Thursday, April 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Grace Kelly - as Philly sees her now

Gallery: Grace Kelly - as Philly sees her now

GRACE KELLY peers over her left shoulder and out the window of Angel's Airbrush Place at 1814 S. 13th Street. Regal and resplendent, the flaxen-haired East Falls native turned Hollywood starlet turned European royalty wears a pale aqua silk gown in artist Angel Anderson's spot-on replica of the April 11, 1955 cover of Life magazine.

The portrait's South Philly location might not be the most expected venue for Philadelphia's real-life princess. The portrait's medium, paintbrush plus paint compressor, often associated with custom license plates and in memoriam t-shirts, might seem a bit incongruous. But the timing? Perfect.

Monday, "From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon" opens at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown. The exhibit brings effects from the palace in Monaco to a rare visit to the Princess' hometown. Or close to hometown.

D-town's just a hop and a skip from the Bucks County Playhouse, where Kelly appeared in "The Torchbearers," her beloved Uncle George Kelly's play. The Bucks Co. hamlet's just a scenic drive from the historic-marker-bearing brick Kelly home at 3901 Henry Ave.

More coverage
  • Timeline: Grace Kelly - Through the Years
  • Graceful fashion at museum
  • Grace Kelly: Memories live on, now celebrated at Michener Museum
  • It's about an hour from the Airbrush Place.

    Michener director Lisa Tremper Hanover is expecting our region's Grace Kelly enthusiasts - such as South Philly's Anderson, 48, a "Rear Window" fan - to make the trip. "Philadelphians have a memory of her that's much more personal than any other locus on the planet," she said.

    Among the show's highlights are dozens of fashions (including that aqua dress, designed by Edith Head) plucked from the palace's closets, plus plenty of accessories - white gloves, lace-trimmed wedding shoes and hat (on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art), the original Kelly bag. Then there are home movies, Hollywood posters and personal letters, including correspondence from Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Alfred Hitchcock and her husband, Prince Rainier III.

    (Note to seekers of salaciousness: None of the letters - or any of the exhibit material, for that matter - even hints at Kelly's much-documented romances with marquee men of various states of marriedness.)

    The globe-traveling exhibit opened in 2010 at London's Victoria & Albert before touching down in Brazil, Australia and Kazakhstan. This year, Montreal's Musée McCord refreshed and reopened the show. The Michener is its first and only stop in the U.S.

    Nearly 75,000 came to see Grace at the McCord. So, if the exhibition's success north of the border is any indication, the smallish Michener's gonna be filled to the gills. The museum will require nonmembers to book timed tickets.

    Question is, who, exactly, will be stopping by to see it?


    The Grace gap

    If Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco were alive today, she'd be nearly 84 years old. Tremper Hanover said Kelly's contemporaries had been excitedly calling for months to offer "letters, photographs, class pictures and oral histories."

    "Philadelphians who knew her have memories that they want share," she said. Their keepsakes won't be included - the Michener lacks the room to display them - but exhibitors plan to have on hand a special guestbook for sharing reminiscences.

    There will doubtless be lots to share.

    A little more than half a century ago, Philly's public (and press) couldn't recount Kelly's life in enough detail. Circa 1956 stories in the People Paper, Bulletin and Inquirer described the yacht-shaped invitations to her bridal shower, the lace on her wedding prayer book (also on loan from the PMA to the Michener exhibit) and endless reactions from close and distant Kelly friends and relations back home.

    Ask an octogenarian or septuagenarian from the 215 area code to name his or her favorite Grace Kelly moment, and chances are, you'll hear a dozen.

    Ask a boomer, and you'll likely hear tales of families seated around television sets ogling the hapless angel in Saturday matinees of Hitchcock classics, and breathless down-the-Shore drive-bys past the Kelly family's Ocean City summer homes.

    Philadelphia magazine editor Michael Callahan, 50, has long covered Grace. He's currently writing a story about her family for Town & Country - and even titled his debut novel, due out in early '15, "Searching for Grace Kelly." Callahan has recently observed her style in the "panache"-possessing diners at Rittenhouse Square's Parc restaurant, among other fancier Philly neighborhoods.

    But ask for a favorite Grace Kelly moment from a stylish someone who's closer in age to Grace Kelly's now-grown grandchildren - her eldest one, Andrea Casiraghi, 29, was married this August - and the response will likely be dramatically different. Among Philly's 40-and-under-set, Kelly's once crisp, golden-girl image has become a bit hazy around the edges.

    Michelle Conron, 29, Swarthmore resident and director at fashion-forward PR firm Skai Blue Media, lauds the Monacan princess for her "demure but still sexy" style. Her favorite piece of Kelly couture was the famed Helen Rose-designed lace wedding dress, last on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2006, and widely credited with informing Kate Middleton's bridal choice in 2011.

    But Conron was hard-pressed to name a single Grace Kelly film.

    Clothing designer, sewing instructor and mom-of-two Dahlia Wigsall, 36, lives about a half a mile from the Kelly home. But until a reporter told her about her proximity to a local legend, she didn't know it. Instead, she recalled Kelly as a dancer. "Didn't she do some dancing?" she asked.

    Some. Wigsall added her Philadelphia-born grandmother, 84, "always talks fondly of [Kelly], and her movies and things like that."


    Fashioning a link to the future

    Moore College of Art & Design professor Gene Di Pilla recently asked the 32 sophomores and juniors in his history of costume class if they knew of Grace Kelly.

    Four did.

    "A couple knew she was in movies. One knew she married a prince. One knew she was from Philadelphia," said Di Pilla, a Burlholme Park native who's been teaching for 28 years.

    "When I grew up in the '70s, I watched a lot of TV. I knew who the movie stars were. I knew who artists were. Now, kids are not really in tune to that. They know nothing about movies, or older movies, or movie stars." Not even local ones.

    "It's a generational thing," agreed Jay McCarroll, 39, Season 1 winner of "Project Runway" and an independent clothing designer who teaches portfolio layout at Philadelphia University. The campus uses Grace Kelly's old lower school for offices and classrooms.

    "Young people are more concerned about what Rihanna is wearing than about an old Hollywood actress, which is a shame," McCarroll said. "Those references go away over time."

    But before area Grace Kelly fans completely give up on our kids these days, Philadelphia fashion-world insiders offer a glimmer of hope.

    "When I talk to my students about post World War II fashion, we talk about Grace Kelly, about why she was important," said Di Pilla. Given points of reference, he said, the undergrads "do become interested in her . . . They just have to be exposed to it."

    Conron agreed. "For young Philadelphians who have dreams of being in the fashion industry, an exhibit like this is so important. Young people are so overwhelmed today with pop culture's images of women and what it means to be a woman. It's important to have that perspective of what once was," she said.

    Plus, Kelly represents "the closest we have to a homegrown fairy tale," said Conron.

    Dom Streater, the 24-year-old West Philadelphia native and Moore grad who recently won the latest season of "Project Runway," said she doesn't go out of her way to revel in Kelly's memory. But when one of the actress' old movies comes on, "I'm like, 'I'm going to watch this,' " she said.

    "She just captivates me," Streater explained, "Looking at her is like looking at the sun, she's so pretty."

    Streater is upbeat that her generation will turn out to see the exhibition in full force.

    "We're Philly. We're the City of Brotherly Love. We always support other Philadelphians, no matter what the endeavor," she said. "We have a small kinship with her, because she's from here, an unspoken brotherhood, an instinct."


    Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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