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Grace Kelley: America’s Princess

May 2024
5min read

Twenty-five years after Grace Kelly’s tragic death, Howell Conant’s photographs of her still resonate with the “natural glamour” that changed Hollywood

It was an extraordinary friendship between photographer and subject. Over a period spanning 27 years, from the early years of her Hollywood fame to her tragic car accident in 1982, Howell Conant captured Grace Kelly as she blossomed from a movie legend into a princess and then mother and royal role model. In the process, Conant broke through the cold, goddess-style portrait style that was the vogue and created a new look in Hollywood portraits: natural glamour. Yet throughout, Conant acted not just as her official photographer but also her confidante, who had access to Grace in her most private moments.

Conant learned photography in Marinette, Wisconsin, as an apprentice to his father, who made his living shooting family events in a rural community on Sturgeon Bay. During World War II, Conant worked for an elite photo unit attached to Admiral Chester Nimitz’s staff, and rose to become its highest ranking enlisted man in charge of 350 photographers in the Pacific theater. After the war he settled in New York City. By 1950, he had opened his own commercial studio, specializing in advertising and fashion photography.

His friendship with Grace began with a cover assignment he received from the movie fan magazine Photoplay early in 1955. While already a hot Hollywood property, she had not yet won her Oscar for The Country Girl. When Conant framed Grace through his lens, he stopped suddenly, transfixed by her beauty, and became uncharacteristically hesitant. Grace quickly took over, curtly directing him and urging him to set his lights and finish. 

Before Grace left for an interview with the gossip columnist Earl Wilson, she asked to borrow a headband from Conant’s inventory. He agreed, provided that Grace herself brought it back. When she returned to his studio, she was struck by some of Conant’s underwater photos and they struck up a conversation. Conant, a scuba enthusiast, was particularly proud of his images of U-853, a German submarine that had sunk late in the war not far from his Block Island summer home.

By this time, Conant had landed an assignment to shoot Grace for Collier’s, a popular weekly variety magazine. Kelly and magazine editors, however, could not agree on a photo shoot concept. Kelly and her sister Peggy flew to Jamaica for a much-needed vacation. In less than a year, she had shot and promoted six films—Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Green Fire, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Country Girl, and the yet-to-be released To Catch a Thief. Shortly after arriving, she surprised the editors by sending for Conant, whom she now wanted to photograph her while on holiday.

His iconic photo of Grace rising from the green waters of the Caribbean, hair slicked back, shoulders bare, eyes intensely blue, proved to be Conant’s money shot. When that issue hit the newsstands, there wasn’t a woman in America who did not wish she looked that good all wet. And there was not a man alive who did not want to take her home and introduce her to his mother.

From the first shot in Jamaica in 1955 to his last session with her in 1981, Conant’s images of Kelly have a vitality that invites the viewer to linger and speculate on what lies beneath. The earliest photos convey a warmth that suggests something smoldering behind that flawless patrician facade, something not only undeniably sexy, but fresh, natural, and classy.

For Hollywood, this “natural glamour” was impressively new. In the movies, sex appeal had always been associated with bimbos, vamps, tarts, and hussies. Grace Kelly wrapped it up in a Tiffany box and invited us to tug on the ribbon. Some said she inspired “licit passion!” Alfred Hitchcock, who was smitten with her, called it “sexual elegance.”

Her star had been on the rise since she’d replaced the psychologically troubled Gene Tierney in Mogambo late in 1952, but a year later she was still a second-choice actress, getting roles that had first been given to others. When she was cast in The Country Girl, it was as a stand-in for Jennifer Jones, who had become pregnant right before the beginning of principal photography. 

By the time Collier’s came out on June 24, 1955, however, Grace Kelly had catapulted far beyond anyone’s idea of first runner-up. After her acclaimed performance in Rear Window and her Oscar night besting of Judy Garland (who, it is said, never got over it), Grace’s popularity soared. By June of 1955, Grace Kelly was Hollywood’s go-to girl, all at the age of 25.

The month before, Grace had led the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of The Country Girl. After a chance encounter with a Paris Match reporter (who wanted a royalty photo op—the Prince of Monaco meets the Queen of Hollywood), an introduction was arranged with Prince Rainier, Monaco’s bachelor head of state, who spoke impeccable English from his schooling at an exclusive British boarding school. After the shoot, Grace declared the prince to be “charming,” wrote a thank-you note, and returned to Cannes. 

Collier’s quickly gave Conant another Kelly assignment. In September 1955 she began filming The Swan, first on MGM sets in Los Angeles, and then on location at the palatial Biltmore estate in North Carolina. In a storyline that foreshadowed future events in her own life, Grace’s character, a young princess, marries an older prince from another kingdom.

Many have commented on Grace’s seeming aloofness and detachment on the set, and Conant’s photos capture the faraway look in her eyes. Her thank-you note to Rainier had become the prelude to a clandestine correspondence with the prince, and their relationship deepened with each exchange of letters. In December, Rainier arrived for an unofficial visit to Philadelphia and asked Jack Kelly for his daughter’s hand. Grace, whose father had vociferously reviled all of her prior boyfriends, finally found a suitor Daddy could approve of. A dowry of $2 million sealed the match.

Grace invited Conant to her Fifth Avenue apartment to shoot the first private photos of the radiant couple. Upon meeting Conant for the first time, Rainier is said to have shaken his hand, then torqued it in a playful gesture that was still forceful enough to bring the photographer to his knees. Conant took no offense—they quickly discovered a common interest in scuba diving and underwater photography.

Grace returned to Los Angeles to begin shooting High Society, the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. Her prince came to visit the set and took a villa in Bel-Air. Unhappy with the cheesy prop engagement ring that MGM wanted her to wear for her role as socialite Tracy Lord, Grace instead put on the 12-carat rock she’d received from Rainier. 

At the end of the shoot, Grace packed up her dressing room and began her farewells in Hollywood. She never made another film. “When we married,” she later told an interviewer, “my husband said, ‘being an actress wasn’t a princess-like thing to do.’”

Before Charles and Diana, there was Rainier and Grace, the first “Wedding of the Century.” In mid-April, a seaplane flew over Monaco, showering red and white carnations onto the harbor, and an armada of small craft raced alongside the SS Constitution, upon which Kelly had sailed across the Atlantic, as it prepared to rendezvous with Rainier’s yacht. Almost 2,000 members of the press had shoehorned themselves into the tiny principality. 

Conant documented the small civil ceremony on the 18th, but skipped St. Nicholas Cathedral for the wedding the next day. The celebration of the high wedding mass by the Bishop of Monaco was televised in black and white to 30 million people, and MGM’s cameras were rolling in color. 

Conant’s absence from the church was neither a slight nor an oversight. Grace needed him to stay behind in the palace, catching more intimate shots before the ceremony that she would permit no other photographer to get. For his part, Conant was happy to set up and to stay out of the mob scene.

It is Howell Conant who gave us our enduring, memorable images of Grace. Simply put, Grace liked the way she looked when he took her picture, and that was precisely his goal. Whether we conjure up Grace Kelly the movie star, or Princess Grace, Her Serene Highness, it is his likeness of her “natural glamour” that we see in our mind’s eye.

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