By Laurie Bogart Wiles
I REMEMBER SEPTEMBER 13, 1982. The news was so unexpected, so unbearably disturbing, that the emotion it provoked seared the event into memory like a blistering brand on the skin. Princess Grace of Monaco had been in a car accident and died the next day. It happened again, on August 31, 1997, when news of a similar tragedy spread around the world like wildfire: another princess, Diana of England, was involved in a car crash and three hours later died from her injuries.
Early reports about Princess Grace were vague and sporadic.
Shortly after 10 in the morning, she was involved in a one-car accident on the road at Cap-d’Ail while driving her metallic green British Rover P6 3500 V8 from her family’s country estate and working farm, Roc Agel, just over the border in France, to the royal palace in Monaco. The day was new, the distance short—only 35 minutes’ drive between the family’s two homes. Weather was not a factor; the day was glorious, not a cloud in the sky, the air clear and fresh with the scent of coming autumn. The only passenger in the car was her youngest child, 17-year-old Stephanie. The brakes had failed but miraculously, the princesses had only sustained minor injuries. The news would rapidly change.
At first, there were no photographs; then gut-wrenching pictures appeared on front pages of daily newspapers in every country and on television in special news reports. The car had left the narrow, winding, treacherous road high above the Mediterranean Sea at a hairpin curve called the “Devil’s Curse,” breaking through a retaining wall before plummeting down a 120-foot embankment. Princess Grace was driving along the same road she drove with a terrified Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 suspense movie masterpiece, To Catch a Thief, unfounded reports said, but this was sensationalism; she was not. She was driving along the CD37, the Route de La Tourbie, when she lost control of her car.
The car had somersaulted and landed upside-down, crushed like a tin can. There was a plethora of conjecture: that Stephanie had been behind the wheel, that mother and daughter were engaged in a terrific argument; but the only truth that mattered finally came from the hospital: Princess Grace had suffered a brain hemorrhage while driving, blacked out and lost control of her car. Stephanie was injured; it was a miracle that either one had survived such a terrible accident, especially since neither wore seat belts.
Seven years later, in a Chicago Tribune review of the biography, Rainier and Grace: An Intimate Portrait, by Jeffrey Robinson, Princess Stephanie recounted her memory of what happened:
“‘I remember every minute of it,’ she said, trying to retain her composure. ‘It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been starting to cope with it. I had some professional help, and especially in the last eight months, I’ve been learning to deal with it. I still can’t go down that road, even if someone else is driving. I always ask them to take the other road. But at least I can talk about it without crying, although it’s hard for me to get it out in front of my dad. As far as I’m concerned, I can live with it. But I still can’t talk to my dad about it because I know it hurts him, and I don’t want to do that because I love him.’”
Also, in the same book, is this interview with Grace’s oldest child, Princess Caroline:
“Stephanie told me, ‘Mommy kept saying, I can’t stop. The brakes don’t work. I can’t stop.’ She said that Mommy was in a complete panic. Stephanie grabbed the hand brake. She told me right after the accident, ‘I pulled on the hand brake, but it wouldn’t stop. I tried, but I just couldn’t stop the car.”
The afternoon of the accident, a press release was issues from the palace that princess grace has suffered a minor brain a hemorrhage and would make a full recovery. Then, abruptly came news of a second, far more serious brain hemorrhage, and the princess has been given Last Rights. Her husband of 25 years, Prince Albert, were at her bedside. With no hope of recovery, Prince Rainier made the agonizing decision to remove his beloved wife from life support. Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco was dead at the age of 52.
ONLY NOW, 47 YEARS AFTER HER TRAGIC LOSS, is it clear just why Princess Grace of Monaco, the former Grace Kelly of Philadelphia, meant so much to so many for so long. The few movies she made in her brief, award-winning Hollywood career were captivating, sublime and distinctive. She was the antithesis of Marilyn Monroe; Grace Kelly’s cool composure contrasted with Elizabeth Taylor’s seething magnetism; she possessed a genuine refinement that differed from Audrey Hepburn’s sprightly allure. Yes, Grace Kelly was unlike any other actress of her time—and though many have attempted to emulate her, none have ever come close.
She had an enviable, peaches-and-cream complexion and a shimmering radiance to her face that required little or no foundation, even when sparingly applied by makeup artists on the movie set. She had elegance to her figure, naturalness to her demeanor, a kindness to her personality and a subdued passion—like fire under ice. Her clothes, her hairstyles were opulent in an unopulent way: the cut and wave of her helmet of thick, blonde hair was simple, sculpted and shone like molten gold, even when the wind’s fingers ran through her golden locks on a blustery day. The elegance of her clothes was in the simplicity of the cut and the luxury of the fabrics, nothing more. Few women could pull off the priceless jewels she wore as uncrowned queen of Hollywood and crown princess of Monaco, and even then her beauty outshone the precious stones.
Like everyone else, I admired her. As a teenager during the ’60s, in those delicate, confusing, growing-up years when a young girl must figure out who she is and who she wants to be, Grace Kelly was a prime example. She inspired me to be well-dressed, well-groomed and ladylike—ambitions that set me far apart from the counterculture movement adopted by my hippy friends. And that is exactly how I, and my mother, wanted me to be, and on that common ground, my mother and I grew close in ways that otherwise might not have been possible. A woman who never missed her weekly appointment at Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon on Fifth Avenue in New York, Mom always said, “You don’t dress for yourself, you dress for others,” and “First impressions can never be erased.” Of course, she was right.
GRACE KELLY, AS THE WORLD WOULD ATTEST, was one of the most beautiful and gifted creatures God had ever created, and she was privileged and blessed as few could possibly imagine.
“Yes, that would be my ‘jumping-off point,’” I surmised when I set out to write this story. I had some small pretext that my story could rise above the fray. I never met Princess Grace, but we did have people in common.
There was a friend, whose third-generation custom clothier company made the Kelly family’s equestrian outfits, and for Grace throughout her life. “Jodhpurs that are perfectly tailored and have the right ‘give’ in the right places are very difficult to measure and make,” Bob Ermilio of Ermilio Clothiers, New York, explained to me. “But we know how to do it right, and Princess Grace came only to us, every year, for her riding outfits.”
Then there was a family friend from Long Island, a television executive whose mother was a sister of Grace. He and his wife and two children frequently visited his cousin in Monaco at Christmas and on important family occasions.
My husband’s and my great friend, Rob Neff, and his family were seasonal neighbors of the Kelly family when, as children, they summered at the Jersey shore. “Grace was very shy and not as athletic as her sisters and ‘Kell,’ her only brother,” he recalled. “I was pretty young, but boy, did I look up to Kell. He was older than I and a tremendous athlete.”
And the late actress Celeste Holm, whom I knew in her declining days. She had starred with “dear Grace” in High Society (1956).
“She was delicious,” Celeste told me. “Such a kind and wonderful friend. She was unusual for an actress, you know. Grace had no ego.”
But I came to fear that whatever I wrote about Princess Grace would be just that—another story, pieced together like a patchwork quilt from scraps of articles that had been published during her lifetime and long after. Countless tabloid journalists stroked their poisoned pens with gossip they had written about her. Conjecture became “facts” over time. How could anyone know what was true and what was not? Torn, I decided not to write about Princess Grace—but then I came across her last televised interview, two months before her untimely death, with Pierre Salinger on ABC’s 20/20: “I would like to be remembered as someone who accomplished useful deeds and who was a kind and loving person. I would like to leave the memory of a human being with a correct attitude and who did her best to help others.”
That’s when I decided to give it a go; whatever I wrote would be as true as I could make it.
EVERY BIOGRAPHY HAS A BEGINNING, Grace Patricia Kelly was the half-Irish, half-German product of strong, resolute, hard- working, socially responsible people who never were tethered by their humble beginnings. She was born November 12, 1929, less than a month after Black Thursday, the worst stock market crash in the history of Wall Street. She was raised during the Great Depression, was 12 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor leading the United States to enter World War II and had just turned 16 when the war ended. This was America’s darkest period, and yet throughout, the Kelly family prospered and enjoyed a privileged life.
Grace attended Ravenhill Academy, a private Catholic girls’ school, and graduated in 1947 from the Thaddeus Stevens School of Observation, a socially prestigious private school in the Poplar section of Philadelphia. She applied and was rejected by Bennington College in Vermont because of poor math grades. Furthermore, she didn’t inherit her parents’ athletic prowess, which her three other siblings had received. Rather, she auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, reciting a passage from her Uncle George’s 1923 play,
The Torch-Bearers, and was accepted.
She graduated at the age of 19, and for her graduation performance,
she played the role of Tracy Lord in the stage comedy The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry—a role she would reprise in the 1956 motion picture musical High Society (1956), the second of two films in which she would co-star with Bing Crosby and her only musical.
At 27, Grace Patricia Kelly became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco, wife of Prince Rainier, leaving behind a brief but celebrated career as one of Hollywood’s most popular stars. She had appeared in almost 60 television shows and many commercials before her 11 films, three with Alfred Hitchcock, the most of any of his leading ladies. Her leading men were among motion pictures’ most famous actors: Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, William Holden, Alec Guinness and Frank Sinatra. Her distinguished performances won her many awards, not the least of which was an Academy Award for Best Actress for her dramatic role in The Country Girl (1952), opposite Bing Crosby.
After her marriage, she regretfully but dutifully cast acting aside and devoted herself to the life of a princess and wife alongside her husband,
Prince Rainier III of Monaco. They had three children: Caroline, born in 1957; Albert, heir to the throne, born 14 months later; and Stephanie, born seven years after Albert. Despite reports to the contrary, they obviously were “hands-on” parents with Grace reportedly being the disciplinarian, as was her mother—and indeed, as are most mothers.
She devoted much of her time to charity work: as president of the Monaco Red Cross, the Monaco chapter became one of the most active in the International Federation of Red Cross Societies. Princess Grace personally distributed care packages to the needy at Christmas, and with her husband, hosted the annual Monaco Red Cross Ball, one of the premier events on international society’s social calendar.
In 1963, she founded AMADE, a non-profit association dedicated to child protection, education, health and emergency management around the world.
She frequently visited residents in Monaco’s retirement homes and established Monaco’s first daycare center, spending time reading, singing and playing with local children. Reflecting her love of the arts, she established La Foundation Princesse Grace in support of the Princess Grace Dance Academy, and in 1966, initiated the International Monte-Carlo Ballets Festival, attracting the world’s leading dancers, musicians and artists to Monaco to perform. Reflecting her love of flowers, she founded the Monaco Garden Club, and her interest in artisan crafts produced Les Boutiques du Rocher, stores where arts and crafts by Monegasque people are sold. Even after her death, her charitable work continued when Prince Rainier founded the Princess Grace Foundation in America for emerging performing artists, and her children sustain their mother’s incredible charitable legacy, which continues to assist countless people in untold ways around the world.
On September 7, 1976, Princess Grace appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, returning to acting after a 20-year hiatus. On September 8, The New York Times reported: “Princess Grace of Monaco, the former film star Grace Kelly of Philadelphia, made a triumphant return to the entertainment world at the Edinburgh International Festival last night.
“Princess Grace was one of the three performers in a poetry recital entitled The American Heritage, arranged as a tribute to the United States Bicentennial. The capacity audience of 300 in Edinburgh’s St. Cecilia’s Hall gave an enthusiastic reception to readings from poets whose work mirrored the progress of the United States from the earliest Colonial days.
“Starting with the works of Anne Bradsheet, one of America’s first poets and a Quaker immigrant born in England in 1612, the readings ranged through the 19th-century classics of American literature to such 20th-century figures as Carl Sandburg, Ogden Nash, T.S. Elliot and Robert Frost.
THEN PRINCESS GRACE’S LIFE CAME TO A CRASHING END on that tragic morning of September 13, 1982. “A witness to the accident said that he was 50 yards behind the Rover, nearing that very steep, sharp curve, when he saw the Rover swerve violently, zigzagging across both lanes. Then the car straightened out and shot ahead very fast. He knew the road and knew that the bend was coming up and, in those two or three seconds when he didn’t see any brake lights on, he realized what was going to happen,” Jeffrey Robinson reported in his biography.
The police found no skid marks on the road, confirming the witness’s report that the car had accelerated. (I myself witnessed a similar situation. A woman in her 60s suffered a stroke while driving. Her stiffened leg floored the accelerator pedal, and the out-of-control car crashed into a tree. Like Grace, she died, and her husband, the sole passenger, survived with minor injuries, as did Stephanie.) Neither Princess Grace nor Princess Stephanie were wearing seat belts. Grace had a severe cut on her scalp and was pinned by the steering column into the rear seat. Doctors confirmed Princess Grace had suffered a minor stroke while driving, corroborating Stephanie’s account that her mother complained of a severe headache before the accident.
Once again, there are conflicting reports about whether she was conscious after the crash or not, but even if she had been, she lapsed into a coma from which she would never awaken.
Princess Grace sustained a second stroke in the hospital that proved fatal, dismissing all hope of recovery. Thirty-six hours after the accident, surrounded by her husband and two eldest children, Her Serene Highness Grace of Monaco died. She was 52. Close to 100 million people watched her televised funeral.
Actor James Stewart, with whom she famously starred in two motion pictures, the Hitchcock thriller Rear Window (1954) and High Society (1956), gave this eulogy at the private memorial service held for Princess Grace in Beverly Hills: “You know, I just love Grace Kelly. Not because she was a princess, not because she was an actress, not because she was my friend, but because she was just about the nicest lady I ever met. Grace brought into my life as she brought into yours, a soft, warm light every time I saw her, and every time I saw her was a holiday of its own. No question, I’ll miss her, we’ll all miss her. God bless you, Princess Grace.”
Her distraught husband, Prince Rainier, never remarried. He survived his wife by 23 years, dying April 2005 at the age of 81.
Shortly before her death, Princess Grace was quoted to say “Fairytales tell imaginary stories. Me, I’m a living person. I exist. If the story of my life as a real woman were to be told one day, people would at last discover the real being that I am. ”
Featured image: Portrait of Grace Kelly taken by Howell Conant circa. 1950s. (Courtesy Heritage Auctions/HA.com).