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From Philadelphia Girl To Princess

There aren't many Irish Catholic girls from America who get the chance to live out the fantasy of becoming a real princess. But Hollywood actress Grace Kelly was anything but ordinary, says biographer J. Randy Taraborelli in his new book, "Once Upon a Time."

On Friday's The Early Show, Taraborelli discussed his new book about the American darling who abandoned her career to become the wife of Prince Rainier III of Monaco — a man she hardly knew.

Taraborelli says hundreds of interviews with Kelly's friends and relatives revealed the very real, and less than picture-perfect, stories of men and women of the Kelly and Grimaldi families. And, he says, Princess Grace's marriage was not a fairly tale ending — as she found herself to be a prisoner of royalty before her life ended early in a car accident.

The author says he was inspired to write "Once Upon a Time: Behind the Fairy Tale of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier" because he wanted to do something bigger than just another celebrity bio. His publisher, Taraborelli explains, convinced him to write about the life of Princess Grace, a woman who had a full and purposeful life that didn't turn out the way she had expected.

Taraborrelli has written about many celebrities in the past. His other best selling books include "Call Her Miss Ross," Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness," "Sinatra: Behind the Legend," "Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot" and "Madonna: An Intimate Biography"

Read an excerpt from "Once Upon a Time":

The Kellys

Grace Patricia Kelly was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 12, 1929, the third of four children to John—better known as Jack—Brendan Kelly and Margaret Majer Kelly. It is not difficult even today to come across Philadelphians who have fond memories and fascinating anecdotes about local legend Jack, recently described by a journalist there as "one of the greatest characters in the history of the City of Brotherly Love." The son of an immigrant farm boy from County Mayo, Ireland, Jack promoted the myth that he had started out as a poor bricklayer, quit high school to help his parents and nine siblings, started his own company, and then worked his way up the ladder of "hard knocks" until finally becoming a millionaire.

In truth, Jack did quit high school, but only in order to have more time to practice sculling on the Schuylkill River, not to support his family. He did, eventually, lay bricks, but not on his own, at least not at first. He actually worked for two older brothers, Patrick and Charles, who had already established their own successful construction company. When the ambitious Jack later started his own company, "Kelly for Brickwork," he did so in competition with those brothers. Eventually Charles went to work for Jack, alienating Patrick and causing a huge family rift.

Jack Kelly was a man to whom image was paramount. He realized that his rags-to-riches story had great appeal, especially in 1935 when, at the age of forty-five, he was the Democratic candidate for mayor of Philadelphia. Although he lost that election—the Republicans had held the office for the previous 60 years—he garnered more votes than had any Democrat before him. He was a popular, formidable man in Philadelphia, and would remain so for decades.

While most of the Kellys simply accepted Jack's fibs as an element of his image-making mentality, George Kelly was always the one dissenting voice, the brother eager to set the record straight. An award-winning playwright, his successes included The Torch-Bearers (his first Broadway hit in 1922), The Show-Off, and Craig's Wife (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize). Jack's stories of an impoverished background were completely at odds with George's version of his own childhood. In truth, George could be as pretentious as his brother, but in his own way. For instance, he fabricated the story that he had been privately tutored; he had actually attended public school like the rest of his family. Though fastidious, a man of impeccable manners with an obsession for the proper serving of high tea, George couldn't escape his and Jack's background: They were middle-class, at best.

What needs no embellishing, however, is that Jack Kelly was dedicated and persistent enough in his practicing to finally win a gold medal in sculling in the 1920 Olympic Games, after having been previously excluded from competition at Henley. His medal, his ready wit, and his good looks would take him far. When he wanted to start his own business, he did not have to scramble for seed money. Instead, his brothers supplied the funds, George as well as Walter, a noted vaudevillian performer. (There had also been a sister, Grace, who had show business aspirations and for whom Grace Kelly would be named. Sadly, she died at the age of twenty-three of a heart attack while ice skating.)

Though the Kelly family was wealthy, because theirs was "new money," it denied them certain status. Jack and Margaret longed for acceptance into the ranks of Philadelphia's elite, but they would never achieve it, no matter the balance of their checking accounts. The highest stratum of Philadelphia society at the time consisted of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—WASPs—and that was it: No other ethnic group was allowed entre. Working against the Kellys was the unavoidable fact that Jack was son of an Irish immigrant. At the time, Irish Catholics were thought of as the "working class," looked down upon, regarded as inferior by the snobbish Philadelphia high society—and nothing galled Jack and Margaret more than the inequity of such a caste system. (It is ironic that in Grace's last film, High Society—a remake of The Philadelphia Story—her character, Tracy Lord, is a member of the same social circle that considered her to be invisible when she was growing up.)

Though not accepted in the "inner" circle of Philadelphia society, Jack Kelly was a true bon vivant and raconteur, a man brimming with clever anecdotes, everyone's best friend, the life of any party. Tall, muscular, and strikingly handsome, with receding dark, wavy hair and penetrating, aquamarine eyes, Jack always wore custom-fitted suits made for him by the best tailors in the business; he wouldn't even put his car keys in his pockets for fear of ruining the contours. Though about as nearsighted as a person could be, he refused to wear prescription glasses because he felt he looked better without them. Passionate about politics, Jack was an early supporter of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt—who had once described Kelly as "the handsomest man in America"—and campaigned for him in Philadelphia, where Republicans outnumbered Democrats ten to one. After he was elected President, Roosevelt remembered Kelly's support by making certain that the Public Works Administration offered work to Jack's Kelly for Brickwork company, which soon became one of the largest construction companies on the East Coast. Jack was also a close friend of George J. Earl, Pennsylvania's first Democratic governor in fifty years, elected in large part because of Jack's having stumped for him.

Margaret Majer Kelly, Grace's mother (called "Ma" in the family, short for Margaret and not a diminutive of "Mother"), was also an intriguing person, with noblemen in her German ancestry who could be traced back to Wrttemberg in the sixteenth century. The Majers had lived at Schloss Helmsdorf by Lake Constance before emigrating to Philadelphia. In 1914, when she was fourteen, Margaret met Jack Kelly at the Turngemeide swimming pool, a German club located at Broad Street and Columbus Avenue in Philadelphia, while the two enjoyed a recreational swim. Jack, a member of the swim team at Turngemeide, was ten years Margaret's senior.

Athletic, eye-catching, and full of life, the fair-haired Margaret held the distinction of becoming the first female athletic coach for coeds to be hired at the University of Pennsylvania. Also a local swimming champion, she went on to teach athletics to students at the Women's Medical College. Margaret also enjoyed a modestly successful career as a model, though it was not a vocation to which she was devoted, preferring instead to set her sights on traditional family goals. She married Jack Kelly on January 30, 1924, nearly ten years after first meeting him, at which point she converted from Protestant to Catholic. Margaret and Jack went on to make a formidable team: passionate, ambitious, determined—and both image-conscious, sometimes to the point of distraction, at least according to their friends and relatives.

In Margaret's view, Jack was the most fascinating, best looking man in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, and no one would dare hint otherwise to her. Never, say those closest to her, did she think anything less of him, even though he was known to enjoy the occasional extramarital dalliance. However, "naive" would not have been a word to describe this strong-minded woman. She was well aware that her husband was unfaithful to her. "He's the kind of man women tell their secrets to," she once confided, "and, then, the girl wants him, he wants her, and that's that." As long as her husband was home when she needed him to be there, she would ignore his outside romantic entanglements, continuing to love and admire him. Anyway, divorce created scandal, and Margaret would have none of that. In situations such as hers, financial security was the supreme reward for feigning ignorance. If she ever challenged Jack about any of his consorts, the argument stayed strictly between them; no one close to the family seems to have any memory of open marital discord between the Kellys. Perhaps it was because she could not control her husband that she then tried to exert so much power over her offspring. The couple had four children in nine years: Margaret (Peggy) in September 1925; Jack Jr. (Kell) in May 1927; Grace on November 12, 1929; and Elizabeth Anne (Lizanne) in June 1933.

Margaret had her life just as she chose to live it . . . but at what cost? Though she acted the part well, she wasn't always the happy woman she presented to the world. The knowledge that she wasn't enough for Jack would eat away at her self-esteem, cause her to become brittle and, with the passing of time, unable to access honest, heartfelt emotions. Few knew the full extent of the emotional wounds beneath the surface of her sociable, polished persona. How would it look to outsiders if they were to discover the truth about her, about her marriage? Therefore she would never allow herself to lose control and would always keep others at a distance.

Still, Margaret was a woman with impeccable taste—and there was a great deal to be said for such an attribute if one hoped to move smoothly in society circles. Her table was always beautifully appointed with fine china, the food always delicious, exotic, and elaborately served. The consummate hostess, she was hospitable, personable, chatty, and witty. Servants at her parties were instructed to casually meander about in order to create an easy atmosphere. "I don't want my guests to think they [her employees] are afraid of me," she explained to a relative at a holiday party one year. "Though, in truth, they had damn well better be," she concluded with a wink.

Jack and Margaret's colonial manse at 3901 Henry Avenue, in the East Falls section of Philadelphia across the Schuylkill River from the Main Line, was built brick by brick by Jack's company, Kelly for Brickwork. Boasting seventeen opulently appointed rooms, the house sat on parklike, beautifully manicured grounds, along with a tennis court, a game room, and garage space for expensive antique automobiles. It was a showplace, an estate to which the four Kelly children could proudly invite friends for extravagant parties, a place where all were encouraged to engage in athletics.

Jack, always the competitive "man's man," was a strong believer in physical fitness.* He had hopes that his brood would be the most athletic on the block, and three of his offspring were qualified for that challenge. Grace, though, was a disappointment. Eventually, when she got older, she would become a fairly good swimmer and tennis player, but mostly in an unsuccessful bid to please her father. As a young girl Grace lacked the self-assuredness that was one of the defining characteristics of the rest of the Kelly family. She was the child who would trip on her own feet while running up the stairs, bloodying her chin in the process. She was the needy girl with the runny nose who never seemed quite healthy; she had a cold for what seemed like ten years. She was the scared kid who hid behind Mommy's skirt as Daddy begged her to "at least try" to dive into the deep end of the swimming pool. More than once Jack demanded to know, "What's Grace sniveling about now?" It was as if the family had a secret meeting, took a vote, and decided that Grace was the odd one out.

This family dynamic led Grace to retreat within herself as a child and create a rich world of fantasy. The reality that she was an unwelcome guest in her own home would inspire her to dream of a different life, a life in which she was the center, where she was noticed, where she mattered. However, all the childhood reverie couldn't change the circumstances of her early youth: Grace grew up lonely, timid, and feeling like an ugly duckling in a family of swans.

* In March 1956, Jack Kelly wrote an article, "Are We Becoming a Nation of Weaklings?" for American, later reprinted in Reader's Digest. In it he complained, "American youngsters today are weaker and flabbier than those in many other countries, and they are growing softer every year. Their physical fitness or lack of it constitutes one of our gravest problems. If parents and teachers fail to wake up to the alarming trend, we shall become a nation of weaklings.".

Copyright © 2003 by Rose Books, Inc.

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