A Gentleman, of a Kind

Prince Rainier of Monaco (1923-2005)

The Grimaldis had been intermittent rulers of their patch of the Côte d'Azur for three centuries before deciding, in 1612, to make themselves "princes." But unlike other European princes, Honoré II, Seigneur de Monaco, opted to be styled not "His Royal Highness" but "His Serene Highness." For the last two decades of Prince Rainier's long reign over Monte Carlo, few highnesses had less to be serene about.

His American wife, who'd brought celluloid glamour to a realm where the real thing had been in short supply, died after a car crash in 1982.

His older, "sensible" daughter married unsuitable Euro-playboys.

His younger, wilder daughter—now an older, wilder fortysomething—preferred consorting with butlers, gardeners, elephant trainers, and a Portuguese trapeze artist. Her marriage to her bodyguard collapsed after he was captured on film guarding somewhat too closely somebody else's body—that of Miss Bare Breasts of Belgium. Princess Stephanie was herself no slouch in that department, as the most casual student of European photojournalism of the late twentieth century would confirm. For a few months after using the high-speed Internet in a Paris hotel, I regularly woke up to spam e-mail containing extensive pictorials of Her Serene Highness giving us the full Monte, naked on a beach and engaged in the act of, ah, self-pleasuring. Possibly she was between circus acts at the time. At any rate, Stephanie's youngest child has a father whose identity, for whatever reason, cannot be made public. It's presumably not the elephant trainer, or Princess Grace's old Hollywood pals would have been round to serenade the kid with "Born in a Trunk."

If his daughter's life in middle age appeared to be one unending audition for Desperate Royal Housewives, Rainier's son, in contrast, declined to produce an heir or indeed any evidence that he was much interested in the principal activity likely to lead to that happy event. As The New York Times nudgingly reported, "Prince Albert, meanwhile, has been linked to a long list of high-profile women known for appearing on the arms of middle-aged bachelors. There have been no signs of anything like a romance." Hmm. But just as you think the Times is trying to tell us something, His Serene Highness concedes in a notarized document that he's fathered a child in Paris by a Togolese woman. Oh, come off it, you cry. How many euros did that scam cost? But it's true: they've matched the DNA. It's his best career move in decades.

Easy lay the head that wore the crown, but underneath a profound sadness etched itself into Rainier's face. He aged a quarter century in the couple of years after Princess Grace's death, and as the eighties rolled into the nineties it sometimes seemed as if the entire House of Grimaldi's sense of itself had careered round the hairpin bends on the Grande Corniche and plunged over the cliff with his beloved wife.

His was the worst-timed death since Aldous Huxley expired on the day of President Kennedy's assassination. Europe's longest-reigning monarch shuffled off a couple of days after the pope, and so, though his nuptials had been hailed as the wedding of the century, his passing wasn't even the funeral of the week. Nonetheless, in the half century between the Duke of Windsor and the Princess of Wales, he was, briefly, the only member of a European dynasty to capture the imagination of the American public.

W hen Fred Astaire began his partnership with Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn observed that he gave her class and she gave him sex. With Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, she gave him class and sex, and it wasn't entirely obvious what a stiff, moustachioed chap never exactly dashing even in his youth brought to the table. Monaco was, in Somerset Maugham's unimprovable summation, "a sunny place for shady people," and exposed to the light they didn't bear too-close scrutiny. Jack Kelly, Grace's father and a respectable self-made millionaire in the Philadelphia construction business, couldn't have been less impressed if she'd come home with one of Princess Stephanie's circus acrobats: he's reported to have said, "I don't want any damn broken-down prince who is head of a pinhead country that nobody knows anything about to marry my daughter." And who can blame him? If you'd married off Lana Turner, Betty Hutton, Mitzi Gaynor, or any of the other livelier Hollywood cheesecake into a European royal house, you'd have had the premise for a lame B-comedy. But Grace Kelly was already more regal than most real princesses, speaking the queen's English with an amused, languid, rarefied overarticulateness that the queen couldn't get away with. As Frank Sinatra sang to her in High Society,

I don't care
If you are called the fair
Miss Frigidaire …

She was certainly the most glacial of Hitchcock blondes, cooler with Jimmy Stewart than any leading lady before or after. In the last great group shot of Euro-royals before her death—at the Prince of Wales's (first) wedding in 1981—she's carrying herself with far more sense of her royalness than, say, the queen of the Netherlands, never mind Their Royal Highnesses the Duchess of Gloucester and Princess Michael of Kent.

In contrast, when Prince Rainier succeeded his grandfather, in 1949, he was taking over an enterprise whose best days appeared well behind it. The pocket principality had suffered from France's legalization of gambling in 1933, after a century of prohibition. It seemed unlikely ever to return to its nineteenth-century heyday, when British music-hall songs hymned its raffish charms.

As I walk along the Bois Boolong
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
"He must be a millionaire."
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.

The verse spells it out bluntly: "Dame Fortune smiled upon me as she'd never done before, / And I've now such lots of money, I'm a gent."

That was the Grimaldis: lots of money made them gentlemen, of a kind. Rainier's mother, Princess Charlotte, was the result of a liaison between Prince Louis II and Marie-Juliette Louvet, the daughter of a laundrywoman who'd made her way to the nightclubs of Montmartre and become a "cabaret singer." After taking up with Louis, she gave birth to their daughter Charlotte in Algeria in 1898. The Grimaldis gave Charlotte the bum's rush for most of her childhood, until—in the absence of any other heir, and laboring mightily under a thirteenth-century curse on the family—they passed a law recognizing her as Louis's daughter. This was struck down by the courts, so in 1919 they tried again, retrospectively legitimizing her and belatedly declaring the Montmartre nightclub act's Algerian love child a hereditary princess, Duchess of Valentinois and first in line to succeed Louis II. As Charlotte's mother must have occasionally reflected, you came the long way to Prince Louis.

The following year Princess Charlotte was married to the Comte Pierre de Polignac, and in 1923 they had a son: Rainier. His duty done, M. le Comte was of no further use to Charlotte. "To make love," she sneered, "he needs to put a crown on his head." Under the terms of their divorce Polignac was forbidden to set foot in Monaco. Princess Charlotte eventually became a social worker and turned the Grimaldi estate outside Paris into a rehab facility for ex-cons. As for young Rainier, he was sent to enjoy the pleasures of boys' school in England, where M. le Comte attempted to reassert his parental authority. It was the British High Court that restored "Fat Little Monaco" (as he was known to his schoolmates) to his grandfather's custody.

By the time Fatty succeeded Prince Louis, the men who fancied breaking the bank at Monte Carlo had moved down the coast to Cannes and elsewhere, and the bank itself was near broke. The Société des Bains de Mer, which ran the casino and hotels, reported huge losses that year. Next the Société Monégasque de Banques et de Métaux Précieux, which held 55 percent of Monaco's reserves and much of the Grimaldi fortune, went bust. Aristotle Onassis, who served as the young Rainier's éminence Greece, thought a marriage into movie-star glamour might restore the principality's fortunes; he sounded out Marilyn Monroe, to no avail. Then, while in the area for the Cannes Film Festival, Grace Kelly was taken to the palace for a photo shoot, and Rainier made his move.

It worked out well. His bride embarked on the usual charitable activities associated with royal consorts, but with the benefit of a much livelier Rolodex: old chums like Sinatra and Bob Hope turned Monégasque fundraising galas into the touring version of the starrier Friars' Club roasts. Tourism and development followed. Monaco is a small town of 30,000 people, mostly tax exiles but with about 6,000 Monégasques to play the role of Rainier's loyal subjects. As land was reclaimed and skyscrapers loomed over the fishing boats, Monaco's stellar princess gave her husband a cachet denied to other mini-me Euro-royals.

Princess Grace missed movies, and Rainier gave her permission to return to her old job for Hitchcock's Marnie. But his people found the idea vulgar and demeaning, and so High Society remained the House of Grimaldi's last on-camera performance until Princess Stephanie's husband made his film debut with Miss Bare Breasts of Belgium. By then Rainier was old, stooped, and exhausted; his princess was dead; and his children seemed determined to return the family name to its seedy antecedents. He made his dilapidated casino kingdom briefly romantic, and when he couldn't maintain the romance, he had the satisfaction of knowing that at least he'd made Monaco bankable again. But the thirteenth-century family curse came along for the ride, and in the end it broke the man at Monte Carlo.