Grace Before Beauty; Withering Roots

Rome Welcomes Grace Kelly Exhibit

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 22, 2009 ( The nostalgia for summer brought on by the first chilly days of Roman autumn finds an echo in a touching exhibit that opened last Friday. «The Grace Kelly Years» will be at the Palazzo Ruspoli until Feb. 26, 2010, and features photos, videos, clothes and other mementos from the extraordinary life of a beloved American actress turned European Princess.

Grace Kelly was born into an Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia on Nov. 12, 1929. Her father, a former Olympic oarsman and successful brick manufacturer, was a prominent member of the Democratic party, who raised his family with Christian values.

Grace’s baptismal certificate is framed by family photos of happy healthy children enjoying simple pleasures. Despite their wealth and frequent appearances in the local society pages, the Kelly’s lived modestly with few trappings of material wealth.

From her parents, Grace received a sense of hard work and dedication while her uncle, George Kelly, a Pulitzer-winning playwright, encouraged her artistic side. Her youthful drawings reveal a love of color, light and beauty that would propel her toward the world of cinema.

After a few stage roles and some television work, Grace was catapulted onto the silver screen. Making 11 films from 1951 to 1956, Grace Kelly compressed a lifetime’s career into a few short years. She worked with cinema legends such as Clark Gable and Cary Grant, who would remain her friend for life.

In 1954, at the age of 26, she won an Oscar for best actress for her performance in «The Country Girl.» The exhibit displays her Oscar, the pastel-green dress she wore for the occasion, and the now-humorous hints about make-up and clothes that the Academy sent along with the announcement that she was an Oscar candidate (N.B. Grace followed their advice to the letter).

More striking than the Hollywood memorabilia are the letters and telegrams of love and support filling the display cases. Bing Crosby, her co-star in «The Country Girl,» writes with spontaneous affection and praise predicting her future honor. Family and friends wrote with sincere joy for her, so that Grace appears among these yellowed pages as someone able to earn true friendship and respect. (One very bizarre note warns Grace of the advances of a young nuisance named Jack Nicholson, offering to «rap him on the knuckles if he gets fresh»).

In 1955, while at the Cannes film festival, Grace did a photo shoot at the Royal Palace of Monaco where she met Prince Ranier. Her floral dress, featured in the show, revives the day of the fateful meeting as clearly as the video footage on the wall.

At the time of the meeting, Grace was involved with Oleg Cassini, a divorced Russian designer. His many love letters and marriage proposals surround a long letter from her family describing the distress of her parents at Grace’s plans to marry a man «who already has a wife.» Grace, true to her faith and family, stopped seeing Cassini.

But as the one door closed, another opened. Prince Ranier came to spend the Christmas holidays with the Kelly family in Philadelphia and proposed marriage. Grace left her career at its apex as well as her homeland to become the Princess of Monaco. The passionate telegrams and letters from Prince Ranier are sprinkled like rice at a wedding around the spectacular dress Grace wore for her April 19, 1956, marriage.

Grace and her prince had three children: Caroline born in 1957, Albert in 1958 and Stephanie in 1965. Grace’s home movies highlight her role as a loving and attentive mother.

The exhibit, however, lingers on the elaborate costumes she commissioned for her sophisticated balls and parties. This section, titled «The Queen of the Ephemeral» by curator Fredric Mitterand, the French minister of culture, dazzles with the vast selection of outfits and letters from the international jet-set scene.

Here, Grace seems reduced to an actress once again, wearing costumes for less important roles. Suddenly this woman of substance appears very superficial. But scattered among the notes lie testimonies to her staunch defense and friendship of black entertainer Josephine Baker and her caring concern for the troubled recluse Greta Garbo.

I saw the first incarnation of this exhibit in Montecarlo three years ago, where there were a great many images of the princess’ work as the president of the Red Cross of Monaco. She not only arranged fundraisers, but Princess Grace volunteered her time and efforts, visiting sick and assisting refugees. The Monaco show also emphasized her foundation of AMADE, formed to protect the rights of children worldwide. Amade, named so as «to sound like amour,» the French word for love, seeks to «to create, promote, coordinate and support initiatives that assist the most vulnerable children.»

Despite requests by Alfred Hitchcock and others to lure her back on screen, Princess Grace only returned in front of a camera shortly before her death for Family Theater, a production company founded in 1947 by an old friend, Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton.

Princess Grace was filmed reciting the rosary in St. Peter’s Basilica, a legacy greater than even her fabulous jewels exhibited in the show. Unfortunately, this work is not even mentioned by the curators, despite the fact that it was her first appearance on film in 25 years.

Photos of the Prince and Princess of Monaco with the Pope flank images of the couple visiting with the Kennedy’s. But the show ignores the Catholic connection between Monaco and the Holy See, which have shared diplomatic relations since 1861.
Nor does it recount how in 1954, the 100th anniversary of the Immaculate Conception, Prince Rainier made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, to pray to Mary for a suitable wife. Several years later, Princess Grace revealed that her confirmation name was Bernadette, for the French girl to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared in Lourdes. On the 25th anniversary of the prince’s pilgrimage, Princess Grace would also visit Lourdes in thanksgiving.

Princess Grace died in a car accident on Sept. 14, 1982, and was buried in the cathedral of San Nicola in Montecarlo (also dedicated to the Immaculate Conception), the same church that welcomed her for the «Wedding of the Century,» 26 years earlier.   The show evokes a sad nostalgia, not for the glamour queen of a modern fairy tale, but for an age when leaders remembered that noblesse oblige, and that a person’s life was weighed in more than chiffon and jewels.

* * *Glamour’s call

The arrival of Prince Albert of Monaco to inaugurate the exhibit thrilled the Italian royalty watchers, but left others pondering the fate of the tiny Catholic nation.

Like Lichtenstein and Luxembourg, Monaco is a tiny sovereign principality with a rich Catholic tradition and a long history of relations with the Holy See.

In 1861, the Treaty of Monaco with France formally recognized the official independence and sovereignty of Monaco under the exclusive authority of its sovereign head. In 1887, Pope Leo XIII established the first independent diocese in the country.

The establishment of this diocese was strongly desired by the reigning prince of Monaco who wanted to increase his independence from France. Before the installation of the bishop (today an archbishop), Monaco fell under the jurisdiction of nearby Nice. The relations with the Holy See helped this tiny country take its first steps as a fledging sovereignty.

Monaco is still confessionally Catholic and the prince is said to rule «par la grace de Dieu.»

This means that Monaco has a moral obligation to ensure that its society acts in compliance with its Catholic social, moral, political and diplomatic obligations.

Prince Ranier, a devout man, was very close to the Roman Pontiffs, particularly Pius XII. He died in 2005, four days after John Paul II, and his son, Albert II, assumed the role of prince of Monaco.

Under Pri
nce Albert the secular glamour has begun to wither the country’s Catholic roots. Nonetheless, there are many common points where the Holy See and the prince work together to promote Catholic teaching, and these elements were emphasized during the prince’s visit to Pope Benedict on Oct. 16.

The «protection of natural resources and the environment» are common causes for the prince and the «green» Pope. In 1998, Monaco took the lead in marine-environmental diplomacy by housing the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency’s Marine Environmental Laboratory (IAEA-MEL) in Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum. It consults and assists U.N. member states «facing threats to their lakes, seas and coastal waters.»

Prince Albert is also the patron of the 2nd International Congress on Responsible Stem Cell Research, which will be held Nov. 26-28 in Monaco. Titled «Adult Somatic Stem Cells: New Perspectives,» it follows the Rome meeting of 2006, which discussed cell therapy research from adult and cord blood stem cells. This life saving approach to stem cell research proactively implements Church teaching.

Despite these good efforts, the reign of Prince Albert succumbed to secular pressure when he signed into law the liberalization of abortion. Up until this year, Monaco had previously banned all forms of abortion.

The sad irony is that the center to be set up for abortions is the Princess Grace Hospital. A tragic fall from Grace.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at

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