GRACE The Secret Lives Of a Princess By James Spada Doubleday/Dolphin. 346 pp. $17.95
THE IRISH-AMERICAN family, long overdue for the sort of unblinking literary scrutiny that American Jewish writers have given their own, seems at last to be getting a good going over in such books as Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and John Gregory Dunne's The Red White and Blue. Add this one to that list. Although it can, and no doubt will, be read simply as a now-it-can-be-told report on the life and loves of America's favorite movie star-turned-princess, nevertheless it is far more interesting considered as a history of the Kelly family of Philadelphia told from the point-of-view of its most prominent (though by no means most powerful) member -- the late, great Grace, Her Serene Highness, Princess of Monaco.
What a collection the rest were -- brother John "Kell" Kelly, who might have been mayor of Philadelphia if he hadn't once dated a transsexual; his mother Margaret, who was so furious at his misbehavior that she promised to campaign against him if he were nominated and "financially support his opponent" (Frank Rizzo); two sisters, Peggy and Lizanne, who as children regularly beat up on shy Grace; and finally, the star of the show, father Jack Kelly, Olympic athlete and self-made millionaire. Jack Kelly was the sort of social climber who was eager to marry his daughter off to royalty, yet groaned at the price (a $2 million dowry); he sneered to newsmen at his son-in-law's diminutive stature, pointing out he was only "tit-high to Gracie." No wonder Grace Kelly often remarked, "You choose your friends but your family you're born with."
Yes, she was stuck with them -- particularly with that father of hers. He wielded power over his mousy, compliant daughter who wanted nothing so much as some modicum of love from him. When it was not forthcoming, and Grace no longer so compliant and anything but mousy, she looked for that love from a great many other men -- most close to her father's age and many of them with very famous names indeed. The smell of scandal that emanates from this volume finds its origin in her choice of paramours -- among them, Spada claims, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, William Holden, Bing Crosby and Oleg Cassini. That, and the fact that she managed to maintain a very active sex life in Hollywood, back when it was shocking to do so, and at the same time retained her image as a cool and quite contained young lady.
Along the way she became quite a big movie star. She had an uncle, playwright George Kelly (Craig's Wife, The Torch Bearers), to help her get started, but she proved early on that she had something all her own. Directors recognized it. Audiences loved it. She became the quintessential Hitchcock blonde in Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief. She won an Academy Award opposite Bing Crosby in The Country Girl and sang with him in High Society. And so on for five years -- the most spectacular short career the movie business has seen.
HOLLYWOOD THOUGHT she was high society, but she knew she wasn't. So when Prince Rainier of Monaco met her and thought her a likely candidate for princess and proposed on their second meeting, she immediately acquiesced. It was all rather cold-blooded on both sides. He thought that an American movie star on the throne would almost certainly increase tourism in the five-mile square principality (it did, tremendously); he needed an heir; and, when it came right down to it, he -- and Monaco -- could use the money her rich father could provide.
On her part, the move was a little more difficult to understand -- as author James Spada himself says. He notes her declared wish not to grow old in the picture business. He shows that the family was eager for it -- except that the price tag did seem a little steep even to a well-heeled bricklayer like Jack Kelly. Finally, Spada gets closer to it when he says: "Her Catholic upbringing left her guilty about her sexual dalliances and angry at her family for continually objecting to her attempts to legitimize herself in their eyes through marriage." Guilt certainly played a part -- and Catholic guilt was in the '50s perhaps even more potent than the Jewish variety.
And so Grace and Rainier were married. She was soon bored to tears -- and what else could she have expected? Pampered yet restricted by protocol and custom, she felt a prisoner in the palace. Some days she didn't even get out of bed and eventually began drinking heavily. Her three children occupied her time, but as they grew older and began causing her trouble, she drank even more. It seems, however, that the auto accident which caused her death in 1982 had nothing to do with alcohol; the more likely explanation is that she suffered a stroke at the wheel.
In outline, Grace Kelly's life seems more than a little like a novel (by Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins). You may read it that way if you choose and savor the scandal. Or you may look at it as just another story of a good Irish Catholic girl gone wrong. Either way it won't bore you. :: Bruce Cook is the author of "The Beat Generation" and "Brecht in Exile."