The publishers of Donald Spoto’s new biography promise that the author will tell Grace Kelly’s story “with great tact”. But is that what readers want? We know that this will not be dumbed-down celebrity scandal – Spoto is one of the most perspicacious of biographers, a man whose insights into his subjects are always razor-sharp. Thus reassured, we can then anticipate the other, less high-minded aspect of Spoto’s literary reputation: his willingness to tell the unvarnished truth about his subjects, peccadillos and all (his masterly biographies of Alfred Hitchcock – the man, of course, who fashioned Grace Kelly’s finest cinematic showcases – earned Spoto the enmity of the Hitchcock family for his anatomising of the sexual peculiarities of his repressed subject).
The actress who became Princess Grace of Monaco was frequent tabloid fare in her lifetime, and after her untimely death her family have provided plenty of column inches with their antics. So – honestly – do we want a “tactful” retelling of this fascinating woman’s life, with a discreet veil drawn over the less salubrious elements?
Readers need not worry, however, that High Society will be anodyne fare: Spoto (whose conversations with Kelly are the basis of the book) is as trenchant as ever. The revelations here are not necessarily those we might expect, such as Spoto’s surprising conclusions about the sexual relationships that Kelly was widely regarded as having with virtually all her leading men.
From 1950 to 1956, in only 11 films, Kelly became the cinema’s most iconic image of sophisticated beauty and understated (but incendiary) female sexuality. In this era performers were commodities, obliged to take on roles often unsuited to them. But the strong-willed Kelly refused parts that she felt were not right for her, fighting to work with people whom she trusted.
Spoto fashions a nigh-definitive account of the transformation of a Philadelphia convent girl (always remaining Roman Catholic, despite her premarital dalliances) to major screen star, to the role for which she is now best remembered – European princess, married to Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Born in 1929 and raised by stiff-necked Catholic parents in Philadelphia (her background was almost, but not quite, top drawer), Grace Kelly, spirited and beautiful, had her sights set on a theatrical career. Despite early stage successes (notably, and ironically, Strindberg’s The Father – she was under-esteemed for most of her life by her own father), Hollywood beckoned.
In her twenties she made High Noon (1951) with Gary Cooper. Kelly hated her performance, and knew that she had to hone her skills or her film career would be stillborn. The much-discussed affair with Cooper is one rumour scotched here – as is the subsequent gossip about an affair with another older man, Clark Gable, on the set of Mogambo.
The most significant artistic relationship of Kelly’s life began when Hitchcock requested her for Dial M for Murder, released in 1954. Spoto, while acknowledging that the resulting films were usually superb, has been unsparing in previous books about the director’s often inappropriate behaviour towards his actresses. In that regard Grace Kelly appears to have had an easy time – the embarrassing sexual advances that Hitchcock made to Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Hedren are, according to Spoto, absent from his relationship with Kelly, though the director fell in love with her. She possessed the kind of subtle sexuality that was precisely to his taste (Hitchcock said: “I favour sophisticated blondes in my films… the real ladies who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.”) In her films for Hitchcock (including their masterpiece, Rear Window), Kelly created nuanced portraits of vulnerability and sensitivity.
In her personal life Kelly’s most significant affair was with the socialite Oleg Cassini. When a frustrated Cassini persuaded Kelly to move their chaste affair into the physical, the couple discussed marriage – but her staunchly Catholic family torpedoed the match. However, an arranged meeting in France after the filming of To Catch a Thief meant that Kelly’s life as a single woman – and a commoner – was soon to be behind her.
In 1955 a magazine photoshoot in Cannes brought together Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier (of the tiny principality of Monaco). The meeting was perfunctory, but a spark was struck. Both had tired of unsatisfactory liaisons, and the prince was in need of an heir. So Kelly finally married – and accepted her husband’s edict that her film career be over. The actress, who came to find the perimeters of her kingdom confining, was never to make another film after High Society. Hitchcock tried to lure her back in 1962 with Marnie, but failed – it was long felt (although Spoto does not agree) that Rainier was not about to have his wife playing a sexually frustrated kleptomaniac who is raped by her controlling husband.
In 1982 it was reported that Kelly suffered a brain haemorrhage while driving, and crashed her car; her family turned off her life support when it was learnt that she had irreversible brain damage.
Kelly’s life as told here reveals a gentler Donald Spoto than we’re used to: his friendship with the star has ensured a generosity of judgment throughout (also extended to Prince Rainier and the couple’s tabloidbaiting daughters, Caroline and Stephanie). Some may yearn for a less sympathetic portrait, but it’s hard to imagine that any subsequent biography could do such consummate justice to her life and career.
More in The Times
High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood by Donald Spoto
Hutchinson, £18.99; 236pp