In the first months after the death of his grandfather, Louis II, Prince Rainier III made a shy impression but also a very ambitious one. He had clearly not been prepared by his predecessor and had to learn all the tricks of governing himself.

After the intercession of his mother, Charlotte, Louis II had already assigned him a few tasks in April 1949, but it took Prince Rainier a lot of effort to grow in his new role. On his name day, November 19, he was officially installed as Monarch. It would become a National Holiday.

Later he would say about his first years as a Monarch: “I was 26 and suddenly I was at the head of a small country, I suddenly had a huge responsibility. The work didn’t really interest me. I started out ambitiously and bursting with plans and projects, but within a few months the work became commonplace. I hated that daily routine. I sometimes had to hold back so as not to get angry. What also frustrated me was that Monaco as an independent country was not really taken seriously. Because of its size but also because of the stories that it was a fiscal paradise and that it owed its prosperity to dazed gamblers. I wanted to put an end to that image as soon as possible. I saw it as my mission that Monaco would be taken seriously as an independent country.” 

Rainier had not had an easy childhood because his parents had separated early. He would later state that he had missed the nesting warmth of an entire family in his youth. “My father was a sensitive husband, and my mother was unhappy in marriage from the day she got married. My sister Antoinette and I have suffered a lot from their frustrations. We almost never saw our parents together. I was six when my parents got divorced. Something like that doesn’t leave a child untouched because it wasn’t fun at our house.”

Still, Rainier stayed in good contact with both parents. Louis II supervised his upbringing from a distance. Rainier grew up in Paris with an English nanny, who instilled in him the British sense of humour and taught him fluent English. He then went to school in England, first to a boarding school in Sussex and then to a public school in Stowe in Buckinghamshire. He did not always feel at home there and even tried to escape, which would even make it into the British tabloid press. Eventually he went to a boarding school in Switzerland, Le Rosey, also called ‘the school of kings’. He attended school there with the Belgian Crown Prince Baudouin and the future Shah of Persia. Here he would experience the best time of his childhood. He passed his final exams in Montpellier and went on to study history in that city during the war. He graduated in 1943 and then attended a year of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris. He then joined the French arm. He was honoured in 1947 for his services in the army, being awarded the title Chevalier de la Légion d’ Honneur. 

After the war, Rainier did not live at the Palace because he did not feel welcome there with his grandfather and his new wife. He retired to a villa on Cap Ferrat and began a relationship with the actress Giselle Pascal – a pseudonym for Maria Tallone – whom he had met during his student days in Montpellier. He bought her a house near his villa. Not everyone was happy with this initiative and his sister Antoinette in particular fiercely opposed Rainier’s plans to marry this woman. Eventually, this relationship would break down in 1953. 

In his first years as a Monarch, Rainier lived in the villa on Cap Ferrat and worked at the Palace. He immediately had to deal with a huge problem in the private sphere. His grandfather’s Will showed that half of the inheritance would belong to the widow Ghislaine and the other half to his daughter Charlotte and her children. Rainier claimed that much of the State’s Heritage belonged to him as the reigning monarch. He called in a judge from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs who found in his favour. Ghislaine meekly left the palace and retired from public life. She would die in 1991. Rainier also arranged for his father’s return to Monaco. Prince Pierre was given a luxurious apartment at the Hôtel de Paris. Rainier consulted him often and appointed him President of a literary college, which instituted a book prize – which is now named after Prince Pierre. His mother retired to the Marchais estate, where she would lead a life of her own. 

Rainier had a clear vision of how Monaco would become a modern country under his leadership. Above all, he wanted to quickly polish the image of the Principality and within a few years ensured that Monaco was accepted as a member of UNESCO – the Cultural Organisation of the United Nations – and that the Monegasque police became part of Interpol. These were a few steps along the way to make Monaco count as a fully-fledged country within the global and European community. 

But the country was facing an economic crisis as a result of the aftermath of World War II, with tourism struggling to get going. SBM was in dire need of new investors to modernise.

In 1952, a saving angel presented himself: Aristotle Onassis. The Greek shipowner, who had made a fortune in the shipbuilding and also in the tobacco industry in Argentina – he had even been naturalized as an Argentine – was a multimillionaire and had a huge business empire when he entered the Port of Monaco on one of his yachts and stayed there for a month. Eventually he settled on the Avenue d’Ostende where he also housed the headquarters of his company, Olympic Maritim. Of course, he was encouraged by the favourable tax rules in Monaco.  

Prince Rainier was informed of the conspicuous visitor to his country and invited him to his Palace within a few days. The meeting led to a surprising negotiation and within a day the Prince had agreed to sell the SBM shares on the condition that Onassis would also invest an additional million dollars in the renovation of some of the hotels and the Casino. Some advisers feared dealing with a second Zaharoff, but Onassis quickly made it clear that he had big plans for Monte-Carlo. As of that summer, the will of the Greek was law in Monaco. He thought he had made the best deal of all time. The American weekly Time devoted a front page to him with the headline: “The man who bought the bank.” 

His motto was: “I will build, renovate and make everything more beautiful.” Within a few months, three floors were built on the Hôtel de Paris with a roof terrace for a restaurant. Prince Rainier did not always agree with Onassis but trusted him blindly. Only when the Greek wanted to demolish Garnier’s monumental opera house did the Prince put a stop to it. Onassis did ensure that Monte-Carlo was the centre of attention again and was also visited by VIPs.

Within a year of his dramatic entrance, Winston Churchill, Maria Callas, Greta Garbo and Richard Burton took a look at what was then jokingly called Monte Greco. 

PHOTO: Aristotle Onassis