03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Great Grace

Grace Kelly has always been a sort of shadowy figure to me. Perhaps this is because she was blond and I am brunette, and as such I have intrinsically dismissed her as an irrelevant role model, but I knew almost nothing about Grace until I found an old biography of hers I must have picked up somewhere in my life as an indiscriminate and reckless bookstore patron. Pulling it out from underneath a stack of biographies on Grace's dark-haired cousins (Audrey, Diana Vreeland, Frida Kahlo) as much because I liked the title "Grace" best as anything, by the I got to the second chapter of James Spada's tome, I was hooked.

His story of Grace's story goes like this: She was born to an upwardly mobile and eventually wealthy Main Line Philadelphia family, and was always the odd-out runt of her athletic, outgoing family. Shy and artsy, Grace struggled for the approval of her strict parents and never quite won it, with her father going so far as to call her Oscar win "surprising." Grace defied her parents wishes for a more conventional life and enrolled in acting school, having a short fling with an acting teacher, and beginning to collect small parts in movies. As Grace moved her way up through the Broadway and Hollywood ranks, insinuations abound that she slept with men to get ahead. After an aborted affair with Oleg Cassini, of which her parents thoroughly disapproved, Grace met Prince Rainer of Monaco while on a visit to the country, and after an ardent courtship, she finally acquiesced to his proposal for marriage.

Interest in the union could not have been higher- photographers flocked to Monaco to document the wedding, and the international press devoured images of Grace even more than they had in her movie star days. But once in Monaco, Rainer forbade Grace to continue in film for fear of a Monegasque backlash, and forced her to confine her life to public works committees, artistic pursuits, and raising her children. Grace dedicated herself to these endeavors with an attempt at zeal, but it simply wasn't her- she loved cities, celebrity and flinging herself and everything she had in front of an audience. Grace died in a car crash at the age of 53, without ever having seemed to regain the hope she had for her own life in her early years.

After this fairly depressing biography, I got to thinking how odd is was that so little of Grace's life was devoted to her clothing, given how often she's cited as a fashion inspiration. As I pored over first the photographs in the center of Spada's book, and then through online images, the most salient characteristic was not the attention to clean yet striking silhouette or simple yet dramatic detail, but that all, and I do mean all, of the top hits for Grace's images come before her marriage.

Ageism cannot be the culprit- everyone from Brooke Astor to Jacqueline Onassis has been photographed fastidiously later in life. It couldn't have been tight royal image control, as Spada's book was rife with stories of hidden, camped out, descendant and incessant paparazzi all over Monaco, Paris, and anywhere else Grace went.In the grainy images in the centerfold of my book, Grace doesn't appear to have dressed notably differently in her drift from actress to princess. The same high-necked dresses, lace paneling, furs and curls dominate her images from her later life, and she looks no less pretty at her poetry readings two years before her death than she does in her publicity shots from Mogambo.

Why, then, do images of Grace vanish from the cannon of iconic female fashion after her marriage? The only isolating factor I can find is the eagerness, her hunger, for a world she had access to, that disappeared after her marriage. Half of Grace's projects as Princess were apparently just attempts to get away from Monaco and back to the asphalt meccas of the world she so loved over ocean and empty space. As Grace lost her interest in the world around her, did the world lose interest back with her?

Grace's father made a lovely comment on the relationship between a person's inner and outer world. In his will, he wrote to his children-- "In this document, I can give you only things, but if I had the choice to give you worldly goods or character, I would give you character. The reason I say this is, with character you will get worldly goods, because character is loyalty, honesty, ability, sportsmanship, and, I hope, a sense of humor."

What do you think the relationship is between what beats around inside a person and its manifestation in the outer world? Is material success, be it through beauty and iconic images, or through money, possible only in its highest form with a corresponding internal goodness or strength? Are the stratospherically successful differentiated from the simply successful- the millionaire from the multimillionaire, the screen star from the sad princess- by a secret, still reserve of fortitude and principle, by energy and sincerity and enthusiasm?

Grace in her MGM shots, Grace on her boat ride over to Europe, Grace on her wedding day, and then nothing. Why did we lose photographic interest in Grace after 1956? We canonize her on Town & Country covers as the epitome of elegance, of what a princess might be charmed enough to convey, and yet in these images she is perpetually frozen, poised, on the precipice of actually becoming a princess.

Great Grace, why did you fade?