Say Grace

She's not quite timeless, but she does belong to many different times and places.

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Beauty, the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. In Grace Kelly’s case, however, it isn’t. Her beauty was so pure that all eyes see the same thing. After all, she had a nose so straight it didn’t cast shadows, hair so blond it seemed sprinkled with gold dust, and lips so finely shaped no Botox artist could duplicate them. In the Huffington Post piece, Mary Hall states that when Kelly met Prince Rainier she was wearing a dress made from a McCall’s easy-to-sew pattern. Hall means to highlight her subject’s impeccable taste in noting this, but the point here is not taste but the irrelevance of taste. It didn’t matter what Grace Kelly wore. Her clothes had one purpose and one purpose only: to keep out of her way. The McCall’s dress apparently did that.

The annals of celebrity are full of women who made the most of what they were dealt. Katharine Hepburn gave allure to angularity; Betty Davis, glamour to bug eyes; Barbara Stanwyck, chic to a Brooklyn accent. Through a mixture of chutzpah, marketing savvy, and raw talent, actresses have found it possible to sell themselves to the world despite a seeming disability — to make a silk purse out of crossed eyes (Karen Black), a thyroid condition (Uma Thurman), or a mild case of scoliosis (Julia Roberts). An inimitable sense of style can produce beauty even if the features in question aren’t beautiful.

Not so with Grace Kelly. We are enthralled not by her style but by her style-lessness. Kelly seemed to conform to a Platonic ideal of female beauty, at least as this ideal was conceived by Western culture as a classic configuration of line, color, and proportion. Moreover, everything in Kelly’s self-presentation supported this ideal. Her “look” constituted a chastening of the idiosyncratic or overly expressive: the austere chignon, the simple Hermès handbag, the discreet Van Cleef and Arpel jewelry, the classically tailored shirtwaist dress. Kelly’s make-up was understated; her voice had a stylized inflection, trained to a lower register so as to be more unobtrusive; her movements were discreet and fluid — she seemed to float in a way suggestive of geishas or ghosts.

The trajectory of Kelly’s life complemented the style-lessness of her physical being. Born into a wealthy family, she had a modicum of breeding but not too much (too much would have made it harder for her to go on stage). Her career progressed, seamlessly, from theater to live television to movies, where she was cast in films that showcased her shadowless nose and gave narrative context to her iconic form. Her global exposure drew the attention of a prince. At the height of her celebrity and the zenith of her beauty, she acquired as her stage a tiny, exotic kingdom devoted to wealth and pleasure. It was a marvelous cascade of chances that nonetheless derived from the founding principle of unblemished physical beauty. She became what her beauty seemed to make her destiny at the outset: a princess.

Where does Grace Kelly belong, historically speaking? Other famous beauties have risen to stardom by having their appearance felicitously fit the needs of the moment. Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth had a friendly sexiness that appealed to the male populace fighting overseas during World War II; Doris Day offered cheerful conventionality for a ’50s suburban culture; Mia Farrow’s pixie look was a bridge between traditional femininity and boyish autonomy as a gender revolution got underway in the 1960s and ‘70s; Madonna carved out a brashly changeable style that appealed to eclectic baby boomers in the 1980s; Julia Roberts mixed patrician regality with a strain of down home in keeping with duality of the Clinton era; and more recently, Britney Spears embodied the spoiled child who spoke to an audience stuck in an extended adolescence.

But Grace Kelly eludes this sort of categorization. She seems to have no particular affiliation with a time and place. She is more of a potentiality — a limbo being — than a real figure of historical dimension. We may try to argue for her as a ’50s icon, but she was neither a housewifely type (like Doris Day or Donna Reed) nor a femme fatale (like Marilyn Monroe or Kim Novak). When she appears in a movie, she never quite fits, while managing to cast the rays of her sublimity on everything around her.  “Perfect” was the term Jimmy Stewart used to describe her in Rear Window—and dazzled though he was, he wasn’t sure if such perfection suited him, at least not for everyday use.

Yet if Grace Kelly does not belong to a particular time and place, there are particular times and places that seem to need her. This is true for us right now. Kelly’s kind of style-less beauty appeals to us, I would postulate, as the antidote to the chaotic aspects of our current climate: a time of explosion, earthquake, bankruptcy, unemployment, and political polarization and strife.  In her iconic perfection, her sublime quietude, Kelly is consoling: an elevated respite from the squalid hurly burly that surrounds us. Her title in Monaco was “Her Serene Highness,” and serenity is a quality that we associate with perfect beauty. Like Keat’s Grecian Urn, she seems to suggest that “beauty is truth” — or, to amend the Beatles lyric: “beauty is all you need.”

Alfred Hitchcock, for whom Kelly was a favorite actress, saw her as a suspense narrative in microcosm — an icy blond surface under which lurked the potential for passion that only a Cary Grant could activate. In her Vanity Fair piece, Laura Jacobs deconstructs this mini-narrative when she notes that Kelly was really a shy girl who liked sex. The statement is jarring, and if I were Jacobs’ editor, I wouldn’t have allowed it. No one wants to hear that Kelly was an ordinary, vulgar sort of girl. It may be that Grace Kelly slept around, but, as the newsman said in that classic movie: “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” • 10 May 2010

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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