In Philadelphia, a princess bride's story


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Once upon a time a bricklayer's daughter set out from her happy home in Philadelphia to seek her fortune. She became a Hollywood star and then married an honest-to-goodness prince. They had three beautiful children and lived in a grand castle atop a mountain overlooking the sparkling blue sea. Because others were not as fortunate as she, the princess raised money for the Red Cross and poor families, worked for children's rights and supported the arts.

Then one terrible day, while driving along a narrow road in the principality, she lost control of her car and tumbled down the mountainside. The end.

Now that's a story with staying power.

If you go

'From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly, Beyond the Icon'

Where: James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.

When: Through Jan. 26. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and until 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Events: This month the museum will join with the County Theater on State Street to play selected Grace Kelly films. Throughout the exhibit's run the museum also will sponsor nighttime seminars on aspects of Grace's life and legacy.

Tickets: Advance purchase is recommended, at www.MichenerArtMuseum.org or by calling 1-800-595-4849. Advance tickets will not be sold at the museum. Every effort will be made to accommodate visitors without timed tickets, but they may experience delays. Tickets include admission to all the galleries and are free for members and children under 6; adults $18; seniors $17; college students with valid ID $16; ages 6 to 18 $8.

Information: About related events, go to www.michenermuseum.org/collections/pdf/Quarterly_Summer_2013.pdf.

Tours: East Hills Historical Society occasionally provides tours of important sites in Grace Kelly's life. It offers other tours as well of the area. eastfallshistoricalsociety.com.

 

And nearly all of it is true.

Grace Kelly's legacy -- her celestial beauty, unfailing dignity and genuine magnanimity -- has not faded in memory. Almost 60 years after she appeared in her last movie and 31 years after her death, she continues to fascinate and inspire. Tickets to the exhibition "From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly -- Beyond the Icon," which opened late last month at Doylestown's Michener Art Museum, are selling fast.

Throughout her 52 years, Kelly worked hard to maintain her image as a woman of impeccable taste and propriety. That image might not always have been complete in every detail, but it was never false.

Princess Grace honestly was a class act.

Like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales, those other icons of brave-faced integrity, whatever unhappiness Kelly endured in private, she almost always brought her best self to her public roles.

Part of her appeal -- much of it carefully cultivated -- was that she seemed at once unreachable and down-to-earth, an Academy Award winner who was chaperoned on dates by her big sister, who went back home to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and spent summer vacations at the Jersey Shore.

At home, the footprints marking the path of her youth have been preserved as if by a spell.

"It's not every day a hometown girl makes good and becomes a princess," explained Ellen Sheehan, founder of the East Falls Historical Society, which periodically offers a tour of the sites central to young Grace's formation.

It begins at the Kelly family home at the corner of Henry Avenue and Coulter Street. The 21/2-story brick Georgian, built by her father in 1925, sits on a rise across from McMichael Park. A Japanese maple has grown up two stories to rustle against one of the upper decks. A small white playhouse, with a functioning kitchen, has long since disappeared from the garden, Ms. Sheehan said. So has the tennis court, which used to be hosed down and iced over in winter so the four children could skate on it.

While it is true that as a youth, John B. Kelly Sr. worked as a bricklayer, his immigrant father's trade, Grace's childhood in Philadelphia was hardly that of a working-class girl.

Her father was a three-time Olympic gold-medal rower, a successful businessman and a politician. He had made his fortune in the construction business long before Grace was born on Nov. 12, 1929. And although Margaret Kelly was a strict disciplinarian and expected her children to do their chores, they were attended by plenty of household servants.

The next stop on the East Falls tour is Ravenhill Mansion on School House Lane, where the Sisters of the Assumption ran a Catholic girls school, Ravenhill Academy. Photographs of Princess Grace hang in the main corridor of the Gothic-style building, which was sold to Philadelphia University in 1982. It was here that Grace received her primary education, in rooms warmed by grand fireplaces, lit by crystal chandeliers, and embellished with carved wainscoting and coffered ceilings.

A short drive to Indian Queen Lane brings the tour to the Old Academy Playhouse, formerly known as The Little Theatre. Grace performed in four plays here, the first when she was only 12.

Ms. Sheehan ends the tour on Midvale Avenue at St. Bridget Catholic Church, where Grace was baptized, where the family worshiped, where she returned year after year with her own children, and mourned at her father's funeral in 1960. After her marriage to Prince Rainier in 1956, her parents had the church ceiling and portions of the walls painted to match the palace in Monaco, as a gift to the parish.

Once, Ms. Sheehan says, she was at Mass and turned to find Kelly seated next to her: "To see her skin in person -- it was, how can someone be so beautiful? She had this aura."

Few of her fans were as devoted as Elizabeth Barranca, a Delaware woman who has donated her collection of Grace Kelly memorabilia to the East Falls Historical Society, where it soon will be placed in a permanent exhibition. The items range from original movie posters to commemorative plates and have an estimated value of $30,000, according to Ms. Sheehan, who is helping curate what will be called the Grace Kelly Museum.

In an effort to explain the public's enduring affection for Grace, her nephew Christopher LeVine wondered if it has something to do with the fact that she left her audience wanting more.

"These days, the media is all over celebrities," Mr. LeVine said during an interview on the porch of the baronial bed and breakfast and vineyard he owns in Delaware County. "There's no mystery whatsoever."

There is little of Grace Kelly's life that has not been chronicled.

Entire archives are filled with books, magazine profiles, photographs and film footage. The men she dated, the clothes she wore, her travels, moods, diet, health. Reporters followed her to Switzerland when she had an appendectomy (performed by the family's doctor, flown in from Philadelphia). Newspapers covered it when she caught the flu.

Although she had numerous affairs before her marriage to Rainier, her parents worked assiduously to protect her reputation as a good Catholic girl.

When stories emerged about his daughter's relationships with Bing Crosby and Ray Milland (true) and Clark Gable (according to at least one biographer, false), her father responded, "We're satisfied that Grace wouldn't do anything that would hurt either of us or herself. ... When you're in a goldfish bowl, you have to expect someone to toss in a cat or two every so often."

As the least athletic and shyest of the four Kelly children, Grace was never able to win her father's approval, a frustration that may have explained her attraction to older men.

Don Richardson, one of her early lovers, told a biographer, "Her whole life revolved around pleasing that father of hers ... . Despite everything she accomplished, she still hadn't been able to achieve that. He was much more impressed with athletics," like his son Jack's championship rowing.

One of her father's many flagrantly crushing comments came after she took the Oscar for best actress.

"I simply can't believe Grace won," he said. "Of the four children, she's the last one I'd expected to support me in my old age."

In New York and later in Hollywood, Grace had her heart broken over and over by men who were either married or deemed inappropriate by her parents. And though she was infatuated at first with Rainier, the heat cooled rapidly and the marriage became, at times, utilitarian.

Mr. Richardson believed "the real reason that she married the prince was to make a bigger splash than a pair of oars."

Whatever psychological turmoil she may have endured, Grace Kelly put her heart into trying to be a good mother and to support worthy causes, raising money independently of her husband's royal holdings.

Her life was never as perfect as her admirers might have wished or imagined. But when she died on Sept. 14, 1982, the princess of Monaco and daughter of East Falls left all those who loved her with much that was truly good and beautiful. She was mourned across continents but with special poignancy in the city that claimed her as its own.

That evening, before the Phillies game started, sportscaster Harry Kalas said on the air, "This is a sad day for Philadelphia."

Mayor William J. Green ordered city flags flown at half-staff.

At the memorial Mass led two days later at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul by Cardinal John Krol, a family friend, 1,800 mourners came to pay respects. Later, her family and 150 friends and neighbors gathered in the sanctuary at St. Bridget to grieve.

In his eulogy, her former co-star James Stewart 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. No question, I'll miss her, we'll all miss her."

And to this day, we do.

 

 

 

 


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