Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Grace Kelly

Episode Summary

Grace Kelly (1929-1982) was one of the brightest stars to ever hit the silver screen. Though she only starred in movies over the course of five years, her short and dazzling career became the stuff of fairy tales.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

We are offering free ad space on Wonder Media Network shows to organizations working towards social justice. For more information, please email Jenny at jenny@wondermedianetwork.com.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s Leading Lady is one of the brightest stars to ever hit the silver screen. Though she only starred in movies over the course of five years, her short and dazzling career became the stuff of fairy tales. Although she was heralded for her effortless beauty and poise, her personal life was mired with scandal and tragedy. We’re talking about the one and only, Grace Kelly. 

Grace was born on November 12, 1929 to an upper class family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Grace’s father, Jack Kelly, was a three-time Olympic gold medal rower turned entrepreneur - who used his prestige in the community to enter politics - eventually serving in the FDR administration as the National Director of Physical Fitness. Grace’s mother, Margaret, was also athletic and ambitious. She was the first female coach for the women’s swim team at the University of Pennsylvania and the first director of their physical education department. Their marriage was punctuated by Jack’s many conspicuous affairs. A pattern he’d pass along to his daughter, Grace. 

While Grace’s three siblings shared the Kelly family predilection for athletics...Grace did not. As a young child, she was gawky and awkward and withdrew from the family into her own imagination. She found refuge with another family member who differed from the rest, her uncle, the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, George Kelly.

After seeing a local theater production, Grace announced to her family that she wanted to become an actor. Jack - specifically - was dismayed. Show business was looked down upon in their nouveau-riche, elite political circle. But he relented, and Grace made her first professional theater debut at the age of 12. From the audience, Grace received the validation she’d long been missing from the Kelly family. 

With the help of her Uncle George’s prestigious name, Grace was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. During her time in the program, three lifelong patterns presented themselves: success as an actress, romance with older men, and familial disapproval.

One such romance was with an up-and-coming Broadway director, who also happened to be one of Kelly’s teachers, Don Richardson. 

Grace’s parents were scandalized by her affair with Richardson as he was technically still married and Jewish. In particular, Grace’s father Jack despised the union. He bribed Richardson to end the relationship and when he refused, he had Grace’s brother call and threaten Richardson. 

At the age of 20, Grace made her Broadway debut in August Strindberg’s, “The Father” for which she received favorable reviews. But her career really started to flourish on TV.  She appeared in over 60 live teleplays on broadcast networks between 1950 and 1953. 

It was during this time that she secured a role in the now-classic, “High Noon”. She played the pacifist wife to Hollywood star Gary Cooper. During filming, she struck up a romantic relationship with the 50-year-old Cooper. One biographer, Wendy Leigh, also alleges that Grace was simultaneously involved with the director, Fred Zimmerman.  

The film was a hit! Cooper won an Academy Award for his performance and Grace won the attention of Hollywood. As a result, Grace landed a supporting actress role beside Ava Garner and Clark Gable in John Ford’s 1953, “Mogambo”. With this second film, Grace picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, another high-profile romance with Gable -- who was 28 years her senior-- and a call from Alfred Hitchcock. 

Hitchcock cast Grace in the lead role of his 1954 thriller, “Dial M for Murder”. Grace had a slew of sexual conquests while working on the film. Including fellow actor Tony Dawson, writer Frederick Knott and of course, her co-star, Ray Milland. Her relationship with Milland -- who again, was also over twenty years her senior and married -- threatened to become a full blown scandal. While 1950s Hollywood was evidently just as salacious as it is today, the studio system was far less forgiving at the time. Under threat of ruining future career prospects, Grace’s relationship with Milland ended. 

Grace again partnered with Hitchcock for their second film together, “Rear Window”. Grace dazzled as the snoopy socialite Lisa Fremont and buzz about her performance started well before the film’s release.

Grace’s momentum didn’t end there. That same year, “The Country Girl” was released. Grace starred alongside William Holden - with whom she unsurprisingly started an affair. On the set of “The Country Girl”, Grace also met Bing Crosby, with whom she would also start a romance. The two were momentarily the “it” couple of Hollywood before she turned down his marriage proposal. Grace won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “The Country Girl” - beating out powerhouses of the era, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Dorothy Dandridge and Jane Wyman. 

Riding this acclaim, Grace went on to star in her third Hitchcock film, “To Catch A Thief”. While filming in the south of France, she began a romance with a different type of suitor: an international playboy and fashion designer, Oleg Cassini. When Oleg proposed, as so many of Grace’s suitors did, she accepted. But the engagement didn’t last. Her parents saw Cassini as beneath them and went out of their way to alienate him, effectively ending the relationship. 

But Grace’s luck quickly turned around. Her movie star status had earned her a position in the American delegation to the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. During a photo op for the delegation in nearby Monaco, she met the 31-year-old Prince Rainier III. While Grace was in a public relationship with France’s foremost actor at the time, she began a secret courtship with the Prince of Monaco. 

Grace would make two more films. The first, “The Swan” turned out to be largely prophetic. In the film, she plays a lady who must choose between her true self and marrying a disinterested prince for the benefit of her family and country. 

And her last, “High Society”, which debuted in 1956, featured Grace as the archetypical dazzling character she’d become so well known for, starring opposite Frank Sinatra. 

In December of 1955, Prince Rainier traveled to the United States, reportedly in search of his princess. He landed at the Kelly family door in Philadelphia. Grace’s judgemental and status-obsessed family was elated by a courtly visit and -- unsurprisingly -- proved far more accepting of Rainier than of her previous suitors. 

The wedding was set for April 1956 and news of the engagement consumed the media. Grace’s story was portrayed as a fairy tale come to life. On April 18, Grace and Rainier were married in a civil ceremony, followed by a lavish cathedral wedding the following day. Grace officially became Princess Grace Grimaldi. The cathedral wedding was watched by over 30 million people on tv and was host to a star-studded 600-plus guest list.

For months, rumors circulated as to whether Grace’s new title as Princess would mean the end of her acting career. Despite attempts by Hitchcock himself to persuade the crown, it was deemed beneath her station. 

Life as a Princess was not quite the fairy tale it was presented to be. Princess Grace and Prince Rainier did have three children together: Princess Caroline, Prince Albert the II and Princess Stephanie -- but their marriage was otherwise riddled with traumatic miscarriages and Rainier’s controlling behavior. He once banned Grace’s movies from being shown in Monaco. The couple managed their strained union through covert affairs. One of these alleged affairs was with Grace’s former co-star, Frank Sinatra.  

On September 13, 1982 - Grace took a drive with her daughter, Stephanie. A hairpin turn took her by surprise and the car pummeled through a guardrail and fell over one hundred feet, rolling multiple times. While Stephanie sustained relatively minor injuries, Grace was rushed to the hospital. The doctors concluded that she had suffered a minor stroke, causing the accident. She passed away the following day in a hospital that bore her own name, the Princess Grace Hospital of Monaco. She was only 53 years old. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!