Hollywood royalty

She was the Hollywood icon who married a prince. On the 30th anniversary of her death, PJ Gibbons looks back at the life of Grace Kelly.

THE world has few princesses and Ireland has had only one. Grace Kelly, born to a former bricklayer with roots in Co Mayo, was of such regal bearing and ineffable beauty that she transformed Monaco from an afterthought into a nation with an identity.

Thirty years after her death, at 52, in a car crash, Princess Grace remains one of Monaco’s two leading resources (it is also the world’s most glamorous tax haven).

To celebrate Kelly, the Grace Kelly Film and Cultural Festival will screen her most iconic films this September, in Newport, Co Mayo (from where her grandfather, John Peter Kelly, emigrated to Philadelphia in 1887). Photographs and memorabilia will be exhibited of the Monaco royals’ visits to Newport in the 1960s and ’70s. The glamour Grace brought with her from Hollywood revived Monaco’s fortunes after the war, and threw an international spotlight on the west coast of Ireland.

In an interview in 2007 to mark the 25th anniversary of his mother’s death, Prince Albert talked about reconciling the mother he knew with the screen icon. “We did watch some of her movies with her present and it was kind of strange to see her on the screen, and turn your head and have her there,” he said.

As her only son and the heir to the throne, Albert was close to his mother. His father was famously distant. “Sometimes, there’s a very special relationship between a mother and her son,” he said.

Long before reality TV celebrities, with their jail stints and rehab visits, there were the Grimaldi kids, the wild children of the Riviera, who kept a generation of paparazzi and gossip columnists busy with their outrageous behaviour. The prince and princesses of Monaco titillated the world with their not-so-private affairs.

But the Grimaldis are all grown-up and a dusting of snowy respectability has settled over them. Prince Albert has married a former athlete who resembles his mother.

Princess Caroline settled down with a German prince. Even Princess Stephanie has dropped out of the society pages.

Albert has reflected on the event that sent him and his sisters into their difficult years: the sudden, tragic death of their mother, whose wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco took place in the days before the news media made public fodder of royalty’s private indiscretions.

“It’s obvious that it was difficult for all of us,” the prince said.

“It took me a while to get over it and try to help my family, help my father as much as possible.”

The death was hardest on Stephanie, who was in the car at the time of the accident. She was 17 and had been battling with her mother over her love affair with Paul Belmondo, a race car driver and the son of the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. She survived with minor injuries.

“Coming to terms with her being in the accident was very instrumental in, well, in her difficult years after that,” the prince later said.

“We all underestimated it. A lot of people did. A lot of people outside the family underestimated the trauma that she went through.”

Albert and Caroline also lost their bearings after the accident.

Caroline, with one failed marriage behind her, lost her second husband in a speedboat accident in 1990, and married Prince Ernst August of Hanover.

With their father dead, Albert on the throne and the scandals behind them, the children are reflecting on the legacy of their mother, including her Hollywood career.

The Grace Kelly Film Festival in Mayo has received their official approval. “We extended an invitation to Prince Albert, and his family, to the opening night of the festival, but we received a reply advising that his schedule would not permit an attendance and he thanked us for our initiative,” said festival committee member, Rosaleen Kelly (no relation). “We hope to run this festival on a yearly basis with, perhaps, a theme change, but always having the Grace Kelly connection.” Produced with the support of Fáilte Ireland and Leader, the festival will open with a gala 1950s-themed screening of High Society on Sep 14, the 30th anniversary of Grace’s fatal crash.

In 1954, when Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window premiered, Grace Kelly had been in only four films. She was hardly known to the public, and then she was suddenly a star. In her first film, Fourteen Hours, she had played an innocent bystander, on-screen for just two minutes and 14 seconds. In her second, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, she co-starred as the pacifist bride of embattled sheriff Gary Cooper. In her third movie, John Ford’s Mogambo, she was the prim wife of an anthropologist (Donald Sinden) and ‘Jane’ to big-game hunter Clark Gable’s ‘Tarzan’. It was a steep and impressive learning curve, straight to the top.

By the time Hitchcock met her, Kelly was ready for her close-up. Their three films together placed her on a pedestal — Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief — enshrining her as an archetype newly minted.

“A snow-covered volcano,” was how Hitchcock described her. She was lady-like yet elemental, suggestive of icy Olympian heights and untouched autonomy, yet, beneath it all, unblushing heat and fire.

By 1956, two years, six films, and one Academy Award after Rear Window — while America was still wondering, ‘Who are you, Miss Kelly?’ — she was gone, off to Europe to marry a prince, whence she would become Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.

Grace Patricia Kelly was the third child of four and the only one without a clear definition. Peggy, extremely witty and her father’s favourite, was the eldest. John junior, born second, was the only boy, and would become a champion rower like his father. Lizanne was the baby.

Grace was defined by what she wasn’t: not athletic, not outgoing, not boisterously healthy (she suffered sinus trouble and asthma).

Grace was active in a place where it didn’t show: her imagination. Early on, she told her sister Peggy: “One day I’m going to be a princess.”

Her father, Jack Kelly, was the vortex of his family, and its life revolved around him — his principles, his dreams, his drive.

Jack’s goal was success in all things, pursued honestly yet relentlessly, and his drive was physical. It manifested itself both in sports — he was celebrated for winning three Olympic gold medals in sculling — and in business, where his construction company, Kelly for Brickwork, became the largest of its kind on America’s East Coast.

In many ways, the Kellys were like the Kennedys — bright, shining, charismatic, Irish-Catholic Democrats, civically and politically engaged.

Similarly, Kelly women were expected to be team players — outdoorsy, sporting, and supportive of their men. Margaret Majer Kelly, Grace’s mother, was an impressive physical specimen.

A former cover-girl model and competitive swimmer, she was the first woman to teach physical education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her German-Protestant discipline meshed nicely with her husband’s can-do spirit; when they married, she converted to Catholicism.

Despite their winning energies, the Kellys were not social climbers. In the Philadelphia of those days, Irish Catholics, even rich ones, were outsiders. Thus the family never lived on the fabled Main Line, as so many Americans thought they had (because Hollywood publicists decided they had).

The Kellys built a 17-room home in the Philadelphia neighbourhood of East Falls, overlooking the Schuylkill River, upon which Jack rowed. And there they stayed, enviably wealthy, sailing through the Great Depression without a dip, because Jack didn’t play the stock market.

Alongside the sporting blood in the Kelly clan ran a more verbal line of showmanship — the stage. Jack Kelly had two brothers who had gained fame in the theatre: Walter Kelly, a successful vaudevillian, and George Kelly, a Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright. George became Grace’s mentor and confidante.

It was he who encouraged her dream of acting, who warned her about Hollywood’s feudal studio system, and whose name helped her win late admission to the renowned American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in Manhattan.

The year 1955 was a big one for Grace. She had four films in the theatres and was the year’s highest-earning female star; at the Academy Awards, not only did she win an Oscar, but Bob Hope declared, “I just wanna say, they should give a special award for bravery to the producer who produced a movie without Grace Kelly.” That same year, she rose to the top of the best-dressed list, sharing the No.1 spot with socialite and uber-WASP Babe Paley.

A year later, when Hollywood’s princess married Prince Rainier III in tiny Monaco — half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park — she traded her realm for his. Her life was laid out along narrow corridors, much like the corniche on which she took her last drive — rock on one side, open air on the other.

By the late 1970s, Grace was spending part of each year on her own in Paris. Even as her hell-raising daughters consumed more of her time, her marriage occupied less of it.

Then came the brutal end. His wife’s sudden death brought home to Rainier what he had lost.

Growing old in a principality where her picture was, and still is, to be seen everywhere, the prince, by most accounts, was sincere in his grief.

One of Kelly’s favourite quotations was from the poet Kahlil Gibran: “When love beckons to you, follow him, though his voice may shatter your dreams.”

In their different ways, it was a line that Grace and Rainier would come equally to understand.

¦ This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Social & Personal magazine.

¦ The Grace Kelly Film & Cultural Festival takes place in Newport, Co Mayo, Sept 14-16.


More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up