At the age of 25, Prince Rainier III had ascended to the throne of the Principality of Monaco, a tiny independent state on the French Riviera, in May 1949. Unfortunately, the young man soon discovered that Monaco’s treasury was alarmingly bare. The thinking around the royal court was that perhaps the right marriage might help the principality’s – and by extension the Prince’s – finances. And that is where the Hollywood star Grace Kelly makes her grand entrance in the Monaco story.
In addition to being made rich and famous by Tinseltown, Grace Patricia Kelly had been born into a very affluent Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, family in November 1929. Her Irish-American father, John, owned a successful brick company which had made him a millionaire many times over. He had also excelled at sports as well as business, having been a champion rower who had won three Olympic gold medals – two in 1920 and a third in 1924.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s mother, Margaret, was of German stock and before marrying John had been a physical education instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. But it was perhaps other members of Kelly’s family who gave some indication of her future fame. Interestingly, given her chosen career, the star’s uncle on her father’s side had been a stage actor who had appeared in early Hollywood movies, while another paternal uncle was a director and screenwriter.
As a young girl, Kelly acted in various school productions and, in an uncannily accurate prediction, her graduate yearbook said simply, “Miss Grace P. Kelly – a famous star of stage and screen.” Defiant in the face of her father’s huge disapproval – he thought that acting was just a short step away from streetwalking – Kelly pursued her acting ambitions in the wider world.
Subsequently, Kelly travelled to New York to enroll at the famous American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating when she was 19. Stage work on Broadway led to appearances in TV dramas, which in turn brought Kelly to the attention of Hollywood. Her debut as a movie actor came in 1951 when the starlet scored a minor part in a long-forgotten film-noir called Fourteen Hours.
Kelly’s big breakthrough came later that year, when Tinseltown producer Stanley Kramer offered the actress the role of leading lady alongside Gary Cooper in the classic western High Noon. Also in 1952, Kelly signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on the then soaraway salary of $850 per week. Notable cinema triumphs for the studio courtesy of the blonde star included Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, both released in 1954 and both directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
No-one could have foreseen it, but it would be Kelly’s third movie with Hitchcock, 1955’s To Catch a Thief, that would be her last filmed performance with him – or indeed anyone else. The thriller was shot in the South of France, and it was while Kelly was in that part of the world that she was summoned to nearby Monaco for a photo call with Prince Rainier. But, at the time of their first meeting, the star had actually been dating French actor and war hero, Jean-Pierre Aumont. Nevertheless, Kelly’s introduction to Rainier eventually led to courtship, and then marriage, and then the end of her acting career.
Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi had been born in May 1923 in Monaco’s Prince’s Palace to Prince Pierre and Princess Charlotte, the Duke and Duchess of Valentinois. Charlotte was the Monegasque Hereditary Princess, making her only son, Rainier, heir to the throne. A resident of Monaco is called a Monegasque, and Rainier’s family connection to the area stretched back to 1297 when an ancestor – Francois Grimaldi, nicknamed “The Spiteful” – seized the territory from the Genoese.
During his childhood, Rainier had been sent off to boarding school in England, first on the country’s south coast at Summerfields in St. Leonards-on-Sea and then to Stowe in the Buckinghamshire countryside. In the casually cruel manner that English boarding schoolboys are so infamous for, Francois Grimaldi’s successor was given his own nickname at Summerfields. Rainier’s fellow pupils dubbed him “Fat Boy Monaco.”
Nevertheless, Rainier went on to finish his education in Switzerland and France, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Montpellier in the French south-east in 1943. The following year, the young man became heir to the Monaco throne after his mother, Charlotte, renounced her claim to the principality’s succession.
However, also in 1944, Rainier threw his lot in with the Free French Army to fight a guerilla campaign against the forces of Nazi Germany. World War II was still raging in Europe and Hitler’s military might had been occupying France since 1940. Rainier served with distinction and his bravery in action was recognized by his award of the Croix de Guerre – France’s military cross. After the war, in 1949, his grandfather, Louis II, passed away and Rainier succeeded to the Monegasque throne.
However, Prince Rainier’s new status brought with it a raft of problems. Monaco’s wealth had previously depended on the draw of its world-famous casino, but now there were rival gambling destinations aplenty close by in France. On top of that, many of the formerly high-spending aristocratic gamblers found themselves in straitened circumstances after the conclusion of the war.
So Prince Rainier needed to find ways to make fast money. He developed a strategy to turn Monaco into a tax haven to attract both investors and tourists. One of the most powerful speculators this move attracted was the fabulously wealthy Aristotle Onassis, later to wed Jackie Kennedy. And the Greek shipping tycoon apparently had a cunning plan to put to Rainier – the prince should find a Hollywood beauty to marry. It is said that Onassis believed the resulting global publicity would put Monaco well and truly on the world map, garnering rich foreign investment and increased tourist numbers.
According to contemporary reports, feelers were even put out to the legendary Marilyn Monroe in Rainier’s search for a star. She is said to have reacted scornfully, however, wrongly assuming that Monaco was an African country. Although, with her habitual chutzpah, Monroe added, “Give me two days alone with him and of course he’ll want to marry me.” At least that was how it was reported in an obituary for Prince Rainier published in U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph in April 2005.
Some 50 years earlier, in 1955, Rainier had gone on a trip to the U.S. where he spent three days with Grace Kelly in Pennsylvania and promptly proposed to her. The couple agreed to a wedding date in April 1956, but nonetheless there were seemingly still some financial details to sort out. And, allegedly, how much cash Kelly would bring to the marriage emerged as the key question. At first, Kelly’s father was said to be distinctly and understandably reluctant. According to The Daily Telegraph obituary, the millionaire maintained, “My daughter doesn’t have to pay any man to marry her.”
But eventually both parties reportedly settled on a dowry figure of $2 million. Whether that much was spent on the extravagantly opulent wedding is a moot question. Kelly and her family sailed aboard the SS Constitution to Monaco, accompanied by a reported 80 pieces of baggage and Oliver – the star’s pet poodle. At the time, a reporter from The Boston Globe wrote, “Never have so many women brought so much luggage to such a small country for so few days.”
But, in fact, the female members of the Kelly party had to pack for two weddings, a civil ceremony on April 18, and a religious affair the day after. The first wedding reception was graced by 3,000 Monegasque guests, while a more modest 700 attended the second, more exclusive, event. Nevertheless, that last wedding-list number boasted the names of contemporary Hollywood royalty such as Ava Gardner and Cary Grant.
Prince Rainier and his Princess were subsequently married for 26 years, but the jury is out as to whether or not they were happy. Notably, the often sensationalist celebrity biographer Wendy Leigh has claimed that Kelly’s royal marriage was a gilded cage for the one-time star, and one which made her utterly miserable. In 2007, following the publication of Leigh’s book on the subject, True Grace, the author spoke to U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail. “Grace was humiliated and she was extremely unhappy,” she explained. “She was surrounded by decadence and Rainier’s disreputable friends.”
On the other hand, going by the extremely low benchmarks set by European royalty – or Hollywood stars come to that – it could be claimed that Rainier and his bride enjoyed a relatively happy marriage. They went on to have three children – princesses Caroline and Stephanie and Prince Albert II – after which Kelly busied herself with charity work. And the strategy of promoting Monaco with a Hollywood marriage proved to be a roaring success. It was thought that about 30 million of the Earth’s inhabitants had tuned in to watch the royal wedding live on TV.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the unfortunate or fulfilling marriage ended unhappily with a tragic accident. On September 13, 1982, the Princess of Monaco was driving herself and daughter Stephanie back to the principality after a break at the family’s country home in France. Kelly suffered a minor stroke at the wheel and the car plunged 120 feet off a cliffside road. Thankfully, Stephanie recovered from her injuries but her mother died the next day, at the age of 52. After a serious illness, Prince Rainier died in April 2005 at the grand old age of 81, having ruled over Monaco for almost 56 years. He was buried next to Kelly, and the truth behind the dowry demand went to the grave with him.