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High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly

Donald Spoto

(Crown; US: Nov 2009)

Review [10.Feb.2010]

Grace Kelly, bricklayer’s daughter and alabaster goddess, was a stunner who shone briefly, and memorably, on screen before she became Her Serene Highness, Princess of Monaco. Twenty-six when she wed, she was 52 when she died in an automobile accident. Her life divides into two acts of equal length.


High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, Donald Spoto’s supremely tactful, if lopsided, account of this singular life, has 273 pages of text. All but 30 are devoted to Grace’s life before marriage, Monaco, and motherhood.


Spoto, an addictively readable film historian and perceptive biographer of (among others) Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, and Laurence Olivier, is a former monk who published works on St. Francis, Jesus, and Joan of Arc. High Society is more in the line of his hagiography than of his biography.Perhaps this comes with the territory. Accounts of Grace Kelly Grimaldi, who would have turned 80 recently, usually come in three flavors: storybook vanilla, spicy rum raisin, and tragic rocky road.


The first sort tells a story of the uncommonly beautiful commoner who became a princess. The second is the saintly looking angel who in private was the vamp of vamps. The third is the beauty to whom beastly things happen, for example, the family of jocks who make fun of her acting ambition, the studio bosses who underestimate her talent, and the husband who doesn’t appreciate her.


Happily, Spoto’s Grace is not one-note. Unhappily, in keeping with his subject’s favorite accessory, his book wears white gloves. With fastidiousness he corrects the sensational accounts of prior Grace chronicles and presents her not as a hot tamale but as a proper lady. It is inconceivable to Kelly’s male biographers that she could be both.


Still, Spoto does better on the first half of her life than most, allowing of her reported affairs with costars Clark Gable, Ray Milland and Bing Crosby that “falling in love did not always mean falling into bed.” The value of the book, however, is not in its confirmation or refutation of Kelly’s fabled amours, but in its penetrating analysis of her stage and screen performances.


When Spoto met Grace Kelly Grimaldi in 1975 while researching his landmark book on Alfred Hitchcock, she told him, “The idea of my life as a fairy tale is itself a fairy tale.” This is both Spoto’s epigraph and his thesis.


Grace, third child of the robust Kelly clan, was odd girl out in her family, an uncoordinated introvert among athletic extroverts who didn’t “get” her poetic and dramatic inclinations. Fortunately, her uncle George Kelly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was there to mentor her and encourage her dramatic ambitions at the Stevens School and Old Academy Playhouse. Rather than compete on the playing field, Spoto observes astutely, she chose to collaborate in theater productions.


She had hoped to attend Bennington College but her math scores were unacceptable. Much to her family’s discomfort, she enrolled in 1947 at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. While matriculating, she modeled and did TV commercials. And upon graduation in 1949, she made her professional debut at the Bucks County (Pa.) Playhouse in Uncle George’s satire The Torch-Bearers.


Six months later, she made her Broadway debut as the bewildered daughter in August Strindberg’s The Father, about a parent who gives his daughter the latitude to be herself instead of a clone of him. Spoto observes that though Strindberg’s father was the opposite of Grace’s own, she would later struggle to give her children the autonomy denied her by her hypercritical parents.


After so many Grace volumes that dwell on her beauty, beaux, and bridegroom, Spoto’s psychobiography is novel in suggesting how the actress explored personal conflicts in her roles. Even one unmoved by her Oscar-winning role in The Country Girl, as the weary wife who bolsters her alcoholic husband, can appreciate Spoto’s insight that she “tapped into… the ever-present streak of melancholy in her own character.”


Spoto is also eloquent on the little-told story of the actress’ defiance of MGM, with whom she had a seven-year contract, and how she quietly held out to be loaned to other studios for movies such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Spoto extols Grace’s “total lack of affectation” and forthrightness, but is anything but candid when it comes to chronicling her years in Monaco, apart from describing her as an attentive parent and well-calibrated economic engine of her adoptive nation.


I suppose that half a biography, like half a loaf, is better than none.

Rating:

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10 Feb 2010
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