Leaving Hollywood for Prince Charming, Grace Kelly went totally off-script to raise a family and put a tiny Principality on the international cultural map, earning a devoted fan base in her adopted home along the way. She would have been 90 this year, and her iconic influence has never waivered.
On a random autumn afternoon in Fontvieille, I found myself standing in front of Kees Kerkade’s bronze statue of Princess Grace in the rose garden that bears her name. Amongst the 6,000 rosebushes, the tranquility and loveliness of this blossomy space mirrors the essence of an immortal princess, who died age 52, in a car accident.
A grieving Prince Rainier paid tribute to his wife when he inaugurated the garden in June 1984, less than two years after her death, although today it’s been expanded to 5,000 square meters and features seven themes and 315 rose varieties, each of which tells a story by scanning a QR code. I wonder what story it would tell about Princess Grace, who would have been 90 on November 12?
Grace Patricia Kelly was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 12, 1929, to an Irish- American father, three-time Olympic rower John B. Kelly Sr., and mother, Margaret Katherine Majer, the first female to coach athletics at the University of Pennsylvania. Grace began acting at age 20, and within four years won an Oscar for Best Actress in the 1954 film The Country Girl, in which she starred as the wife of Bing Crosby (who was 50).
It was the following year, on May 6, 1955, during the 7th Cannes Film Festival when the actress agreed to a last-minute meeting with Prince Rainier. Paris Match photographer, Michel Simon, and Edward Quinn, an Irish photographer on the Riviera, captured the moments that led the couple to marry 11 months later. This photographic encounter was recently presented as a five-month exhibit, “Monaco, 6 May 1955. Histoire d’une rencontre,” by the Archives of the Palace of Monaco and the Audiovisual Institute of Monaco as part of a visit of the State Apartments.
When Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier on April 19, 1956, the Oscar- winner wore a uniquely designed circular veil to provide maximum visibility of her face to 600 guests, including Cary Grant, Ava Gardner and Aristotle Onassis—as well as the 30 million viewers tuned in to watch the wedding of the century. Cited as the most famous wedding dress of all time and made with 365 meters of fabric, the gown was a gift from MGM studios. The fairy-princess design captivated the heart of every young girl who ever dreamed of her Prince Charming, and set off an infatuation with both Princess Grace and Monaco that continues to this day.
After becoming Her Serene Highness, Princess of Monaco, the movie star left the silver screen at the peak of her career to embark on her most crucial role yet, in a small community where she did not speak the language and where every step she took was continuously monitored.
Wary of having an actress as their princess, it did not take long before Monegasques were charmed. In fact, Grace not only succeeded in conquering their hearts but also those around the world as she helped catapult the tiny Principality to the top by alluring film stars and celebrities, who came in hordes to sunny Monaco. The unwavering media attention from the international press that the Hollywood tale attracted (from which the Principality still benefits) would plague her life, and by extension, the lives of her three children, Caroline, Albert, and Stephanie.
A lover of astrology, Princess Grace celebrated her 40th birthday with a party at the Hermitage Hotel for 60 Scorpios or friends married to Scorpios. The invitations were in the shape of horoscopes, the room decorated with portraits of famous personalities—Edgar Allan Poe, Queen Marie Antoinette, Rodin—sharing the same zodiac sign and a golden Scorpion adorned her birthday cake.
As the dress code called for red, white and black, Grace opted for a dramatic black velvet Balenciaga gown. Among the guests, drawing mainly from the world of entertainment, were David Niven, Josephine Baker, Richard Burton and his wife, the enchanting Elizabeth Taylor.
Over and above the glamour, the loving mother of three also found time in her daily princess duties to actively embrace worthy causes.
Louisette Levy Soussan-Azzoaglio, president and cofounder of the Club for Foreign Residents (CREM) in Monaco, was the personal assistant of the princess during the last 18 years of her life, sharing many intimate moments by her side. She rarely speaks publically about the experience but making an exception she tells me the princess was “a sensible, reserved, and kindhearted woman with a great sense of humor, the same traits that her son Prince Albert shares.”
She adds: “Grace was elegant and sophisticated, but she didn’t wear designer clothes all day long. She was happy wearing plain clothes at home.”
In 1963, Grace founded AMADE Mondiale, to see a “world where every child can live in dignity, their fundamental rights fully respected.” A year later, to support local artists, she founded a non-for-profit foundation in her name, which after her death in 1982 would become the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, with headquarters in New York.
“The PGF-USA has allowed Grace’s cultural legacy to endure in the 37 years since the world lost an icon,” Brisa Trichero, the new CEO of PGF- USA, tells me. “We are immensely proud of the more than 800 emerging American artists in theater, dance, and film who have received vital grants to launch their careers and ensure that her spirit lives on through their achievements.”
In 1975, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier created a high-level dance school in Monaco in the villa Casa Mia, directed by the late Marika Besobrasova. In 1976, Grace engaged in poetry readings for students in the U.K. and the U.S. and wanted to reinvigorate the theater, so the old Théâtre des Beaux-Arts was entirely refurbished and inaugurated on December 13, 1981, as the Princess Grace Theater.
Prince Rainier had transferred his presidency of the Monaco Red Cross (founded in 1948 by Prince Louis II) to his wife in 1958, and it was during her tenure that the association increased its global contribution, sending relief to victims of wars and natural disasters. (Prince Albert took over in 1982.) That same year, having dedicated her energies to upgrading the health center in Monaco, the Princess Grace Hospital Center was inaugurated.
Grace also wanted to reestablish a permanent ballet company and it was Princess Caroline who turned the project into a reality in 1985
by creating Les Ballets de Monte- Carlo, under the direction of Jean- Christophe Maillot.
To raise funds for her various associations, Grace revived the two already existing official balls in Monaco, the Red Cross Ball (1948) and the Rose Ball (1954), attended by the who’s who of Hollywood with a smattering of cultural, political and business personalities.
“In those times, it was a tradition for the prince and princess to host an anti-gala dinner on the weekend after the Red Cross Ball,” recalls Peter K. Murphy, who was the American Consul in Nice and Monaco from 1974 to 1977. The Monaco resident recounts dinners on the beach in Roquebrune. “They were laid-back fun evenings with the children, where we built a large fire on the beach. Prince Rainier had asked me to bring wire coat hangers to roast hotdogs and marshmallows, while he would supply the gros rouge table wine. Grace had surely introduced her husband to that American roasting method.”
Murphy was president of the American Aid Association of the French Riviera, created in 1948 to “assist American citizens who find themselves hospitalized, jailed, resident in retirement homes or facing other temporary financial difficulties.” For a number of years, Princess Grace worked very closely with the association and with the former American Consulate in Nice in personally assisting American citizens living in the area. (The Association shut down this September.)
Murphy also had the unprecedented task in April 1977 of explaining to Henry Kissinger that the princess would not be attending the International Variety Club’s Humanitarian of the Year Award, which he was receiving at Le Sporting among distinguished guests such as the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles.
“While planning the visit, Princess Grace announced she would not attend the gala because Stephanie was to receive her First Holy Communion during early mass in Paris the day after. She asked me, ‘How could I possibly go to a gala that would end late and be in Paris in time for Stephanie’s big day?’”