Mary Michell Kernell, 87, Who Had the Gift

Sept. 9, 1925 - Jan. 14, 2013
Mary Michell Kernell - Sept. 9, 1925 - Jan. 14, 2013

    Mary Michell Kernell, 87,  who came to Amagansett in the early 1980s by way of Beverly Hills, New York City,  Port Washington, and the village of Sands Point in Nassau County, and whose family described her as savvy, extremely well read, kind, and strikingly beautiful, died on Jan. 14 at Southampton Hospital following a brief illness.
    One of her daughters, Georgette Bruenner of Glen Head, said this week, “From the time I was a little girl I knew that my mother was not like the others — Port Washington mothers just didn’t look like she did! My friends all said she was so young and glamorous. Everyone always wanted to be at our house. She made rearing six kids look easy.”
    “She loved sports, particularly baseball, and on summer nights after dinner she’d gather all the kids together to play. We lived on a steep hill, so if the ball got by the catcher, it rolled all the way down to Plandome Road. Baseball’s still my favorite sport.”
    Born on Sept. 9, 1925, Ms. Kernell and her parents and two brothers lived comfortably in Beverly Hills until the Depression, when they moved into a small apartment on Hollywood Boulevard and began renting their house to a stream of movie people. 
    “She loved Beverly Hills High School,” said Ms. Bruenner. “She was an original 90210 girl. We used to tease her about that.”
    After attending the University of Oregon and  the University of California at Los Angeles, she was married at 20, following World War Two, to Joseph Kernell, a navy lieutenant commander who had captained a P.T. boat in the Solomon Islands, and been a buddy of Jack Kennedy’s.
    “My mother and father had known each other for a long time through my father’s sister, Peggy,” said another daughter, Kitty Stewart of Sea Cliff. “When she heard Walter Winchell say on the radio that my Dad was squiring around Lili Damita, a beautiful French actress who had been divorced from Errol Flynn, she wrote him a letter asking why he was hanging around with an old bag like Lili Damita when he could be dating a cute young thing like her.” The argument ultimately proved persuasive.
    Ms. Kernell crossed the country for their wedding on the Super Chief and the Twentieth Century Limited. She found the Super Chief elegant, but on boarding the Twentieth Century Limited in Chicago she was blown away. “Welcome to the East,” a porter said, with aplomb.
    The Kernells lived first in the city and then in Port Washington and Sands Point. They divorced after many years of marriage, by which time their six children were grown, but remained friends.    Chris Lee, a son of one of Ms. Kernell’s best friends, Virginia Lee — her sole rival in the beauty department at Beverly Hills High School — once said that while some people painted great paintings and some wrote great books, Ms. Kernell had helped him to understand that the greatest gift was to be able to create a beautiful day, for oneself and for others.
    “One of the things I loved most about my grandmother,” said Johnna Norris of Carlsbad, Calif., “was her compassion for other people. She had a way of creating a very warm, loving, and respectful environment for everyone around her. At the same time, she was very honest and did not sugarcoat anything. I also adored her wicked sense of humor. I’ve been thinking this past week about the sound of her laughter. . . . We laughed a lot.”
    Surviving are her children, Ms. Stewart, Ms. Bruenner, Mary Graves of Springs, James Kernell of Ronkonkoma, Joseph Kernell Jr. of New York City, and John Kernell of Springs, six grandchildren, and eight great-grandhildren.
    A celebration for family and friends will be held at a future date