Sometime in my early teens, my friend Robbie Bell fell in love with Grace Kelly. He secretly snipped items about her out of the paper, put them in a scrapbook and one day, learning that she was going to be in New York City, he slipped away from us all. He put his scrapbook under his arm, took the train into Manhattan and called upon her at the Plaza Hotel.
Afterwards, Robbie told us all about it. For some time he had braved our ridicule about his adoration of Kelly. We ascribed that to more of Robbie's weirdness, of which the most telling example was that he listened to classical music and rooted for the Yankees. But that day he had done something exceptional, something very brave. He actually met Grace Kelly.
He said he had gone to the Plaza Hotel and somehow found out her room. The details are sketchy now, but I recall him saying that he simply knocked on the door. Kelly herself opened it and there stood Robbie Bell, a kid with a scrapbook. She invited him in and they talked -- it could not have been for long. For Robbie, though, it was long enough. He needed no train to come home. He could have floated.
For the rest of us, this was stunning news. It meant, in the first place, that Kelly was a human being, sort of like the other people we knew. We never viewed her as such, of course. In a town composed mainly of Italians, Irish, blacks and Jews, it was Kelly--so tall, so blond--who was viewed as the ethnic exotic. There was quite literally nothing like her in the whole town. She existed only in the movies and not in real life, sort of like Superman or the Lone Ranger -- not real. Not real by any stretch of the imagination.
But here was Robbie reporting on her humanity. Here was Robbie, who loved her so much and therefore should have been too awed to even walk near the Plaza, saying he had actually talked to her. Here was evidence that there were women like that in the world. Maybe Iowa. Maybe California. Someplace there were women who not only looked like her, but talked like her as well -- a refined speech wrapped around a dollop of sex. She was like a spiked glass of milk -- at the bottom was a kicker.
In an age of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield, Kelly stood out. For all the incredible popularity of Monroe, for instance, she was never the darling of me or my crowd. She was never truly sexy, as Kelly was, but really a parody of sex -- almost a Mae West. She was too busty, too much the girl on the nude calendar. There was nothing left to the imagination and when you're young, imagination is all you have. Later we would learn that she was smart, but few knew that then.
But Kelly had the right combination. In an era of good girls and bad girls, here was a girl who was both. She was not obvious, like the sweater girls of her generation, but understated. She compares to Ingrid Bergman in that respect and that explains why Bergman suffered so much for her much-publicized marital infidelity -- her affair with Roberto Rossellini. Monroe and stars like her might have got away with something like that. But not Bergman and not, of course, Kelly. It would have contradicted their screen image. To cheat on your husband is one thing; to cheat on your fans is something else.
But Kelly never cheated. Like Greta Garbo, like Monroe through death, she ended her acting career in full bloom and never contradicted her screen image. She went off to Monaco, a country no one had ever heard of up to then, to marry the prince, a fellow whose looks were a dime a dozen in my old neighborhood.
We did not approve. There would be no more propositions for Cary Grant ("To Catch A Thief"), no look of terror as when she had to shoot a man to save the life of Gary Cooper ("High Noon"), no clinches with William Holden ("The Country Girl"), no more dialogue with Jimmy Stewart ("Rear Window") and no more duets with Bing Crosby -- he singing, she warbling, the two of them turning the "High Society" song, "True Love," into one of the truly great screen moments.
Now, Robbie Bell is a doctor somewhere, the rest of us are scattered and Grace Kelly, of course, is dead. But Robbie would tell you that's not the case. For as long as boys like Robbie have the courage of men and men have the dreams of boys, Grace Kelly will live.