19 March 2024

Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly's family home in Kiama a step inside Hollywood history

| Kellie O'Brien
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woman sitting on front verandah chair of historic country house

Cate Menzies on the front porch of Orry-Kelly’s family home, which is now an Airbnb. Photos: Kellie O’Brien.

When you step inside the quaint blue Kelly Cottage at Jerrara, you’re transported back in time to the family abode of three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed Hollywood icons in the most illustrious films of the 1950s.

Now an Airbnb owned by Cate and Neil Menzies on their working farm, the meticulously preserved cottage exudes the nostalgia of Hollywood’s golden era and stands as a tribute to Orry-Kelly’s enduring legacy.

Born Orry George Kelly in Kiama to a tailor, his original childhood home burnt down during The Great Fire of 1899, which ravaged Kiama and its buildings, but was rebuilt in 1922, a year after he made his move to New York.

“The original house was pretty much gutted and so Orry’s parents built this new place and they were able to salvage a leadlight window from the original home,” Cate said.

“When Orry came back to visit his parents, that would be where he stayed.”

In the US, he started in set designs before transitioning into costume design, where he dressed everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and won Oscars for An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959).

He was the first Australian to win an Oscar for Best Costume Design and, until Catherine Martin in 2014, was the most prolific Australian Academy Award winner.

Just like his romantic on-again, off-again relationship with Hollywood heartthrob Cary Grant, whom he also lived with for a time, his connection to Kiama remained largely unknown until recent years.

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For Cate and Neil, they knew somewhat of Orry’s history from the Orry-Kelly room at the Pilot’s Cottage Museum in Kiama but became immersed in his world once they stumbled upon the family cottage in Terralong St in 2016.

Cate read his tell-all memoir, written in the ’60s but not released until 2016 due to the personal details of his relationship with Grant, and watched the documentary Women He’s Undressed.

“My husband’s a property valuer and he knows I love old places,” she said.

“A couple had bought the property, situated as you’re heading up to Blowhole Point, and they wanted to develop the site.”

She said instead of knocking it down, the cottage was being auctioned and Cate and Neil went along “just to have a look”.

“It was being auctioned on the proviso that it was removed from the site within 30 days and all the proceeds were going to charity,” she said.

“We were the only bidders on the day.”

Cate said the building required a lot of work because it was dilapidated, but they had tried to keep it true to its original state while incorporating modern conveniences.

“It had been redone over the years and modified and we’ve taken it back to as close to the original as we could and preserved the lovely ceilings and hallways,” she said.

“The floorboards are magnificent.

“We’ve got some of his photos and I’m very lucky to have one of his original paintings, which is quite gorgeous.

“It’s just the most beautiful picture – I find myself looking at it all the time – of two ladies strolling down the street in the rain.

“He was a beautiful artist and even his sketches of his couture were just lovely.”

The Airbnb also features antique furniture, bar doors from the old Brighton Hotel, the documentary in which he’s described as “the greatest costume designer of all time”, his memoir, and photos of him with the likes of Monroe and Grant.

Cate said she grew up watching some of his 280 films, dating from the 1930s.

And they weren’t your average films, but Hollywood classics, including 42nd Street, Casablanca, Oklahoma!, and The Maltese Falcon.

“Having older parents, I’d grown up with Some Like It Hot and all those sorts of movies, and to know that he was the one who had designed Marilyn Monroe’s famous dresses, Bette Davis … it’s pretty amazing, really,” she said.

Cate said while there was the Orry-Kelly Stage in Hindmarsh Park, she would love to organise screenings of his documentary or films, or an Orry-Kelly painting event for artists, as another way to honour him.

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“There’s something about old Hollywood,” she said.

“I know it wouldn’t have been all glitter behind the scenes, but it’s just an escapism for so many people and a different world of glamour.

“Even though he had his demons and obviously back then being homosexual.

“In that arty world, everyone knew about those relationships, but the world at large was kept in the dark because they were made to marry.”

Orry-Kelly went to Kiama Public School and Wollongong High before being sent to Sydney at age 17 to study banking, but while there he developed his love for theatre and tailoring, leading him to New York.

“For what he did – he left the country on his own – I think of him as quite a remarkable character and almost unsung,” Cate said.

“He really made it in a world so far removed from Kiama. I find that really quite inspiring.”

Orry-Kelly died of liver cancer in Hollywood in 1964 at age 66, with his pallbearers including Grant, Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder and George Cukor.

Learn more about Kelly Cottage.

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