Grace Kelly & Her Prince: the True Story
The incredible story behind the power couple of the century:
The Plan to Rescue Monaco
It’s hard to imagine, looking at Monaco now, that this magnificent cliff-side city of opulent casinos and grand hotels was teetering on the edge of financial ruin in the 1950s, and held precious little influence or renown on the world stage. As one of the smallest countries in Europe, World War II little more than a decade past, the country had little land and only its famous casino in it’s one colorful city, Monte Carlo, to count on for refilling its coffers.
Enter shipping magnate and superyacht owner Aristotle Onassis, who bought up a lot of real estate in Monaco and control of the failing Monegasque bank. He encouraged Prince Rainier III to marry an American actress to bring star power to shine on the Principality. The more famous, the better. “The right bride could do for Monaco’s tourism what the coronation of Queen Elizabeth did for Great Britain,” Rainier was told by Onassis, a partner in the syndicate that owned a casino in Monaco.
Had history gone a different way, Rainier might have romantically pursued another famous Hollywood blonde: Marilyn Monroe. According to Vogue, Rainier’s friend (and future second husband of Jacqueline Kennedy) Aristotle Onassis suggested the playboy prince pursue Monroe. While Monroe reportedly had no interest in the prince romantically, Vogue implies she might have still pursued the relationship for the status it would have afforded her.
Grace Kelly: Her Path to Princess
At that time, Grace Kelly was already an icon and worldwide sensation. She was an American girl whose father had been born to poor, Irish-Catholic, immigrant parents, their home a cramped tenement row house on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father, Jack Kelly, survived the vicissitudes of his childhood to become a wealthy businessman and three-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing. Her mother was also the first coach of any female teams at the University of Pennsylvania, and scheduled some of the first collegiate athletic games for women. Their oldest son and Kelly’s brother, Jack, also went on to win multiple Olympic medals for rowing.
Grace, being one of the most beautiful women in the world, left early for New York and a modeling career. After high school, Grace left home for New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While there, she began a relationship with one of her teachers. However, when she brought him home to meet her parents, they were less than thrilled by the idea and forced her to end the whole affair. Her family saw acting as a profession of low moral value. Her father, in particular, had very negative opinions of Grace’s decision to pursue an entertainment career full-time.
One of her father’s brothers, Walter Kelly, became a well-known vaudeville star, earning a tidy fortune, yet he died penniless in a flophouse. Another of his brothers, George Kelly, was a famous playwright who had won a Pulitzer for “Craig’s Wife” in 1926. Nonetheless, he was essentially banished by his generation of the family because he was gay. George was Grace’s favorite uncle, and she would often stay with him when she first began her career in California.
Hollywood quickly took note and she was on her way to a flourishing film career. In 1954 she won the Oscar for Best Actress for The Country Girl. She made just 11 films in her brief 5-year career as an actress, and was often romantically linked to her famous co-stars. “I had been through several unhappy romances,” she is reported to have said. “Although I had become a star, I was feeling lost and confused. I didn’t want to drift into my 30s without knowing where I was going in my personal life.”
The Train Ride That Changed Everything
In the spring of 1955, some of the biggest names in cinema history were boarding an overnight train from Paris to Cannes to attend the Cannes Film Festival, an annual tradition since 1946. Two-time Oscar winner and Gone with the Wind actress Olivia de Havilland was on the luxury Le Train Bleu from Gare du Lyon with her newlywed husband, Pierre Galante, an editor at Paris Match magazine when they found out that Kelly was also on board.
During the journey, Nice-born Galante thought maybe Paris Match should arrange a meeting between Kelly and the Prince. Over dinner on the train, he posed the idea to his editor in chief Gaston Bonheur — and immediately everyone grew enthusiastic about the possibility. “It was an idea that struck [Pierre] for the first time while dining on the train after he learned Grace Kelly was a fellow passenger,” Olivia told People.
Olivia was tasked with tracking Kelly down on the train ride — and finally found her “on the small platform between the dining car and the next carriage when I overtook her to ask if she would agree to a meeting with Prince Rainier,” she told People. “Grace struck me on the first encounter as a rather reserved, self-possessed, well brought up young woman.”
The Almost-Disasterous Photo-Op
And so it was that screen goddess Grace Kelly agreed to a meeting with the Prince at the palace during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, where they posed for photos in a carefully contrived ‘meet-cute’ in front of a lion cage in the palace grounds (see all the photos here).
That day was a comedy of errors, from a power outage at her hotel that prevented her from styling her freshly-washed hair to a minor traffic accident when a car full of photographers hit the car she was riding in, to Prince Rainier not even being there when she arrived for their 3pm meeting. She proceeded to tour the palace and, when he showed up and offered her a tour, told him she had already had the tour, thank you.
So Rainier asked if she’d like to see his private zoo. A photographer from Paris Match trailed dutifully behind them as they walked the grounds of the palace, which dates back to the 12th century and was captured by the Grimaldis in 1297. After that, Grace was driven back to Cannes, and that evening, when she saw Rainier again at a cocktail reception, instead of offering her hand for a handshake, Grace extended her hand as if offering it to be kissed.
The starlet was not immediately love-struck. But the Prince started writing her letters and it was through this correspondence, that gradually, she began to fall for the Prince’s charms. Not long after, he visited Grace’s childhood home in Philadelphia over the Christmas holidays. Her sister, Lizanne Kelly DeVine, remembers that the couple spent their time “walking in the woods, driving through the mountains, and talking about life and values – they fell in love”.
“Everything was perfect,” Grace said of their time in Philadelphia. “When I was with him, I was happy wherever we were, and I was happy with whatever we were doing.” Before the end of the trip, Rainier proposed and Grace accepted. Their engagement was announced on January 5th 1956.
The newly-engaged couple held a press conference in her family’s home and the actress showed off her engagement ring for the first time—but it wasn’t the ring you probably think it is. A lesser-known detail of their engagement is that Rainier gave her an eternity band that was set with rubies and diamonds. The ring, designed by Cartier, was reportedly created using stones from family heirlooms and the colors were intended as an homage to Monaco’s flag (red and white).
According to Grace’s friend Judith Balaban Quine, the actress was in a state of enchantment after spending time with Prince Ranier. “He was her prince on a white charger and he was going to rescue her from all this. He could not possibly have known that what he was taking her from was what made her the very person he loved. She did not know it either.”
Grace Kelly broke off her engagement to fashion designer Oleg Cassini because of Prince Rainier. “One of the reasons I believe you’re marrying this man is because this is the best script that you ever received in your life. You will be a star for years to come,” the jilted Oleg Cassini famously told her. But Oleg would never have been a suitable husband, as he was a very jealous man, as is evident in this letter that Grace sent to him in 1954, which mentions how he felt threatened by her co-star and friend, Bing Crosby:
“You have upset me so that I could die,” she writes dramatically. “I just don’t understand your attitude.” She compares his behaviour to a “schoolboy”, stating that a group dinner with friends is nothing to feel jealous about. “I have no interest in anyone but you, but this I shouldn’t have to explain,” she says adding that she has few friends in Hollywood so shouldn’t be expected to end her friendship with Bing Crosby. Kelly does also admit that Bing was in love with her, “but there are many people that he feels that way about”.
After they had fallen in love, Oleg enlisted Joe Kennedy, who had become a friend, to help persuade her to marry him. Instead of aiding his friend, however, Joe moved in himself and told her, in front of Oleg, “I know this donkey. He’s a pretty good boy, but you’d be making a terrible mistake to marry him.” That story never failed to delight John F. Kennedy, who also became a good friend.
“I created the Grace Kelly look,” he wrote in his biography. “She dressed like a schoolteacher. I put her in elegant, subdued dresses.” Although he certainly gave himself far too much credit, helping to create Grace’s enduring style wasn’t enough to win over Grace’s parents. “Do you realize if my mother hadn’t been so difficult about Oleg Cassini, I probably would have married him?” she later said. “How many wonderful roles I might have played by now? How might my life had turned out? That one decision [to marry Prince Rainier in 1956] changed my entire future.”
The 1956 movie musical High Society, starring her friends Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, was her last feature film. When the Prince heard that the film’s costume designer was going to source a fake ring for Grace’s character, he offered to buy her one instead, as a second engagement ring. Naturally, all parties involved swiftly accepted.
The 10.48-carat Cartier emerald-cut engagement ring was flanked by two baguette-cut side stones, resulting in one of the most astonishing pieces of jewelry many have ever laid eyes on. Glimpses of the ring, alone, are worth watching the film for.
The Wedding of the Century
As was the custom for European aristocracy, a hefty dowry was set for Grace to wed Prince Rainier III. Her father initially objected to the $2 million being requested, but eventually acquiesced when it seemed that the marriage was in jeopardy. Half of the sum was taken from her inheritance, and Grace covered the remaining half herself from her earnings as an actress.
Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier involved two ceremonies: one civil and one religious. The former included a reception attended by approximately 3,000 citizens of Monaco and the latter, a 700-person guest list that included Conrad Hilton, Cary Grant, and Ava Gardner. As one Boston Globe writer cleverly observed at the time: “Never have so many women brought so much luggage to such a small country for so few days.” The same could be said for the bride-to-be, who sailed to Monaco from New York for the occasion with 80 pieces of luggage and her beloved poodle, Oliver, in tow. When she arrived, 1,800 photographers and reporters were waiting at the port to capture Grace Kelly exiting the ship and, naturally, falling into her prince’s arms.
Her stunning wedding dress took six weeks to make, as well as a team of 36 seamstresses, and was a gift from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Like other royal weddings, their nuptials were televised worldwide and viewed by 30 million fans from home and abroad. After Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier married, Marilyn Monroe sent Grace a telegram that read, “I’m so happy you found a way out of this business.”, probably happy to have less competition for acting roles.
A Power Couple for the Ages
They honeymooned aboard Rainier’s yacht, the Deo Juvante II, cruising around the Mediterranean. It was during their honeymoon that she became pregnant with their first child, and Princess Caroline was born on Jan. 23, 1957. While pregnant with Caroline, the newly-crowned Princess Grace would often hold her Hermès bag in front of her stomach to hide it from paparazzi. The bag became so synonymous with Grace Kelly and her style that is was eventually dubbed the Kelly bag.
Princess Grace quickly brought great prosperity to Monaco and to the Grimaldi family with the publicity, her fame, glamour, and charm.
Working in Hollywood was deemed to be unbecoming of a princess, therefore, Grace had to give up her accelerating career to become a royal fixture in the country of Monaco. She was supposed to star in the critically-acclaimed films Marnie and The Birds, but she had to turn them down. Her husband was so opposed to her former career that he banned her movies from being shown in Monaco. Ironically, her fame in Hollywood is what attracted Prince Rainier III to marrying her, because he knew it would help boost Monaco’s tourism. In fact, Prince Rainier had been frequently discouraged from marrying his previous girlfriend, Gisele Pascal, explicitly because she was an actress. While Grace was happy caring for her family, she never gave up her love for acting or the dream of being in films again.
Prince Albert II was born on March 14, 1958 (due to Monaco’s patriarchal structure, he’s now the reigning monarch) and Princess Stéphanie rounded out the family on Feb. 1, 1965. “It’s hard to remember not being pregnant in those days,” Grace later remarked.The glamorous marriage succeeded in reinvigorating Monaco’s fortunes as intended. By 1961, five years after the wedding of the century, Monaco’s business turnover had reached $128 million—a 400% increase in ten years.
Charles de Gaulle, the former president of France had long expressed the desire to annex the principality of Monaco but decided not to push through in 1962, partly because of how bad it would look to be seen to hurt America’s sweetheart, Princess Grace. The congenitally anti-American de Gaulle was enchanted by her insistence on speaking to him only in French, and found her lapses of grammar and pronunciation “charming”.
A Tragic End
Tragically, Princess Grace was killed in a car crash in 1982, driving on the same high, beautiful Corniche road along the coast that she traveled with Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’, back when she was the most famous actress in the world. Her 17-year-old daughter, Stéphanie, was in the car as well. Although she obtained a hairline fracture of one of her vertebrae, she was able to make a full recovery.
At the time of her death, the former actress had never stopped wanting to act, and her husband had eventually agreed to help her create a short film. They been working on a short, independent film, called Rearranged, which eventually received offers from TV executives. However, before the necessary additional footage could be shot, Princess Grace passed away.
In 1981, at Princess Diana’s first public event at the Buckingham Palace, Diana was reportedly overwhelmed by the media and uncomfortable in her dress. Diana claimed the night was a “horrendous occasion.” Princess Grace has noticed Diana’s discomfort and offered her some words of encouragement, joking, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll see — it’ll only get worse.” When Princess Grace died, Princess Diana insisted she go to the funeral, where she reportedly told Grace’s daughter, Princess Caroline, that she was “psychically connected” to Princess Grace.
Nearly 100 million people watched Princess Grace’s funeral, which was attended by Cary Grant, race care driver Jackie Stewart, U.S. first lady Nancy Reagan and other dignitaries from all over the world, on television.
“It was her personality and the way she engaged with people, she touched the lives of so many around the world and not only through her acting,” Prince Albert told USA Today. “When she passed away we got calls from all over the world, from countries she hadn’t even visited. It was unbelievable and still is.”
Her legacy, and the changes she brought to Monaco, live on. One reason why Grace’s name endures, Albert says, is The Princess Grace Foundation, which over three decades has distributed millions of dollars in scholarships, fellowships and grants to some 900 emerging young talents in film, dance and music.
The house she grew up in was built by Grace’s father in Philadelphia in the late 1920s. The Kelly family sold the home in 1974, but Prince Albert, her son, purchased the building in 2012 for $754,000 and made it a historical landmark. The building is now the American offices for the Princess Grace Foundation, open for public viewing “from time to time.” Albert — who spent many a childhood Christmas at the house with his sisters, Princesses Caroline and Stéphanie — called the place “very special to our family,” adding that he was happy to have saved it “from a near-certain death or development.” An official city plaque now stands on the property, honoring the Kelly family’s accomplishments.
As for the scheming Aristotle Onassis? Back in the 1950’s, he and the Prince came into conflict over the future of Monaco, and after the Prince wrested back control of the bank from Onassis, Onassis cruised away from Port Hercule on his yacht, Christina O: the superyacht that set the tone for all yachts that were to follow.