Grace Kelly’s Forever Look

The rare beauty and stunning self-possession that propelled Grace Kelly into the Hollywood pantheon and ultimately to Monaco’s royal palace were more than captivating—they were completely genuine. As London’s Victoria and Albert Museum unveils an exhibition devoted to Kelly’s style, which still inspires fashion from Hermès to Tommy Hilfiger, the author looks at the intertwined qualities of an icon: white-gloved ingénue, elegant goddess, passionate romantic.

It may be the softest kiss in film history. The sun is setting over rooftops. A man, his leg in a cast, sleeps near an open window, undisturbed by a neighbor singing scales. Just after the highest note is reached, a shadow climbs over the man’s chest, shoulder, and chin. We see a face: blue eyes, red lips, skin like poured cream, pearls. Then he sees it. The kiss happens in profile, a slow-motion hallucinatory blur somewhere between myth and dream. The director, Alfred Hitchcock, liked to say he got the effect by shaking the camera. In truth, this otherworldly kiss comes to us by way of a double printing. Has any muse in cinema been graced with such a perfect cameo portrait of her power?

“How’s your leg?” she murmurs. “It hurts a little,” Jimmy Stewart answers. Another soft kiss, more teasing questions. “Anything else bothering you?” she asks. “Uh-huh,” he says. “Who are you?”

Who, indeed! In 1954, when Rear Window premiered, Grace Kelly had been in only four films. By the time Hitchcock got his hands on her, figuratively speaking, Grace Kelly was ready for her close-up. Hitchcock gave her one after another, in three films that placed her on a pedestal—Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief—enshrining her as an archetype newly minted. “A snow-covered volcano” was how he put it. She was ladylike yet elemental, suggestive of icy Olympian heights and untouched autonomy yet, beneath it all, unblushing heat and fire. By 1956, two years, six films, and one Academy Award after Rear Window she was gone, off to Europe to marry a prince, whence she would become Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.

Whether she was dressed in dowdy daywear (her beloved wool skirts and cashmere cardigans) or in the confections of Hollywood designers and Paris couturiers, Hitchcock goes so far as to make a joke of it. “She’s too perfect,” Jimmy Stewart complains. “She’s too talented. She’s too beautiful. She’s too sophisticated. She’s too everything but what I want.” And it was true, except for that last, because at the moment when Miss Kelly left Hollywood the whole world wanted her.

The Kelly Way
The story of Grace Kelly has been told and retold by friends, journalists, historians, and hacks. This April, it will be told yet again, not in words but in artifacts, when London’s Victoria and Albert Museum unveils the exhibition “Grace Kelly: Style Icon.” It begins as her story must, in Philadelphia, where she was born on November 12, 1929. Baby pictures aside, the image that seems to set her life in motion is one that recurs in a series of vacation snapshots. It is Grace as a little girl on the Jersey Shore, being twirled in the air by her father, who looks Herculean as he swings her by her legs or by an arm and a leg. The photos capture an essential dynamic: Jack Kelly was the vortex of his family, and its life revolved around him—his principles, his dreams, his drive.

Jack’s goal was success in all things, pursued honestly yet relentlessly, and his drive was physical. It manifested itself both in sports—he was celebrated for winning three Olympic gold medals in sculling and in business, where his construction company, Kelly for Brickwork, became the largest of its kind on the East Coast. In many ways the Kellys were like the Kennedys—bright, shining, charismatic, Irish-Catholic, civically and politically engaged.

Margaret Majer Kelly, Grace’s mother, was herself an impressive physical specimen. A former cover-girl model and competitive swimmer, she was the first woman to teach physical education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her German-Protestant discipline meshed nicely with her husband’s can-do spirit. The Kellys built a 17-room home in the Philadelphia neighborhood of East Falls, overlooking the Schuylkill River, upon which Jack rowed. And there they stayed, enviably wealthy, sailing through the Great Crash without a dip because Jack didn’t play the stock market.

Grace Patricia Kelly was the third child of four and the only one without a clear definition. Peggy, extremely witty and her father’s favorite, was the eldest. John junior, born second, was the only boy. (“Kell” would become a champion rower like his father, not because he wanted to but because his father expected him to.) And Lizanne was the baby. Grace was defined by what she wasn’t: not athletic, not outgoing. A much-repeated family story has young Grace locked in a cupboard by tempestuous Lizanne; instead of crying to get out, Grace stayed quietly locked in, playing with her dolls, for hours. “She seemed to have been born with a serenity the rest of us didn’t have,” Lizanne later explained. Unfortunately, serenity didn’t particularly impress Jack. Grace was active in a place where it didn’t show: her imagination. Early on, she told her sister Peggy, “One day I’m going to be a princess.”

Make-believe was where Grace excelled, both in playing with her dolls and in class theatricals, beginning with her first big role—the Virgin Mary in the Ravenhill-convent-school Nativity pageant—and continuing through high school. Years later, as she was just gaining notice in Hollywood, the Los Angeles Times would write that she “came seemingly out of nowhere.” This was not true. Alongside the sporting blood in the Kelly clan ran a more verbal line of showmanship—the stage. Jack Kelly had two brothers who had gained fame in the theater: Walter Kelly, a successful vaudevillian, and George Kelly, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. George became Grace’s mentor and confidant. It was he who encouraged her dream of acting, who warned her about Hollywood’s feudal studio system, and whose name helped her win late admission to the renowned American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in Manhattan. Grace’s parents did not want her to leave home for New York. According to close friend Judith Balaban Quine, who would be one of Grace’s six bridesmaids and later the author of The Bridesmaids: Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, and Six Intimate Friends, Jack Kelly thought acting “a slim cut above streetwalker”—not an uncommon view at the time. But Grace was adamant. “She got away from home early,” her brother, Kell, once said. “None of the rest of us managed to do that.”

Grace did well at the academy, and in her graduation performance played the role of Tracy Lord, the privileged heiress in The Philadelphia Story. This was the beginning of the potent, sometimes prophetic connection between life and art that would reverberate through the career of Grace Kelly. When in 1949 she won her first big part on Broadway it was again a role in sync with her own situation: the loving daughter who must break away from a powerful family. Grace got good notices but Broadway did not fall at her feet. The problem was her voice: it was too high, too flat, and not easily projected over the footlights. She put a clothespin on her nose and worked to bring her voice down a register, to achieve clarity and depth. The result was diction with a silver-spoon delicacy—slightly British—and the stirring lilt of afternoon tea at the Connaught. The Kellys teased Grace mercilessly, this putting on airs, but her new voice would be key.

So would her walk. Grace had studied ballet as a girl, keen on becoming a ballerina, but she grew too tall (five feet six) to be a classical dancer in that era. She never, however, lost her ballet posture or a dancer’s awareness of her limbs in space. Furthermore, she’d paid her own tuition at the academy by doing lucrative work, making more than $400 a week as a commercial model, selling soap, cigarettes, whatever, in print ads. This too contributed to a poise, an inner stillness, in the way she moved. Her walk became something unique: regal above the waist, shoulders back and head high, and a floating quality below, akin to a geisha’s glide, or a swan’s.

Add in the white gloves she wore to auditions—unheard of in the drafty, gypsy world of theater—and the neutral hose, the low-heeled shoes, the slim wool skirts, the horn-rimmed glasses (she was nearsighted), and the less-is-more makeup. Well, Grace was her mother’s daughter, and Margaret had never approved of frippery.

“She was fun and jolly and pretty and nice to have around,” says Laura Clark, who was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar when she met Grace, in the early 1950s, still a struggling actress. Clark remembers her style of dress as “very conservative. You know, the circle pin and the white collars. The sweater-and-tartan-skirt look. Almost schoolgirlish.”

Maree Frisby Rambo, Grace’s best friend from childhood, says that, growing up, Grace wasn’t terribly interested in clothes. “We all wore about the same thing. Sweaters and skirts and loafers and socks. It was like a uniform. Dances and things, she’d wear a dress of Peggy’s.” That changed when Grace left home. “I remember she’d been in New York for a while,” Rambo recalls. “She came to Philadelphia, and I invited her to the Cricket Club to go swimming, and she appeared, and she just looked different. Whatever she had on was so chic, as opposed to us. She looked New York, where the rest of us looked Chestnut Hill.”

So the voice, the walk, the reserved bluestocking style—it all came together in a kind of crystalline equation. You couldn’t say it was calculated. Grace was well brought up, and disciplined, and cultured, and shy. She was only highlighting what she had, just as when she took the advice of her modeling friend Carolyn Reybold, who told her to stop hiding her too square jaw under a pageboy and instead accentuate her jawline. Grace pulled back her hair and pulled on her gloves. All that was left now was for the right camera to find her.

“She would never have had a career in the theater,” Don Richardson told Robert Lacey, whose definitive biography, Grace, was published in 1994. Richardson was a theater director who worked with academy students, and he was also one of Grace’s lovers. “Great looks and style, yes, but no vocal horsepower.” One day, though, Richardson was studying some photographs he’d taken of Grace, and a headshot transfixed him. “When you looked at that picture, you were not looking at her. You were looking at the illusion of her.… The camera did more than love her. It was insane about her—just like I was. When I looked at that photograph, I knew that her future would have to be in pictures.”

In The Face of the World, the photographer Cecil Beaton explains why the camera was insane for Grace Kelly. “She has, most important of all, a nice nose for photography: flat, it hardly exists at all in profile.” This meant it wouldn’t cast shadows that could trouble the cameraman. Furthermore, Beaton writes, “all photogenic people have square faces.…[Grace’s] mouth, the tip of her nose, her nostrils—all are extremely sensitive. Their beauty is effective against the rugged background of the square face.”

The touchstone of her career was a little black-and-white screen test she shot for Twentieth Century Fox in early 1950, for Taxi, the part of a poor Irish girl. Grace didn’t get the role, but the test hung around. In 1952 it caught the eye of John Ford, who said, “This dame has breeding, quality and class.” He cast her in Mogambo. A year later, Alfred Hitchcock saw the test. He was in need of a leading lady for Dial M for Murder, having lost his previous muse, Ingrid Bergman, who’d run off with the married director Roberto Rossellini. On the basis of the Taxi audition, plus a scene or two of High Noon (in which he thought her “mousy”—a compliment), Grace was hired. “From the Taxi test,” Hitchcock explained, “you could see Grace’s potential for restraint.” He liked what he called her “sexual elegance.”

Grace’s rise in Hollywood was swift, and her self-possession was stunning. On her own, she worked out an enviable seven-year contract with MGM, one that allowed her the freedom to live in Manhattan every other year, so she could pursue the stage, which was still her dream. She had no qualms about turning down stupid scripts, and was tight-lipped when reporters asked personal questions. Financially prudent and secure, she didn’t have to accept second-rate stuff or play the publicity game. “She selects clothes and stories and directors with the same sureness,” said eminent Hollywood designer Edith Head, who dressed Grace in four films. “She’s always right.” Grace loved the feeling of family on a movie set, and was adored by her colleagues, whether they were people behind the scenes or stars such as Ray Milland, Cary Grant, and Frank Sinatra. Oddly, the brass at MGM never seemed to understand their Miss Kelly, or value what they had in her. Of the nine movies she made after signing with MGM, five were with other studios to whom MGM lent her out. The Country Girl, a serious drama for which she won her best-actress Oscar, was made at Paramount.

The year 1955 was a big one for Grace. She had four films in the theaters and was the year’s highest-earning female star; at the Academy Awards, not only did she win an Oscar but Bob Hope declared, “I just wanna say, they should give a special award for bravery to the producer who produced a movie without Grace Kelly.” That same year she rose to the top of the Best-Dressed List, sharing the No.1 spot with socialite and Über-Wasp Babe Paley. That Grace, who did not wear couture, could tie with Babe, who did, attests to Grace’s discerning eye. “The stylish image of Grace Kelly was everywhere,” writes H. Kristina Haugland in Grace Kelly: Icon of Style to Royal Bride, “including department store windows. In the fall of 1955, her likeness was used to create a line of mannequins.” It was in 1955 and ’56 that Grace ascended to something white, silent, majestic.

These were the years of her last three movies: the glorious To Catch a Thief, filmed on the French Riviera, all sea and sky; The Swan, from the play that she’d done on television in 1950, and which was now getting the lavish MGM treatment; and High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, co-starring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Any actress would be floating with this kind of material, and Grace, almost literally, was, in fabrics that were light, airy, and ineffable (a theme that had begun with Rear Window). She wore chiffon, watered silk, unlined linen, and that most levitational textile, silk organza.

“Every few decades Hollywood finds a way to classicize the look of one of its stars,” says film and dance critic Don Daniels. “It did it with Marlene Dietrich. It did it with Katharine Hepburn. And it eventually did it with Grace Kelly.”

“When I branched out into women’s wear,” says designer Tommy Hilfiger, who has an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Grace Kelly in his New York apartment, “I began to really study icons of style. Grace stood out. Style is enduring and forever. It’s something you cannot buy. There is a chic-ness to conservative style done in an elegant way. You know, we did a book called Grace Kelly: A Life in Pictures. We did this as an inspiration book, not only for ourselves. We find that the French are obsessed with her, and the Japanese are intrigued.”

“She didn’t necessarily lead fashion in a new direction,” says Jenny Lister, a curator of Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “She’s become shorthand for a very polished and well-accessorized look. Contemporary designers like Zac Posen have talked about her timeless appeal. I think it boils down to quite ethereal ideas because they couldn’t pin her down—she was so private. That aura of mystery, she retained that. And because she stopped making films, it never changed.”

“I think Grace Kelly was someone that came along at the right time,” says fashion historian June Weir. “If she had come along in the 60s, or in the 40s, I don’t think it would have worked. She was the perfect 1950s beauty. Pastel colors, beautiful luxury fabrics, and very pretty necklines.”

But with the biographies published after her untimely death, at 52, in 1982—when she was driving with her younger daughter, Stephanie, and their car flew off the road and down a mountainside—her symbology became more complicated, and certainly more fascinating. We learned that the volcano under the snowcap was surprisingly active and full of fire. Grace was romantic and passionate. She followed her heart, which might or might not lead to bed.

“Grace was in many ways ahead of her time,” says the writer Donald Spoto, whose biography High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly was published in November. “Grace said to me, ‘I was constantly falling in love, and it never occurred to me that this was wrong or bad.'”

Grace did feel the clock ticking regarding marriage and children, for which she longed. On January 6, 1956, page one of The New York Times read, Prince of Monaco to Wed Grace Kelly. Unbeknownst to those who knew her, Grace, during the filming of MGM’s The Swan, had glided into love with Rainier Grimaldi, whom she’d met in 1955 and had been exchanging letters with ever since. “She was playing in The Swan and she was playing a princess,” says Robyns. “Along comes this prince, and, being Grace, she was carried away by dreams and things.” Grace had also made it clear that she didn’t want to be an aging beauty in Hollywood.

“The Wedding of the Century,” as it was referred to at the time (Grace called it “the Carnival of the Century”), was arguably the first multi-media press event on a modern scale. There was a slew of reporters and photographers on the ship that took Grace and her entourage of 66 to Monaco; and the wedding itself was filmed by MGM and broadcast live to more than 30 million viewers in Europe. Grace became pregnant with that precious first child (Caroline)—the offspring who would secure the Grimaldi succession in Monaco, and hence its independence from France—on her honeymoon.

It was during that first pregnancy that Grace turned an accessory by Hermès into a much-coveted cult item. Out in public, she shielded her belly with a large square handbag made of brown pigskin, the Hermès sac à dépêches pour dames. The descendant of a 1930s Hermès saddlebag, it was simple, sensible, and superbly made. Grace was carrying the principality’s future, and she protected it with something proven from the past. In her honor, Hermès christened this bag “the Kelly.” Where the Hermès Birkin bag, named for the actress Jane Birkin, has something more of bling about it, the Kelly remains the icon of impeccable breeding and quiet good taste.

With the same discipline, culture, and kindness that she had brought to her career as an actress, Grace fulfilled her duties as a princess. She had hoped that now and then she could return to Hollywood to make movies, because she loved and missed acting. This hope was dashed. Rainier was ambivalent, the roles on offer were problematic, and her schedule as a wife, mother, and royal was consuming.

As the years pulled on, Grace began to see that “disarray,” the word that didn’t apply to her, had a place in life. It was with tears in her eyes that she said to her friend producer John Foreman, “I know where I am going to be every single day for the rest of my life.” Judith Balaban Quine remembers Grace saying, “The thought of just getting up every day and doing what that day brings you sounds wonderful to me in certain ways.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair May 2010.

May 1, 2010 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links