By  on October 16, 2007

Twenty-five years after her death, Princess Grace's style remains a source of inspiration for designers and consumers alike, and Sotheby's new exhibition "Grace, Princess of Monaco, A Tribute to the Life and Legacy of Grace Kelly" should further stoke that interest.

Upon entering what is as much tribute as exhibit, the first of 500 personal items that visitors see include a short silk lamé Balenciaga dress, an electric blue Givenchy waffle-texture silk dress with a cropped jacket and the Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian jersey shift she wore to hand out presents to some of the principality's children at the 1965 palace Christmas party. Often more modern than grand, some of the 20 dresses displayed are from Kelly's single days, when she was one of Hollywood's hardest-working actresses, as evidenced by the Oscar she won in 1954, and a reference to Life magazine declaring 1954 the "Year of Grace."

Of course, her fairy-tale story still stands up over time, too — the all-American woman from a wealthy Philadelphia family makes good on the silver screen before abruptly giving it up to marry a prince who reigns over the then little-known Monaco. Her early death at 52 in a slope-side car accident in September 1982 only heightened the lore, and on Friday, the BBC reported that her daughter Stephanie, the only passenger in the car, publicly denied for the first time that she had been driving.

Oversize scrims imprinted with images of Kelly hang throughout the Sotheby's gallery to remind visitors of her life's various chapters. In addition to the designer duds and eye-popping diamonds, the exhibit includes the brown Hermès Kelly bag the princess once used to shield her pregnancy from the paparazzi, the 77-carat tiara she wore to her daughter Caroline's wedding in 1978, scores of personal letters including several to "Hitch" — better known as Alfred Hitchcock — and dozens of photos of her flashing her signature style. There's even a handwritten memo with her weight and measurements on her 40th birthday — 122 pounds, 35 1/2 inches, 27 inches, 37 inches. While Kelly was known to be one with a quick smile and well-worn sense of humor, a remark she made that is featured in the show indicates she took her regal role rather seriously: "I became a princess before I even imagined what it would be like....I hope they will consider me a professional at my job, no matter what. When I take on something, I like to do it well and do it completely."Sotheby's senior vice president James Niven, whose father, the late actor David, first befriended Kelly in California, met her in 1955 and from time to time basked in her graciousness. Gesturing toward a guest list for the Scorpions Ball, Niven noted he was "right above André Malraux and two down from Rock [Hudson].

"She was such a friendly person. She included me in all kinds of things," Niven recalled. "She had a great sense of humor. Internally, she was the most wonderful and beautiful person, really, really thoughtful and kind."

Niven also acknowledged Kelly's eternal stylishness, noting how his daughter, Fernanda, a Vera Wang staffer, told him the green Givenchy belted dress and jacket Kelly wore to a 1961 White House visit is something she would wear today. That outfit, along with the Helen Rose layered gray-over-rose chiffon number with rhinestones and pink and rose embroidered flowers are the only dresses to be auctioned by Sotheby's. The others are not for sale.

Apparently, Kelly was not beholden to designer clothes, considering the black floral taffeta dress on display that she wore to meet Rainier for the first time was made from a McCall's pattern. Interestingly, a lace dress by Oleg Cassini, who was said to have once been engaged to Kelly, was the one she wore when she set sail to marry Rainier. Another sign of Cassini's affection can be seen in his sketches for her, which unlike the nearby ones done by Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, include renderings of her face and not a model's.

Her courtship with Prince Rainier is well documented. Several of the bejeweled gifts he showered on her are featured, including the Van Cleef & Arpels necklace, bracelet, ring and earrings of pearl and diamonds he commissioned and gave to her as a wedding present. Van Cleef & Arpels, along with Estée Lauder, Manhattan House and Sony Cierge, is a sponsor.

Beneath a screen playing a video of Prince Rainier at a press conference denying rumors he was pursuing Kelly as a potential bride, a remark he made at a later date is highlighted that hints at a staid attraction: "I remember I was impressed with this American film star. She spoke clear English and was very calm, very agreeable to talk to. This was a pleasant revelation."The exhibition offers its share of revelations into Kelly's life — many of which are tucked away in the handwritten letters and scrapbooks displayed. A letter from her "Country Girl" co-star Bing Crosby assesses his performance with "seemed to me like I was doggin' it a little, but maybe I'll get away with it." Another letter from Greta Garbo addresses Kelly as "My Little Princess" and in it Garbo admits, "I have not been around much with human beings lately and I have been rather nervous about making plans." There are also scads of family photos from Kelly's childhood and even a few Christmas cards, including one with a cartoon of a handyman scrubbing away an image of Adolf Hitler with "Stamp 'Em Out" printed below.

Detailed as the show is, "Grace, Princess of Monaco" is actually an abbreviated version of an exhibition shown in Monaco this summer, and is presented by the Consulate General of Monaco in New York and the Monaco Government Tourist Office in collaboration with Sotheby's, the Princely Palace of Monaco and the Princess Grace Foundation-USA.

The exhibition kicks off an 11-day Stateside celebration of Kelly's life. On Sunday, Grace Kelly-inspired dresses by Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Zac Posen, Ralph Rucci and Vera Wang will go up in Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship windows. In addition, Town & Country's Pamela Fiori has put together a special edition spotlighting Kelly with rare photographs and interviews with friends and family.

While the exhibition's printed material makes no mention of Kelly's death, the catalogue closes with a 1982 quote from her that intentionally or not addresses her legacy: "I would like to be remembered as a decent human being...and a caring one."

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