Iconic Images

The Michener Museum hosts a look at the life of Princess Grace

By Susan Van Dongen
RECENTLY, I experienced the first time in my life when I went to a museum and found much of the staff and volunteers wearing tiaras. But then again, the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown, Pa. was hosting an exhibit with regal provenance.
   From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly — Beyond the Icon is on view at the Michener Museum through Jan. 26, 2014, and has already created a stir, inviting fans from near and far to immerse themselves in the world of Ms. Kelly.
   With an expansive collection of photographs, film clips, home movies, archival documents from the Palace of Monaco, and pieces from her personal and theatrical wardrobe, viewers can enjoy an intimate portrait of the woman behind the fairy tale. We see how her life evolved from a theatrically inclined young lady from Philadelphia, to an Oscar-winning actress (in 1955, for The Country Girl), and then to the role of real-life Princess of Monaco.
   Beyond the Icon offers the opportunity for visitors to view items from the Palace of Monaco, including mementos from Ms. Kelly’s 1956 marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, the shoes worn at their civil wedding ceremony, and love notes to Ms. Kelly from Prince Rainier III. The Michener Museum is the only venue in the United States for this exhibition, drawing from Ms. Kelly’s personal objects housed in the archives of the Palace of Monaco and the Grimaldi Forum.
   Entering the exhibit, I was greeted by what might be the signature photo of Ms. Kelly, taken in 1954 by Philippe Halsman for Life magazine, as she looks over her shoulder, her blonde tresses swooping just below her chin. It was as though she was personally inviting me to peruse the exhibit. Her natural, porcelain beauty and finishing school bearing is in contrast to her direct, sensual gaze, captured by Halsman, and later by Howell Conant , her favorite photographer.
   Walk around the room with the movie memorabilia and you’ll see the pale green/sea-foam spaghetti-strap gown designed by Helen Rose, which Ms. Kelly wore to receive her Academy Award. She was tiny, maybe a size two, with a waist that Scarlett O’Hara would have envied. There are posters, dresses and even shoes from her films, including High Society, the 1956 musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. There’s a vinyl recording of the music from the film, including its hit song “True Love,” a duet between Ms. Kelly and Bing Crosby.
   It’s interesting that High Society was toward the end of her career. Long before this movie, film directors such as John Ford and, especially Alfred Hitchcock, recognized her subtle sensuality — the camera loved her.
   Although Ms. Kelly quietly sizzled on screen in such films as Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, she essentially had a movie career of only five or six years. It was her life after marriage to Prince Rainier III that seemed more theatrical to me, the very stuff of movies, theater and girlish daydreams.
   As Princess Grace, she hosted or took part in an array of formal parties and themed balls. I do believe she got to wear more fabulous gowns, costumes, headdresses, wigs, falls and tresses after she left Hollywood behind. Examples of the attire and accessories from this part of her life are displayed with elegance, with background historical information and nods to the many stellar designers who clothed the princess — Oleg Cassini, Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent and Cristobal Balenciaga, to name just a few.
   One themed ball celebrated Monte Carlo’s centennial, and for this, Princess Grace wore a silk taffeta gown in the style of 1860s European royalty. Another gown was reminiscent of something Marie Antoinette might have worn: a yellow silk ruffled dress crafted in Paris, which Princess Grace wore to an 18th-century themed party.
   A striking red-orange modernistic gown with a gold-embroidered bodice was designed by Marc Bohan for the house of Christian Dior, for an event in the late ‘60s. To top this stunning piece off, Princess Grace wore an elaborate headdress designed by Andre Levasseur, which required special handling coming to and from the ball.
   A flat-screen monitor plays film and video clips from this era, and we see a regal Princess Grace interacting with her guests.
   I thoroughly enjoyed the section of the exhibit that displays letters from fellow royalty, including Farah Pahlavi, the former Empress of Iran, Princess Diana and Prince Charles of Great Britain, and Charles’ parents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The note from Prince Philip is humorous and a little flirtatious, as he apologizes for borrowing Princess Grace’s glasses and forgetting to return them, distracted by “a most enjoyable dance.”
   One gown by Balenciaga was made especially for Princess Grace’s 40th birthday party in 1969. It is simple but lovely, a black silk-velvet sheath, which she wore to the festivities celebrating her own birthday, but also that of numerous friends, all born under the astrological sign of Scorpio. Apparently she loved gathering her Scorpio friends together.
   There is a special gallery dedicated to the royal wedding of 1956, with photographs of Princess Grace and her bridesmaids, as well as an image of Prince Rainier and his new bride. She is radiant in this picture, obviously in love. Her bridal gown, designed by Helen Rose, with its high-necked bodice, bell-shaped faille skirt and cummerbund, showcases the bride’s slender waist.
   There is a fashion drawing of the gown on display, but not the gown itself, which is said to be one of the most beloved objects in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, donated to the museum just months after the royal wedding.
   Another room has images marking Princess Grace’s motherhood, in the hospital with a newborn, laughing with her children, Albert, Stephanie and Caroline. We also see photographs from her childhood, including several images from the Kelly’s summer homes in Ocean City.
   I loved the shot of young Grace being swung around by her father on the O.C. sands, as well as Grace and her siblings posing at the Kelly’s Spanish-style home, a couple of blocks from the beach. (They later moved to a more modern home on the beach block.)
   My personal favorite image is a beaming Princess Grace coming off the beach, wearing sunglasses, a floppy hat, and a gypsy-style beach cover-up blouse. Look closely and you’ll see she’s wearing an Ocean City beach badge — yes, even Princess Grace needed one.
   By the way, the day I saw the exhibit happened to be Nov. 12, which would have been Grace Kelly’s 84th birthday. Aha! That explains the celebratory tiaras.
From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly – Beyond the Icon, on view at the James A. Michener Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa., through Jan. 26, 2014. Museum hours: Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Sun., noon – 5 p.m. and Thursday evening until 8:30 p.m. for the duration of the exhibition. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended and available only at www.MichenerArtMuseum.org or by calling (800) 595- 4849. Advance tickets will not be sold at the museum. Tickets include all museum galleries and are free for members and children under 6; adults $18; seniors $17; college students with valid ID $16; ages 6-18 $8. 215-340-9800.