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The Times (07/Jun/2009) - High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood by Donald Spoto

(c) The Times (07/Jun/2009)

High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood by Donald Spoto

A former Catholic monk turned celebrity biographer, Donald Spoto has previously written bestselling books on Tennessee Williams and Alfred Hitchcock, among many others. He was slightly acquainted with Grace Kelly in real life — extracts from several of his (rather uninspired) interviews with the actress dot the text — but this supremely reverential biography reads like something written by one of her courtiers. The author bows low before his subject while telling his tale.

We start in an upscale neighbourhood of Philadelphia, where Kelly’s wealthy family sees out the Depression with smiles. In lush gardens Grace plays with her ballerina dolls, an affectionate child who treats everyone with unusual tact. At convent school she excels at acting, playing Peter Pan and sending the audience into raptures.

But things aren’t entirely perfect. Her father is a sod. Of his pretty daughter’s many successes he merely mutters, “I never thought it would happen to Grace.” For the rest of her life, Grace will look elsewhere for love from men. By the age of 18, in 1948, she is a popular model in New York and devoting her evenings to watching All My Sons on Broadway, concentrating hard, because she wants to be a serious actress. She already has exquisite comic timing (a thing that cannot be taught) and righteous conviction. She also has that body and face. At 5ft 6in — smaller than you’d think — she has a perfect neck mounted on shoulders that convey a powerful inner strength (whereas her direct contemporary Marilyn Monroe’s, plumper and softer, ever seem to suggest unhappy winters spent eating baloney sandwiches in foster homes).

In no time, Grace is dressed in a bonnet and playing a Lincoln-era bride on TV. “I love being kissed the way a man should kiss a woman!” she gushes, and Hollywood — John Ford and Hitchcock in particular — falls to its knees.

Actually, it turns out Grace liked being kissed by men very much indeed. Which is a slight problem for Spoto, who appears entirely preoccupied with defending his subject’s honour. This is no warts-and-all biography.

Take Gary Cooper, the sheriff to Kelly’s young wife in her first big picture, High Noon (1952). Suffering from ulcers and a hernia, the still magnificently attractive actor perked up no end in the company the 20-year-old Kelly. But was there — as is roundly accepted — a relationship? “There is not a shred of evidence” to support the rumour, cries Spoto. And Clark Gable during the filming of Mogambo in 1953? (“A strong attraction is not invariably expressed sexually.”) Or Ray Milland while making Dial M for Murder a few months later? (“If there was indeed more than a flirtation it was conducted with the utmost discretion and secrecy.”)

Oh, Don, face it: your girl was pure sauce. There is simply too much anecdotal evidence in existence to deny it. Tour around enough Hollywood gossip books or memoirs and you’ll find her, checking in to the Chateau Marmont with an anonymous guy for a discreet week (as described in The Chateau Marmont Hollywood Handbook) or passionately involved with the producer Fred Zinnemann (suggested by Wendy Leigh in True Grace) or impressing the Variety film critic with the “earthy” quality of her relationship with Jimmy Stewart on screen. William Holden, Bing Crosby, Stewart Granger, the Shah of Iran…the names keep coming. Just look at her eyes! The staggering confidence of her gestures! She is a woman passing through men as one might the perfume department of Selfridges, en route to an unpressing appointment.

But some things Kelly did for certain. She drove an incredibly hard bargain with the studios, successfully negotiating all manner of caveats in relation to her career. She flatly refused to be filmed smoking, for example (you will never see her actually inhale), and loathed Los Angeles and its relentless sun so much she insisted on being permitted to live in New York. A keen practical joker, she once dressed as a nurse to lift JFK’s spirits when he was sick in hospital in the 1950s, wordlessly noting the photograph of Monroe he had taped to the ceiling above his bed. She handled Hitchcock’s overwhelming crush on her — for years he could scarcely imagine making a film without her — with humour and tenderness. She made her 10 films in a mere 54-month period between 1951 and 1956, and tired quickly of the inferno of American mega-fame. She longed for a husband and family.

Enter Prince Rainier. There’s an intriguing photograph here, a little hazy, of their first meeting, in a garden in Monaco in 1955. She’s in a floral suit, her face intense, the prince is smiling shyly with his spivvy moustache. “Think of me…with this terrible longing!” he wrote to her afterwards. Plus he had a castle. Goodbye Hollywood, hello years of flower arranging, and a fatal car trip in September 1982. You know the story — and you certainly won’t learn anything new from Spoto, save his suggesting that Rainier didn’t actually ­prevent Kelly from acting again. Apart from making an as yet unreleased ­independent short film in 1980, she basically just didn’t get round to it.

But time and again when reading the book, it strikes you how little it matters that Kelly made only a handful of films. The actress is proof — if proof were ever needed beyond James Dean — that one of the greatest thrills of the movies is the tiniest amount of time it suffices to make that infrequent thing: a genuine star. It can take as little as 20 minutes. Or in Kelly’s case, the precise time it took for her to enter a room in Rear Window (1954), switch on three lamps, and then kiss Jimmy Stewart with such meaning that Hitchcock actually chose to slow the moment down and smudge the colours on screen, making you feel your brain has gone weird.

So she retired young, and then died, and her essence has never blurred. Grace Kelly continues to fill a unique niche in the pantheon, a niche some people imagined for a while had been filled by Gwyneth Paltrow. Except Paltrow lacks sauce. And so there remains nobody like Kelly. The poised, educated girl, who is simultaneously a raging supernova. She is the very thing Yeats might have been describing in his poem The Cold Heaven, “That seemed as though ice burned”.