‘True Grace’ looks at life of a real American princess

   Famous heiress, beauty, model, fashion icon, movie actress, Oscar winner, princess, wife of a European monarch.
   A book about such a woman should begin ‘‘Once upon a time,’’ because words like those above conjure a fairy tale.
   The woman, of course, is Grace Kelly, and her fairy tale of a life (1929-82) is portrayed in "True Grace: The Life and Times of an American Princess" (Paperback, 2008, Thomas Dunne Books). The author is Wendy Leigh, who also has written biographies of John F. Kennedy Jr., the Duke of Windsor and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few.
  The general outline of Grace Kelly’s story is familiar to most — how she grew up in Philadelphia, where her father was a wealthy brick manufacturer and former Olympic gold medalist in sculling, the larger-than-life Jack Kelly. How she opted for an acting career rather than college, disappointing her mother, who had been the first woman to teach physical education at the University of Pennsylvania. How she soon moved to Hollywood and, off-screen and on, romanced one leading man after another. How she met the dashing young ruler of a principality while on a trip to Europe and he swept her off her feet and she gave up her acting career to become his princess-bride.
   Gorgeous and 1950s-style glamorous — back then, the term really meant something and wasn’t a label for 15-year-old girls — Grace Kelly lent her cool, blond patrician perfection to movies such as "Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief," "High Society" and "The Country Girl," for which she received an Academy Award. She dated, and apparently had affairs with, a who’s who of male stars and celebrities, conducting a love life more like the men of her day than what was commonly credited to Hollywood’s leading ladies. Among her loves: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, David Niven and designer Oleg Cassini.
   But life, as they say, is complicated, and so it was for the woman who became Princess Grace of Monaco.
   Though she lived in palaces and penthouses, rubbed elbows with the world’s elite and had servants at her beckoning, Grace’s life in many ways was not a fairy tale — at least, not a particularly happy one.
   The woman who dazzled the world spent many years trying unsuccessfully to gain the approval of her own father. Jack Kelly alternately ignored his daughter or downplayed her accomplishments. 
   Rainier married Grace for money — and for the star power she would bring. Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who would later marry the widow Jacqueline Kennedy, had invested heavily in Monaco. He advised Rainier to find and wed a celebrity whose fame might help revive the tiny, fading, down-at-the-heels principality. With Grace, Rainier got Hollywood wattage and cold, hard cash. Rainier, Leigh says, demanded and got a $2 million dowry from Jack Kelly for giving his daughter a title.
   As a condition of marriage, Grace signed away some parental rights to the three children she would come to have. In the event of a divorce, she would not be allowed to take them with her. In effect, she found herself in a gilded prison, one in which her husband cheated on her as her father had her mother. Grace, like many women, picked familiar sorrows. ‘‘Of course she knew Rainier was so unfaithful. Of course. Of course," close friend Arlene Dahl says in the book. She adds, ‘‘She was in a trap.’’
   Princess Grace died after the car she was driving plunged off a curvy mountain road on Sept. 13, 1982. Her daughter, Stephanie, who was with her in the car, survived. Grace died the next day after Prince Rainier gave permission for the life-support machine to be shut off. Given to premonitions, Grace had long believed she would die in a car.
   "True Grace" is a fascinating, in some ways bittersweet look at a woman who found herself in the role of a lifetime, with star billing on the world’s stage. But the scenes turned sad, tinged with regret, with what might have been. Yet she played her part elegantly to the end.

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