Grace Kelly would have approved.
That thought ran through my mind as I surveyed the tasteful retrospective on the Hollywood princess turned real-life royal at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.
“From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly — Beyond the Icon,” which runs through Jan. 26, touches on Kelly’s brief but memorable career in the movies while focusing on her much longer roles as the wife of Prince Rainier III of Monaco, the mother of three children and a champion of the arts and culture.
For a Philadelphian like me, the exhibition conjures up plenty of memories of this local girl who made really good.
The daughter of an Olympic gold medalist rower who owned a construction company, Kelly grew up among the upper middle class in Philadelphia before moving to New York and later Hollywood to pursue an acting career. In less than five years, she reached the pinnacle of big-screen success, winning the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actress for “The Country Girl” before giving up Hollywood to marry her prince.
During my childhood in the 1970s, Princess Grace regularly adorned the covers of my mom’s magazines and the gossip pages of the newspapers. There were sightings of her in the summer at the Kelly family vacation home in Ocean City, N.J., and one final public appearance in her home town in the spring of 1982 at a film festival in her honor. Later that year, she died at age 52, after suffering a stroke while driving to her vacation home in the south of France.
The exhibition, which is being mounted at the Bucks County museum an hour north of Philadelphia in cooperation with the Grimaldi Forum Monaco and Montreal’s McCord Museum, mixes the personal with the official. The installation of about 40 dresses and couture gowns and dozens of objects maintains the air of decorum one might expect from a blonde starlet who stood out in 1950s Hollywood for her white gloves, cool reserve and understated sense of style.
“I’ve been accused of being cold, snobbish, distant,” acknowledged Princess Grace, according to one of a series of quotes adorning the walls of the exhibit space. “Those who know me well know that I’m nothing of the sort. If anything, the opposite is true. But is it too much to ask to want to protect your private life, your inner feelings? Lots of things touch me and I don’t want to be indiscreet.”
The case for Kelly as an icon of elegance is easily made in the main display of her frocks by such major designers as Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, and her signature “Kelly” bag by Hermès. A special room is dedicated to her storybook 1956 wedding, with her shoes, a silk-covered “Bride’s Manual” and other items on display. (The wedding dress itself, created by MGM costume designer Helen Rose under “top-secret conditions,” is too fragile to be exhibited, according to Philadelphia Museum of Art curator and Kelly expert Kristina Haugland.)
At the same time, Princess Grace was known to — gasp! — wear dresses a second time. Or, as Haugland put it, she was “as loyal to old clothes as to old friends.”
The real woman behind the fashion plate also comes through, via family photographs and mementos and glimpses of life behind the palace gates. The former Grace Kelly could just as easily dress the part of a mom in a scarf and a casual blouse and pants and didn’t mind being photographed that way. Normal life for her wasn’t quite like yours and mine, however. Video clips show her children mingling with such old Hollywood pals of hers as Cary Grant, Bing Crosby and Alfred Hitchcock. In one note, Queen Elizabeth II expresses her admiration for the princess’s “sweet children”; other correspondents include opera diva Maria Callas and legendary cabaret entertainer Josephine Baker.
The overall effect is to create a portrait of a very public woman who valued her privacy and never told all, a rarity in the current climate of ready access to celebrity through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other media du jour.
Although it’s not clear whether Princess Grace ever visited Doylestown, she made her professional stage debut in 1949 at the Bucks County Playhouse in nearby New Hope. Her appearance in a production of “The Torch-Bearers,” a play written by her Pulitzer Prize-winning uncle, George Kelly, is part of a concurrent exhibition at the Michener marking the 75th anniversary of the playhouse, which has featured many once-and-future screen and theater stars over the course of its history.
Doylestown, with about 1,200 buildings listed in its nationally recognized historic district, its brick-lined sidewalks and compact, walkable downtown, speaks more to Kelly’s American side than her jet-setting life among the European elite. It’s the place of businesses such as Posh Hair Design, Nicholas and Alexandra Jewelers and a boutique called Très Bien, with nary a Gucci, Chanel or Hermès in sight.
Several businesses do have tie-ins to the exhibition. The Doylestown Bookshop, a sprawling space with comfy sofas and a small cafe, has added a stockpile of books about the princess. The County Theater, a restored movie house, is also hosting a mini-festival, with screenings of her three films with Hitchcock: “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.”
Still, Doylestown has its own castle — Fonthill — a rambling, poured-concrete mansion constructed in the early 20th century without blueprints and consisting of a series of crooked rooms that are exuberantly decorated with tiles produced by owner Henry Mercer’s Moravian Pottery & Tile Works. The castle is part of the Mercer Mile, which includes the Tile Works, a key producer during the Arts and Crafts movement that’s open for tours, and a six-story museum built in 1916 to house Mercer’s collection of 50,000 tools, folk art and other objects from the pre-Industrial Age. Together, Mercer’s over-the-top holdings make for quite the contrast to Princess Grace’s judicious sense of restraint.
But if Hollywood hadn’t worked out and Rainier hadn’t come calling, it’s not hard to imagine someone of Grace Kelly’s background settling down with a more common prince in a quiet burg just like this one.
DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer and co-founder of TheCityTraveler.com.