Grace Kelly: American Royalty

Grace Patricia Kelly
Grace Patricia Kelly

If there was ever an icon of elegance, style, and refinement, it would have to be Grace Kelly. The third child in a family of a self-made Philadelphia millionaire, Miss Kelly went on to have a brief, but spectacular career as an actress, followed by what director Alfred Hitchcock called “a very good part”: Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. From her beginnings in the theater, her rise to become one of the fabled “Hitchcock Blondes”, to her reign as princess, this is a look at the charmed life of Grace Kelly.

Grace Was the Creative One in a Sporty Family

Grace Patricia Kelly was born on November 12, 1929 in Philadelphia to her father Jack, a former Olympic gold-medalist and her mother Margaret, the first woman to head the Physical Education Department at the University of Pennsylvania. The Kellys, though wealthy and politically connected (Jack Kelly once ran for mayor, losing by only a slim margin) did not live on Philadelphia's exclusive Main Line, as is often stated. Being Catholics, they were not welcomed in that WASP outpost of Philadelphia society. The Kelly family resided in a large home overlooking the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia's East Falls neighborhood. Grace attended a prestigious Catholic girls' school called the Ravenhill Academy, followed by a small private school called the Stevens School, from which she graduated in 1947.

Although the rest of her immediate family was interested in outdoorsy activities, from a young age, Grace's primary enthusiasms were the arts. She studied ballet and acted in school plays, and also did some local modeling. Despite her father's disapproval, the lovely young woman moved to New York following high school to pursue an acting career, following in the footsteps of several of her uncles. Kelly gained admission to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, an acting school which boasted former students such as Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. The beautiful young woman supported herself with modeling gigs while learning her craft. In an interesting incident of foreshadowing, Grace Kelly placed socialite Tracy Lord in the play The Philadelphia Story for her graduation production. That was the role she was later to reprise in the MGM musical High Society, which was her final film.

Grace Kelly accepting her Academy Award.
Grace Kelly accepting her Academy Award.

From the Start, Miss Kelly Made an Impression

In the early years of her career, Grace Kelly worked in the theater, and did a large number of live television dramas in the 1950s. She had an exquisite face, an elegant carriage, and a talent for acting, but Kelly did lack the voice projection which was needed to become a genuine star on Broadway. The young actress worked diligently on her voice, which resulted in the cultured and precise tones with which she spoke by the time she became a famous Hollywood actress. The first movie role came along for Kelly in 1951, when she had a bit role in Fourteen Hours. Miss Kelly appeared onscreen for less than three minutes, but she made an impression.

Shortly thereafter, Grace Kelly took on a more prominent role, in her second movie, High Noon. In her role as the wife of the sheriff, the radiant actress got the attention of the film's star Gary Cooper, who said that she was “different than all those sexballs we've been seeing so much of”. In his own inimitable way, Cooper perfectly articulated the forces of restrained passion and cool elegance that brought her to the attention of director Alfred Hitchcock and that in just a few short years, would made Grace Kelly an international icon. The young actress from Philadelphia also gained the attention of movie studio MGM, who signed her to a seven year contract in 1952. Displaying a level-headed approach that was rare for a newcomer to the business, Kelly negotiated a contract which would allow her to have time off every other year to act in the theater in New York. This self-possession was a trademark of Grace Kelly's approach to her entire life. Of course it did not hurt that she came from a wealthy family and had the financial independence which made it possible for her to turn down sub-par roles and poor contracts.

1953's Mogambo was Grace Kelly's first feature film for MGM. She played the role of Linda Nordley, a prim wife of an anthropologist. Her co-stars in the movie were screen legends Ava Gardner and Clark Gable. Kelly won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Mogambo, as well as the enduring friendship of the other cast members. The next year, MGM agreed to loan out its contract actress for a Paramount production of The Country Girl, which co-starred Bing Crosby and William Holden. Kelly won her first Academy Award for her role as Georgie Elgin, nabbing the Oscar for Best Actress, beating out Judy Garland for her part in A Star is Born.

Kelly played glamor girl Lisa Fremont in "Rear Window".
Kelly played glamor girl Lisa Fremont in "Rear Window".

Grace Kelly Became a Style Icon as a "Hitchcock Blonde"

Following The Country Girl, Grace Kelly starred in Dial M for Murder, the first of three films she did for Alfred Hitchcock. The director was known for his predilection for icy blonde leading ladies, and Miss Kelly was one of his favorites. Hitchcock and Kelly had quite a good working rapport, sharing a sense of humor and a mutual respect. The corpulent director called Grace a “snow covered volcano”, meaning she was all cool sophisticated style on the outside, with a fiery intelligence and passionate nature just barely under the surface. Dial M for Murder was an adaptation of a popular play of the same name, and when the film was released in 1954, it was a huge hit, both with critics and at the box office.

Rear Window was released later in 1954, and it truly cemented Grace Kelly's status as one of the most breathtaking and gracious beauties of her time. She had turned down the chance to star in the gritty classic On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando to act in Rear Window. During the filming of Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock had told Miss Kelly quite a bit about his upcoming project, and she was eager to be a part of the movie. Grace Kelly played the independent and fabulous Lisa Fremont, a highly successful fashion model who was the girlfriend of Jimmy Stewart's character Jeff, a photographer. The film was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, highly entertaining and suspenseful from beginning to end.

One of the unnamed co-stars of Rear Window is the spectacular wardrobe created for Grace Kelly by MGM costume designer Edith Head. From the moment when Lisa Fremont appeared in Jeff's apartment in her divine full skirted couture frock with long white gloves, Kelly was nothing short of divine. The scene in which she climbed a fire escape in a floral dress to investigate on of Stewart's suspicions is a singular moment in film and fashion. Miss Kelly was the picture of refinement as a pampered socialite with an adventurous spirit. This was not such a deviation from the real-life style of the actress, who set herself apart from the free spirited drama crowd early in her career by showing up at auditions wearing prim wool skirts, twinsets, and white gloves. It was not only Grace Kelly's impeccable sense of style and decorum which set her apart, but her kind spirit and pleasant demeanor as well.

Glamor and the Best-Dressed List

Later in 1954, two additional Grace Kelly films were debuted: The Bridges at Toko-Ri with William Holden and Greenfire. By 1955, Miss Kelly was truly on top of the world. That year saw the release of another acclaimed film in which she starred: Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant. Grace Kelly and Cary Grant got on marvelously during the filming of the incredibly stylish To Catch a Thief in France. The ultra-glamorous costumes for Kelly's character Francie were designed by Edith Head, who won an Academy Award nomination for costume design for the film. Grace Kelly was not only beautiful in To Catch a Thief, she was also a pleasure to work with. When asked later who his favorite leading lady had been, Cary Grant said, “Well, with all due respect to dear Ingrid Bergman, I much preferred Grace. She had serenity.”.

In 1955, Grace Kelly's perfect sense of style caught the attention of the Best-Dressed List, which she topped in a tie with socialite Babe Paley. Something even more monumental took place in Grace Kelly's life in 1955: she met her future husband. Although she took care not to appear in the Hollywood gossip columns, rumors about Miss Kelly's alleged romantic entanglements would surface from time to time. Not long before meeting Prince Rainier of Monaco, Kelly had been involved with fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who would later become the primary clothier for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The relationship with Cassini had an improbable future, as Kelly's Catholic parents could not stomach the notion of their daughter marrying a divorced Protestant.

Kelly's co-star Cary Grant said she was his favorite leading lady.
Kelly's co-star Cary Grant said she was his favorite leading lady.

Grace Kelly Finds Her Prince

Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier while she was heading the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival in France in April of 1955. She was part of a photo shoot at the Palace of Monaco, and it was there that the regal actress met her Prince. Following the film festival, Kelly returned to the United States to film The Swan, which was released later that year. In the meantime, however, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly struck up a private relationship via correspondence. At the end of 1955, the Prince embarked on a U.S. tour, which was really a thinly veiled trip to find a proper wife to become the Princess of Monaco and produce an heir. Due to a 1918 treaty, if the Prince remained childless, control of Monaco would revert to France, so finding a wife was a very serious matter for Rainier. While in the U.S., Rainier met with his friend Grace Kelly and her family, which was followed by a marriage proposal three days later. In keeping with ancient royal customs, the bride-to-be and her family had to come up with a substantial dowry: $2 million.

The Prince and Princess of Monaco on their wedding day.
The Prince and Princess of Monaco on their wedding day.

The Wedding of The Century

Once the engagement was announced, planning began for “The Wedding of the Century”, or as the bride privately referred to it, “The Carnival of the Century”. Wedding preparations set off a frenzy of activity in Monaco, as the entire palace was painted and redecorated. American flags were hung in the streets, and 20,000 people lined the streets to welcome Grace Kelly when her ship arrived in April of 1956. The bride-to-be arrived with her parents, her bridesmaids, her pet poodle, and over eighty pieces of luggage. What to pack when setting sail to become a Princess? Apparently the answer is everything!

The first stage of the wedding was a forty minute civil ceremony on April 18, 1956 in the Palace Throne Room. The next day on April 19th was the grand religious ceremony (having separate civil and religious services is common in many parts of Europe). 600 guests were in attendance to watch Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly of Philadelphia become joined as husband and wife in a Catholic Mass in Saint Nicholas Cathedral. As a condition of release from her remaining contract with MGM, Kelly had to agree to allow the studio to film the religious wedding ceremony, which was broadcast across Europe to an estimated 30 million rapt viewers. The Princess later admitted that she had despised having the film crews there, and had found the private civil ceremony to be much more pleasant. Many celebrities made the trip to Monaco for the royal wedding, including Kelly's former co-star Ava Gardner. Frank Sinatra is said to have initially accepted the wedding invitation, but that he later decided to stay home so that his fame would not take away from the royal couple on their wedding day. At least one European head of state did not approve of the Hollywood types at the Rainier-Kelly wedding; it is alleged that Queen Elizabeth II chose not to accept the invitation because there would be “too many movie stars” there.

Grace Kelly was resplendent in her custom bridal gown.
Grace Kelly was resplendent in her custom bridal gown.

Princess Grace Traded in Acting for Charitable Works

Devoting herself to her new role as the future Princess of Monaco meant the end to Grace Kelly's acting career. Two films which she had already made were released in the year of her marriage, The Swan with Alec Guinness and High Society, costarring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. It is astonishing to think how brief Grace Kelly's run of movies was, considering the impact she had. Kelly's film career spanned only the years 1951 – 1956, yet in that brief time, she became a star who is still revered to this day. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Grace Kelly as #13 on their list of all time top American cinema stars. At times the former actress missed her profession, and Princess Grace was reportedly very tempted by Hitchcock's offer to star in a fourth of his films, Marnie. There was horror in Monaco over the indignity of their Princess playing a kleptomaniac in a Hollywood production, and ultimately Grace had to decline the role, which was filled by Tippi Hedren. In fact, not only did Prince Rainier veto any plans for his wife to resume her acting career, Grace Kelly films were banned in Monaco. The Princess did find some creative outlets by doing a series of poetry readings and narrating a documentary and a television film.

Princess Grace established several charitable foundations, including the Princess Grace Foundation (the Princess Grace Foundation USA was set up in 1982 after her death to support the dramatic arts in America). She was also the driving force behind AMADE Mondiale, a non-profit organization founded to promote the “moral and physical integrity” and “spiritual well-being of children throughout the world, without distinction of race, nationality or religion, and in a spirit of complete political independence”. Grace's daughter Princess Caroline now heads AMADE. Princess Grace was also a major booster of the arts in Monaco and an early outspoken supporter of La Leche League. Her other endeavors included a garden club (Grace was passionate about roses) and an annual Christmas party for orphans.

Princess Grace used her favorite Hermes handbag to hide her pregnant tummy, after which the bad was named the "Kelly" in her honor.
Princess Grace used her favorite Hermes handbag to hide her pregnant tummy, after which the bad was named the "Kelly" in her honor.

A Wedding Gown Fit For a Princess

Always admired for her fashion, Grace Kelly looked truly resplendent when she wed Prince Rainier. Her gown was designed by Helen Rose from MGM, and thirty-six seamstresses worked feverishly over the royal gown for six weeks. The bridal gown was a classic 1950s silhouette with a fitted bodice and a full skirt. The high neckline of the wedding dress was created by illusion lace, and was the perfect way to symbolize that Grace Kelly was not merely an American actress, but a true lady worthy of the title Princess. The conservative and beautiful wedding gown required twenty-five yards of silk taffeta, one hundred yards of silk net, and thousands of tiny pearls. The crowning glory of Kelly's bridal gown was the 125 year old antique rose point lace which had been purchased from a museum. A lace trimmed veil and pearl beaded white prayer book completed the bride's ensemble. It is said that the circular style of the veil was chosen because it was sheer enough to allow the bride's world famous face to be clearly seen. Shortly after the wedding, Princess Grace's wedding gown was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was most recently displayed in a 2006 exhibit in honor of her 50th wedding anniversary entitled “Fit for a Princess: Grace Kelly's Wedding Dress”.

The newlyweds embarked on a seven week honeymoon on Prince Rainier's yacht Deo Juvante II. The Prince's quest to produce an heir and retain control of Monaco was realized when Princess Grace gave birth to their first child Caroline, Princess of Hanover on January 23, 1957, nine months and four days after the wedding. The birth of the first royal heir was a cause for great joy and celebration in Monaco. A 21 gun salute announced her arrival, and a national holiday was declared. Having children had always been a dream of Grace Kelly's and two more children followed: Albert II, Prince of Monaco born on March 14, 1958, and Princess Stephanie born February 1, 1965. Albert II is now the current ruler of the Principality of Monaco.

Princess Grace gave up acting to fulfill her official duties.
Princess Grace gave up acting to fulfill her official duties.

Grace Kelly Remains a Favorite Style Icon

Throughout it all, Grace Kelly remained as polished and stylish as ever. Just as she had during her years as an actress, the Princess continued to impress with her good taste and chic style. Her wedding gown influenced what brides wore for years, and the classic Hermès handbag which the Princess used to modestly cover her pregnancy is now officially known as the Kelly bag. To this day, the polished elegant style of Grace Kelly is an important fashion influence. The costume designers of the television show Mad Men readily confess to being under Grace's spell. In April 2010, London's Victoria and Albert Museum opened an exhibit called “Grace Kelly: Style Icon”, which showcases over fifty of her outfits, along with accessories, including the legendary Hermès handbag. Visitors to the V&A will be treated to seeing the works of some of the Princess's favorite haute couture designers, such as Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Yves St. Laurent. Grace Kelly is also the subject of a feature in the May 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, “Grace Kelly's Forever Look”, as well as the topic of a Newsweek piece, "No Wonder They Called Her Grace".

The famous dress Grace wore in "Rear Window"
The famous dress Grace wore in "Rear Window"

Her Life Cut Short, Grace's Legacy Lives On

The beautiful Princess's life was cut short as the result of a tragic car accident, in some ways not so much unlike the similar fate that later befell the beloved Princess Diana. On September 13, 1982, Princess Grace was driving along one of the narrow windy roads of Monaco with her daughter Princess Stephanie when she suffered a small stroke, causing her vehicle to crash down the side of a mountain. Princess Stephanie survived, but Grace died in the hospital from her injuries the next day on September 14, 1982. A requiem mass in her honor was held on September 18, in the same cathedral where she and Prince Rainier had exchanged their marriage vows. Among the 400 mourners in attendance were heads of state such as Princess Diana and Kelly's former co-stars including Cary Grant and James Stewart. Eulogizing the Princess, Stewart said, “You know, I just love Grace Kelly. Not because she was a princess, not because she was an actress, not because she was my friend, but because she was just about the nicest lady I ever met. Grace brought into my life as she brought into yours, a soft, warm light every time I saw her, and every time I saw her was a holiday of its own. No question, I'll miss her, we'll all miss her, God bless you, Princess Grace.” Without a doubt, his sentiments were echoed by the nearly 100 million who watched the funeral on television, and by Prince Rainier, who was buried beside his wife in the Grimaldi family vault when he died in 2005.

As an actress, a Princess, and a person, Grace Kelly was truly a fine human being. Beautiful without succumbing to arrogance, fashionable yet not shallow, royal without losing her compassion for regular people, Princess Grace was beloved by those who knew her and admired at a distance by millions more. In the time she spent in the public eye, Grace Kelly managed to redefine how we see style, elegance, and of course, grace.

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Comments 3 comments

GmaGoldie profile image

GmaGoldie 6 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

Great Hub! My personal favorite. Learned allot about her wedding dress - the lace was amazing - antique lace that is 125 years old! And the yards of silk! Wow! Sensational! Thank you!

rontlog profile image

rontlog 5 years ago from England

Lovely Hub - It is interesting to see how closely Kate Middleton's wedding dress resembles that of Grace's, even down to the size of the bouquet.

Davidwork 4 years ago

Another big GK fan here, I’ve just done a hub about her, and named it after the song Frank Sinatra sang to her in High Society, “You’re Sensational”.

I started to take a big interest in her in 2004, and collected all of her films, as well as books and several documentaries. I’ve always been fascinated with Grace the actress rather than Grace the princess. For me, there has never been an actress more beautiful and glamorous in cinema history.

In the accounts I’ve read about her life, apparently her marriage to Prince Rainier didn’t go well after the fairy tale wedding and the first few years, but she stayed with Prince Rainier out of a sense of duty and because if she had left him, she would not have been allowed any contact with the Royal children.

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