Although She was a Princess, Some Knew a Different Grace—A Fiery Irish Girl from Philadelphia.
By Linda R. Marx (September 5, 1983)
The long white bridge, stretching serenely out to sea, leads to the Kelly family beach house in Ocean City, N.J. The late summer sun shines on the little flower garden out back, and the faded novels of the season are stacked away like honeycombs in an apiary. The Kellys of Philadelphia are closing their 54th summer at the shore—but, sadly, this is the first without a visit from their Grace. No one has been able to tell 83-year-old Margaret “Ma” Kelly, senile in a nearby nursing home, that her “Gracie” is gone forever. “It’s fortunate she doesn’t know,” whispers Lizanne Kelly LeVine, 50, Grace’s younger sister. “We have endured the pain of Grace’s passing for her.”
Twelve long months have gone by since Princess Grace of Monaco died at the age of 52, suffering a stroke at the wheel of her car and plunging off a cliff near her home. In that time countless magazine and newspaper articles have dwelt almost obsessively on her life and death. To date Prince Rainier has received more than 24,000 letters of condolence. Almost every day mourners and the curious file past Grace’s resting place in Monaco’s Cathedral of St. Nicholas.
Why will the world not let go of this princess? What is it about Grace that so enthralls the imagination? To some, of course, she was a fairy tale incarnate, a regal, icy beauty who proved that dreams can come breathtakingly true. Others, however, saw a different Grace—a fiery Irish girl from Philadelphia who never forgot how Main Line society had snubbed her self-made father.
Only now, with their grief finally easing, are the people closest to Grace—her friends and family and the men who loved her—beginning to let themselves share their memories of her. What emerges as they sift out their recollections is a collective portrait of a more complex and human Grace. Publicly, she was the aloof and dignified Princess of Monaco, an impeccably proper patroness of the arts and ardent supporter of charities. Privately, though, the woman who was Grace Kelly could be almost raucously earthy. Family members still shake their heads over the time Grace caved in a table while acting out a play one night in Ocean City.
The two Graces hardly seemed to exist in the same skin. She was a unique blend of showbiz glamour and Old World stateliness: “She had the same aura as the Pope,” claims Lynn Wyatt, wife of Houston oil tycoon Oscar Wyatt and chairperson of next February’s first Princess Grace Foundation benefit. Adds Grace’s old friend, actress Rita Gam: “Her strength to be constant, loyal and dependable came from the Catholic Church. Her reverence for the church started at home.”
Or did it? “She was not the world’s most active Catholic, that came later,” insists Grace’s brother, John Jr. (“Kell”), 56. “Gracie was a lot more down to earth around us—loads of fun when she wasn’t on display.”
What follows is an informal view of that Grace Kelly, who, out of sight, before she was touched by fame, grew up amid the brawling, bickering Kellys of Philadelphia, a family dynasty just as powerful in its way as that of the Grimaldis of Monaco.
The patriarch of the clan was John Henry Kelly, a laborer who immigrated to New England from Ireland in 1867 and soon married fellow Irish immigrant Mary Costello. Like her granddaughter Grace, Mary was smitten with fantasy and nobility. To escape the rigors of rearing 10 children, she read Shakespeare for hours. Mary’s son George, Grace’s uncle, went on to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning play (1926’s Craig’s Wife) and became the single most important influence on Grace’s career. “She idolized him,” says Gam. Another uncle, Walter, was a vaudeville star and, ironically, their sister Grace, who died tragically in her 20s, wanted to be an actress.
Grace’s rough-hewn father, John B. Kelly Sr., was already well on his way to parlaying a $7,000 stake into a multimillion-dollar masonry empire when he married a photographer’s model, Margaret Majer. It was “Ma” Kelly who established a set of rules that Grace would live by: “Be just, be punctual, buy only what you need and pay cash.”
Seemingly aloof and withdrawn, Grace grew up under the shadow of achievement (though John B. Kelly’s financial success—he built Philly’s Packard Building—could not buy him Main Line social acceptance). Grace’s father was a superb athlete who had given up boxing to take up rowing and in 1920 won the Olympic single sculls championship at Antwerp. When he wasn’t allowed to compete in England’s prestigious Diamond Sculls at Henley because he “worked with his hands,” he found an avenger: his own son. Kell vindicated his father by becoming a championship rower himself, winning not only the Diamond Sculls but almost every other single sculls championship in the world.
Friends now say John B.’s single-minded determination was not always healthy. “John expected a great deal from his kids,” says Gam. (Years later, his son Kell’s self-confessed philandering helped shatter his first marriage and caused the mother of his six children to remarry and leave Philadelphia. In 1975 Kell’s well-publicized fling with a striking transsexual named Rachel Harlow—formerly Richard Finocchio—was a factor in his decision to drop out of the mayoral contest in Philadelphia when the opposition threatened to campaign with the slogan “Do you want Rachel Harlow as First Lady of Philadelphia?”)
Grace had her own problems with her demanding father(who died in 1960). She did play hockey and swim, if only to please her dad, but with some trepidation. “Poor Grace was something of an outsider at home,” said a friend. “John wasn’t interested in anyone unathletic. He had no appreciation of culture.” From the beginning Grace preferred solitude. She wore heavy-rimmed glasses to read, danced barefoot with her tomboy older sister Peggy (who often went without stockings or shoes) and would daydream about becoming a dancer, an actress, a nurse or an FBI agent. “Grace wasn’t shy like you read everywhere,” insists Peggy, Daddy’s favorite, “she was just quiet.” Still, Lizanne recalls the day “I hid Grace in the closet—and nobody missed her.”
At Philadelphia’s prestigious Stevens School (her parents tried relentlessly to gain social acceptance, even if it meant forfeiting her Catholic education), Grace made above-average grades, gossiped with her sisters and dated her brother’s classmates and older boys from the University of Pennsylvania. “She was very popular,” recalls Max Raab, now chairman of the Philadelphia-based garment firm J.G. Hook. “Grace had lots of dates.” Another acquaintance from those days agrees: “Grace was a wild teenager, but everyone hides it. She gets loyalty from everybody, but those of us who knew her remember her.”
The Kelly house was then buzzing with politicians, sports figures, theatrical stars and eccentric cousins—including one chess champ and a hard-drinking billiards player who later died a derelict on Skid Row. As boss of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, John was an intimate of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph P. Kennedy and Isaac Levy (a founder of CBS). “There was always something going on at the Kellys’,” recalls a friend. “It was the old man’s high-powered friends that got Grace going in acting; she didn’t just rise to success. She first met Sinatra through her dad when Frank was brought in as a stockholder in the Atlantic City Race Track.” (The Kellys and Levys were onetime partners in the track. Grace invested in it and made millions.)
When a lack of credits kept Grace from studying drama at Vermont’s Bennington College in 1947, Uncle George urged her to persevere elsewhere. She applied immediately to New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Once in Manhattan, Grace moved into the Barbizon Hotel for Women. Armed with her father’s drive and her uncle’s aristocratic demeanor, Grace studied fencing, voice and walking and stubbornly did modeling and TV commercials (she was the Old Gold girl) to pay her own way.
Dressed in tweed skirts, bulky wool sweaters and sensible walking shoes, she would sit alone at dinner studying her drama books from behind those clunky glasses. “That Grace Kelly is such a pretty little thing,” Academy classmate John Cassavetes remembered thinking when she graduated in 1949. “Isn’t it a shame she’s too shy ever to amount to anything?”
After reading unsuccessfully for dozens of parts, she finally made it to Broadway in The Father with Raymond Massey. Favorable reviews and a little CBS clout landed her parts on TV shows like Studio One and Kraft Television Theatre. Soon Grace was starring opposite Gary Cooper in High Noon. The movie didn’t quite make her a star, but it did link her in the columns with Cooper. In truth, she was smitten at the time with a hard-drinking actor named Gene Lyons. But Lyons soon faded, as she was besieged and befuddled by an army of would-be beaux. Grace was self-conscious about what she considered her big jaw and told friends that she never felt beautiful.
MGM loaned her to Hitchcock in 1954 to make Dial M for Murder with the very married Ray Milland. When her father heard a whisper that Grace might be seeing the actor socially, he had his Hollywood cronies investigate. “My father was concerned about Ray Milland,” said Kell. “He didn’t like what he had heard about him.” After separate visits from Peggy (now twice divorced) and Lizanne (still married), Grace decided to be more careful. “She was too practical to mess her life up,” said a Hollywood observer. “And everyone liked Milland’s wife.”
Outings with Bing Crosby and William Holden while making The Country Girl that year were generally chaperoned by one of her sisters or a friend. Weekends were spent safely with roommate Gam, rehearsing, exercising, gossiping, laughing, eating spaghetti or drinking lots of champagne. “I was married [her husband was in New York], and Grace was always working,” laughs Gam. “She was a great woman’s woman. She loved to giggle, she loved girl talk.”
The talk turned serious after dress designer Oleg Cassini arrived on the scene. Grace’s two-year relationship with the dashing former Russian nobleman had the family worried. “He had a bad temper,” says Lizanne, “and he’d been married before.” No matter. Had it not been for her family’s grumbling, she would probably have become a rag queen instead of a royal princess. “I thought,” Gam said, “that she was going to marry Oleg.”
Today, Cassini, who has not remarried, still lets the regret tinge his voice when he talks about what might have been: “I fell in love with Grace after I saw her in Mogambo. When she broke up with Milland she sent me a postcard asking me to come to the south of France while she filmed To Catch a Thief. ‘Those who love me follow me,’ she wrote.
“Well, I let my dress collections go to hell, and I flew to Cannes. She was warm and funny and caring, also very disciplined about her work. She never stayed out past 11 p.m. Up till now our relationship had been platonic, but we had such a wonderful time that she asked me what my intentions were. I told her I wanted to marry her. We became secretly engaged.
“Later I saw sharks in the water. It was 1955, and Paris Match introduced Grace to Prince Rainier as a photo publicity stunt for a magazine article. I thought nothing of it. She said Rainier was nice, but that was it.
“We came back to New York and Grace was becoming a superstar. Neither of her parents liked me. The weekend I spent in Ocean City was the worst of my life. I had my own room, but I had to walk through her parents’ bedroom to get there.
“She kept seeing me despite her family’s opposition, even suggesting we get married right away. She told me to find a priest who would marry us. I agreed, but then she got sick and rundown. Once she recovered, she had changed her mind. Her parents had talked her out of it. I didn’t see her again until she called to tell me she was engaged to Prince Rainier.”
Rainier had been seeking an escort after his four-year affair with French actress Gisele Pascal ended in part over her fling with Gary Cooper (apparently a busy man) and her desire to continue acting. Furthermore, Gisele reportedly couldn’t bear children, and the 20,500 Monégasques kept reminding their Prince that he must produce a male heir if they were to assure continued Grimaldi rule. (Otherwise, Monaco, by treaty, would become a French protectorate.) Then, said Kelly clan biographer Arthur Lewis, “Along came Grace, beautiful, fiscally sound and, best of all, fecund.”
According to legend, some time after the two-hour Paris Match picture session, Rainier’s confidant, American priest Francis Tucker, arranged through friends of the Kellys for the Prince to reacquaint himself with Grace at a family gathering on Christmas Day 1955. Three days later they were engaged to be married. Before it was announced publicly on Jan. 5, Grace’s family tried to absorb it all. Ma Kelly called it a beautiful love story. Peggy the clown insisted if Grace was marrying a prince, she must be the barefoot contessa. Brother Kell was too busy training for the 1956 Olympics to take much notice. Only Grace’s father was skeptical. Family friend Jack Edelstein guesses that John B. Sr. was stunned because “he was looking for a prince of a man. He hadn’t counted on a man who was a Prince.”