Book review: 'High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly' by Donald Spoto

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 15, 2009


The Life of Grace Kelly

By Donald Spoto

Harmony. 303 pp. $25.99

Three days ago, were it not for the unhappy intervention of a fatal automobile accident in September 1982, Princess Grace of Monaco would have celebrated her 80th birthday. If it is as hard for you as it is for me to imagine her at 80 years of age, on the other hand, it is not at all difficult to imagine that she would have been as beautiful and regal at 80 as she was at 52 (when she died), or for that matter at 21 (when she made "High Noon") or at 23 (when she made "Rear Window") or at 24 (when she made "To Catch a Thief") or at 26 (when she made her last film, "High Society").

Grace Kelly -- as of course the world will always know her -- was one of the most skilled, admired and beloved actresses of her time, which turned out to be remarkably brief. She made her professional stage debut in the summer of 1949 and retired from motion pictures after the filming of "High Society" in 1956. She was a hard worker and packed a lot into that brief time. As Donald Spoto points out in this workmanlike biography, "Over the course of fourteen months -- from July 1953 through August 1954 -- Grace Kelly completed six of the eleven films that constitute the sum of her movie career." But it has been more than a half-century since she left show business in order to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco, and to what extent she is still remembered and revered by anyone under the age of 60 is a question I am ill-equipped to answer.

Her time was my time, though, and I remember her today as vividly as if I were 11 years old watching "High Noon" at a matinee showing in the Chatham Theater in Southside Virginia. Over the next four years I saw almost all of her movies, and though she wasn't the movie actress on whom my fantasies focused -- that dubious honor went to Jean Simmons -- she was for me, as for so many others of that day, the epitome of feminine loveliness and class. She remains that for me to this day, as a recent viewing of "To Catch a Thief," to my mind the best of her movies, makes gratifyingly clear.

Back in the day, everybody knew her story. She was born in 1929 to one of the richest families in Philadelphia, but scarcely "Old" Philadelphia. Her father, John Kelly, was an Irish American who made his money in the construction business and his reputation in sculling -- he was "the first rower to win three Olympic gold medals" -- but who was scorned by the snotty WASPs of Philadelphia's Main Line and East Falls neighborhoods. He carried an enormous chip on his shoulder but declined to curry the favor of those who looked down on him, preferring instead to live with his wife and four children in splendid isolation not unlike that maintained by the Kennedys a few hundred miles to the northeast.

"The family sailed through the Depression enjoying a genteel, privileged life," Spoto writes. "The Kelly children attended private academies; there were household servants and workers to tend the grounds and gardens; and the children wore only the finest new seasonal wardrobes." Jack Kelly wanted his children to be as athletic as he was, but Grace confounded him. She was "thin and withdrawn" and "largely indifferent to physical activity." A friend said: "Jack never paid much attention to Grace -- he accepted her but he never understood her. But she adored him and always sought his approval." She had a "longing for physical tokens of affection" that neither he nor her aloof, proper mother gave her, and that doubtless had much to do with her desire to be touched and loved by men.

How many of these there were and precisely how far her relations with them went is difficult to say, though Spoto -- the author of numerous biographies of stars of stage and screen, some of whom were decidedly promiscuous -- is disinclined to believe some of the rumors put forth by previous biographers. He doubts that she had affairs with Gary Cooper during the filming of "High Noon" and with Ray Milland during the filming of "Dial 'M' for Murder," but he confirms her long relationship with the clothes designer Oleg Cassini and concedes that "it is nevertheless true that in her twenties Grace was a healthy, popular young woman who enjoyed intimacies with a few men to whom she was seriously (if only temporarily) attached."

She went into acting over the strenuous objections of her parents, who never really reconciled themselves to her career, even after her great success in "The Country Girl" (1954) as "a once vibrant and attractive woman who has become weary and cheerless in support of her irresponsible, alcoholic husband," a performance for which she won an Academy Award. Her close friend the actress Rita Gam said: "She admired her father, though she thought he was too tough on her and she knew that he didn't approve of her acting. . . . And her mother wasn't a warm person at all. But Grace wouldn't hear a word against them. She was a good-hearted gal. She had an understanding about people, and compassion -- she didn't talk about it, but you heard how she spoke and saw how she behaved."

These sentiments seem to have been shared by almost everyone who crossed her path, certainly by Spoto, who interviewed her at length in Monaco and holds her in the highest regard. Cary Grant, who so memorably co-starred with her in "To Catch a Thief," said: "In two senses, she didn't have a bad side -- you could film her from any angle, and she was one of the most untemperamental, cooperative people in the business," a business that, it goes without saying, has too few such people. She was "color-blind" and "completely indifferent to the sexual orientation of friends and colleagues," at a time when such tolerance of difference was exceedingly rare among American whites. Some thought her aloof, but to her close friends "she was warm, demonstrative and full of fun," though with "a constant, if mostly hidden, undercurrent of melancholy."

Probably it is an exaggeration to say that she hated Hollywood, as she had friends there and made some fine pictures, but she wasn't happy there. "Working with [Alfred Hitchcock] was wonderful for me," she said, "but there was very little about Hollywood that I liked. The only value out there seemed to be money, and it seemed to me that many friendships and even marriages were often based on wealth and how relationships could benefit someone's career. . . . In addition, I didn't like the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles and being dependent on a car to go all those long distances from one part of town to another. I preferred to live in New York, where it rained sometimes, and where you could take a walk down the street without being stopped by the police or being thought dangerous or crazy not to be in a car."

Her great desire was "for a husband and children," yet at the height of her career in 1954 she was distressed that "I was the only unmarried woman I could name!" She fixed that in the spring of 1956 with her celebrated wedding to Rainier. "My real life began with my marriage," she said, and she meant it. Adjustment to the royal life was difficult and took time, but she pulled it off with quiet determination. She took immense pride in her three children. According to a friend she was "the pivot and center of that family, and no one realized how much she had given all of them until she was gone," which happened when she lost control of her car on "a hairpin curve on the roadway." She was universally mourned not merely as a gifted and beautiful woman, but as a good one.

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