Actress Pat Kirkwood, once a star of British musical theater, has died, a close family friend said Wednesday. She was 86.
Kirkwood's career of more than 60 years included leading roles in musicals written by Noel Coward and Cole Porter. But Kirkwood was dogged her whole life by rumors of a romantic liaison with Prince Philip _ which she always denied _ after the two were spotted dancing at a London nightclub.
Kirkwood died on Christmas Day at a nursing home in Ilkley, northern England, author and royal biographer Michael Thornton, said in a statement. She had been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and a chest infection, he said.
The actress, born Feb. 24, 1921 to a Scottish shipping clerk, was first spotted at a talent contest on the Isle of Man, and began her professional career as a 14-year-old singer in the British Broadcasting Corp. radio's "The Children's Hour."
She made her London stage debut in 1937 with a role in "Cinderella," and rose to national prominence after her appearance in "Black Velvet" in 1939, where she won critics' praise with her renditions of Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" and "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love."
Kirkwood made a bid for Hollywood stardom, appearing in Van Johnson's "No Leave, No Love" in 1946. But the musical was a flop and Kirkwood suffered a nervous breakdown, spending eight months in a New York sanatorium.
It was in 1948 that she was introduced to Prince Philip; the two were seen dancing together for several hours at a nightclub at a time when Philip's wife, Princess Elizabeth, was eight months pregnant. The princess became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.
Kirkwood always denied rumors of an affair, which her fourth husband, Peter Knight, complained had cost her a chance to receive a royal honor. Eventually she stopped talking about it altogether.
"She came to the conclusion that the more she spoke the truth, the more she was disbelieved," Thornton said.
Kirkwood continued to work on stage throughout the 1960s, appearing in Somerset Maugham's "The Constant Wife" and Noel Coward's "Hay Fever." She continued to play roles through the 1970s and 1980s.
Kirkwood, married four times, had no children. She is survived by her husband. Thornton said a funeral service was to be held at the parish church in Bingley, near her north England home, in the new year.