How Grace became the people's princess

As a controversial new biopic of her life is screened, Grace Kelly's friend and biographer reveals the truth
She was an icon, an Academy Award-winning actress, a princess – but Grace Kelly never lost the common touch. One afternoon, after her marriage to Prince Rainier III, Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco, as she was then officially known, went with a friend for a quiet stroll.

‘Well, there’s a big square outside the palace and while they were walking through it, they ran into an American couple taking pictures,’ says her friend and biographer, Jeffrey Robinson, picking up the story.

‘Well, the guy asked her to take a picture of them, and Grace said “Certainly, I would love to”, so he handed her the camera and directed her into taking their photograph, which she did.

‘And then the couple walked off – without even recognising her.’

She also used to love telling a story about getting a taxi in New York and noticing that the driver was eyeballing her in the rear-view mirror. ‘Well, being a Hollywood actress, she smiled,’ continues Robinson, ‘and the driver said, “Anybody ever tell you that you look like Grace Kelly?”

‘“Yes, actually,” she answered. “I get that all the time.”

‘“Ha!” he replied. “She’s actually a little prettier than you are.”

‘She thought that was great.’

Three decades after her death, following a tragic car accident in 1982, Princess Grace is back in the news as the subject of a new biopic starring Nicole Kidman. The film, Grace Of Monaco, which is scheduled to be screened at this month’s Cannes Film Festival, has been criticised by Monaco’s Princely family as ‘total fiction’. But it is sure to reignite interest in Kelly’s truly remarkable life.

Born in Philadelphia in 1929, Grace Patricia Kelly became one of the world’s most bankable actresses, starring in classics such as Mogambo, Dial M For Murder, High Society, and The Country Girl, for which she won an Oscar. But in 1956, aged 26, she retired from acting to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco, an event dubbed the ‘wedding of the century’.

GraceKelly-May16-590-02The religous ceremony at St Nicolas Cathedral, Monaco

It would become the greatest role of her life, but playing the part of the fairytale princess was far from easy. ‘She worked very hard at being Princess Grace,’ explains Robinson, whose insightful book Grace Of Monaco was written with the full cooperation of her family. ‘In 1956, Monaco was a long way away from everything she knew. Ten years after the war, it was a backwater. It wasn’t the glamorous location it became. She didn’t know anybody apart from Rainier and his close family, and she only spoke schoolgirl French.

‘She was giving up an extremely glamorous life in New York and a working life in California as an Academy Award-winning actress to move into a palace that hadn’t been lived in for years. It was old and stuff y and the plumbing didn’t work. She was suddenly out of communication with her earlier life.

‘She also had to work out what was expected of a princess there. Can you just walk into the patisserie and order a baguette and two croissants to go? No, because there are crowds around.’

Perhaps most importantly, however, Princess Grace had to overcome the suspicions of her new subjects, the people of Monaco. Prince Rainier had, after all, had a long-term lady friend, film star Gisèle Pascal, and the Monégasque had always assumed that she would become their first lady. At least she was French.

When that relationship broke up, it was rumoured that it had done so because Pascal couldn’t have children and therefore was incapable of producing an heir.

‘Rainier told me that this was ridiculous and Pascal later married and had children anyway,’ says Robinson. ‘But the people of Monaco had seen their prince grow up and they loved him, and they were asking who was this new woman who was suddenly moving into their world?

‘Grace, however, made this huge effort to be liked and likeable. To become Princess Grace.

‘In later years, there was criticism that she was aloof, that you’d wave to her on the street and she’d never wave back,’ he continues. ‘Well, that was because she was blind as a bat and if she didn’t have her glasses on, she couldn’t see you. If she was wearing her glasses, she’d wave at everyone.

‘An actress can fake a role. She couldn’t fake being Princess Grace. Because this was 24 hours a day. Not just six hours on a set with make-up and a director. She had to come on straight.’

GraceKelly-May16-590-03Left: Walking in Monaco with Caroline and Albert. Right: 'Prince Rainier fancied himself as a drummer - playful Grace did not'
Monaco and Monte Carlo are now by-words for cosmopolitan glamour, a haven for oligarchs and super-yachts. But this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, when Grace first arrived, Monaco was ‘terribly parochial, horribly close-minded, and very chauvinistic about being Monégasque because they didn’t pay taxes,’ says Robinson.

Consequently, Grace had to learn fast how to be princely on their terms – to recognise ‘that if you’re seen too much, the value of your presence lessens, and that if you’re seen too little, you’re considered aloof.’

And then there was the Press. ‘On one occasion, she went to Habitat in Paris, and the paparazzi followed her in,’ says Robinson. ‘Anyway, she had all these packages – towels and plates and whatnot – and she got so frustrated, she said to the photographers, “Here, make yourself useful, my car’s just over there,” and she handed them all the packages.’

Indeed, years later, Grace met Lady Diana when she first stepped out with Charles and she picked up immediately on Diana’s discomfort with the Press. ‘They became friends,’ says Robinson. ‘Grace pulled her aside and told her to bear with it, to slow down, to not worry about it. She explained it wouldn’t subside completely but that she would learn to deal with it. She was very motherly with Diana. She saw a bit of herself in Diana.’

Grace’s humour and humanity often saw her through. ‘Rainier was very funny,’ recalls Robinson. ‘He liked to tell dirty jokes, really dirty jokes. And of course, Grace understood humour, too. One day, Caroline [her daughter] told me that Grace had said that it was the dog’s birthday and so they should have a party for the dogs and invite all the other dogs in the neighbourhood to eat cake and wear party hats. And so they did it – in the palace gardens in Monaco.’

She also knew how to make strangers feel special. ‘Her real talent was that she always gave someone something to take away with them,’ explains Robinson. ‘She would always say something nice to everyone. “Those are the most gorgeous shoes” or “Your hair looks wonderful tonight”.’

The last time Robinson saw Princess Grace was over Christmas, the year before her death. After bonding over Scrapple [a meaty Philadelphia speciality], she offered to cut his hair, before telling her Hollywood tales. One concerned a young actor she had been asked to help prepare for an audition.

‘He read okay, but he wasn’t great…’ she told Robinson. ‘I advised him to keep his job so that he could support his wife and maybe act as a hobby in amateur productions. I tried to convince him as nicely as possible to forget acting as a career.’

GraceKelly-May16-590-04Left: On a ship to Monaco in April 1956. Right: Arriving in Monaco with Prince Rainier in 1956

At which point she stopped and stared right at him.

‘Okay,’ asked Robinson. ‘Who was it?’

And she answered, ‘Paul Newman.’

Unsurprisingly, there was always an appetite for Grace to return to Hollywood, and in 1962, Alfred Hitchcock wanted her to star alongside Sean Connery in his latest project, Marnie. She was keen to accept, but ultimately never took the part.

It has often been reported that it was Rainier who stopped her from returning to the screen, but Robinson claims otherwise.

‘When she told Rainier that she’d love to do it, he asked when she’d be shooting,’ he explains. ‘She told him it would take place in New England that summer, and he suggested they rent a nearby house with the children and that it would be their summer vacation. He was all for it.’

The Monégasques, however, had other ideas – and protested against their princess making movies. ‘In the end, she bowed to that pressure,’ reveals Robinson.

It must have been a disappointment for her. But Grace, it seems, had become so good at playing the Princess of Monaco that her subjects would never allow her to take another role. She had truly won their hearts.

‘When she died, it was like the lights went out. Monaco just stopped. There was a stunned silence that lasted a month,’ recalls Robinson. ‘Her picture was in every window; people walked around shaking their heads. ‘When I spoke to Rainier afterwards, he was sitting in his office in the tower of the palace, overlooking the harbour. We didn’t have any lights on because it was daytime, but he started talking and his voice got lower and slower and the sun set… and about two hours later the two of us were sitting in that pitch-dark room, crying.

‘It was a very intimate moment we shared. You could see that he’d lost a huge chunk of himself, a huge part of himself had died with her. ‘He had the public face that he had to have as the Prince of Monaco and the head of government. But when he was alone, just him… this guy had lost the love of his life.’

And though few had ever met her, millions more around the world shared his grief.

Grace Of Monaco: The True Story, by Jeffrey Robinson, is published by Da Capo Press, priced £8.99.