Sunday, March 18, 2012

RITA GAM REMEMBERS GRACE KELLY

 

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A good friend and bridesmaid talks about the Grace Kelly she knew - a smart and fearless businesswoman and "not a fashionista"

A style icon who favoured old sweaters, the Hollywood star-turned-princess was full of paradoxes, friend and fellow actress Rita Gam tells Nick Miller.

"They used to have stories. Today we don't have stories as good as that," says Rita Gam, 84-year-old star from Hollywood's golden age, sitting upright and respectable in her New York apartment as she remembers past roles. "Even though some of them were B pictures they were terrific - nice stories, interesting."

Gam talks about her close friend, Grace Kelly inside a 100-year-old block in midtown, with an ornate facade, a concierge and that old New York attitude, in an apartment decorated with movie posters from Hollywood's prime.

The book, Grace Kelly: Style Icon, is published to accompany an exhibition curated by London's V&A museum and open in Bendigo, Australia.

"Oh, this is very Grace," she says of the cover, from a 1955 Cosmopolitan shoot at the height of Kelly's movie career.

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As Gam flicks through the pages, her eyes are drawn to a casual Kelly on the streets of Manhattan, the Empire State Building over her shoulder, her clothes smart but demure.

"That's what she wore a lot," Gam says. "Skirts and shirts. She was not much of a 'lunch girl', who would go to lunch and dress up."

This is Grace Kelly: Style Icon (it says so on the cover). Adored by the public, sought-after by designers. Still the touchstone reference for the Oscars red carpet; the woman who bridged the golden age of movies and the modern era - the first modern celebrity, a Princess Diana-come-January Jones.

But talking to Gam, a more complex version of Kelly emerges. "She was not a fashionista in any way," Gam insists. "You've got to separate what was created by the studio system, which was a make-believe image of a goddess."

The Kelly that Gam knew exploited, then transcended - but never embodied - the public role that the Hollywood machine decreed for the leading ladies it owned.

Her life was a dance between image and reality, PR confections and real-life fairy tales. Yes, she did marry a prince; but their first meeting was a contrived magazine publicity stunt. Yes, she was a fashion icon, but her private dress sense was conservative and her palace closets were packed with old sweaters.

Kelly and Gam met in New York in the early '50s as hard-working young TV actors and models. Pittsburgh-born Gam was married to a young director, Sidney Lumet, and Grace was the daughter of a well-to-do Philadelphia family, determined to make her own life in the performing arts, and succeeding at it.

They met on the sound stage of a show called Danger. "She was playing some villainess or other - she was very cute," Gam recalls. "We were introduced by Sidney."

It was not a movie-star moment. "She was a very nice girl - she could have been a kindergarten teacher. She had scrubbed clean, sympathetic looks. It's just when the camera hit her she became absolute magic."

Gam and Kelly signed with MGM and became close friends when Gam moved to Los Angeles a year or so later. She had been put up at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "I was very uncomfortable [there]," she says. "I was a woman alone, and if I sat in the lobby I would get hit on, and I was lonely. I would be calling New York and Sidney all of the time."

At the suggestion of her agent, she called Kelly, who was on the cusp of fame as Rear Window, her second movie with Alfred Hitchcock, was finishing filming. Kelly was lonely too, having left behind in New York her on-and-off paramour, European designer Oleg Cassini.

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Grace Kelly and one-time fiancé, Oleg Cassini

"I called Grace and she said, 'Oh come for tea today', which I did. She was living with Prudy Wise, her secretary, a girl from the south. It was just a one-bedroom Hollywood apartment in the Hollywood flats. I don't know, we were just having tea and she said, 'Well, why don't you move in with us? Three is as good as two is as good as one.'"

"So we did, I moved into her flat and it was rather fun, it was like we were sorority girls."

In those days, Hollywood was "a party town" and "pretty wide open", Gam says, in suggestive but decorous tones. "We would get hit on by industry wolves."

"I remember once, Grace had a little gold Chevrolet, a couple of years older than was current, and [an acquaintance] said, 'Oh we'll send a car for you'. His name was Charlie Feldman, he was a big agent, and I said, 'Grace they're going to send a car for us'. I was on the telephone, and she said: 'No, tell them we'll drive ourselves.' I said: 'Oh, OK.'

"Well of course she was smart, we were in control of our destiny. We left that 'party' of four - two gentlemen, Charlie and his South American friend - and drove safely home down the Hollywood hills. [Kelly] was really much more wise than I was."

It's a recurring theme as Gam remembers Kelly - a smart girl becoming a smart businesswoman who saw through the Hollywood machine and was fearless about imposing her own demands on it - in fashion as much as anything else.

"Basically, she was suburban in her tastes," Gam remembers. "[Even as a princess] she had closets full of old tweed skirts, and many many blouses that had long since seen their day, and tonnes of sweaters that were well-washed and well-worn.

"She didn't have any particular style sense, I don't think. I think she addressed that as an actress. She didn't read a lot about fashion. [She relied on] not friends but professionals."

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with Edith Head, who referred to Grace as her 'personal favourite' star

Kelly befriended and relied on the studios' top designers. But she kept one eye on the result. In her first leading role (Dial M for Murder), even as she was learning how to act on film, she overruled Hitchcock on a costume decision, telling him that if her character got up in the middle of the night to answer the phone, she wouldn't bother putting a big velvet robe over her nightgown. She also had a fight with the make-up man who she thought was putting too much rouge on her. "After that, I had his confidence as far as wardrobe was concerned, and he gave me a very great deal of liberty in what I wore in his next two pictures," Kelly said.

If style means anything, it's not what you wear, it's how you wear it. "The subtlety of Grace's sexuality - her elegant sexiness - appealed to me," Hitchcock told his biographer. "Grace conveyed much more sex than the average movie sexpot. With Grace you had to find it out, you had to discover it. Everybody wants a new leading lady but there aren't many of them around. There are a lot of leading women, but not enough leading ladies."

Of their first meeting, Cassini later wrote: "I saw her only in profile. I saw the utter perfection of her nose, the long elegant neck, the silky diaphanous blonde hair. She wore a black velvet two-piece, very demure, with a full skirt and a little white Peter Pan collar."

The Hollywood system marketed her as the antithesis of Marilyn Monroe, whom Fox had recently discovered, feeding magazines lines that drew Grace as the all-American dream, a fine but approachable noblewoman who men wanted but women would also want to be: respectable, white-gloved, fine-bred and pretty. When Marilyn Monroe was asked what she wore to bed she replied "Chanel No 5." When Grace was asked, she replied: "I think it's nobody's business what I wear to bed." Article after article punned on her first name.

Grace found it all amusing. But she told her biographer that this "respectable" image of Hollywood felt unreal, when the reality too often was "full of men and women whose lives were confused and full of pain. To outsiders it looked like a glamorous life, but really it was not." After her Academy Award for best actress (tellingly, for her role in The Country Girl, in which she played "a woman who had been married 10 years and lost interest in clothes, herself, everything") she turned down most of the roles she was offered. The pressure and grind of Hollywood left her exhausted and disillusioned.

But she was also setting the mould for the modern movie star, taking control of her own PR from the studio. For Photoplay magazine she invited a photographer to take unprecedented candid shots of her and her sister on holiday in the Caribbean, in casual clothes and away from the studio's platoon of retouchers. The photographer Howell Conant wrote: "You trusted Grace's beauty, you knew it wasn't built from clothes and make-up … [it was] natural, unpretentious."

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photographed in Jamaica by Howell Conant

And then came her prince. Paris Match magazine set up a photo shoot of her with Prince Rainier of Monaco, as a promotion for its Cannes coverage. Gam recalls that the dress Kelly wore for the occasion she considers her biggest fashion faux pas. "She would make jokes about it."

Months later, Rainier arrived in New York. "She called me, and she said, 'Come up for drinks on Thursday, I want you meet my prince.' I thought she meant her newest boyfriend and indeed it was her prince," Gam remembers. "When I first met him … I wasn't blown over - you know, it wasn't Clark Gable, he was just a nice guy. He wasn't handsome, he was short and dumpy - [but] he was fun, he was well-educated, he had a good, funny British sense of humour, and he was intelligent, so I mean, what's not to like?"

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with Prince Rainier at their first meeting

"She was romantic, she would go with somebody for a long time and she was looking for the perfect person. And she fell in love with Rainier and that was that. She just allowed the romance of the times to sweep her away."

This was the ultimate fairy-tale - the lavish royal wedding, the palace life in Monaco, dressed by designers.

And then there was the reality. More than 1600 reporters and photographers (more than covered World War II) turned the wedding into a mob scene. "After the honeymoon she [and] Rainier slept for two days. It was exhausting and it took [them] a long time to recover from it," Gam, who was a bridesmaid, remembers.

"She didn't have a clue [what she was in for]," says Gam of what followed for Kelly. The royal family forbade her from making any more films, which devastated Kelly. But Kelly was resourceful, playing the new role of princess in the same way as she had approached her movie career.

She switched from Hollywood's designers to the cream of the European fashion houses, and took to the kind of roles that princesses perform - benefits and balls, and patron of the arts.

"I don't think Grace changed from the minute I met her to the day she died," Gam says. "She had an extraordinary PR sense and she had a strong sense of who she was and what she wanted to say. She allowed herself to be used by the talented fashion people of the time. And she enjoyed it. [But] I certainly don't think of clothes [when I think of her]. I think of friendship, I think of a loyal good friend and somebody with a lovely voice and lovely face."

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with Rita Gam & husband Thomas Guinzburg after their wedding,
about a month before the wedding in Monaco

"You know, I see her very clearly, even though it's 35-odd years since she's gone." (Kelly died in a car crash in 1982.) "She had a very strong presence … Everyone should have a friend like that."

Grace Kelly encapsulated the latter part of Hollywood's golden age. At least, that's the legend, that's what people say. "And well they should," says Gam. After all, it's a good story.

Grace Kelly: Style Icon is curated and organised by the V&A Museum, London, and the Grimaldi Forum Monaco. The exhibition will run from March 11 to June 17 at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE EXHIBITION CLICK HERE

PRINCESS CHARLENE OPENS GRACE KELLY: STYLE ICON EXHIBITION

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