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History's Headlines: Grace Kelly exhibit opens in Doylestown

By 69 News, (follow: @69news), news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 15 2013 06:33:25 AM CST
Updated On: Dec 19 2013 02:15:35 PM CST

History's headlines

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. -

When it comes to glamor, charm and good looks, Grace Kelly had it in spades. And as one of the last great Hollywood screen goddess, she went beyond Tinseltown royalty to marry into real royalty. Princess Grace of Monaco was a class act all the way.

In the 1950s a lot of men wanted to date Marilyn Monroe but Grace Kelly was the girl they could take home to Mom. And despite the icy upper class finishing school image that led Frank Sinatra, in the film “High Society,” to nickname her character “the fair Miss Frigidaire,” moviegoers knew Kelly was a regular girl at heart.

An exhibit based on Kelly’s life and times opened to the public on October 28 and will close on January 26 at the James Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. An exhibit to be held at the same time at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope- where Kelly got her first big break- should also attract many.

But local fans may want to know, did Grace Kelly ever come to the Lehigh Valley? Well, as far as we know, she did not, unless it was before she became a successful actress. Only once was she ever interviewed by the local press. This is that story as told by one who remembered it:

The late Sylvia Fenstermacher Lawler, a longtime reporter and entertainment editor for the Morning Call and the Evening Chronicle, regarded Kelly as the big interview that got away. As she recalled it, it was the summer of 1953. At that time Lawler was a relatively new writer with the Evening Chronicle. She admitted that she was very ambitious where her beat was concerned. So she was not happy that summer when a young woman named Janet McNally arrived and came into the newsroom after an interview with Kelly at her parent’s summer home. Although the story ran without a byline, Lawler remembered very well many years later that it was McNally that wrote the story. “Everybody in the newsroom had all kinds of questions,” Lawler recalled, “but the one we wanted to know the most was, ‘was she an intelligent person, a person of substance?’ Janet assured us that she was.”

McNally’s interview of Kelly is still interesting today because 1953 happened to be the mid-point in her career. She told McNally she had just returned from Africa after filming “Mogambo” with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. Three days after the interview Kelly would leave for Hollywood, to work on “Dial M for Murder,” her first movie with director Alfred Hitchcock.

McNally asked for information about how Kelly got started in acting. She noted that she had studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. “I think I talked to every stock company manager in the country until I finally got a break at the Bucks County Playhouse,” she said. The year was 1949 and the play, titled “The Torch-Bearers” was written by George Kelly, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who was also her uncle.

McNally asked her about her role as the wife of sheriff Gary Cooper in the western “High Noon.” Kelly said Cooper really was a strong silent type as he was on the screen but, she said, “good to work with.” Perhaps her most surprising moment at that point was the filming on location in Africa for “Mogambo.” Kelly had left her tent flap open. In the middle of the night she woke up to find herself facing a large baboon. “I was afraid to scream for fear he would come right toward me,” she told McNally. “He just sniffed around, very curious you know, and then went off again. That’s when I screamed.” With that, the interview ended. Lawler recalled McNally leaving the paper sometime in the mid-1950s.

Meanwhile Kelly’s Hollywood career took off. In 1954 she received an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film “The Country Girl,” as the wife of an alcoholic singer played by Bing Crosby. The following year while filming “To Catch a Thief” in the South of France, she met Prince Rainier of Monaco at the Cannes Film Festival.

On January 5, 1956 the announcement of the engagement of Kelly and Rainier set off a firestorm of publicity the world had never seen. Reporters flocked to Kelly’s family home in Philadelphia. Her millionaire contractor father, who called his future son-in-law Ray, was delighted.

No detail was too small, particularly about Kelly’s wedding dress. Finally, as the day approached, the media went into overdrive. Kelly’s wardrobe, her crossing of the Atlantic on the liner S. S. Constitution with 80 in her party (mostly Kelly family members), her 60 pieces of luggage and how her pet poodle Oliver handled seasickness, were all making headlines.

After the wedding on April 19, 1956 the publicity abated but never totally died down. And David Voellinger, a Lehigh Valley man, who was then a Catholic priest and chaplain to the royal family of Monaco from July 1969 to July 1971, got to see some of it firsthand. There were dinner parties with the royals, ham sandwiches made for him by Kelly herself and the usual house guests like David Niven, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Bjorn Borg.

Even after leaving Monaco, Kelly would keep in touch with Voellinger, if just a Christmas card. But one day, out of the blue in 1982, she called. Voellinger’s stepdaughter  talked to Kelly briefly, and told her that he was not home at the time. “I kept waiting for her to call back, but she never did,” he recalls. Two weeks later Kelly’s death in an automobile accident on the Rivera’s Moyenne Corniche highway shocked the world.