Amazing Grace: Why we'll always adore the divine Grace Kelly

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She bewitched Hitchcock, snared Prince Rainier and captivated cinemagoers. Grace Kelly remains the ultimate ice blonde, and as a major show celebrates her life and style, John Walsh confesses to a lifelong crush. Plus, Susannah Frankel on a true fashion icon

It started in 1966. It was a moonlit night somewhere in the sultry Mediterranean, and Grace Kelly and I were snuggled together at the end of our little yacht. She was wearing a pink cashmere sweater (a bit posh, I thought, for crewing a small boat, but she was like that) and I had brought my squeezebox along. She lay with her head in my lap as I played Cole Porter's "True Love" on the old melodeon, and we sang the last bit as a duet, three tones apart. She sang like a little girl, but I had no idea she could sing at all, so I was entranced. And she did something during the song that was very characteristic. She reached up and drew her finger up my cheek and down my nose and over my lower lip as if to mess up the singing of "True Love"; as if it was too perfect. But nothing could mess up the moment with the moonlit yacht, the squeezebox, Grace in her pink cashmere and me. It was perfect ...

It was one of the great dreams of my unconscious life. I'd watched High Society on TV the night before – a Sunday, I remember – and all next day at school, aged twelve-and-a-half, I couldn't get her face out of my head, nor the lyrics of the song out of my heart:

"For you and I have a guardian angel

On high, with nothing to do –

But to give to you, as you give to me,

Love forever true."

High Society was, to be cruelly objective, a stilted and inferior musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. It suffered from one major flaw, which was to cast Bing Crosby as CK Dexter Haven, the raffish, sardonic ex-husband of the society beauty Tracey Lord. In the original he was played by Cary Grant. In my man-of-the-world view at 12, Bing Crosby was obviously wrong, hopelessly, absurdly wrong for the part – too old, too puckish, too saurian, too charmless. Nothing like me. Grace would never have married him, not in a million years. Which is why, in my dreams, I had no trouble booting him off the yacht called True Love and substituting myself. There I remained, in a little dream of romance with the divine Ms Kelly all through my teens and well beyond. And that moment when her finger traced a line over my/Crosby's face never went away.

She has never gone far from public consciousness, although she starred in only 11 films in a brief career lasting six years. It abruptly ceased in 1956 when she married Prince Rainier III and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. After their wedding, the Prince banned any screenings of her films in Monaco, and vetoed any future offers of roles – even from Hitchcock (who wanted her for the lead in Marnie.) She became a semi-willing prisoner of a rich principality, confining her energies to garden clubs, charitable works, poetry readings and narrations of inoffensive, child-friendly documentaries.

After her tragic death in 1982, biographers luxuriated in the rumours of sexual impropriety that had surrounded Grace Kelly from her early 20s. She was said to have gone to bed with the leading man in every one of her movies: Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Ray Milland, James Stewart, Bing Crosby, William Holden... As time went on, the line-up of supposed lovers varied (Grant and Stewart were, in fact, never more than friends to her) but others were added – such as Fred Zinnemann, her first director, in High Noon. When her affair with the married Milland became public, she was denounced as "a nymphomaniac" by the gossip writer Hedda Hopper. And just before her wedding in 1956, her own mother, Margaret Kelly, obligingly blabbed to the press about her daughter's celebrity conquests.

Last year a new biography by Donald Spoto, High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood, attempted to whitewash Grace's reputation and deny most of the rumours of off-screen rampancy. It was roundly mocked by The New Yorker's film critic, Anthony Lane: "If this trend continues," he observed, "we can look forward to the life of, say, Lady Gaga, expressed in the form of a two-volume memoir, compiled by a loyal friend, in which a discreet narrative is linked by her personal correspondence."

Saint or compulsive shagger, she unquestionably remains a star. Alongside the books and exhibitions, the internet is crammed with personal tributes, edited by doting fans, to appropriate soundtracks ("She," "Amazing Grace"). If anything, her fresh-faced beauty and elegance seems bang up to date in the Tens. What was it about her that turned us on and still does?

Well, she was, without question, the most beautiful actress of Hollywood's golden age. Who would disagree with that? Marilyn, Liz, Vivien, Ava, Rita, Lauren and Lana all had their good sides, their electric scenes and blow-up-your-skirt moments; but nobody shone like Grace Kelly. She looked best with all her hair brushed back from her wide Teutono-Celtic face – one set of grandparents was German, the other Irish – to reveal those proudly matchless features.

She could never look ordinary: as her head turned during the action on screen, every frame looked like a perfect still. She moved across the floor like a dancer. But she still looked human. No major-league sex symbol had such a cheery smile as Grace, or such imminent tearfulness in her eyes. Nobody possessed the same combination of dazzle and self-effacement, confidence and hunger, class and trashiness. In her first decent role, in Mogambo (1953), all these elements were on display. John Ford's steamy African jungle romance, in which Grace and Ava Gardner vie for the attentions of Clark Gable's great white hunter, is a vastly silly film (check out the terrifying Battle of the Gorillas, in which our gun-toting heroes bravely advance upon back-projected footage of screeching silverbacks) but Kelly's emotional development is riveting. British, prim as a governess and formal as a three-tier cake-stand, she's a bit of an unexplored territory, emotionally speaking. Shown a double bed in the jungle hut and asked if she and her husband would prefer single beds, she lowers her head and mutters, "No, no – perfectly setisfectory."

Later, she ticks off Clark Gable for his lack of concern about her fever-stricken husband. "Whaddya want me to do?" retorts Gable. "Climb into bed with him and hold his hand?" upon which Grace smacks him ringingly across the face and bursts into tears. You needn't be Virginia Ironside to suspect the complex emotions writhing inside her. By evening, she's trying everything to stop Gable leaving her side. Her voice, that cut-glass, regal bleat, becomes soft and beseeching. Her elaborately carmined lips tremble. Her huge eyes look shyly up beneath the perfect arches of her brows. On the porch she looks through binoculars at two hippos fighting in a swamp – "probably over a female," Gable opines. Bars of transgressive shadow obscure her face. She stands beside the great hunter as he tells her the whereabouts of his room ("in case you need me") and doesn't touch him, but the fingers of her left hand crawl, spider-like, towards his groin. When she says "good night" the words are themselves like fingers, softly exploring. And later, of course, she does explode, conveniently beside a waterfall.

Alfred Hitchcock spotted her dual quality when he saw her screen test for a film she never made, Taxi, and promptly cast her in Dial M for Murder. In an early love scene, she wears an amazing strapless couture gown, her blonde hair is fixed in a complex Gordian knot, and her blue eyes sparkle; she looks unassailably perfect, even when passionately entwined with her lover. Once assailed by the murderer, her body squirming and flailing in her diaphanous nightgown, her hair tousled and unkempt, she looks, I'm shocked to reveal, even more beautiful. It's one of Hitchcock's flattest and least inspired works, but how we yearn to comfort the dazed, bewildered Margot Wendice and save her from the electric chair.

Hitchcock never roughed her up again; he seemed content just to gaze at her perfection. The defining moment of directorial admiration comes in Rear Window, when we first meet Kelly's character, the society flit-about Lisa Fremont. As the camera tracks across the apartment where James Stewart sits dozing in a wheelchair after breaking his leg on a journalistic assignment, we see a shadow steal across his face. He wakes, smiles helplessly and we see the object of his attention as Grace Kelly's face moves in on his. Hitchcock photographs the kiss sideways-on, to catch her immaculate profile, and slows the camera down as though in abject, gob-smacked worship. I'm not aware of the director using such deliberate slow-mo in any other movie. It really is homage to a goddess.

She was a terrific kisser. She kissed like she really meant it. In Mogambo, she snogs Clark Gable so enthusiastically that he looks positively alarmed. In The Bridges at Toko-Ri, she kisses her doomed husband (William Holden) goodbye with such ferocity you'd swear they were having a real-life affair (indeed they were.)

The best kiss, because so tantalisingly deferred, comes in To Catch a Thief, the last film she made with Hitchcock. Kelly plays Frances, the virginal-but-sassy spoilt daughter of the jewel-wearing millionairess Jessie Stephens (Jessie Royce Landis). They meet Cary Grant (playing jewel thief John Robie) for drinks one evening with their insurance assessor. Throughout their exchanges, he never once looks at Grace, who maintains a reserved, glacial silence. When her mother demands to know why he hasn't made a pass at her daughter, Grant says, guardedly, "Very pretty ... Quietly attractive."

Later he sees mother and daughter to their hotel rooms. The mother says good night. Grace opens her own room door, enters, turns – then glides forward and kisses Grant firmly on the lips, as her arm encircles his neck and her hand kneads his shoulder. Then she withdraws and coolly closes the door. It is, I fear, a filmic moment that, for some foolishly impressionable men, rendered real life oddly disappointing thereafter.

What was the thing she had about fingers? For a woman who spent much of her public life in white gloves, Grace Kelly was very tactile in the digit department.

Her fingers are always stroking, caressing, kneading. Crosby's lip, Grant's shoulder, Gable's balcony... In the famous seduction scene in To Catch a Thief, against a cascade of night-time fireworks, Grace tries to make Grant talk about his passion for diamonds, although both of them are evidently thinking about something else. There's a disturbingly sexy moment when she kisses his fingers in turn, then folds them under her necklace in a frank invitation to take her, ahem, jewels right now.

We never, thank goodness, saw her do more than kiss her on-screen lovers. It wouldn't have been relevant in male fantasy-land. Because the idea of actually having sex with Grace Kelly was almost unimaginable: it would spoil the bliss of simply gazing at her face and her long, slender frame, watching her glide about the room and listening to her well-bred, liquid, cooing, slightly over-deliberate voice.

But what sustains down the years since her brief, flaming film career is a quality beyond physical appeal. It was her evident love of life. She glowed with joie de vivre.

James Stewart, in his funeral eulogy, said: "Grace brought into my life, as she brought into yours, a soft, warm light every time I saw her, and every time I saw her was a holiday of its own." One of her timeless attractions is that she clearly loved the company of men, liked to be charmed and touched, and people whom she met understood her pleasure, and they all wanted to do things for her. If that made us all courtiers to a resplendent queen, that's fine with us, who fell in love with her at 12 or 13 and never quite got over it. Who can always feel Grace's finger tracing a tender line down our cheeks as we gaze into her peerless blue eyes.

Wardrobe mistress: Susannah Frankel on the Grace Kelly look

When Ava Gardner gets into a taxi, the driver knows at once that she's Ava Gardner," Grace Kelly once said. "It's the same for Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor, but not for me. I'm never Grace Kelly. I'm always someone who looks like Grace Kelly."

An exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum next month promises to dissect the elusive Grace Kelly look, as encapsulated by the actress on and off screen, and, of course, also by a long line of pale imitators who include everyone from Kate Winslet to Diana, Princess of Wales. Kelly's signature white gloves, the neatly pressed masculine shirt teamed with narrow cropped trousers and polished loafers, the demure tailored day suits worn with a sensible mid-heel and, naturally, the Hermès Kelly bag, will all come under scrutiny once again.

Over the years, Kelly's style has been described both as "unpretentious" (that it was) and "natural" (only in our dreams). There was nothing even remotely natural about the way Grace Kelly chose to present herself. The model-turned-actress-turned-European royal controlled her image with a precision that any apparent ease belied. Off-screen, Kelly's everyday appearance was, in fact, remarkable for its simplicity. It's small wonder that, in her cinematic heyday, magazines used her, just as they might Kate Moss today, to sell copies to aspiring females the world over, all of whom believed, not entirely unreasonably, that they might be able to buy into her style.

Until her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco – and even, at times, after that – size-10 Kelly bought her clothes off the peg and was as interested in the quintessentially American aesthetic of Claire McCardell as she was in Dior's New Look. "The Grace Kelly look," says Jenny Lister, curator of the V&A show, "is classic, elegant, sensible and practical. It's restrained, but also incredibly glamorous."

While the more voluminous styles of the Sixties and Seventies were adopted by Her Serene Highness Princess Grace, those are not the clothes she will be remembered for. Instead, Kelly's greatest fashion moments were the smart, streamlined silhouettes of the Fifties. If her oft-emulated, no-nonsense personal style was a triumph of understatement, it was her wardrobe in film – and in those of Alfred Hitchcock in particular, designed by the great Hollywood costumier, Paramount's Edith Head – which cemented her image as perhaps the most beautiful woman in history.

"Grace Kelly was ambiguous," says Lister, "and Hitchcock managed to unlock her potential for playing characters who are very sensual but who, from the outside, look remote, untouchable. Perfect." Their first collaboration, Dial M For Murder, opens with Kelly playing the English-rose heroine, dressed at the breakfast table in palest rose-coloured cardigan to match. So far, so demure. But it's soon revealed that not only is Kelly's husband (played by Ray Milland) plotting to murder his wealthy wife, but also that she is concealing a lover (Robert Cummings). Her wardrobe echoes the intrigue.

In the scene where Cummings is introduced she wears scarlet, and as the film progresses the clothes become darker and darker – aubergine, brown – in line with the menacing sentiments beneath her well-mannered allure. "Hitchcock's scripts tell what colour the dress is to be, and whatever other details he considers important," Head said later. Infamously, Hitchcock decreed that Kelly should play the film's murder scene in a dramatic velvet gown. It is a mark of respect from the director who called his actors "cattle" that he allowed his leading actress – in cahoots with Head – to override his decision.

"He said he wanted the effect of light and shadow on the velvet during the murder," recalled Kelly, as quoted in Donald Spoto's biography High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood, published last year. "I had a fitting for it and it seemed right for Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking scene, but not for me in this sequence. So I told Hitch... Hitch's face went slightly red – it always did if he was upset – and he asked me: 'Well, what would you put on to answer the phone?' I told him, 'I wouldn't put on anything at all – I would just get up and answer the phone in my nightgown.'"

In the end, that was just the way the scene was shot – Kelly wears a slim-fitting, powder-blue slip that expresses just the fusion of innocence and experience her character comes to personify.

"After that, I had his [Hitchcock's] confidence as far as wardrobe was concerned, and he gave me a very great deal of liberty in what I wore in his next two pictures," Kelly said. Those two movies were Rear Window and To Catch A Thief, and by this point the wardrobe mistress and the actress had become friends. In Rear Window, Kelly's appearance as fashion editor Lisa Carol Fremont is nothing short of mesmerising. "She's too perfect," says James Stewart in the laconic leading role, of Kelly's character. "She's too talented, too beautiful, too sophisticated ... if only she was just ordinary." Head ensured that Kelly's wardrobe was anything but.

"The Hollywood studios could produce garments to such a high standard," says Lister. "They're basically using couture techniques for the screen. Everything is handmade and it's all beautifully detailed. The waists are tiny. Grace Kelly wasn't a small person, ...but she really did suit that narrow-waist and full-skirted look."

By now, Hitchcock's films were confirming Kelly's reputation as one of the world's most desirable women. When she was cast as Georgie Elgin in The Country Girl (directed by George Seaton), Bing Crosby, playing her alcoholic crooner husband, Frank, was less than amused. Spoto quotes Kelly: "He almost withdrew from the picture when he heard that I was going to play the part. 'She's too pretty,' he told producers about me. 'She has no experience... She's too glamorous for the part of Georgie.'" But it wasn't long before Crosby changed his mind, not least because Head's wardrobe for Kelly in The Country Girl was determinedly dowdy. Head said: "She was to play a woman who had been married for 10 years and has lost interest in clothes, herself – everything." Her character's drab house dresses, cardigans, tweedy skirts and sensible shoes were shockingly austere, but the film's producers insisted on flashback scenes which restored Kelly to her usual perfection.

There was nothing much austere about Kelly's wardrobe in the climactic moments of her last film made with Hitchcock, To Catch A Thief. Here, in a moment of fashion folly, she wears a period ball-gown complete with overblown crinoline skirt that appears to have been spun from her own radiantly golden hair. Hitchcock had ordered that the opulence of the setting – the action takes place on the Cote d'Azur – should be reflected in the clothes. Perhaps in preparation for the excess to come, on the way to the set Kelly and Head stopped off in Paris to visit Hermès, where they spent a fortune on accessories. A suitably sun-kissed Kelly opens this film in cerulean chiffon gown. Then come the wide-brimmed sunhat and Capri pants and even – in a rare, risqué moment – an inky black swim-suit and dark glasses. Never had the actress appeared more lovely

To Catch A Thief was filmed in 1955. In 1956, Grace Kelly's engagement was announced and she wound up her acting career with roles in The Swan and High Society. It was MGM's Helen Rose, responsible for wardrobe in both films, who went on to design her real-life fairy tale wedding gown. Edith Head was livid, and it was left to Kelly to coolly remind her: "MGM is paying for it. Would Paramount do that?" Head had to make do with designing Kelly's going-away suit. She was, though, responsible for the linear, shimmering blue satin gown and equally narrow coat (both of which appear in the V&A exhibition) worn by Kelly when she picked up the Oscar for Best Actress for The Country Girl.

In six years, Grace Kelly had made no more than 11 feature films. Those directed by Hitchcock and dressed by Head are her great legacy to style. As if those sparkling blue-green eyes, Cupid-bow lips, gently waved hair and extraordinary bone structure weren't enough, her wardrobe, too, should be remembered as nothing short of perfection.



'Grace Kelly: Style Icon' is at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from 17 April to 26 September; vam.ac.uk for more details

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