feels that way, and I feel the way I do, we can never marry.” Her next few sentences quickly moved onto the Mickey Rooney encounter.
Kellar remembers particular events quite vividly, such as attending the Nuremberg trials in December 1945. The first series of trials, which prosecuted major leaders of the Nazi party, ran from November 1945 to October 1946 in the German town of Nuremberg. Since no USO performers were allowed to attend the trials, Kellar said she dressed as a secretary to sneak in.
“All week long I’d been promoting deals to get in, but no luck because the Army said no USO performers were allowed. So yesterday morning this captain calls me (8:00 in the morning) and tells me to dress in civilian clothes and hurry down,” Kellar wrote in a letter dated December 20 from Nuremberg. “Gee it was so interesting. The session was on SA men or storm troopers. All the defendants were present, and I never thought I’d be looking Hess, Goering, Doenitz, von Ribbentrop and Julius Streicher right in the face… I’ve learned so much here in Germany. I’ll never forget this trip in any way, even though my dancing has slipped.”
She describes in the greatest detail the memory of which she’s least proud. “I was sleeping on the couch and I noticed it all night long,” Kellar laughs about her one looted item from an appropriated Austrian home. “That’s terrible when I think about it now.”
Jim does not share Kellar’s shame about the golden fan now hanging in a sitting room adorned with other items collected on the Kellar’s travels over the past sixty years to places like India, Greece and Israel.
“Germany was defeated, so it was like everything was up for grabs. What would have been unacceptable today was the pattern then,” Jim explains.
Kellar’s weekly bridge partner and fellow Flat Rock retiree, Gail Zink, says it was like pulling teeth to get Kellar to talk about her performing days. Pictures of the young dancer around the house on bridge days provoked questions, and Zink said Kellar gradually revealed more details. In fact, Zink laughs about how nervous Kellar said she was before speaking on Veteran’s Day at the Sammy Williams senior center in Hendersonville.
“She said she was scared to death. She had to bring her husband along for moral support,” Zink says.
Kellar seems humble today, disregarding stories of dates with GIs and backstage costume changes with a nonchalant wave of her hand. But her letters home reveal an eager teenage girl caught in one of history’s darkest times.
But as Kellar puts it, “When you’re 18, life’s a ball.”