BOOK REVIEW / Into the heart of lightness: Grace by Robert Lacey, Sidgwick & Jackson pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
IN the high noon of her fame, Grace Kelly would never allow MGM's publicity department to disclose her vital statistics. The contours beneath those heavenly sugared-almond suits remained as private as the ins and outs of the star's life. A reporter complained that getting an anecdote out of her was 'like trying to chip granite with a toothpick'. 'Anecdote?' mused a friend. 'I don't think Grace would let an anecdote happen to her.' In his preface, Robert Lacey makes a pre-emptive strike on the accusation that there is something distasteful about digging up dirt and smearing it over a pristine figure of public affection: 'It may seem cruel to subject it to the intrusive and unforgiving analysis of the 1990s.' Indeed. 'But the lady can take it.' Being dead, of course, the lady is not best placed to tell the gentleman where he can put his anecdotes.

The greatest arrogance of the biographer is to pretend not just to be in the know about his subject, but in league with her. It is insufficient that Princess Grace of Monaco should have her first lovers and last toyboys exhumed for general goggling; Lacey apparently needs her to concede posthumously that this is all for the best. 'The truth does not destroy,' he writes, 'it actually enhances the beauty of her illusion.' Oh really? Here is Princess Grace being enhanced by a clammy ex-boyfriend: 'She would strip down to nothing but her Merry Widow (corset) and run round the place, cooking and cleaning, with her buttocks only barely covered. She was marvellously endowed in that department]' And here is a second-hand account of Alfred Hitchcock enhancing the star of Dial M for Murder: 'That Gryce] She f---ed everyone] She even

f---ed little Freddie, the writer]' Two pages later, having had his cheesecake, Lacey solemnly eats it: Grace's behaviour he says, 'suggested a curiously hollow moral core'.

Real Grace Kelly lovers will find plenty to loathe in this book. The opening description of her driving to an untimely death in 1982 is written in that Insight-team prose which piles on human interest ('The young policeman was fond of a croissant with his coffee') as if it automatically bestowed depth and humanity. Nor is Lacey really interested in his subject's movies, seeing them primarily as arenas for embattled love affairs: Mogambo (Clark Gable), Dial M for Murder (Ray Milland), The Bridge at Toko-Ri (William Holden). The only co-stars to escape were Gary Cooper (too preoccupied), Cary Grant (too married) and Bing Crosby (too Bing Crosby).

Hitchcock, Kelly's best director, emerges here as her finest critic. He explains how a director alert to doubleness can exploit virtue with a little wickedness underneath. You wanted a lot more of him and a lot less of the old defrosting ice-princess stuff served up by Lacey, who alludes to 'the special magic that was hers and hers alone' but shows little sign of being enchanted himself. The scene in Rear Window where a sparkling Lisa Fremont pulls out a neglige from her handbag in front of the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart - 'A preview of coming attractions' - remains for those of us who find the heart of lightness a more interesting place than its dark counterpart one of the great moments in cinema. Lacey is on the right track when he says Kelly was 'nice but naughty', but not up to speed. Most great beauties are voracious; their faces draw all the available light, leaving other women in the cold. Not Grace Kelly; she wore her loveliness as lightly as her Hermes scarf, and could shrug it off with that tinkling laugh. When the Academy awarded her the Best Actress Oscar in 1954 for her portrayal of a dowdy depressive in The Country Girl it was, as ever, giving marks for effort, rather than for the effortless high spirits which were the natural state of Grace.

The best passages of this book are about Kelly's childhood. She grew up in Philadelphia, the third child of an Irish bricklayer who built himself into a millionaire and Olympic oarsman before taking on board a Teutonic swimming coach as bride. It is easy to believe Lacey's description of life chez Kelly as 'a competition for love', a claim he backs with a carefully accumulated mass of detail. We get Grace the pious convent girl hellbent on perfection, Grace the flighty creative spirit, and Grace the dutiful daughter who adored her womanising father even when he chased away a succession of 'wop, dago and Jew' fiances. Lacey is good on 'the ways in which a family manoeuvres around a problem whose existence it does not acknowledge'. The story of Kelly Senior ordering 27 make-up cases from Elizabeth Arden for his floosies is funnier for the reader than it must have been for his wife. All this leads Lacey into his grand theme, which is that Grace's heart always belonged to Daddy. A corny conceit, but perhaps not in a case where the father in question was voted 'most perfectly formed American male'.

Only a Prince was good enough for Jack Kelly's princess; it was just a pity he had to look like a frog. The final chapters of Grace take in the meeting with Rainier and the move from High Society to Toytown sur Med. In Monaco the book, like its subject's life, slides sharply downhill. Aiming at pathos, Lacey stumbles into bathos: 'When fairy tales do not end happily, their endings often tend to be cruel.' The princess had difficult children and a husband who kept falling asleep but, still hellbent on perfection, she took to pressing dead flowers and discreet silence. When she met a flustered Lady Diana Spencer on her first official outing, Princess Grace smiled and said: 'Don't worry. It'll get worse.' Although even she might have had difficulty anticipating it could get as bad as this book.

Spare a thought for Lili Agee, Lacey's assistant, who, according to the acknowledgments, has 'strangled more than a few ill-chosen sentences at birth'. By now, poor Lili must have both wrists in plaster from overwork. And all in vain: there is no saving Grace from its author's curiously hollow moral core.

(Photograph omitted)