Last Role for Princess Grace
A new biography explores the iconic movie career, glamorously lonely marriage, and tragic death of the original international beauty. Sandra McElwaine on why she captivates us still. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY
Grace Kelly captured our imagination and remains a tantalizing figure frozen in time. Mention her name and people come up with the same adjectives: gorgeous, classy, remote, elegant, stylish, alluring, and incredibly sexy behind that glacial veneer. (Cool in every sense of the word.) Even though she died in a car crash near Monaco more than 25 years ago and would have turned 80 last month, the legendary actress, who became a real-life princess, remains the ultimate symbol of the golden age of Hollywood. She was the glamorous goddess who appeared in all those smart, sophisticated, and witty movies that no one seems to make anymore: Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief.
“The idea of my life as a fairytale is itself a fairytale.”
Why does her mystique endure? Maybe in many ways she was too perfect to be true. Or because she captured our imaginations as the all-American girl who snagged a genuine prince. Or perhaps we all respond to a star that dies an early, violent, and tragic death. Another reason: She was also an accomplished actress and savvy businesswoman who knew how to manage her career and meteoric rise to fame. (She made only 11 films, six of them in the 14 months from July 1953 to August 1954.)
In this sanitized and sentimental biography, Donald Spoto, a close friend of Kelly’s, has written a paean to the luminous star. chronicling the ups and downs of her celebrated and complicated existence, while air brushing out the dark side to further burnish her myth. According to Spoto, she always tried to please her uninterested, Olympic-medal-winning father, hated the studio system and the confines of Hollywood, and never felt as lonely as the night she received her Oscar for portraying the frumpy wife in The Country Girl.
She came from a wealthy Irish-Catholic family reminiscent of the Kennedys, who, because of their heritage, were rejected by Philadelphia’s snooty Main Line, though she usually portrayed a member of their crowd—the proverbial chaste, lock-jawed, well-bred lady. Van Johnson, a longtime MGM contract player understood her unique and immediate appeal. “There hasn’t been a newcomer of her thoroughbred type for many years,” he told the author. “The public has had so much sex pitched into their face recently that it’s gone for Kelly in a broadside against the broads.”
Not that Gracie, as her family called her, was a slouch in the romance department. She admitted to Spoto she was always “falling in and out of love.” From her first major role in motion pictures, she was tabloid fodder and supposedly bedded most of her leading men. Among them Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Ray Milland, William Holden, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, and even director Alfred Hitchcock, who dubbed her “a snow-covered volcano,” was totally smitten, and tried to fashion all his future female stars in the Kelly mold. For her fans, her high-class fictional image became a reality when she tied the knot in a ceremony of epic proportions with the dour Prince Rainier in 1956. Her life began, she confessed to Spoto, when she fled ”the unhappiness” of Hollywood and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco, a small principality in the south of France, which Somerset Maugham once described as "a sunny place for shady people.”
Theirs was “the wedding of the century,” outshone only by Charles and Diana 30 years later. (Both unions ended badly and both women died in mysterious car crashes.)
In a number of interviews over the years, Kelly admitted to Spoto that royalty was not all that it was cracked up to be. She was homesick, lonely, and longed to return to the movies—a proposal nixed by the Monegasques and her spouse. She harbored a keen “sense of loss” and thought the pressure would eventually ease. It never did. The closest she ever came to a return to the silver screen was a seat on the board of Twentieth Century Fox. (Nevertheless, she never discarded her original makeup kit from her student days at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.)
What Spoto discreetly omits from his text is that Kelly found herself ensnared in a splendiferous prison. Bored by enforced retirement and endless protocol, she took an apartment on posh Ave. Foch in Paris, ostensibly to oversee her children’s education, but friends considered it separation of sorts. (The Grimaldis spent their 20th anniversary apart.) Rumors circulated about her prolonged melancholy, an affair with a much younger man, and bouts of heavy drinking. Shortly before she careened over a precipice on a hairpin turn near the border of France and Monaco, she was finally staging her own film comeback: a comedy of manners and mistaken identity entitled Rearranged, set at the annual Monaco Flower Show, in which she played herself. Only 27 minutes long, it was never completed or released, and remains locked away in the vaults of the palace.
Kelly asked Spoto to wait 25 years after her death to publish this sanctioned biography. He did. “The idea of my life as a fairytale is itself a fairytale,” she once told him. It lingers on.
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.