Her life was short (she was only 52 when she died) but it was an extraordinary one. Many biographies have been written about her, in her lifetime and since her death, and some even with Royal approval. Here is a slightly briefer look at her life:
Grace Patricia Kelly was born in Philadelphia, USA, on 12th November 1929 to John and Margaret Kelly. She was one of four siblings – Margaret (Peggy) and John (Kell) were both older, and Elizabeth (Lizanne) was three years younger. Unlike her competitive and sporty brother and sisters, Grace was quiet and shy, and often seemed to be ill. Whereas her father and brother were both rowing Olympic medallists, Grace would happily spend hours playing by herself, to the disbelief of her family, whom she seemed to be nothing like. She came alive, however, when making up and telling stories and playing with her dolls, and she decided she would like to be an actress when she grew up. Undoubtedly her uncle, the well known dramatist and director George Kelly was an inspiration.
At the age of 18, Grace moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her parents were not happy but assumed that she would change her mind if they let her ‘get it out of her system’. They agreed as long as she stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women – an establishment that didn’t allow in men after 10pm and was deemed to be safe and ‘appropriate’.
Grace could have been given as much money as she needed by her parents, but she chose to support her acting dream by modelling – she appears in many late 1940s and early 1950s adverts. She started her acting career by performing in theatre plays and over forty episodes of drama productions broadcast live on US television. She made her break into films with a small role in Fourteen Hours in 1951 where she plays a woman wanting a divorce. Her part is extremely small, but after it she carried on with her theatre work and it was for this that she was noticed and offered the part playing Gary Cooper’s wife in High Noon, a classic Western film. Grace did not much like her performance in this and she continued to study and improve her acting.
At this time, the big Hollywood studios (MGM, Paramount and Warner Brothers) totally controlled the film business. Actors and actresses were signed up to contracts to a particular studio and paid a salary. If another studio wanted an actor/actress for a film, they would pay a fee to that star’s contracted studio and the star would be ‘loaned out’ for that particular film only. Grace did not much like the idea of this system and rejected several offers. However, one thing (and one thing only) eventually tempted her into signing a seven year contract with MGM – the chance to travel to Africa and star in Mogambo alongside Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. She later said that:
“if Mogambo been made in Arizona, I wouldn’t have done it”.
She negotiated the conditions that she be able to continue living in New York and commute to Hollywood for each film, and also that she be
allowed time off to work in the theatre. Mogambo was a success and it put Grace on the map, providing her with Golden Globe and Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress nominations.
Grace’s next film was her first with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M For Murder. Grace plays the leading lady, a woman accused of murder. She learnt much under Hitchcock’s tutelage and was grateful for the advice he gave and the opportunities he provided. He, in turn, was besotted with her and she fast became his favourite leading lady. The two became friends, and this friendship lasted up until Hitch’s death in 1980. Unlike with his other leading ladies, Hitch seemed to be in awe of Grace and he treated her with respect. Another film for Grace was The Bridges of Toko-Ri, a part she was given because the role, according to the co-producer William Perlberg, “wasn’t big enough to attract an important star but there were a few spots in it which had to be right, and we needed more than just an ordinary actress who could get by with it. Our problem was to find an unknown with real talent”.
Grace once again worked with Hitchcock in Rear Window. This film is really worth a watch, not just because of the outstanding performances of all the actors, but because it really shows all the classic Hitchcock elements of a film. Once again, Grace showed her determination to do things her way:
“At the rehearsal for the scene in Rear Window when I wore a sheer nightgown, Hitchcock called for Edith Head. He came over here and said, ‘Look, the bosom is not right, we’re going to have to put something in there.’ He was very sweet about it; he didn’t want to upset me, so he spoke quietly to Edith. When we went into my dressing room and Edith said, ‘Mr. Hitchcock is worried because there’s a false pleat here. He wants me to put in falsies.’ Well, I said, ‘You can’t put falsies in this, it’s going to show and I’m not going to wear them.’ And she said, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we quickly took it up here, made some adjustments there, and I just did what I could and stood as straight as possible – without falsies. When I walked out onto the set Hitchcock looked at me and at Edith and said, ‘See what a difference they make?’”
Hitch was fooled into thinking he had got what he wanted. In reality, Grace had.
Next time, we look at the second half of Grace’s film career and her meeting with her future husband.