Grace Kelly: the extraordinary legacy of the original Hollywood star-turned-princess
When Meghan Markle began dating Prince Harry in 2017, the comparisons to the original Hollywood actress turned princess Grace Kelly were inevitable. On what would be her 90th birthday, Caitlin McBride reflects on her extraordinary life and the legacy she left behind
For decades, Grace Kelly’s life was considered the stuff of real-life fairytales; a story which a certain generation could tell their children about: the Hollywood actress who became a princess.
At the height of her fame, fresh from winning her first Best Actress Oscar, she left the bright lights of Hollywood for love, in the form of Monaco’s Prince Rainier. The 1955 Academy Awards, from which she walked away with her first golden statue, was the perfect setting to kick-start the glamorous life which awaited her - or at least, partially.
While Meghan Markle’s introduction into the British royal family in 2017, when she first began dating her now-husband Prince Harry, inevitably drew comparisons to the late Princess Grace as their stories share more commonalities than their careers.
Grace met her husband at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 and within one year, they were married, moving at a slightly hastier speed than Meghan and Harry’s romance, but the same whirlwind timeline applies.
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She was at the height of her career, but at the age of 26, she was already considered an ageing actress in a ruthless industry; so when a life filled with riches and a handsome prince came calling, it was too tempting an offer to refuse.
“I’ll tell you one of the reasons I’m ready to leave. When I first came to Hollywood five years ago, my makeup call was at eight in the morning,” she once said. “I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to stay in a business where I have to get up earlier and earlier and it takes longer and longer for me to get in front of a camera.
It's long rumoured that Rainier III originally tried to court Marilyn Monroe. At the time of his succession to the throne in 1949, the country’s cash flow was slow and after Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis had acquired control of the Société des Bains de Mer. Onassis reportedly suggested a well-known American actress would be an easy route towards positive publicity to the principality.
Throughout the build-up of the wedding, it was billed as true love, but the Grace-Rainier union was as transactional as any celebrity marriage. The Kelly family was required to pay a $2m dowry to cover the cost of the wedding, a move which prompted her father John, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and millionaire, to balk, “My daughter doesn’t have to pay any man to marry her,” according to reports at the time.
Outwardly, the fairytale narrative remained true throughout her life and Rainier’s enduring appreciation for his wife continued well beyond her death in 1982. That same year, he established the Princess Grace Foundation, which supports artists through grants, fellowships and scholarships in the United States.
Theirs, like every marriage, was complicated, especially one under the glare of the international spotlight (when Grace arrived at the harbour in Monaco for her wedding, 1,800 photographers were waiting).
Their wedding was an international affair which set the modern standard for royal weddings - it was a televised display of wealth which has aged like a fine wine - most certainly in terms of her timeless style.
The law required two ceremonies, one legal and one religious, and so, Grace and Rainier knelt next to one another at the high altar of the Cathedral of Monaco for a religious ceremony, officiated by the Monsignor Marella, one day after the civil ceremony at Monaco’s Supreme Court.
She was dressed in a custom design by Helen Rose, the costume designer with whom she developed a rapport during her Hollywood years, would influence brides the world over for decades to come; including Kate Middleton.
Rose worked alongside the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) team to create the gown over a number months, featuring a slip, skirt support, underbodice, ruffled and smoothing petticoats and a train insert with silk faille cummerbund.
Contrary to the style du jour, Grace opted for a Juliet cap to hold her veil in place in lieu of a tiara; a strategic move in order to make her face as visible as possible for the viewers watching on television.
In 2017, to mark the 35th anniversary of her death, her son Prince Albert honoured his mother’s memory, which lives on today with her eponymous foundation.
“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,” he 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.”
As preferred countries went, Ireland reigned supreme: the princess frequently visited Ireland in personal and professional capacities, inspiring the Princess Grace suite at The Shelbourne Hotel. In 1961, Kelly honoured her ancestral homeland (her grandfather was a bricklayer from Mayo who emigrated to Philadelphia in the late 19th century) including visiting Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin and the former Sacred Heart Home for Orphans.
It was a reflection of her devotion to global philanthropy, which would be carried on years after her death in her name. Grace learned, as many princesses have before and after her, the pressures that come with such a title and international fame.
In her later years, long after she’d given up acting, she lived in an apartment in Paris, spending most of her time way from her husband and according to the Guardian, “she told friends that she dreamed of becoming a bag lady and wandering the streets of Paris.”
Her closest friend Joan Dale wrote in her biography: "I am sure there were times in the early years when she felt somewhat like a prisoner in a gilded cage behind the palace walls.
While Wendy Leigh, the celebrity biographer, claimed that Rainier had a number of mistresses throughout their marriage, leaving Grace “humiliated and extremely unhappy”.
"She was surrounded by decadence and Rainier's disreputable friends,” she wrote in the book True Grace.
The next generation of the Monégasque royals are just as adept at gathering column inches and following in Kelly’s glamorous footsteps of stardom. Her granddaughter Charlotte Casiraghi, who recently wed in three separate events, honoured her late grandmother by wearing some of her jewellery on her wedding day.
The triple layered brilliant-and-baguette-cut diamond necklace was gifted to Grace on her wedding day in 1956 and remains, like all historical jewels, in the family's extensive vault.
Charlotte is the daughter of Grace and Rainier’s eldest child Caroline, who has been vocal about her tumultuous childhood and the complexities of royal responsibility balanced with personal happiness.
"I was raised with a sense of duty, obedience and guilt," she once said of her childhood. "What I had to do always came before what I wanted to do."
"When we were little, we were probably closer to our nanny than to our parents."
Prince Albert, although the second born, ascended the throne as the law dictates the male takes preference in inheriting the Serene Highness title. He and his wife Princess Charlene, who was reported to have attempted to flee Monte Carlo days before her wedding only to have her passport confiscated at Nice Airport, continued the gossip-filled narrative of life behind palace gates into the 2010s. (Charlene denied the reports and described them as hurtful).
While Grace’s children have hinted that their childhoods were less than idyllic, they have endured the continuation of the monarchy and take a more flexible approach to royal responsibilities with their own children.
Albert and Charlene are parents to twins Prince Jacques and Princess Gabriella of Monaco; while Caroline of Hanover is mother to Andrea, Charlotte and Pierre Casiraghi and Princess Alexandra of Hanover, who inherited her father’s title.
Princess Stéfanie is mother to Louis and Pauline Ducruet.