Monaco plunged into mourning, with its famed casino closing its doors upon news of the death of Prince Rainier III, the long-ruling monarch hailed for modernising the tiny principality once renowned as a “sunny place for shady people”.
Rainier, 81, whose marriage to American film star Grace Kelly brought elegance, glamour and world renown to what once was a Riviera backwater, died at 6.35am local time yesterday at the hospital treating him for heart, kidney and breathing problems. He had struggled with failing health for years.
Prince Albert, his son and heir, was at his side, after doctors called him just before 6am to say the end was near, the royal palace said. Albert, 47 and groomed from birth to succeed his father, had already taken over the royal powers – but not the throne – last week because Rainier was too sick to rule.
With his father’s death, Albert took the title of Prince Albert II.
Rainier’s body was transferred from the hospital back to his hilltop palace shortly after his death and will lie in state in its Palatine Chapel so Monagasques can pay respects, said an official close to the palace.
The Mediterranean enclave’s famed Monte Carlo stayed shut in a sign of respect.
“Each of us feels like an orphan because the principality has been marked by his imprint over the 56 years” of his reign, said Patrick Leclercq, head of government in the principality of 32,000 people.
“Let us render, in dignity and respect, the immense homage that is his due for a body of work that resounded throughout the world and from which we reap the benefits.”
There was no immediate official word on funeral arrangements. Rainier was expected to be buried alongside Princess Grace at the 19th-century Monaco Cathedral, where they wed on April 18, 1956, putting Monaco on the world stage. Beside her tomb is an empty slab of marble waiting to be engraved with the prince’s name.
The official close to the palace said plans were envisaged for a six-month mourning period for palace workers, during which they must wear black, and three months for Monaco government officials. Drums banged at the traditional midday changing of the palace guards were covered with black cloth yesterday.
Tributes flooded in from world leaders, who praised Rainier – who had been Europe’s longest-serving monarch – as a reformist.
“Prince Rainier remained dearly loved by his people and deeply respected by his peers as well as the world community,” said UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
French president Jacques Chirac said Rainier “enabled his country to gain access to the international stage and gave it modern structures, all while preserving the traditional elements which, over time, forged Monaco’s originality”.
Rainier’s stamp is everywhere, from Monaco’s hilltop palace to the principality’s yacht-filled harbour. His outsized ambitions and grandiose dreams jump-started Monaco’s economy and sparked a construction boom.
Rainier was affectionately known as the “builder prince”, overseeing the expansion of Monaco’s territory by 20% with land reclamation from the sea. But it remains no larger than New York City’s Central Park.
The palace said Rainier died “as a result of the broncho-pulmonary, heart and kidney conditions that caused his hospitalisation” since March 7.
Flags, already lowered for Pope John Paul II, remained at half-mast. The two Monaco-based TV networks interrupted programming with documentaries on Rainier’s life and reactions to his death.
Rainier, hailing from the Grimaldis, one of Europe’s longest-ruling families, was a 26-year-old bachelor when he took the throne of the Mediterranean country nestled between Italy and the French Riviera in 1949.
His romance with Grace Kelly captivated the world. She was a 25-year-old movie star when they met in 1955 at the Cannes Film Festival. They had three children: Princess Caroline, Albert and Princess Stephanie. The daughters’ marriages, divorces and dalliances have made them a target for paparazzi. Albert has not married.
Rainier never remarried after Princess Grace’s death in a car accident in 1982.
Rainier could see his entire domain from the sandy-coloured palace perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea.
He oversaw the building of a new port, an artificial beach, a sparkling culture centre and an underground railway station.
Monaco also worked to overcome a reputation as a haven for questionable financial transactions, secretive bankers, drug barons, money launderers and tax dodgers.
Last year, having enacted reforms in a series of sectors, ranging from electoral rights to money laundering, Monaco joined the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights organisation.
“Over the course of an exceptionally long reign, the prince was able to successfully combine Monaco’s uniqueness with openness toward the rest of Europe,” said Terry Davis, the council’s secretary general.