Any American under the age of 30 can be forgiven for asking “Who’s this Grace Kelly person, and why is she showing up in all these magazines lately?”
The former American actress and late Princess of Monaco has been dead for almost 28 years — a long time for a celebrity to hold the media’s interest.
What has brought her back to America’s magazine covers is an exhibit of her royal wardrobe at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The couture will be interesting, but the real attraction is the style of Grace Kelly, which becomes increasingly rare in a Madonna and Lady Gaga world.
Kelly didn’t just dress well and expensively. She was also an innovator and a successful proponent of high style. Her tastes were exceptional but, more important, she had the face, figure, and carriage that made good clothing look extraordinary.
Behind her style and her looks, though, was Kelly’s iconic power: her ability to exude elegance, charm, and poise, like those other classic archetypes: Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn.
It was also her fantastically successful life. In less than ten years, she became a well-paid model, an Oscar-winning actress, and a princess. For girls of a romantic nature, this is the Trifecta of daydreams. Grace had accomplished it all, and took her amazed fans along for the ride.
In 1954, the Post editors were intrigued by the meteoric rise of this young (well, 25-year-old) model and actress who, two years after playing a minor role in a minor movie, was starring in romantic roles with Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, William Holden, and Jimmy Stewart.
The Post’s celebrity interviewer, Peter Martin, was aware of Kelly’s reputation before they met. She was, according to Hollywood sources, extremely cool, reserved, even haughty — a woman with “stainless steel guts.”
“When we sat down to talk, her face was expressionless. I saw only the surface of her eyes, not into them. She was poised, cool, collected, and wary. She said nothing — unless I asked her a question first. Once or twice, even when I put a direct query to her, she smiled and didn’t answer. However, little by little, she began to come out from behind her private Iron Curtain.”
She eventually relaxed just enough to joke about a story that had circulated in the tabloids.
“It had to do with her knitting a pair of sock for Clark Gable and hanging them on his tent, on Christmas morning, while they were on location for Mogambo. The way it had actually happened was different from the printed version — as such things have a way of being. She had tried to knit a pair of socks for Gable, but, like many another knitter with good intentions, she hadn’t finished them in time. ‘When I realized that I wasn’t going to make it, we were out in Tanganyika, in the middle of nowhere,” she told me, “and I couldn’t buy anything for him. So I stole a pair of his own socks. Each day I stole something else from him. On Christmas Eve I filled one of his sock with his own things and hung it up. It was a silly gesture, but he liked it. I am very fond of Clark.”
Gable received a telegraph asking him if there was any romance between himself and Kelly. Pete Martin followed up on the story that Gable told her, “This is the greatest complement I’ve ever had. I’m old enough to be your father.”
“I’m not too good at the sly remark and the personal probe, but I tried anyhow. ‘I should think he would have been able to overcome that feeling,’ I said.
“Once more she smiled and didn’t say anything.”
Five years later, they met again, only this time Martin was interviewing Princess Grace of Monaco, wife of Prince Rainier III. It was a role for which she seemed ideally suited. Few actresses were better at portraying reserve and gracious nobility. She graciously answered his questions, at one point making an off-handed estimate about the size of her housekeeping staff.
“How many servants do you have in the palace?” I asked.
“‘I don’t know exactly,’ she replied. ‘There are so many different categories. We have servants attached directly to our household, and there are other servants in the place who take care of other people. But to answer your question, approximately two hundred fifty people work here in the palace. That includes carpenters, electricians and the like.’
“‘Does that include the [palace guards]?’
“‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘There are sixty to sixty-five of them.’”
“‘I’m curious why anyone would expect you to drop all you have here, which is so lovely and so idyllic,”‘ I said, ‘and go back to the rigors of movie making. It must be wishful thinking.’
“She did it again. She looked at me, smiled sweetly, and said nothing. I found myself hurrying along to my next questions.”
No one could ever accuse Grace Kelly of changing after she became a member of the nobility.
She was a woman of large ambition, willing to work hard to get ahead. She believed she had earned her success in Hollywood. But even she must have thought that becoming a princess was almost laughably implausible. But then, as Mark Twain once noted, “Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
The story of European nobles marrying rich American women is an old one. An item in the Post of 1874 noted:
“How the foreigners seem to admire our American girls, or is it their fortunes that prove so attractive? They come here and make their selections and are only too gladly accepted as a general thing.
“Mrs. Gen. Griffin has become the Countess Esterhazy; little blue-eyed Camille Webb is now the Baroness Von Havre; Miss Williams, of Georgetown, became the bride of Count Bodisco, and another Georgetown girl has given her affection to an Italian count, who has left her here, expecting his tardy return, which looks too prolonged to promise any realization… I wonder if the Turkish and new French ministers will secure American wives and fortunes?”
Marriages into nobility often raise the question of whether Americans can hold foreign titles. Federal laws permit dual citizenship, and even allow American citizens to retain titles from foreign countries. However, such titles have no legal significance; royal privileges in a foreign land only get a nod of diplomatic recognition in this country.
The stern republicans that founded the United States were always suspicious of nobility. They warned of the aristocratic habit of grabbing up privileges and precedent, and they wanted no such inequalities in the new country.
Yet Americans yearn for its own aristocracy: people who are distinguished by their learning, virtue, and public spirit — equal but superior. These would be “natural aristocrats,” as Jefferson described them in a letter to John Adams.
“I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society… May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?”
When Grace Kelly returned to the United States, Americans were happy to call her “Princess” and “Your Grace” — partly for the novelty of speaking these words, but also because she had, in their eyes, earned the deference by her “virtue and talents.”
[The Post sends out a special thanks for background information from fashion-and-culture writer P.J. Holmes.]