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Monday, April 12, 2010

The ‘High Society’ Life of Grace Kelly

From Hollywood royalty to princess of Monaco

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According to Donald Spoto’s provocative new biography, High Society: The Lifeof Grace Kelly (Harmony Books), the actress was full of grace, a trait that defined her every movement on screen. No actress boasting such delicate patrician features had ever radiated such warmth. But the girl hovering over a sleeping James Stewart in Rear Window was every man’s fantasy.

Kelly only made 11 films, of which a half-dozen are memorable, during her short-lived career from 1950-1955. This time would prove to be her greatest period of personal freedom. She went from a restrictive childhood to the psychologically and socially limiting role as Princess Grace.

She was to the manor born, but a ring away from the top tier. Born in Philadelphia to an affluent Irish family, Kelly and her kin would have been included in the social register had they not been Catholic in a Protestant Republican town. Yet she was sent to the best schools and her patrician gentility seemed a natural outcome of a finely wrought, untroubled upbringing—except that her father never thought much of his daughter’s ambitions.

Jack Kelly was a sports-minded gold-medal winner for rowing and Grace was shy, nonathletic and apathetic, interested only in pursuing acting. Only her Uncle George, himself a playwright, encouraged her ambitions. Her success never diminished her father’s question: “What was all the fuss about Grace?” But her determination prevailed. She was allowed to enroll at the pricey American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York while staying at the very discreet Barbizon Hotel for Women.

Kelly’s early romantic life is shrouded in mystery. She had that rare quality of inspiring liking that only resembled loving—everyone was kind to her. She was probably intimate with Oleg Cassini, who wanted to marry her—as did many of her co-stars—but rumors of affairs with Clark Gable and Bing Crosby seem more like tabloid relish.

Her first major roles were underrated performances as the Quaker wife in High Noon and the reserved Englishwoman in Mogambo. Alfred Hitchcock adored Kelly, hiring her based only on a borrowed screen test. Her now world-famous allure and indescribably refreshing innocence ignited Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and even Dial M for Murder. She won an Academy Award for portraying an embittered, long-suffering wife in The Country Girl, but the plainness of her part barely concealed her subtle beauty.

Her final film, High Society, is rarely compared to its acknowledged predecessor, The Philadelphia Story, for fear of Katharine Hepburn’s formidable élan, but Kelly carries her own with a softer, effortless sense of class. The Newport, R.I.-bred Tracy Lord of High Society is closer to the real Kelly, and Kelly’s characterization seems more natural, her sophistication less programmed and theatrical and ultimately more contemporary than Hepburn’s razor-sharp finesse.

Kelly was already engaged to Prince Rainier during the filming of High Society and she left Hollywood in 1956. After a five-year career—her only period of real freedom—she likely did not realize that Princess Grace would be her final and most limiting role. Spoto can only hint at what induced Kelly to abandon Hollywood for the 400-acre principality of Monaco after a brief correspondence courtship. She had long yearned for a stable marriage and found Hollywood artificial.

Like the enigma of her early romances, we may never know the overall effects of dealing with a resentful palace staff whose restrictive protocol she rarely opposed. She died of a brain hemorrhage in 1982. Her screen presence remains “ethereal without being unrealistic—her line readings poignant without seeming arch.” Grace Kelly’s appeal remains elusive, but never out of reach.