LAST OF THE KELLYS CHECKS OUT OF OC – By William Kelly
Ocean City’s image as a family resort was shaped in large measure by the family of a Philadelphia bricklayer John B. Kelly, who began to visit Ocean City in the 1920s and established a living local legacy with a family that included two Olympic rowing champions, a President and Steward of the Atlantic City Race Course, and Academy Award winning actress and princess and a Secretary of the Navy.
It all centered around the Kelly family home at 26th Street and Wesley Avenue beach, where the Kelly family maintained a residence from 1929 until the 2001, a 72 year run.
For Lizanne Kelly Levine, the last surviving daughter of John B. Kelly, the past few years were exceptionally hard, with the death of her daughter, Grace and husband, Donald Levine.
Her father built the original Kelly house on the North West side of 26th Street and Wesley Avenue in 1929, the year daughter Grace was born. It was the only house around. As the neighborhood grew up around them, with riparian rights to the sea, a brick duplex beach house was built across the street on the North East corner in 1960, the year John B. Kelly died.
While her mother, also an athlete, lived to be 90 after a debilitating stroke, her older sister Peggy passed away before her sister Grace died in a spectacular auto accident in Monaco in 1982, which captured the world’s attention.
Then in 1985 brother John “Kell” died of a heart attack while jogging along East River Drive (now Kelly Drive) near Boathouse Row along the Schuykill River in Philadelphia, within an hour of her brother-in-law’s equally sudden death in an office building a few blocks away.
Now, with the passing of her husband, Donald Levine, Lizanne sat back in the living room of her Ocean City home and reflected on her past and her future. She recently sold the house.
“We’ve had it tough, but we’ve always got thorugh it,” she said. “We got through almost everything. We’ve had a lot of good times too. But now my whole family is gone. It’s the end of an era and I’m the last of the Mohicans.”
And now she feels it’s time for her to move on, especially since the big brick beach house is too large for her to live there alone, and so she will leave at the end of the summer of 2001.
The Kelly family legend has been told and retold, passed on to all Ocean City lifeguards, surfers, crew rowers and little girls who dream of becoming a princess. Lizanne Levine remembers it all too well.
She remembers the early years in Ocean City when, although she was only a few years old, the family began to spend summers leasing an apartment near 8th street. After two years, in 1929, her father bought the beachfront lot at 26th street and Wesley Avenue and built the two story house that’s still there today.
“My brother and sister used to say my mother and father built it up in the ‘boonies’ – the boondocks, because 2nd street was the street and most popular bathing beach at the time, and they had to get a ride or hitch hike to get down there.”
“This was Old Ocean City,” she explained. “There weren’t any other houses around. The only other house was at 25th street on the beach, and I didn’t even know who lived there.”
“My mother selected that style,” Levine recalled, “because she saw similar buildings in Florida and told my father what she wanted.”
The Spanish Mission Revival design is similar to a number of other significant Ocean City buildings from the same period – the Music Pier, Chatterbox, Flanders Hotel and other private residences.
In the winter they lived in East Falls, a small, blue-collar, working class neighborhood on the river near center city Philadelphia, but every spring they would return to Ocean City at the Jersey Shore.
“We came down as soon as we got out of school,” Lizanne recalled, “I always had my birthday, the 25th of June, in Ocean City, so we were always there before then.”
“We always had beach parties and cookouts on the beach because my dad built a brick fireplace, but the Storm of ’44 washed that away. That was the worst storm.”
Although she was still a child, she remembers it distinctly. “The waves were breaking over the all there, and they said on the radio that Ocean City was being evacuated, and my father jumped in his car and drove down here and found us all save and sound. But it was really strong winds, I could hardly stand up. My mother wanted to take some candles over to the neighbors across the street but I couldn’t stand up against the wind. I was 11 years old at the time but it truly was an experience.
“Mother would send us down to the beach and never think anything of it because the lifeguards babysat for us, and there weren’t that many kids on the beach. So mother reciprocated with a few sandwiches for the lifeguards. The late John Carey was a lifeguard on this beach for several years, and I always had a crush on the lifeguards. I loved John Carey.”
The Kellys struck up a personal rapport with all of the lifeguards, which would eventually include her brother Kell, one of the most proficient rowers on the OCBP.
It was her father, however, who made the stamp that was imprinted on the Kelly family.
Of course both houses Kelly built in Ocean City were made of brick. John B. Kelly started out as a brick layer and laborer, but eventually owned his owned company, whose slogan “KELLY FOR BRICKWORK” on signs and t-shirts were seen at the construction of many of the skyscrapers that make up Philadelphia’s skyline.
An Olympic gold medal rower, John B. Kelly went on to the Henley Regatta on the Thames in London, but because he was a laborer who worked with his hands, was not considered gentleman enough to qualify. It was a slight that he would remember and vow to revenge at the baptism of his son “Kell,” who also became an Olympic champion, and who returned to the river Thames and avenged his father’s slight by winning the Henley.
When Kell returned home, all of Philadelphia met him at the train station and gave him a parade to the Henry Avenue home in East Falls. Even when successful, John B., as he was called, refrained from moving to the more fashionable blueblood Main Line, and stayed in East Falls. For the same reason he shunned the prestigious Margate and Ventnor beach front neighborhoods for Ocean City.
Lizanne, like her mother Margaret Major, was an athlete, played most college sports, basketball, hockey and tennis. Margaret Major Kelly was the first women physical education teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, so sports and competition ran in the family.
“When I was a teenager,” Lizanne recalls, “14th street was the most popular beach, but everybody went swimming and diving at the Flander’s pool. That’s where I met Don, who became my husband. Grace and Peggy liked to dive, and Don was a great diver, and he taught swimming and diving at the Flanders. I was taking my nieces down and was waiting for them to finish their swimming lessons, sitting poolside, and Don was across the way teaching a lesson. He looked over to me and I looked at him, and he started to imitate me. If I crossed my legs, he crossed his legs, and well, after that, a mutual friend introduced me to him. And that was all, she wrote.”
After the sun went down, they strolled the boardwalk, or hit the Point – Somers Point, where the nightclub scene was in full swing.
“I can remember going over there a lot of times,” she said. “I’ll never forget one time, at Bay Shores, or was it Tony Marts? Grace and I were the youngest, and while we weren’t, we looked over 21, and didn’t have to lie, we just walked in. No one carded us. We didn’t have fake cards because mother wouldn’t have it. She said, ‘You can go in there if they let you in, but I don’t want you drinking with fake ID.’ Well anyway, we went over to see the band Mike Pedicin, Sr.. And while we were there my older sister Peggy came with her husband. She was 23, but they wouldn’t let her in without an ID. She looked in and sees Grace an I sitting there, and we waved and laughed at her, and she got so mad.”
“She said to the man at the door, ‘Look, you let my two younger sisters in, and you won’t let me in?’ And they wouldn’t let her in. We got the biggest kick out of that. The next morning she said, ‘Mother, can you believe they wouldn’t let me in and they let those to brats in!’”
The father, John B. Kelly was one of the founders and builder of the Atlantic City Race Course, which was also built out of brick in 1944. Horses and the race track was always a big part of their family life at the shore. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, before casino gambling came to Atlantic City, the race track would attract 30,000 people for the nightly races. Lizanne’s husband Don Levine worked at the track as a race steward.
In 1960, shortly after returning from his annual Kentucky Derby party, John B. Kelly died, and Lizanne’s mother decided to build the beach house across Wesley Avenue from the original house. “We needed more room for the grandchildren,” Lizanne explained. “Of course it’s a very sold building, I don’t know what they’re going to do, but they’ll have trouble tearing it down. We had a couple of hurricane parties and went upstairs to watch it, and it was fun.”
The most fun, Leveine recalls, were the Labor Day beach barbeques, a seasonal tradition that’s still maintained by the family. “We still do it,” she notes. “ We still have the King of the Surf competition up at the 47th street beach because we now have too many people on this beach. We have body surf competitions and a chicken bake off. I’m a judge, Grace was a judge, and one year Kell had Frank Purdue down here to judge the bake off.”
Things changed a little bit after Grace married Prince of Monaco and became Princess Grace.
“Those several years were really unbelievable,” she recalled, “because as soon as she came back here people were hanging over the wall and looking in the windows, but we got through it. We got through almost anything.”
The neighbors however, were always very supportive of their privacy. Levine’s cousin John Lehman, who became Secretary of the Navy under President Regan, helped keep the Labor Day beach barbeques going.
“We have surf contests, bake offs, and other competitions,” he said in an interview a few years ago. “Grace used to come back to officiate the competition…She never lost sight of or forgot the values of the ‘family first.’ And that is so rare, since you often find people who succeed…totally sacrifice their families, and she didn’t.”
Grace’s daughter Caroline was visiting Ocean City when her husband died in a sports race accident, and on September 14, 1982 – John Lehman’s birthday, Princess Grace Kelly Grimaldi died in an auto accident in Monaco. It was the first September season she didn’t make it home for the annual family reunion and beach party.
Lizanne Levine and John Lehman continued the family tradition however. “One year we’d have the Labor Day bash here and the next year we’d have it at 47th street,” said Lizanne. But this year, 2001 will be the last summer for the Kellys at 26th street.
Some nuns from her old school visited for a week last month, and a new generation of grandchildren are now spending summers in Ocean City, looking for work at Bob’s Grill and the Chatterbox, where Grace once worked as a waitress one summer.
Without any big plans, Lizanne Levine is looking over some of the old photos of the good times in Ocean City.
“I just look around and one thing about this family is that they had not been camera shy. I have pictures that you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of them.”
As for what she’s going to do, “Well, I have friends on the east coast and the west coast of Florida. We always went to the east coast, because of the race track, but I’m going to go up the east coast and back the west coast, visiting all my former friends. They all come to see and visit me in the summer, so I’m going to visit them in the winter, tit for tat.”
“It’s the end of an era,” Levine said, “and we’ve had our share of tragedy, but we’ve had some really good times, too. “
And while she may be checking out, there’s always a new generation of the Philadelphia Kellys coming to Ocean City, where the Kelly family legacy will always be remembered.
[Editor’s note: William Kelly is not related to the Philadelphia family. He’s from the Camden Kelly’s ]