Grace Kelly

Actress, princess, icon, enigma: Grace Kelly

When 18-year-old Grace Kelly convinced her parents to let her move from Philadelphia to New York City to pursue her dream of acting, it was not with their glowing endorsement. “It’s not as if she’s going to Hollywood, after all,” said her mother. “It’ll never amount to anything,” her father agreed dismissively. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that the Kellys underestimated their daughter. 

In the six years between 1950 and 1956, Kelly starred in 11 movies and became one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons. The Oscar winning actress’ life, like her persona, was a showcase of duality—an endless tug-of-war between social conformity and rebellion. The “snow-covered volcano,” as Hitchcock famously described her, simmered for 52 short years.

Her father, John B. Kelly Sr., had found fame in the early 1920s as an Olympic athlete (he was the first rower to win three gold medals), then earned millions of dollars through his family’s bricklaying business. Her mother, Margaret, a former model and competitive swimmer, was the first woman to teach physical education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kelly moved to New York in 1947 to pursue acting, where mention of her Pulitzer Prize–winning uncle George Kelly earned her an audition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I think most of what went on after that was thanks to herself, that she had a great look and she definitely personified that cool blonde,” says Jonathan Kuntz, film historian and UCLA lecturer. After a successful stint as a model, her ticket to Hollywood came in early 1950 when she screen-tested for a movie called Taxi. She didn’t get the part, but the reel eventually made its way to her future directors John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. 

After a rather underwhelming two-minute-long debut in 1951’s Fourteen Hours, 1952’s High Noon was a notable upgrade. It positioned 23-year-old Kelly opposite legendary actor Gary Cooper, who was almost 30 years her senior—an immense age difference that would become standard for her leading men. 

The enticement of acting alongside Clark Gable and Ava Gardner on location in Kenya for Ford’s 1953 film Mogambo lured Kelly into what she considered the indentured servitude of Hollywood: a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM). She astonished her agents and MGM executives by requesting alterations to the paperwork, requiring every other year off so she could take on theater work, and maintaining her primary residence in New York. This would be the first of many contentious dealings with her studio.

MGM studio head Dore Schary often fed her lightweight roles in fluffy films, but Kelly always dug her heels in, saying, “If anybody starts using me as scenery, I’ll return to New York.” (After all, unlike most struggling actors, Kelly didn’t need their money: She had a trust fund granted by her father on her 21st birthday.) She was equally stubborn about giving interviews. “I was hired to be an actress, not a personality for the press,” Kelly once said.

Considering her disdain for the press, it’s ironic that a publicity stunt during Kelly’s visit to the 1955 Cannes Film Festival changed the course of her life. The movie editor of Paris Match magazine roped Kelly into a 30-minute photo op at Prince Rainier’s palace in Monaco, a small principality bordering France. The single 32-year-old monarch, like Kelly, was very much in the news at the time—if Rainier did not produce an heir, Monaco would revert to French control.

Once Kelly returned to the States, Rainier wrote to thank her for her visit. The two began corresponding regularly, and found they had much in common—Rainier, too, had an unhappy, lonely childhood and at times felt burdened by his very public position. Six months later, Rainier visited the United States with his priest and doctor in tow, set on asking Kelly to marry him. When asked in an interview, “If you were to marry, what kind of girl do you have in mind?” His response was, “I don’t know—the best.” That is what Kelly’s parents had always raised her to be—and despite all her career success, it was with this match that she, at last, earned their attention.

Three days after meeting the Kellys, Rainier proposed. After submitting to an exam from Rainier’s doctor that confirmed Kelly could bear children, Rainier gave her a 10.47-carat diamond, which she wore as her character’s engagement ring in what would be her last movie, High Society.

So why did Kelly leave her hard-won career—within which she’d carved out an unusual amount of autonomy—for an even more structured life in Monaco’s palace? “I don’t want my wife to work,” Rainier told the press. And against the backdrop of 1950s society, being a wife and a mother was still the ultimate accomplishment.

In April 1956, Kelly prepared for what the media had dubbed “the wedding of the century” when she sailed with friends and family on the USS Constitution to Monaco. She carried with her four massive trunks and 56 pieces of luggage, along with her wedding dress—a gift from MGM—stored in a steel box resembling a coffin as a ruse to throw off reporters.

 The macabre metal-encased wedding dress was an unhappy foreshadowing. Royal life proved a bad trade for Kelly—she was terribly lonely and isolated from the start. “I became princess before I had much time to imagine what it would be,” Kelly said.

Studying to be royalty was unlike any of her acting jobs—she could skirt convention in Hollywood, but in Monaco old rules reigned. And the adjustment to palace life was hard: Rainier was often preoccupied with affairs of state, and until she learned French there was a language barrier between her and her staff. Even the births of her three children couldn’t completely fill the void left by her career.

In 1960, Kelly’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After the princess left his Philadelphia bedside, her personal secretary, Phyllis Blum, recalled that Kelly broke down in tears—it was the first time she’d seen the princess cry. With the death of John B. Kelly, the man who had greeted his daughter’s 1955 Oscar win by telling the press that, “Of the four children, she’s the last one I’d expected to support me in my old age,” the snow-topped volcano began its thaw. 

Photographer Eve Arnold visited Monaco to work on a CBS documentary in 1962, and recalled, “I got the distinct feeling that Kelly felt trapped.” That same year, Kelly’s shot at coming out of retirement arrived when Hitchcock offered her the title role in Marnie. She was overjoyed, and perhaps because he now had his heir, Rainier allowed her to accept. But as Donald Spoto writes in his biography of Kelly, she reneged when she learned she was pregnant. Two weeks later, she miscarried. It was never made public, and Kelly never returned to Hollywood.

On September 13, 1982, Kelly and her youngest daughter, Stephanie, left the family’s country home for Monaco in their 1972 Rover 3500. She had an appointment with her couturier, and loaded some dresses that needed altering into the back seat. Because the car was crowded, she drove herself and left their usual chauffeur behind. Kelly never liked to drive, and the winding mountain roads on the way to Monaco were especially difficult to navigate. A truck driver witnessed her car swerving, then speeding up and flying over a cliff. The car bounced upside down, rolled several times and then came to a stop on its roof.

Stephanie suffered a hairline fracture to her neck; Kelly was unresponsive. The palace issued an early alert that the princess only had a broken leg, but it was later revealed that she had experienced a massive stroke while driving, and another brain injury in the crash. Kelly was taken off life support the following day. She was just 52 years old. All of Monaco—and Hollywood—grieved.

It seems everything happened early for Grace Kelly: Her pain, her fame, her marriage, her disenchantment, and her death. As Kelly herself once told Spoto, “The idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale.”

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