By Edward T. O’Donnell
Forty-six years ago this week, on April 19, 1956, millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the royal wedding of actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco. For months leading up to the event, the storybook romance had been the subject of countless magazine profiles and news stories. On his day millions of Americans saw it with their own eyes — a girl from Philadelphia had grown up to become a genuine princess.
Grace Patricia Kelly was born on Nov. 12, 1929 into a prosperous Philadelphia family. Her father, Jack Kelly, had started out in life as a bricklayer but went on to become a wealthy contractor and Democratic Party leader. He’d also earned fame as an Olympic champion rower, winning gold medals at the 1920 Games in Antwerp and 1924 Games in Paris.
Born the third of four children, Grace Kelly enjoyed a very comfortable upbringing. She developed an interest in acting early on and after graduation from high school moved to New York City. There she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began performing in theatrical productions and television programs.
Her first film opportunity came in the 1951 film “Fourteen Hours.” Even though her role was minor, her performance, not to mention her striking beauty, earned her more significant roles almost immediately. In 1952 she paired with the legendary Gary Cooper in “High Noon” and in 1953 with Clark Gable in “Mogambo.”
Alfred Hitchcock liked what he saw in Kelly’s serene on-screen persona and cast her in three of his most celebrated films, “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “Rear Window” (1954) with Jimmy Stewart, and “To Catch a Thief” (1955) with Cary Grant. But it was her role in the 1954 film “The Country Girl” (with Bing Crosby) that earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Incredibly, Kelly starred in two other films (“Green Fire” and “The Bridges of Toko-Ri”) that year as well, for a total of five.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
It was at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival in France that Grace Kelly met her future husband, Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The meeting came about by chance — they were photographed for a photo spread in a glossy French magazine. The hit it off instantly and only months later — on Jan. 5, 1956 — announced their engagement. Given Kelly’s exalted image as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful women and Rainier’s status as a prince, the story of their romance was a made-to-order media extravaganza. American women had married European royalty before, but none could compare to this story.
Kelly’s intended was the prince of Monaco, one of the world’s smallest countries. It had been in the control of Prince Rainier’s family — the Grimaldis — for nearly 700 years. Lying on the southern Mediterranean coast of France, it had a long and storied history. At times, Monaco was considered a part of France. At others, notably after 1489, Monaco existed as an independent country. In 1793, France’s Revolutionary regime annexed Monaco, but in 1861 it regained its independence. In the 20th century, especially after World War II, Monaco enjoyed a reputation as a luxurious haven for the rich and famous.
Not surprisingly, the press dubbed the forthcoming event “The Wedding of the Century” and as the day drew nearer it seemed to live up to its billing. In early April the Kelly family and dozens of friends boarded a ship bound for Monaco. It arrived on April 12 and was greeted by the Prince’s personal yacht. Several days of gala pre-wedding celebrations followed leading up to the big day.
Technically speaking, the couple were married on April 18 at a civil ceremony, but the grand event watched by the world was held the next day in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Kelly agreed to let MGM film the wedding for a movie as part of a deal that would allow her to terminate a long-term contract she had with the studio. The event was also broadcast live on television around the world and seen by some 30 million people. Following the three-hour ceremony, the couple boarded the prince’s yacht to begin a honeymoon cruise.
Months later they announced that Kelly was pregnant. Princess Caroline was born in January 1957, followed by Prince Albert in 1958 and Princess Stephanie in 1965. Life as Princess of Monaco was not always easy for the American-born Kelly. It took her many years to acclimate herself to the culture of her new country and the demands of royalty. Of the latter, perhaps the most vexing was the pressure she felt to stay away from acting. When Hitchcock offered her the lead in “Marnie” (1964), she reluctantly turned him down.
As an alternative to acting, Kelly threw herself into charitable work, especially for the Red Cross. She also developed interests in poetry, needlepoint, and creating collages of dried flowers. The latter endeavor resulted in an exhibition of 50 collages at a gallery in Paris.
Kelly’s marriage suffered from the strains of fame and fortune and there were periods where her relationship with the prince was strained. The couple’s children also suffered from the effects of celebrity and constant media attention. Twenty-year-old Princess Caroline, for example, married and then quickly divorced 47-year-old Philippe Junot.
Princess Grace’s remarkable life came to an end in September 1982. While driving on a long, winding road in the Cote d’Azur region of France, she apparently suffered a stroke and lost control of the car. It plunged down a 45-foot embankment, mortally wounding the princess and badly injuring her daughter Stephanie. One day later, Grace Kelly, the woman who started out in life the daughter of a Philadelphia bricklayer and ended up a European princess, died. She was only 53.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
April 18, 1890: Castle Garden, the immigrant depot in New York where 2 million Irish landed since 1855, closes. A temporary facility is used until Ellis Island would open two years later.
April 19, 1897: In the first running of the Boston Marathon, John J. McDermott of New York City finished first.
April 23, 1014: Brian Boru, high king of Ireland, defeats the Vikings of Dublin at the Battle of Clontarf. Brian dies that day from injuries sustained in the battle.
April 18, 1817: Mathematician Michael Roberts is born in Cork.
April 20, 1829: “The Nun of Kenmare,” feminist and social activist Margaret Anna Cusack, is born in Dublin.
April 21, 1887: Hall of Fame baseball manager Joe McCarthy is born in Philadelphia.
April 23, 1947: Northern Ireland Civil rights leader and MP Bernadette Devlin is born in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.