Some Things Don't Change: Meghan Markle Is Giving Up Acting to Marry Prince Harry, 60 Years After Grace Kelly Quit to Be a Princess

Kelly was only 26 when she closed the book on her Oscar-winning career to become Princess Grace of Monaco—but unlike Meghan, she wasn't entirely sold on retirement

By Natalie Finn Nov 29, 2017 3:00 PMTags

Over the past few years, the next-gen royals have voiced their determination to modernize the monarchy. Even 91-year-old Queen Elizabeth II herself has proven to be a forward thinker, approving changes in the laws of succession to give her female grandchildren a definitive place in the hierarchy by insuring they aren't leapfrogged by younger male siblings, and stoically gritting her teeth through her son's divorce and eventual second marriage to a divorcée.

But some things, no matter how deep into the 21st century we get, just cannot change. Yet.

Now that she's officially engaged to Prince Harry, Meghan Markle has confirmed, not only that the latest season of Suits was her last, but that she'll be giving up acting in order to be a full-time royal, a quirky job that comes with its own unique demands and responsibilities (and, presumably, a very nice retirement package).

Not that Markle would agree with that summation, exactly.

"I don't see it as giving anything up. I just see it as a change," she told the BBC in her joint engagement interview with Harry that aired yesterday. It's a new chapter, right? And also, keep in mind, I've been working on [Suits] for seven years. We were very, very fortunate to have that sort of longevity on a series…I've ticked this box, and I feel very proud of the work I've done there, and now it's time to work with [Harry] as a team."

Well, what was she supposed to say? That of course she has extreme reservations about packing it in at 36 and, yes, she is making a sacrifice for love? 

That just wouldn't do at all.

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Which isn't to suggest that Markle doesn't want to "transition out of [her] career," as she put it, or even had to think twice about it. It's not as if the prospect of joining Britain's royal family and being able to devote more time than ever to humanitarian causes, and getting to marry one of the most eligible bachelors in the world to boot, is an unappealing proposition. And as far back as March a source told E! News that, "even before Harry, she was starting to think about transitioning out of acting." By all accounts, she also shuttered her lifestyle site The Tig as part of her preparation to be fully engagement-eligible.

But at the end of the day she didn't really have a choice. There was no question that there's not really such a thing yet as a part-time royal, especially when you're going to be married to one of the most spotlit, mainline members of the family, the son of future king Prince Charles and brother of the presumed king after that, Prince William. It's dicey enough that Harry, fifth in line to the throne for now, is marrying a divorced American, the very decision that necessitated his great-great uncle Edward VIII to abdicate his throne.

At least Meghan Markle couldn't be in a more exclusive, estimable club. When she marries Harry next May, it will be 62 years since Grace Kelly officially closed the book on her short but prolific—and Oscar-winning—Hollywood career.

While the comparisons to Kate Middleton and Princess Diana are already everywhere (and aren't going anywhere), it's Kelly who made the actress-to-royalty leap that Markle is about to make. But though certain tenets of royal protocol will draw inevitable parallels between them, it's quite possible Markle is more ready to really press on with a new life—at least within the parameters of how royal life looks to be now in this mostly modern era—than Kelly was.

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Kelly was only 26 when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco on April 18, 1956, in what was heralded at the time as the "wedding of the century."

And while the fairy-tale glamour of it all took center stage, the star's iconic wedding gown designed by MGM-favorite costumer Helen Rose serving as inspiration for countless future brides, including Kate Middleton, her decision had to have raised a few eyebrows at the time.

It's easy to forget that Kelly spent barely seven years working in Hollywood before she retired, so memorable are most of her movies and so iconic the woman herself. She appeared in three Alfred Hitchcock classics (and came close to doing a fourth, but more on that later) and won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1955, for The Country Girl. She acted opposite some of the most famous leading men of all time, including Cary GrantClark GableWilliam Holden and James Stewart, and her personal style was impeccable (and would continue to be so once she was a royal).

Markle took the time to finish college at Northwestern before embarking on acting full-time, but Kelly, who was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1929, lit out for New York right after she graduated from high school. Her childhood dream was to be an actress, and it's all she fancied herself doing (aside from when she informed her big sister when she was little that she was "going to be a princess"). She attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, modeled, made her Broadway debut in 1949, appeared for the first time on TV in 1950 and made her big-screen debut in 1951 in the thriller 14 Hours, logging just over two minutes of screen time.

She earned her first of two Oscar nominations in 1954, for Mogambo, won in 1955 and exited Hollywood in 1956, leaving two films—fittingly, The Swan and High Society—to open in the wake of her wedding. Finis.

But what a turn of events. She was Grace Kelly, after all.

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Still, as much as her face was made for motion pictures, so was Kelly conditioned to be an ideal mate as determined by that era—taught to be polished, proper and supportive of the man in her life, as her mother, Margaret Major Kelly, was supportive of her philandering father, Jack Kelly. All of the above, combined with her revelatory beauty, charm, wit, patrician accent and regal air, contributed to Kelly's glacially cool image. Not that she was cold, but she always appeared completely in control, from the top of her perfectly coiffed head to the tips of her designer shoes.

Sounds like royal material, then and now.

Kelly wasn't entirely a slave to the patriarchy, however. First of all, she pursued acting, despite her dad's belief that it wasn't a suitable profession for a lady. (Her playwright uncle George Kelly was a mentor to her.) Then, in an era when the studios locked down talent with strict contracts and the stars had to get permission to be loaned to other studios, Kelly refused to make an action picture for MGM, feeling the script was terrible and her role was nothing more a swooning damsel in distress. The studio promptly suspended her.

Nor was she a prude, prim facade aside. Rather, she very much enjoyed men and sex, and she wasn't deterred by old-fashioned mores. Not to mention, romance on the set is a tale as old as Hollywood.

According to various biographers, Kelly—among other escapades—fell in love with one of her acting teachers; had an affair with High Noon director Fred Zinnemann and co-star Gary Cooper when they made the 1952 Western; and also had flings with Mogambo co-star Gable and Holden when they shot The Country Girl. Then there are the Kelly experts who say that her list of lovers was far shorter than legend has it.

She was reportedly nursing a broken heart over the very married Ray Milland, her co-star in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder and one in a series of older boyfriends, when fashion designer Oleg Cassini started to woo her in 1954. The designer—who would go on to help craft Jacqueline Kennedy's iconic first lady style—credited himself with injecting some sex appeal into what we would now call Grace's street style, the actress previously known for dressing on the conservative side. According to Cassini, they became secretly engaged, but her parents disapproved of him and their romance first fizzled and then imploded entirely after Kelly met her future husband.

Kelly, in town for the Cannes Film Festival, met Prince Rainier III in the South of France in May 1955—apparently at the orchestration of Olivia de Havilland, who was born in Nice and whose second husband, Pierre Galante, was editor of the magazine Paris Match and had royal connections. Both stars were on an overnight train from Paris to Cannes when de Havilland consulted with Galante about her scheme and then asked Kelly if she wanted to meet the prince.

"Grace struck me on first encounter as a rather reserved, self-possessed, well brought up young woman," de Havilland, who celebrated her 101st birthday in July, recalled to People earlier this year.

Kelly presumably had her career in mind when she told de Havilland that she'd have to clear the meetingto be photographed for Paris Match—with MGM, which despite the suspension was paying for her stay in Cannes (which was to promote The Country Girl, which she made while "on loan" to Paramount).

Meeting approved, she at first turned down an afternoon invitation to the palace in Monaco, saying she had to be back in Cannes for a cocktail reception that evening. He re-invited her for 3 p.m. and she said yes. Despite a power outage at her hotel that prevented her from blow-drying or curling her hair or ironing her dress, and then a minor car accident with the photographers who were trailing her to Monte Carlo, Kelly arrived—and the prince wasn't there yet.

When Rainier III did finally arrive, he asked Kelly if he could show her around, and she replied that she'd already had the tour. Instead, he took her to see the palace's private zoo and they walked around the extensive gardens. 

On the ride home, Kelly's said to have called him "charming." That night, "when she took her place at the head of the receiving line at the American reception, instead of offering her hand for a handshake, Grace extended her hand as if offering it to be kissed," de Havilland said. "She was in a state of enchantment."

And so the movie star and the prince began writing to each other—their long distance courtship proving key in keeping their blossoming romance a secret. Seven months after they met, Rainier went to America, asked Jack Kelly for his daughter's hand in marriage and proposed that Christmas. Her emerald-cut diamond engagement ring measured in at 10.47 carats and she can be seen wearing it in her final film, High Society.


When her engagement made the front page of major newspapers on Jan. 6, 1956, the cast and crew of The Swan, which she had been shooting at the time, were completely shocked.

Marilyn Monroe is rumored to have sent a congratulatory telegram to Kelly upon her marriage that read, "I'm SO happy you found a way out of this business."

De Havilland, six months pregnant at the time, was unable to attend the wedding, but the next and only other time she ran into Kelly was 10 years later while having lunch in Paris. The actress turned princess approached her table and, "of course, I rose and curtsied."

The wedding was watched by 30 million people around Europe

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While it's still a somewhat rebellious move for Prince Harry to have fallen in love with an American actress, so was it a bold move for Prince Rainier III, although as the reigning sovereign he didn't really have to run it by anyone and in fact had been encouraged to find a glamorous wife.

Moreover, Rainier's own parents, Prince Pierre and Princess Charlotte of Monaco, had divorced in 1933 after a rash of scandal, so the people of Monaco had seen a lot before and they were smitten with his movie star bride.

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And so Princess Grace—whose family paid for half the wedding—was welcomed by the family and especially by the public with open arms. Maintaining the glamour and untouchable mystique of her time spent in Hollywood, she quickly again became a beloved star in the next chapter of her life.

She and Rainier welcomed their first child, Princess Caroline, on Jan. 23, 1956, barely nine months after their wedding. Kelly would make a habit of shielding her stomach with her oversized Hermès handbag, prompting the fashion house to rename that design "the Kelly bag." Son Prince Albert was born in 1958 and Princess Stéphanie would round out their brood in 1965.


But after Albert was born, Grace, whose life as a royal resembled what we also know now of the life of a royal—philanthropy, public appearances, being a positive face of the monarchy and boosting national morale—started thinking about a return to acting.

She once laughed off any notions that she would regret giving it all up, lamenting her 8 a.m. call times (as well as the notion of trying to age and act in Hollywood) and saying, "I'll be goddamned if I'm going to stay in a business where I have to get up earlier and earlier and it takes longer and longer for me to get in front of a camera."

But according to J. Randy Taraborrelli's biography Once Upon a Time: Behind the Fairy Tale of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, she did miss it. She's quoted saying, "Do you know that if my mother hadn't been so difficult about Oleg Cassini I probably would have married him?...How many roles I might have played by now? How might my life had turned out? That one decision changed my entire future."


That it most certainly did.

But though Hollywood cycled through actresses—even the most famous and fairest of them all—with machine-like efficiency, the rest of the world hadn't forgotten about Grace Kelly, the movie star.

In 1961, Hitchcock was planning to make Marnie, featuring his most complicated female lead yet, a thief and emotionally disturbed con-woman with a troubled past who steals $10,000 from her employer and flees. He was having trouble finding a leading lady and, having seen Kelly and her husband socially over the years, he sent her agents the novel he was working with.

He eventually got word through the agency that she was interested. "I didn't hear a word from her at the time. In fact I have not communicated with her by letter or phone regarding the deal," the filmmaker told the Boston Globe. "But three weeks ago I was told that she wanted to play the role and please let the announcement come from the palace at Monaco instead of from my office."

And so the palace announced on March 19, 1962, that Kelly would be returning to the big screen—but, the spokesman said, "we are certain she won't make another film after this one."

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"People, you know, have quite the wrong idea about Grace," Hitchcock, who directed her in Dial M for MurderRear Window and To Catch a Thief, told London's Daily Express. "They think she is a cold fish. Remote, like Alcatraz out there. But she has sex appeal, believe me. She has the subtle sex appeal of the English woman and this is the finest in the world. It is ice that will burn your hands, and that is always surprising and exciting too."

Asked if the role of Marnie involved any love scenes, he replied, "passionate and most unusual love scenes, but I am afraid I cannot tell you anything beyond that. It is a state secret." (Hitchcock is well-known for his films' subtly and overtly erotic overtones, but he did not say at the time that the film included many an intense scene, as well as an implied rape of Marnie by her main love interest in the film.)

But cue the media frenzy either way.

MGM reportedly swooped in, insisting that Kelly's contract had never ended, but had merely been on hold for the past eight years. Hitchcock, who got Kelly "on loan" when he worked with her at Paramount previously, insisted the contract would've only been good for seven years anyway. It was reported that the princess would be paid a whopping $1 million for the film, then just as quickly reported that her salary hadn't been determined, or perhaps she wouldn't take a salary at all, but rather a percentage of the grosses.

There was also a rumor that Monaco's royal family needed the money.

"How can she be accused of this when her own family fortune is supposed to be so large? I think the trouble is that too many people, including the English, love stories about failures," Hitchcock quipped astutely.

Grace finally announced that she'd be setting up a charitable fund with the proceeds. Per the Times of London, she stated, "In the same way as some priests or nuns perform common artistic, musical, or sporting tasks, for example, with the aim of raising funds for their work, I feel I am able to return to the cinema for a film with the charitable aim of aiding needy children and young sportsmen."

Prompting more than a little bit of what-might-have-been, Hitch ultimately had to postpone the start of filming from Aug. 1, 1962, to the following summer because he was still wrapping up The Birds. He again agreed to coordinate with the royals' family vacation.

But not long afterward, the palace announced that the princess was no longer in negotiations to star in the film.

The official explanation was scheduling and logistical issues. Asked if she would want to act in another film down the road, Kelly told Nice Matin, "I don't like to say definitely, but it's obvious that the same problems as Marnie would arise."

Hitchcock believed, however, that it was public backlash to what was considered a controversial role (a thief! a criminal! sex!) that ultimately made up the princess' mind.

"I thought I had Grace for my new film, Marnie, the story of a girl who's a compulsive thief, and Grace wanted very much to play it, but the conservative element in Monaco—they didn't want their princess working in Hollywood, so Grace bowed out," he said. Tippi Hedren, who would open up years later about the verbal abuse and sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of Hitchcock while making Marnie and The Birds, ended up in the role.

Michel Dufour/WireImage

The real, real reason Kelly didn't do the film turned out to be frustratingly mundane.

According to Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, a treaty between France and Monaco had lapsed and it affected taxes and revenue and the water supply, and... yada yada yada. Prince Rainier III didn't feel right leaving Monaco for the U.S. with the prospect of higher taxes looming and therefore it wasn't a good time, bureaucratically, for Kelly to shoot the movie. Or any movie.

As the '60s progressed Kelly returned to the stage for dramatic readings, she narrated some TV specials and documentaries, and made appearances on the small screen as herself. She also pre-taped a segment for the 40th Annual Academy Awards, in 1968. In 1977 an NBC News team came to shoot a special at the palace, but came off a little stilted. 

"When the camera wasn't rolling, she kind of emptied her heart," Lee Grant, who did the interview, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "The truth was, her life was terribly restrained—she was princess of a little closed-off castle."

By multiple accounts, by then Kelly lived an increasingly separate life from Rainier, spending half of her time in Paris. As much as she liked older men when she was in her 20s, so she enjoyed the company of younger men as she got older. Her husband supposedly hadn't been acting like much of a prince, either.

On their way back to Monaco from France, Kelly was in a car crash on Sept. 13, 1982, while driving on a windy mountain road with 17-year-old daughter Stéphanie in the passenger seat. She was taken off life support and died the following day. She was only 52.

It was determined she had a stroke on the road, with Stéphanie later saying that she tried to take control of the wheel from her mother, but the car, a 1971 Rover P6 3500 plunged down the hillside.

Cary Grant, U.S. first lady Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana, who had only been married to Prince Charles for a little over a year at the time, were among the 400 mourners at her televised funeral in Monaco. Diana later recalled to a biographer that, in 1981, Grace was at her first public event since getting engaged, and noticing how the 19-year-old looked distressed, took her aside and gave her a little pep talk. Sort of.

"Don't worry, dear," the Princess of Monaco advised the future Princess of Wales, patting her cheek. "It'll only get worse."

Jimmy Stewart delivered a eulogy at a memorial for Kelly held in Beverly Hills. Rainier would later be laid to rest next to Grace when he died in 2005.


"You know, I just love Grace Kelly. Not because she was a princess, not because she was an actress, not because she was my friend, but because she was just about the nicest lady I ever met," Stewart remembered his Rear Window co-star. "Grace brought into my life as she brought into yours, a soft, warm light every time I saw her, and every time I saw her was a holiday of its own. No question, I'll miss her, we'll all miss her, God bless you, Princess Grace."

Enough of Hollywood's golden age was still around to know exactly what the world would miss, and already had missed when Kelly retired, who understood the joke firsthand when Bob Hope said at the 1955 Oscars, when Kelly won Best Actress, "I just wanna say, they should give a special award for bravery to the producer who produced a movie without Grace Kelly."

There was also the sense that Kelly still had a comeback in her. But her movies made her immortal and the legend of Grace Kelly—unfathomable beauty, style icon, Oscar winner, princess, ultimately tragic figure—persists. Her fractured fairy tale in two parts, pre-royalty and after, has been inspiring books and films for the past 35 years.

"Coming to live here and having to behave in a certain way must have been hard for her at first," her son Prince Albert, a great protector of his mother's legacy, told People in 2014. "But I never heard her complain." And earlier this year, while giving CBS This Morning a tour of the palace, where he lives with wife Princess Charlene and their young twins, he said, "It's incredibly rewarding and touching to see how much people still admire her, and that her name still resonates today."

If Meghan Markle should one day decide that she misses acting too much not to do anything about it, there's no law saying she can't—but we'll find out a few things in the process. We'll find out just how big of a stickler the British people are for tradition, even when some criticize the monarchy as an unnecessary relic of the past. We'll find out just how progressive Prince Harry and the royal family really are. And if there are no issues there, then we'll find out just how stable Britain's tax treaties are.

Compared to the sort of drama that actually consumed Grace Kelly's life, a return to acting would have been the least scandalous option.