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The Irish Times (26/Jul/2008) - Portrait of a princess

(c) Irish Times (26/Jul/2008)

Portrait of a princess

On the morning of her 40th birthday, Wednesday, November 12th 1969, Grace Kelly, screen icon and Princess of Monaco, recorded in her diary her weight and body measurements (122lbs, bust 35 1/2 inches, waist 27 inches, hips 37 inches).

It's a touching insight into the "human" side of one of the enduring style icons of the 20th century, and indicative of the intimate nature of "The Grace Kelly Years: Princess of Monaco", now running at l'Hotel de Ville in Paris.

The exhibition, curated by Frederic Mitterrand and launched in Monaco last summer as a tribute on the 25th anniversary of her death, is a spellbinding recreation of the princess's public and private lives.

Born into a wealthy Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia, Grace Kelly became an Oscar-winning star of the silver screen before meeting and marrying her prince. Some of the most touching letters on display are those from her husband, Prince Rainier III, including this note, sent to her in April 1956 as she and her entourage sailed to the French Riviera for her wedding on board the SS Constitution: "My darling, This is to tell you in a very mild way how terribly much I love you, miss you, need you and want you near me always. Safe trip my love. Rest, relax and think of me burning myself out with this terrible longing of you, for you! I love you so."

The fairy-tale wedding, attended by 600 guests and watched on television by an estimated 30 million people, was the invite of the year, as this telegram sent by Rainier to his bride illustrates. "Having to fight overwhelming demand invitations STOP At this point and time all have to be refused as only one per cent refusals in all sent out STOP Just about had enough STOP Love Rainier."

The princess's wedding dress, the seating plan for the ceremony and the gift record book - open on the page recording the receipt, from General and Mrs Julian Brown, of a "glass bunny" - make for some voyeuristic viewing.

Some of the stylish princess's most admired fashion outfits, and that Hermes bag, are on display, alongside a sparkling multi-carat treasure trove of jewellery by Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston and others, including her 10.48 carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring.

But it's the intimate family album photographs and the letters that are most revealing. There is the heart-wrenching letter from her father, asking her to reconsider her frowned-upon relationship with the married, "twice your age", fashion designer Oleg Cassini, which begins: "I have never seen your mother so upset over anything." There is also the warm and humorous correspondence with her favourite director and lifelong friend Alfred Hitchcock.

"I hate to disappoint you," Princess Grace wrote by way of explaining that she would have to decline a part he had offered her. "I also hate the fact that there are probably many other 'cattle' who could play the part equally as well. Despite that, I hope to remain one of your 'sacred cows'."

The Grace Kelly Years: Princess of Monaco, is at l'Hotel de Ville, Paris, until August 16th. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday, 10am to 7pm. Admission is free. The exhibition will then travel to Moscow, Doha, Rome, London and Melbourne