With an exhibition of Grace Kelly's dresses to go on show at the Victoria and Albert museum this weekend, we take a look back at some classic images of one of the world's greatest fashion icons.
Born in 1929, Grace Kelly was the third of four children. Her Irish-American father was a self-made millionaire and Olympic gold medal-winning rower, while her German mother was the first woman to coach the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swim team.
After a short stint as a model to fund her way through drama school, her stunning girl-next-door looks proved a huge hit and she was snapped up for leading campaigns. With an enviable lifestyle and income she could have sat back andenjoyed the life of a New York society model, but she was determined tobreak into film via Broadway.
Kelly had a likeable charm which won her respect in an industry full of egotistical starlets. But it was when Alfred Hitchock saw her test reel that her big break arrived.
Between 1951 and 1956, she appeared in 11 movies, including Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief, and George Seaton’s The Country Girl for which she won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Georgie Elgin, a dowdy depressive. By 25, she was a screen icon.
She is rumoured to have had affairs with many of her leading men, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby and David Niven. She was ‘nice but naughty’, says one friend. Another biographer suggests she was so voracious she had sex with the photographer on the way to her own wedding.
Her cousin John Lehman puts her success down to her inner confidence in an era before feminism had taken hold. ‘She was superbly focused and disciplined in developing her talents,’ says Lehman. ‘And yet she didn’t become hardened by the effort of striving for achievement.’
Kelly showed the same focus in her private life as she did in her career. By her mid-twenties, she was tiring of her glitzy life of premieres and parties and began thinking about a husband and family. ‘I don’t want to be married to someone who feels inferior to my success because I make more money than he does,’ she famously admitted.
She met her match in Prince Ranier III of Monaco, whom she spotted at a party in the gardens of his hilltop palace in 1955 during the Cannes film festival. He travelled to America to meet her family that Christmas and proposed within three days. Reportedly he took a doctor with him to test her fertitlity. She refused at first, thinking he was testing her virginity.
The fairytale wedding was held in April 1956, and she wore an
extravagant gown by designer Helen Rose, which will be on show at the
Their partnership enchanted the world. ‘Her enigmatic beauty made her like a goddess in Monaco,’ says Amedo Turello, creative director of Style Monte Carlo magazine. ‘Monaco became a paradise that was out of reach for most people, and Grace embodied its lifestyle.’
Kelly’s acting career ended at that point. It was said that once they were married, Rainier Grimaldi reined her in. ‘She missed acting because she wasn’t challenged enough in other ways,’ says her bridesmaid Rita Gam. ‘There was a black hole in her life.’
The couple had three children – Caroline, Albert and Stephanie. they became her focus, along with charitable work for struggling actors, and royal duties. But there were rumours of affairs on both sides. Kelly took a flat in Paris in the 70s, where she spent time away from her husband.
Legend says she suffered at the hands of the Grimaldi curse – said to have plagued the family with sudden deaths, miscarriages and illness for over 800 years.
During her marriage, she had several miscarriages and Kelly was said to be privately miserable. But her biographer, Donald Spoto, who became friends with her during this time, says she maintained a poised facade that captivated all who met her. ‘She was personable, witty and beautiful,’ he says.
In 1982, tragedy struck. Kelly was driving her Rover with Stephanie when, without warning, she had a stroke. Her car careered down an embankment and Kelly died in hospital the following day. She was 52 years old. Stephanie was unhurt.
Monaco went into mourning. Hundreds queued to sign the condolence book in scenes similar to those following the death of Princess Diana. The funeral was held in the same cathedral Kelly had been married in 26 years before and about 100 million people watched worldwide on TV.
Captions by Elizabeth Heathcote.
An exhibition of Grace Kelly’s dresses opens at the V&A on 17 April 2010. For more information visit vam.ac.uk