Dana Daisy Kennedy, Broadway dancer and literary muse, dies at 88
Wife of “Ironweed” author and NYS Writers Institute Founder William Kennedy was a canny businesswoman, famed hostess and the late-’70s queen of Capital Region disco instructors
An undated photo of Dana Kennedy. Provided by Brendan Kennedy
Obituary for Dana Daisy Kennedy, from the McVeigh Funeral Home in Albany
Averill Park - Dana Daisy Kennedy, 88, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Broadway and Chicago musicals, and wife of novelist William Kennedy died Friday, surrounded by family after battling Alzheimer’s disease for seven years. Born September 23, 1935, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, she began dancing at 11, rose spectacularly through the Manhattan dance world became celebrated as dancer, actress, model, and cultural star in Puerto Rico. Her parents were Fermin Segarra and Celia Irizzary. She attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Robert Joffrey, her ballet teacher, chose her for his first ballet company, so Dana danced at Jacob’s Pillow as a high school undergraduate. While in the Joffrey company she took the stage name of Dana Sosa.
A 1961 issue of Look magazine with Dana Kennedy on the cover. Provided by Brendan Kennedy
At 18 she auditioned for Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Me & Juliet” -- 300 aspirants for two dance roles. Richard Rodgers himself chose Dana as one of the two. The musical premiered in 1953, ran a year, and Dana went with it on the road. She danced with Olson & Johnson’s “Pardon My Antenna”, in Chicago, with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in Detroit, and did Summer Stock in Highland Park, Chicago. She later danced in “Pajama Game” on Broadway replacing Shirley MacLaine, then danced and sang in “News Faces of 1956.” When that show closed in 1956, she went to Puerto Rico to see her family and at a party for her in December, she met William Kennedy, a San Juan newspaper editor. They married a month later.
Dana and William Kennedy on their wedding day in 1957. Provided by Brendan Kennedy
The Miami Herald hired him as a reporter and less than a year later they left Miami for San Juan. He pursued novel writing and Dana resumed her theatrical career -- as actor, singer, model, and dancer on two weekly TV shows and a third that was aired in America. She had starring roles in Little Theater musicals, “Auntie Mame”, “Fiorello,” “Bye Bye Birdie” – in the latter co-starring with the young Raul Julia, later a Broadway and film star. Dana became such a cultural icon that William was sometimes called Mr. Sosa.
The Kennedys had two daughters born in Puerto Rico, Dana and Kathy. William was hired as managing editor of a new daily newspaper, The San Juan Star. In 1963 when a crisis in his family arose, they moved to Albany. William reported part-time for the Albany Times Union where he had previously worked. In 1970 the family expanded with the birth of Brendan.
To enhance family income Dana taught ballet in their Averill Park home and throughout the Averill Park School District. For 12 years her students danced with the New York City Ballet in Saratoga, and she choreographed musicals for Averill Park High School.
In 1973 Dana opened Grand Rags in a West Sand Lake mall, a women’s sportswear boutique, aided by her brother William Segarra, an apparel manufacturer. She divided the storefront space with her dance school. The boutique’s success prompted Dana to open another Grand Rags (again sharing space with dance) at Tamarac Plaza, Cropseyville. Her daughter Kathy helped her in teaching, notably during the disco craze when by popular request Dana (and Kathy) gave lessons. To stay abreast of the craze Mother and daughter took dance lessons in Manhattan, coincidentally choosing Deney Terrio, one of John Travolta’s dance coaches in “Saturday Night Fever” which started the craze. A 1980 fire destroyed several stores in the mall, with Grand Rags and the dance studio. Dana never re-opened.
William began publishing novels in 1968. In 1983 he published ‘Ironweed”, his fourth, earning him a lavish MacArthur Foundation grant, several literary prizes and movie contracts, and the insolvency that Dana had kept at bay, was ended. She was a magnificent cook and gracious host who illuminated countless dinner parties at the Kennedys’ rambling 19th-century Averill Park farmhouse. Even as Alzheimer’s fogged her memory, Dana moved with a balletic grace and exuded a timeless beauty. The “Latin from Manhattan” lived a full, rich and magnificent life.
Dana and William Kennedy dance during a “Hooray for Hollywood” evening with the Albany Symphony Orchestra at the Palace Theatre in 2006. The couple married in Puerto Rico in 1957. Photo by Shannon DeCelle
She is survived by her husband of 66 years, William Kennedy, and her three children, Dana Kennedy Nelson (the late Earl Nelson Jr.), Katherine Kennedy Caruso (Phillip Caruso), Brendan Kennedy (Tracy Kennedy); her grandchildren Casey Rafferty (Elizabeth); Shannon Rafferty; Sarah and Vincent Caruso; Annabella, Scarlett and Evelyn Kennedy; and her great-grandchildren Natalie, Calvin and Audrey Rafferty; her siblings, Ana Julia Segarra Foster, Oliva Segarra, many nieces and nephews; her cousin Emma Sbarra. She was predeceased by siblings William Segarra, Nelson Sosa, Manolo Segarra, Carlos Segarra, Estela Segarra Negron, Bienvenida Segarra Hagarty, and Gumita Cordero. The Kennedys wish to thank Dana’s loyal health aides for years of loving care: Mary Ann Conroy, Colleen McGovern, Leslie Milhouse, Cindy Novak, Hina Chaudhry, Stephanie Lamont, Shanice Bennett, Kim Ashley, and Dacia Brown; thanks also to Community Hospice for extraordinary attention to Dana’s final months. In lieu of flowers make donations to Alzheimer’s Association. Relatives and friends are invited to visit with Dana’s family on Tuesday, October 3, 2023, from 4 to 7 p.m. in the McVeigh Funeral Home, 208 North Allen Street, Albany, NY 12206. A time to reflect on her life and legacy will be held at 6:30 p.m. Please enter the funeral home from the rear parking lot entrance. She will be buried at St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands. To leave the Kennedy family a message on their guestbook, obtain directions, or view other helpful services, please visit www.mcveighfuneralhome.com
Author William Kennedy with his wife, Dana Kennedy, and three of their seven grandchildren. Provided by Brendan Kennedy
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From the Albany Times Union
Dana Daisy Kennedy, Broadway dancer and literary muse, dies at 88
By Steve Barnes, published Friday, Sept. 29, 2023
Reprinted with permission
AVERILL PARK — Dana Daisy Kennedy, a Broadway dancer who married the novelist William Kennedy in 1957 and was his stalwart supporter — teaching dance and running small businesses during lean years before her husband’s books found commercial success — died Friday after a long decline related to Alzheimer’s disease. Receiving home hospice care in recent months, she recently turned 88 and died at the rural house the Kennedy family had shared for 60 years.
“She was good at everything she turned her mind to,” Bill Kennedy said Friday afternoon, speaking a few hours after his wife’s death. “We were together for so long. It was wonderful.”
Theirs was a love story both classic and singular, starting with a New Year’s Eve first date that culminated near dawn on a pier in Dana’s native Puerto Rico, where they watched a chiaroscuro of swimming sharks in shadows cast by an underwater light.
Bill proposed on their third date. “When you see what you want, you ask for it,” he said in a 2017 WMHT documentary. “She said she’d think about it,” he said.
They married a month later.
Rex Smith, who was editor of The Record in Troy and later the Times Union before retiring in 2020, knew the Kennedys for 30 years; he referred to their 66-year marriage as “the unparalleled partnership of Bill and Dana.” Via email, Smith said, “Greek literature names nine muses; American literature has so greatly benefited from a muse named Dana, whose steadfast support always percolated under her husband’s work.”
Born Sept. 23, 1935, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, with the given name Ana Segarra, she moved to New York City as a child and began studying dance at age 11, later pursuing it at the High School of the Performing Arts. After meeting and taking lessons from choreographer Robert Joffrey, she joined his namesake ballet company after graduating from high school.
Friends convinced her to audition for a Broadway show although she was trained in ballet and had never seen a musical on the Great White Way. One of two women chosen from 300 hopefuls at her first audition, she was in the cast of “Me and Juliet,” by Rodgers & Hammerstein, when it opened in May 1953 and ran for nearly a year. Using the stage name Dana Sosa, she would later perform on Broadway in “The Pajama Game,” which had a two-year run.
On a return visit to her homeland, she met Bill Kennedy, a journalist seven years her senior who in 1956 had left his native Albany (and a reporting job at the Times Union) to work in Puerto Rico at an an English-language newspaper. When his father fell into poor health, the couple — now with two children — moved in 1963 to the Capital Region, settling in Averill Park.
Bill rejoined the Times Union, working as an investigative reporter and writing short fiction and novels at home, a craft he had pursued in college and resumed in earnest after studying with author Saul Bellow while in Puerto Rico. His first novel, “The Ink Truck,” was published in 1969.
Dana, who had contributed significantly to household income in Puerto Rico by modeling and dancing, experienced culture shock upon arriving upstate. With San Juan and New York City as her frames of reference — she liked to call herself “a Latin from Manhattan” — adjustment took time.
“I didn’t leave the house for months,” she told Irish America Magazine in 2002.
By the mid-’70s, with kids in school, her husband teaching part-time at the state University at Albany and working on novels, Dana was established as a businesswoman and dance teacher. Dance lessons that quickly outgrew the Kennedy home were held in a studio space, and she ran two Rensselaer County locations of a store for women’s clothing called Grand Rags. She also founded an exercise studio, at one point employing at least 18 staffers across all her ventures.
“She was always very busy, energetic, good with numbers,” said her son, Brendan Kennedy, who was born in Albany in 1970.
She later taught ballet at the Doane Stuart School while Brendan was a student there, and for two years in elementary school, he studied classical dance with his mother.
“I didn’t want to do it, but she said I was going to, so I did,” he said. (“I still know the basic five positions, and I can spell plié — it’s a good crossword clue.”)
The late-’70s disco craze prompted calls to the Kennedy school from people seeking instruction. Dana and her college-age daughters learned to boogie, in part by going out in Albany and New York City. Bill said their dance instructors in New York included John Travolta’s coach for “Saturday Night Fever,” the defining movie of the era.
Kathy Caruso, the middle of the three Kennedy offspring, said the family “called it market research: We’d get dressed up and go to Sneaky Pete’s” — a popular Albany dance club for many years. She said of her elder sister, also named Dana, “Dana’s boyfriend at the time saw us getting ready to go out and said, ‘Wait, you’re going to Sneaky Pete’s with your mom?’ ”
In a 1977 Troy Record story about Dana’s businesses, she said, “I think people are kind of floored at the amount of energy I have. Everything I do, I attack with a vengeance.” It was an approach to life that led one friend to dub her “Dana Dynamo.”
The profile quotes her as saying about her husband, “He’s not involved in my business and I’m not involved in his. He has his writing, and a writer’s life is really very private and isolated. We really have our two different worlds, but as apart as they are, they always manage to get together.”
“She was very resourceful and worked so hard for her family and for her businesses,” said Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, who has been close to the couple for 28 years. “She really protected him and organized his life. I think she made it possible for Bill to be a great artist.”
Bill was one of the first people Mancinelli-Cahill was introduced to in Albany after being hired as the artistic director of Capital Repertory Theatre in 1995, and she directed his first play, “Grand View,” for The Rep the following year.
“It seemed like they were always together: For so many years it was Dana and Bill here, Bill and Dana there,” Mancinelli-Cahill said.
The couple could be found on opening nights at the theater, area restaurants that stayed open late when they knew the Kennedys were coming and innumerable events for the New York State Writers Institute, which Kennedy founded at UAlbany in part with money from a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” he received in 1983.
Literary power couple
It was the same year that Bill’s breakthrough novel “Ironweed” was published — in part at the urging of Bellow, his writing teacher from more than 20 years prior. The nonfiction “O Albany!,” Kennedy’s impressionistic history of his beloved city, came out that year as well, followed quickly by commissions for screenplays for 1984’s “The Cotton Club” and the 1987 adaptation of “Ironweed,” which was filmed across the Capital Region. Both movies received star-studded world premieres at the Palace Theatre in Albany.
Brendan attended both as a teenager, and he lived with his parents in a New York City hotel for three months during the infamously turbulent filming of “The Cotton Club.”
“I still had come back to Albany and go to eighth grade,” he said. His mother “kept me grounded, always making sure I was doing chores. She instilled a work ethic in me that I’m grateful for to this day. They both did; they were hands-on, involved parents even with everything that was going on at the time.”
William Kennedy, left, and his wife Dana Kennedy celebrate with dancer and actor Gregory Hines, second from right, at the world premiere of the movie the movie "The Cotton Club," which Kennedy wrote, at the Palace Theatre in Albany in December 1984.
“I was such a proud daughter,” Kathy said, “seeing everything that happened for them so quickly.”
After all the years of struggle, the Kennedys celebrated — and became famous on a slightly smaller scale for their dinner parties.
Dana “was a great cook,” said Mancinelli-Cahill. “She’d make this beautiful food for a beautiful table, and then she’d become the hostess and do that perfectly, too.”
Paul Grondahl, who met Bill when Grondahl started as a graduate student at UAlbany in the early ’80s, went on to be a staff writer at the Times Union for 34 years. Named director of the Writers Institute in 2017, he was a regular guest at the Averill Park home.
Having watched Dana as a businesswoman, wife, mother, grandmother and host for decades, Grondahl said via email, “She juggled all her roles with confidence and exuded a shining vitality that illuminated countless dinner parties.”
The Kennedys were also splendid dinner guests and companions, according to friends.
“To say that often Dana was the proverbial life of the party is to say not nearly enough,” said Bob Boyers, director of the Writers Institute’s summer program at Skidmore College.
While the Summer Writers Institute was in sessions every July, the Kennedys dined at the Boyers’ home as often as five nights a week for more than 30 years. “In a house brimming with the conversation of leading poets and fiction writers, she always had witty, pertinent and enthusiastic things to say,” Boyers said.
Soon after being interviewed about his mother Friday morning, Brendan learned of her death. He’d been at the Averill Park home overnight Thursday to Friday, gathering old photos — including one her on the cover of a 1961 Look magazine, another on her wedding day, a third with people including former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, one of the many world figures the couple encountered on their post-’83 literary journeys.
Dana was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about five years ago, her son said: “To watch someone so vivacious and lively turn so inward — it’s been devastating.”
But the family’s pre-pandemic decision to have her cared for at home meant they were never precluded from seeing her during the lockdown and limitations of 2020 and 2021.
“It was very peaceful and comfortable,” Brendan said. “We’re grateful she was able to have that.”
Dana Kennedy is survived by her husband and their children Dana Nelson, Kathy Caruso and Brendan Kennedy; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; and extended family. Funeral arrangements were not complete Friday afternoon, but Kathy Caruso and Brendan Kennedy said there will be a public wake at McVeigh Funeral Home, 208 N. Allen St., Albany, with burial in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands.
Dana Kennedy, second from left, standing next to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Next to him is the novelist William Kennedy, who married Dana Kennedy in 1957. Provided by Brendan Kennedy