It was the most glamorous wedding of its era – and six decades later, the marriage of Oscar winning-actress Grace Kelly and Monaco’s Prince Rainier remains one of the most fairy-tale weddings of all time.
In private family photos obtained by PEOPLE and kept in the palace in Monaco, the timeless magic of April 18, 1956 can be seen both publicly and behind the scenes.
“It was such an incredible affair, and it’s left such a mark on people,” the couple’s only son and heir, Prince Albert, tells PEOPLE. “What it has meant for people has been incredible. For us, it was – and you’ll have to ask my sisters [Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie] – for us it was our parents getting married. But what it’s meant for Monaco, for people around the world, and, how their story continues to fascinate people, that’s something unimaginable.”
Growing up, Albert recalls, “there were always pictures around the palace and other properties to remind us of the day. I got different accounts of the wedding, mostly from Mom. Then from others: from my aunts from Philadelphia who came over for it, from cousins. Those who attended who are still with us still talk about it.”
Even the days leading up to the wedding were filled with Hollywood-worthy drama: On April 4, 1956, after three months of hurried preparation (which included filming the classic musical comedy High Society), Philadelphia-reared Kelly, then 26, sailed off from New York’s Pier 84 on the S.S. Constitution for her wedding in Monaco.
More than 200 reporters were there to say “bon voyage!” in New York, and 1,800 were waiting when she arrived in Monaco. Traveling with 50 family members, six bridesmaids, 80 pieces of luggage and a large press contingent, the 8-day ocean crossing sailed Kelly directly to Monaco, anchoring in the Bay of Hercules, just outside the port. There, Rainier waited onboard his yacht, Deo Juvente II.
As passengers craned over railings and through portholes to watch the film star board the yacht, a seaplane – owned by Aristotle Onassis – dropped thousands of red and white carnations.
“The whole Constitution trip was something Mom referred to at times,” says Albert. “She’d say it was fun for the wedding party. It really bonded the whole Philadelphia side, her family and friends who came over together on the crossing.
“And she would talk about her dog, Oliver, being onboard with her,” he says, recalling the French poodle, an engagement present from her To Catch a Thief costar Cary Grant.
Grace’s arrival in Monaco set off an eight-day long round of parties, dinners and galas. The marriage ceremonies began on the April 17 with a palace reception for 40 foreign delegations and outdoor evening entertainment culminating in a massive fireworks display.
Deeming it perhaps an event too big for its time, Rainier admitted years after to biographer Jeffrey Robinson, “it wasn’t fun and in the middle of the turmoil, Grace kept saying, ‘Maybe we should run off to a small chapel somewhere in the mountains and finish getting married there.’ I wish we had, because there was no way either she or I could really enjoy what was happening.”
Adds Albert: “My father said it is exhausting to go through the circumstance, the pageantry, the planning.”
By Napoleonic Code and Roman Catholic church rules, the couple were required to marry in both a civil ceremony on April 18 and a separate religious ceremony on April 19.
Held in the Palace Throne Room, the civil ceremony lasted only 15 minutes but ended with a 25-minute long recitation of the more than 140 formal titles Grace acquired by marriage. As soon as the ceremony ended, it was repeated for a newsreel camera.
For her civil wedding, Grace wore the first of two gowns created for her by Hollywood wardrobe designer Helen Rose: a two-piece light pink taffeta dress overlaid with champagne colored lace. Both wedding gowns, handmade in MGM’s studio ateliers, were a wedding gift to the star from her studio bosses.
In the evening, the newly married couple attended a dance gala at the Opera, where both the American and Monégasque anthems were performed.
Then on the morning of April 19, Grace came to Monaco’s Saint Nicholas Cathedral as the world watched.
“Mom said it was ‘overwhelming,’ ” recalls Prince Albert. “That ‘excited’ or the word ‘overjoyed’ wasn’t strong enough to express her feelings. My father said so too.”
Among the immensity of details: a guest list of 600, including Cary Grant, Aristotle Onassis, Ava Gardner, Gloria Swanson and Conrad Hilton; thousands of white lilacs and lilies of the valley; one wedding ring mishap (Rainier was so nervous that Grace helped him place the ring on her finger); a six-tiered wedding cake that replicated Monaco’s pink palace and scenes depicting Monaco’s history in sugar.
As for her dress that day, Grace wore one of the most famous wedding gowns of all time: Fit for a princess, it was a creation of 300 yards of antique Belgian lace and 150 yards of silk, taffeta and tulle created by 30 studio seamstresses.
The gown featured a close-fitting buttoned bodice whose seams were re-sewn for concealment before being embroidered with seed pearls descending into a spectacular bell-shaped silk skirt and train supported by three petticoats – each embroidered with small “something blue” bows. Grace’s trailing circular veil, specially shaped to prevent it from obscuring her face from cameras, was crafted from 90 yards of tulle tied with lace. Her shoes and lace Juliet cap were embroidered with matching pearls.
After the celebration, Grace followed Monaco tradition and traveled to St. Dévote, where she offered her wedding bouquet to Monaco’s patron saint. An afternoon buffet featured caviar, salmon, chicken, jellied eggs, cold lobster, chicken and champagne for 600 before the Princess and her Prince left in sunset for a seven-week Mediterranean honeymoon cruise onboard the Deo Juvante II. (They didn’t sail off as planned but instead anchored off shore after only a brief sail!)
“It was so exhausting,” Albert tells PEOPLE, that privately they both “said that when they left on their honeymoon and got on the boat, they both just kind of passed out from exhaustion and had a good night’s sleep before they got on with enjoying their honeymoon the next day.”
In her later years, Albert recalls of his mother, “She’d recall ‘going down this street on my wedding day’ and seeing the people there. Dad did as well. He was happiest about the fact that things went so well.”