Part 20 in our History of Monaco series:
The arrival of Onassis gave Monte-Carlo a new impulse, but not everyone was happy with this development. At the same time, Prince Rainier III came under fire after a strange affair in which the Government speculated on the stock exchange with a lot of money on his recommendation.
As a result of drastically falling prices, a substantial gap of 250 million francs was created in the state accounts. The Chairman of Monaco’s Finance Committee believed that the National Council should ask for the resignation of the Prince’s Advisers or else ask the Prince to resign himself.
That Chairman, and President of the National Council. was Jean-Charles Rey, who was also the secret lover of Princess Antoinette. He also accused the Prince of squandering the SBM shares by giving them to Onassis. This affair ran high. It was with a heavy heart that Rainier had to dismiss four of his loyal Advisers on June 30, 1955. There could be no question of the Prince resigning, but his position remained shaky because he himself had no family, and therefore no descendants. Princess Antoinette’s son, Christian, was already mentioned as his possible successor.
Onassis was also a little concerned about the weakened position of the Head of State and advised him to work quickly on a marriage. Only then would he strengthen his position. Onassis presented to Prince Rainier: “By marrying, you take the weapons out of your opponents’ hands and the people gain more confidence in you as a monarch. And if you marry, why not a woman from America. An American princess would be interesting not only from a romantic but also from a commercial point of view because that way Americans will become more familiar with the concept of Monte-Carlo and they will come here out of curiosity.”
After the publication of an article about Monaco in Time, Onassis was convinced that Monte-Carlo had to attract especially wealthy American customers because they could spend a lot of money. SBM’s marketing policy was therefore aimed at attracting attention in the United States.
Rainier immediately understood what he had to do and had a clear idea about the type of woman he wanted to share his life with. When an American journalist asked him during an interview to describe his ideal wife, he replied: “A beautiful, blonde woman with the appearance of an angel. Someone who, for example, looks a lot like the movie star Grace Kelly.”
It was the first time the Head of State had publicly dropped her name. Everyone around him was surprised.
The American actress was guest of honour at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 and had just won an Oscar for her role in the feature movie Country Girl. Her appearance fascinated many men in America and Europe. She was a beautiful blonde woman and the darling of the director Alfred Hitchcock. The movie star spent several weeks in Europe to promote their latest film To Catch a Thief. She already knew the Cannes area because some scenes had been shot there for this film.
During a train journey from Paris to Cannes, a reporter from the weekly Paris-Match, Pierre Galante, suggested she visit Monaco, He could arrange a meeting with Prince Rainier. He hoped for such a meeting because the publication of photos of the famous actress together with the single Prince would give the sales of his magazine a huge boost.
Galante arranged the meeting on May 6 at 3 pm. For the movie star, this was one of many appointments during her stay on the Côte d’Azur. Rainier accepted the invitation because it could generate a lot of attention in the US. Still, both protagonists didn’t attach much importance to their encounter.
Grace Kelly first met Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida in Nice halfway between Cannes and Monaco, while Rainier had a work appointment in Beaulieu. It proved difficult for both to get to the Palace on time. The movie star hadn’t even eaten anything and, just to be sure, had her driver pick up a sandwich at the Hotel de Paris, where she was met by Pierre Galante and the photographer Michou Simon, with whom she would go to the Palace together.
Prince Rainier was half an hour late. Meanwhile Grace Kelly studied the frescoes of the Palace. Suddenly, Rainier drove his Lancia into the courtyard and welcomed the guest in English with a wide grin before she could even make a bow. The photographer captured the spontaneous encounter.
“It seemed as if they were alone in the world. We were a little embarrassed that we were there,” Pierre Galante would later say of this historic meeting. It was a fleeting meeting because the American had other obligations on that day. Rainier showed her around his Palace for about an hour and took her to his private zoo. There wasn’t even time to have a drink together.
Rainier would later say about this meeting: “She immediately made a stunning impression on me. She was spontaneous and even blushed when I spoke to her. I enjoyed talking to her because I had never been to America and so not used to meeting a young woman from that country. She was very calm and spoke English without an American accent. I liked that.”
Rainier wanted to ensure that the contact would not be broken and had in the American priest Francis Tucker, the Court Chaplain of the Diocese of Monaco, an ideal ‘partner in crime’ as an intermediary to contact the Kelly family. He confided in him that he saw in Grace his ideal partner. Tucker organised a trip to the US in the autumn of 1955, and this was a good excuse for Rainier to go with him. On December 8, the two men embarked in Le Havre for a boat trip to the New World. On the quay, the Prince told some journalists between the lines that he hoped to return from America with a fiancée.
Arriving in America, Tucker and Rainier visited the set for the movie ‘The Swan’. There, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier saw each other for the second time. She introduced the shy Head of State to all the actresses and actors.
It became clear to the American media that a marriage of the Prince to the movie star was being worked on. A few weeks later, Tucker and Rainier were in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve with a friend of the Prince. Spontaneously, the three men went to visit the Kelly family, where they were warmly welcomed. Eventually, Rainier stayed over, and a week later proposed to Grace.
On January 5, 1956, the engagement was officially announced via Radio Monte-Carlo. The news hit like a bomb, not only in Monaco but especially in the United States. In fact, Monaco married the USA. The authoritative weekly Time even spoke of “the most romantic event since Romeo and Juliet.” The next day, the couple hosted an engagement dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. A few days later, Rainier returned to Europe, while Grace had to return to California to shoot the movie High Society.
MAIN PHOTO: Prince Rainier, Grace Kelly, and Grace’s parents in Philadelphia, 1956, centre, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief