Hollywood's princess at the Signet Library

Forty years ago, Princess Grace of Monaco appeared in “A Celebrity Concert from Edinburgh” at the Signet Library. The former Grace Kelly had not performed publicly since her retirement from films following her royal marriage exactly 20 years earlier. ROBERT PIRRIE WS revisits one of the WS Society’s most star-studded cultural events.

Grace was a princess from the moment she was born.” Frank Sinatra’s words reflect the legend of Grace Kelly; the shy, reserved girl who conquered Hollywood with 11 films in five short years before retiring aged 26 to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco in a spectacular ceremony predictably dubbed “The Wedding of the Century”. As ever, the reality behind the fairy tale was more complex and intriguing, a reality distilled in the background to Princess Grace’s appearance at the Signet Library in 1976. The fact that Grace Kelly was returning to performing in any form made news around the world – she had after all refused countless offers to star on stage or in films since her retirement. Even Alfred Hitchcock – who had directed her in three classics in the 1950s – could not tempt his favourite “Hitchcock Blonde” back to the screen. She worked diligently on the text for this programme, not only as an actress, but, as the director of the performance recalled, “to get an intellectual grip on the poem itself”. Friends noted she was more nervous about the appearances in Edinburgh than anything in her illustrious career: after the event she wrote to one, “I’d have just crawled into a hole and died if they didn’t like me”. Unsurprisingly given her talent, fame and hard work, the events were a triumph – as The Scotsman newspaper raved, “she set the capital ablaze”.

Grace Kelly was born in 1929 in Philadelphia into a remarkable family; her father proved a dominant figure who was to have an enormous influence on her throughout her life. Jack Kelly, born the son of poor Irish immigrants, started life as a bricklayer, and swiftly worked his way to a multi-million dollar fortune in the construction industry. An outstanding rower, he became a legendary figure in the US following a snub by the most prestigious event in the sport, the Henley Regatta in England, in 1920. Henley’s rules allowed their committee to refuse him entry to the event because he had a history as a manual labourer. Kelly’s response to this widely criticised decision was straight out of a Hollywood script: he entered the 1920 Olympics and defeated the man who had won Henley in one of the closest races in Olympic history. In total he won three gold medals. His four children were brought up with the Jack Kelly legend, in awe of their charismatic and famous father. As Grace recalled, “we were always competing, competing for everything – competing for love”.

Grace’s siblings, brother Jack Jr and sisters Peggy and Lizanne, were gregarious, outgoing and – most importantly for Kellys – natural athletes. Jack Jr would avenge his father by winning the Henley regatta in both 1947 and 1949. Peggy and Lizanne excelled at swimming. Grace however, was shy and bookish, short-sighted and susceptible to minor illnesses. From an early age she loved poetry, theatre and the cinema, and despite craving her father’s love and approval, was actually closer to her uncle George Kelly, the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright. A verse she wrote as a small girl illustrated her sensitive and imaginative nature:

Little flower, you’re the lucky one
you soak in all the lovely sun
you stand and watch it all go by
and never once do bat an eye
while others have to fight and strain
against the world and its every pain of living.

But you too must have wars to fight
the cold bleak darkness of every night
of a bigger vine that seeks to grow
and is able to stand the rain and snow
and let you never let it show
on your pretty face.

The teenage Grace daydreamed of being an actress, not a profession that appealed to her parents. The Kellys lived in a grand house with servants and a chauffeur, and Grace was hardly the penniless urchin dreaming of escape through Hollywood stardom. However they eventually relented when she applied for and was accepted by the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Living in New York and working as a model to support herself, she began to develop the look that would go on to become iconic. In the early 1950s her simple hair and make-up and classic/modern fashion sense – jeans, loafers, espadrilles, tortoiseshell sunglasses – came to define the modern American girl. Upon graduation from the Academy in 1949 her success was rapid: her first lead role was in the classic western “High Noon” and in 1953 Grace was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar. Two years later, aged only 25 she won Hollywood’s greatest prize, the best actress Oscar.

Few in cinema have had a career to compare with Grace Kelly’s. In just five years she appeared with all the great leading men of the classic era – Clark Gable, Cary Grant, James Stewart and Gary Cooper – and was directed by some of the most important directors of all time, including John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Yet Grace hated life in Hollywood and loathed being a celebrity. “I have many acquaintances here,” she said, “but few friends”. Intensely private and shy, the gossip columns dubbed her cold and a string of unhappy love affairs caused her much distress. She believed in feminism – “I’m basically a feminist; I think that women can do anything they decide to do” – but was also a child of the post-war years, raised to believe that a woman’s most important role was as a wife and mother. By 1955 her fame was so stratospheric that it interfered with all aspects of everyday life. A visit to the Cannes film festival that year was a media frenzy. Although winning the Academy award was a joyous moment, Grace later recalled that arriving back at her hotel room alone with the award in the small hours of the morning “was the loneliest moment of my life”.

Worse still was constant speculation surrounding her private life. Briefly engaged to the fashion designer Oleg Cassini, her parents disapproved, partly because the Kelly family were devout Catholics and Cassini was a divorcee. The relationship ended under the strain. Grace was acutely aware that, aged 24 she was the only one of her siblings without a spouse and family. Yet, in truth, Jack Kelly disapproved of anyone or anything his daughter showed an interest in. He constantly denigrated her achievements, both in private and to the press. “Grace is the last one of my children I thought would keep me in my old age,” he told a reporter. “Anything she could do, her sisters could do better”.

Grace believed that if and when she married, it would have to be to a man whose fame and status was equal not just to her father’s but to her own. “I don’t want my husband to become ‘Mr Grace Kelly,’” she once said. Ironically, given her dislike of the press, she met her future husband as part of a publicity stunt. The Cannes film festival arranged that the biggest star in the world would meet the man who had been called the world’s most eligible bachelor, Prince Rainier of Monaco. Grace was reluctant, and unimpressed when the Prince arrived late. After the event, however, when questioned by her press secretary, Grace said she had found the Prince “very charming”. Following their meeting Grace returned to America and the two corresponded for several months in secret. At Christmas Prince Rainier travelled to America and reporters began to suspect a romance. Yet when the engagement was announced at the Kelly home on Henry Avenue, Philadelphia just days after Rainier’s arrival, there was general astonishment at the speed of events. Inevitably her life was now labelled a “fairy-tale” and Grace became without question one half of the most famous couple in the world. As a childhood friend observed, “Gracie finally met someone who made a bigger splash than a pair of oars”.

Grace embarked upon her last film, the musical “High Society”. She attended the 1956 Oscars as a princess- to-be to present the best actor Oscar. As Antony Lane wrote recently in the New Yorker “if you want to see Hollywood at the last gasp of its otherworldliness, before the old glory gave way, consult the photograph of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn backstage at the 1956 Oscars”. Perhaps Grace herself sensed that Hollywood was about to change irrevocably. In any event, she did not want the merry-go-round of marriages and divorces of her movie-star contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner. Any sense of loss at abandoning the career she had worked so hard for was diverted by thoughts of her ambitions for a full and happy personal life. Grace’s journey to Monaco aboard the SS Constitution was dominated by dozens of journalists and photographers intent on documenting every moment: these candid shots of walks on deck or lifeboat drills – accompanied by her ever-present black poodle Oliver, who was as stylish as his mistress – provided inspiration for fashionistas for decades to come and did much to establish the “Grace Kelly look”.

Following their spectacular marriage in Monaco’s cathedral in April 1956, Grace focused on being a wife, mother and princess. She did much to restore the glamour of Monte Carlo, (memorably described by Somerset Maugham as “a sunny place for shady people”) and was an invaluable international asset, charming Winston Churchill, President de Valera of Ireland, and most importantly, President De Gaulle of France. Political matters between France and its tiny neighbour Monaco were frequently fraught due to the latter’s status as a tax haven, but she scored a major triumph during her first state visit to France in 1959. As Paris Presse reported: “Grace of Monaco reigned over fifteen ministers and three hundred subjects at the Elysée”.

A devoted mother to her three children, she raised them in a hands-on approach that bemused her Royal in-laws and palace staff. Indeed, although she eventually won the love and respect of the Monegasque people, her status as an American was problematic. Grace could not bear to give up her New York apartment and her life in Monaco was frequently lonely. As her children grew older, she became increasingly nostalgic for her close friends and old life. With Prince Rainier’s approval, she accepted the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Marnie” in the early 1960s, but was quickly forced to withdraw under a storm of protest from Monaco residents, objecting that it was improper for “their” princess to appear in a film where she would kiss another man.

As the princess wrote later to “Hitch”, “it was heartbreaking for me to have to leave the picture” and it seemed to mark the end of any hopes of returning to an acting career. There were many approaches over the next ten years but she refused them all. However, in 1976, writer/director John Carroll was asked to fashion a program for the Edinburgh Festival to commemorate America’s bicentennial celebration. Carroll wanted a well-known American to read the works of American poets and he was at a loss as to who to approach. Explaining this over lunch with British journalist Gwen Robyns (who had written Grace’s authorised biography), Carroll was taken aback when she suggested asking Princess Grace. “She loves poetry,” Robyns explained, “she reads a lot and is very interested in literature”. A lunch in Paris was arranged and after Carroll’s well thought out presentation the princess accepted on the spot. It was a perfect solution or, as one of her American friends put it, “a way of returning to the stage without returning to the stage”.

 Princess Grace of Monaco in Edinburgh in 1976.

Princess Grace of Monaco in Edinburgh in 1976.

In total, Princess Grace gave four performances in Edinburgh alongside actors Richard Kiley and Richard Pasco. Richard Kiley was a respected American actor, best known for his appearances on the Broadway stage, whilst Richard Pasco was a celebrated Shakespearean performer and stalwart of the RSC, where, as a young actor he formed a lifelong friendship with one of his co-stars, Judi Dench. (They later appeared together in the Scottish film “Mrs Brown” where Dench played the widowed Queen Victoria.) As well as the Signet Library event the trio appeared at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh University. Carroll was overwhelmed with the response and the princess’s performance. The BBC called the event one of the highlights, not just of the festival, but of the year. Like many others, the Scotsman reviewer Allen Wright seemed star struck: “Grace Kelly was escorted by two gents in tuxedos. They might have been Sinatra and Crosby but were in fact Richard Pasco and Richard Kiley. She was wrapped in a gown of radiant coral and looking more beautiful than ever.”

GRACE KELLY WAS ESCORTED BY TWO GENTS IN TUXEDOS. SHE WAS WRAPPED IN A GOWN OF RADIANT CORAL AND LOOKING MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN EVER.

The event at the Signet Library was undoubtedly the most star studded of the week. Unlike the others, there was no audience, since it was being filmed for a later broadcast by the BBC. As well as Princess Grace, many of the other performers of that year’s Edinburgh Festival appeared, including the celebrated English tenor Peter Pears, the Austrian pianist Paul Hamburger, Ossian Ellis the Welsh harpist, the American Brass Quintet and the Scottish Baroque Ensemble. The evening was introduced by the famous Scottish actor Tom Fleming, who had long since established himself as the definitive “voice” of state occasions on the BBC. (His first big “hit” being the Queen’s coronation in 1953.)

The WS Society’s records show the BBC brought in their equipment on Sunday 5 September 1976, recorded on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and removed the equipment on Friday. The library diary for Thursday 9 September includes the entry “Princess Grace of Monaco 1.45 - 4”.

The programme was broadcast on Saturday 11 September at 7.20pm on BBC 2. Unsurprisingly given the scale of the event, there were one or two hitches. The WS Society’s Clerk, Peter Millar, wrote to the Society’s architects on 24 September to report that Mr Ballantyne, the Librarian, had noticed “two panes in the main cupola are cracked, one quite badly. We assume that this occurred when the cupola was ‘blacked out” by the BBC for their recordings and I have asked the BBC to accept responsibility for the repair.”

 Princess Grace's signature in the Signet Library's visitors book.

Princess Grace's signature in the Signet Library's visitors book.

Amongst the American poems Princess Grace recited was Elinor Wylie’s “Wild Peaches”. Performed in the poet’s native Southern accent, it was a perceptive choice for a Scottish audience: as a critic highlighted “it plainly professes New World roots while drawing on a European poetic inheritance.” The poem suited the Princess’s “silky voice” with its musicality and subtle repeated sounds within a line. Carroll had been uncertain whether the former film star could cope with the demands of the live stage. He explained to Grace’s biographer James Spada how quickly those worries melted away in Edinburgh: “Princess Grace had the timing, the feeling to perfection. She had a soft, very good voice with a marvellous range. And she had a great sense of humour”. The imagery of the verse seemed to echo many tropes of Scottish poetry:

I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

Following the event, Princess Grace joined the illustrious list of royals and statesmen who have signed the Signet Library’s visitors’ book. After the success of the Edinburgh events, she began to take tenuous steps to a fuller return to the stage, giving poetry readings in England, Ireland and America. She was tragically killed in 1982 in a car crash in the hills above Monaco, aged just 52. Proof of her success in promoting the worldwide standing of Monaco was the fact that although no leading international statesman had attended Grace Kelly’s wedding, guests at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco included the First Lady of the United States, Presidents, Prime Ministers and the newly married Diana, The Princess of Wales. Equally, the utterly grief stricken faces of her husband and children made clear how profoundly she would be missed by the people she had loved the most. As her son and heir to the throne Prince Albert of Monaco remembered, 30 years after her death: “she was a loving and caring mother and even more beautiful on the inside”.