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Thomas Edison, Isadora Duncan : Belle McKee Dies at 101; Knew the Rich, Famous

Times Staff Writer

Belle McKee, the cigar-smoking centenarian who as a young girl watched Thomas Alva Edison sit on goose eggs as he pondered the development of an incubator, who as a young woman drove an ambulance in France in World War I and danced with Isadora Duncan, and who as a senior citizen became a fascinating guest in the swimming pools and on the dance floors of this city, died Wednesday night.

Mrs. McKee, who outlived a husband, a lover or two and a collection of acquaintances who ranged from Arturo Toscanini to legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku, was 101.

She had been living with one of her two daughters, actress Andrea King, until a few months ago when she was admitted to a care center where she died in her sleep Wednesday night, King said.

Fascinated by Inventor

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Given to cigars and pipes (one was a gift from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French World War I leader, to thank her for loaning him an apartment), Mrs. McKee was born across the street from Edison in Milan, Ohio, and became fascinated with the eccentric inventor’s ways. She recalled in an interview with The Times last year how he would sit on eggs for hours, obviously calculating incubation time. He once gave her one to incubate, “but all I got was a warm goose egg.”

She also remembered the night a short time later when her home was wired for light “and the man who did it (invented the light bulb) was right across the street.”

Her father was a co-inventor, with the Otis family, of the grain elevator, and Sid Otis became an early beau. But before she was to marry years later, she toured Europe, where she developed a taste for cigars, went to college and then to New York City, where she studied dance. It was there she first met Duncan, doyenne of modern dance.

She joined the Duncan troupe and performed in scanty costumes in New York until the outbreak of World War I, when she volunteered to drive ambulances in France. She returned to this country after her father’s death and eventually came to California, where she taught Duncan’s radical “rhythms” at Pomona College and UCLA (“when it was on Vermont Avenue” near downtown Los Angeles).

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Staged Pageants

In Los Angeles she staged pageants with Agnes de Mille, whose film director uncle, Cecil, supplied props, and married (for probably the first but possibly the second time). She and her Wall Street lawyer husband, Douglas McKee, moved to upstate New York, where she became involved with the New York Philharmonic Board of Directors and Toscanini.

After her husband’s death in 1962, she returned to California to live with daughter Andrea, by then a successful film actress.

In Beverly Hills, she was a favorite of actor Buddy Rogers, widower of Mary Pickford, who encouraged her to make regular use of his swimming pool. Water had become a favored habitat after she, DeMille and Kahanamoku staged an aquatic pageant at UCLA.

And she also attended the monthly meetings of the Women’s Committee of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. and the association’s regular dances where her antics with Joe Wagstaff, an 83-year-old who once was a protege of George M. Cohan, often cleared the floor.

She was, as Rogers once sang to her across his pool, “younger than springtime.”


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