Lives Behind the Legends: Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly: The Family Outsider

Grace kelly
Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly is a legend unlike any other: both classic Hollywood star and real-life princess. She seemed to embody the glamour and class of Hollywood’s Golden Age. With her timeless sense of style and effortless beauty, she is still a role model to many women around the world. She made it look so easy: becoming a worldfamous actress, then quitting at the top of her game to become European royalty. And she did it all, excuse the pun, with grace. But behind the ease and elegance, Grace was a woman who fought to make something of herself, trying to be her own person against a dominant force throughout her life: her family. It may come as a surprise to some, but Princess Grace was an ‘outsider’ to her family. However, if it was not for this family dynamic, Grace may have never made it to Hollywood or Monaco.

Grace was born into a ‘new money’ family in Philadelphia that enjoyed a significant amount of status within their community. Grace’s father, John Sr. (Jack), had won three Olympic gold medals, owned a successful brickwork contracting company, and was almost elected Mayor of Philadelphia in 1935. Her mother Margaret was the first woman to coach women’s athletics at the University of Pennsylvania. Quite an accomplished pair! Her parents valued athleticism and a grounded attitude above all, but Grace was a sensitive, shy and creative little girl. Her parents, particularly her father, made no secret of the fact that they did not understand her. Grace’s three siblings all took after their athletic and boisterous parents, making her the odd one out. As a child, she was usually putting her creative imagination to good use, playing make-believe with her dolls.  

Grace kelly (upper left) and her family
Grace Kelly (upper left) and her family

Grace also had poor timing when it came to siblings: her older brother Kell was the only son, and her older sister Peggy was the first (and favorite) daughter. The only thing Grace had going for her, as the third born, was being the baby of the family, but this changed when her younger sister Lizanne was born when Grace was four years old. Grace openly stated that she resented Lizanne, and Lizanne later admitted that she truly was a ‘brat sister.’ Lizanne loved to make Grace’s life miserable, and older sister Peggy would make Grace do her chores for her. Meanwhile, Kell was busy being groomed to be his father’s successor. Grace was left to fend for herself. ‘We were always competing for everything – competing for love,’ Grace later admitted. Still, she loved her family deeply. But the only person in her family she could really relate to, was her uncle George. As a gay, Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter, he was just as much the odd one out as Grace, in their rough and tumble family. They had a great bond and, to Grace, he was a role model in sophistication.

Even though she was ridiculed by her family for her acting aspirations, Grace was undeterred. Acting was her passion and she couldn’t wait to start her life as a young adult in New York City. She turned to her uncle George who helped her get into the Academy of Dramatic Arts. While there, Grace worked hard to get rid of her nasal voice and Philadelphia accent, ending up with a slight British accent instead. Imitating her new accent became the latest joke in the Kelly family. Still, Grace was determined to make something of herself. Her sister Lizanne later admitted that Grace ‘wanted to show daddy she could do it’. Grace would later look at her college days as some of the best days of her life. Finally, she was among like-minded people. She had inherited a strong work ethic from her parents; she worked hard to perfect her craft and made money by modeling on the side.  

Perhaps as a result of the troubled relationship she had with her father, Grace almost exclusively dated older men. One of the first, was her acting instructor Don Richardson, who was married. This seemed to be a theme in Grace’s love life, as rumors of her dating married men in the industry were rampant once she became a star. The most controversial one was her affair with Dial M For Murder co-star Ray Milland. He reportedly left his wife of 20 years for her, and the press branded Grace as a home-wrecker and worse. Milland ultimately went back to his wife, but Grace’s Catholic family, who had worked hard for a respectable place in the upper echelons, was fed up with the scandalous news reports. So when a story about Grace and married actor William Holden hit the press, Grace’s father and brother stormed into the office of gossip magazine Confidentiality and roughed up some reporters.

Grace was embarrassed about her family, and her Catholic upbringing made her feel guilty. At the end of the day, what she really wanted was a family of her own. Grace felt she finally found that in designer Oleg Cassini, Gene Tierney’s ex-husband. He was the first man Grace publicly acknowledged as her partner. But tension already set in before he ever even met her family, with her brother Kell telling Time Magazine: ‘I don’t approve of these oddballs she goes out with. I wish she would go out with more athletic types.’ Although her mother kept a more open mind, the very Catholic Jack Kelly refused to accept the twice-divorced designer. Grace privately ranted about her family and told Cassini they should just elope, but in the end, she just couldn’t go against her father. Her family was too important to her.

Grace Kelly and boyfriend Oleg Cassini
Grace Kelly and boyfriend Oleg Cassini

Grace’s love life might have been messy, but she was still a superstar. She had won an Academy Award, starred in back-to-back box-office successes and was on the cover of magazines everywhere. Unfortunately, her family was a lot harder to impress than the public especially her father. When asked about her success, her father said: ‘I thought it would be Peggy. Anything that Grace could do, Peggy could always do better.’ Needless to say, Grace felt embarrassed that her father didn’t keep his condescending remarks in the family. She was also concerned about the press attacks on her, and worried that her career had nowhere to go but down.   

A solution presented itself in the form of Prince Rainier of Monaco. After meeting when Grace was in France for the Cannes Film Festival, the pair enjoyed a short courtship. Each party was charmed by the other. They wrote each other letters, and romantic feelings soon developed. It wasn’t lost on Grace that this romance could solve her problems. She was incredibly disillusioned with Hollywood, and becoming a Princess could be an exciting new chapter in her life. The rumors about her love life made her feel like a joke and Rainier could finally give her the respectability ánd the family of her own she so craved. Her family was also on her mind as well — after becoming a world-renowned star, they still would not give her the pat on the back she needed. Surely marrying a real-life Prince would suffice? It would give her ‘new money’ family, the ‘old money’ status that eluded them. Something her hard-working father would appreciate.

Grace Kelly, her parents and Rainier during the engagement announcement
Grace Kelly, her parents, and Rainier during the engagement announcement

Rainier was looking to solve a problem too. Monaco was not doing well financially, and without an heir, it would lose its independence. Grace’s Hollywood glamour could rub off on Monaco and attract tourists, and their marriage would hopefully produce an heir. More importantly, they were both ready to settle down and felt that they had found their perfect match. They married after a quick courtship and Grace moved to Monaco. The small principality was over the moon with their glamorous princess.

Grace’s mother was delighted that her daughter was now royalty. But if Grace married Prince Rainier for her father’s approval, she should not have bothered. Jack Kelly was used to being the most important man in any room, and he did not appreciate having a son-in-law who overshadowed him. When he visited the palace, he would ridicule the pretentiousness and protocol. In the six years between the wedding and his death, he only made two trips to Monaco. Still, Grace was heartbroken when her father passed away, and she was reportedly despondent for months after. As Rainier later said: ‘She was oversensitive to her family. They mattered terribly much to her – more, it certainly seemed, than she mattered to them. Though there were strong family ties with the Kelly’s, there wasn’t a lot of heart.’ But Grace refused to give up on them.

Although Grace struggled to adjust to palace life, the birth of her three children brought her much joy. She had hoped to return to acting with the lead in Hitchcock’s Marnie, but after outrage from the public, she accepted the fact that acting was a thing of the past. Instead, she found a creative outlet by making dry flower collages and doing poetry readings. Philanthropy also became important to her as well; among other things, she founded AMADE Mondiale, which promotes and protects the well-being of children around the world.

When Grace finally hit her stride in Monaco, she became the one her family could always turn to. She supported her sister Peggy through two divorces, as well as her brother Kell, when he left his wife for a transsexual woman and subsequently lost his nomination for mayor. She proudly told her friends that she was ‘mother confessor’ to her many nieces and nephews, and they teased her about her tendency to help solve all of her family’s problems. At the end of the day, it was Grace who was always there for her family. She never closed her heart to them and was proud to become the person her loved ones could always turn to.  

Grace Kelly and her grand-niece Ellen Jones at the Kelly family home in 1979
Grace Kelly and her grand-niece Ellen Jones at the Kelly family home in 1979

In hindsight, Grace’s struggles with her family may well have given her the motivation and perseverance she needed to become the person she wanted to be. Her creativity and sensitivity were a family oddity, and it’s a testament to her strength that she never changed to fit in, or pretended to be something she wasn’t. On the contrary, she fine-tuned these qualities, using them to make a living doing what she loved, and be the best person she could be. Although she felt unaccepted by her family, she always accepted them and reveled in her role as the one her family could always turn to when they needed help.

The sources for the quotes in this article are “Grace: Secret Lives of a Princess” by James Spada and “Grace Kelly: Hollywood Dream Girl” by Jay Jorgensen and Manoah Bowman. 

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— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub

Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.

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One Response to Lives Behind the Legends: Grace Kelly

  1. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for this most interesting post! My favorites of her movies are TO CATCH A THIEF and REAR WINDOW. As Princess of Monaco she was a strong proponent of breastfeeding, at a time when it had decidedly gone out of fashion in Western Culture.

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