December 27, 1982 12:00 PM

Me,” she bubbled earlier this year, “I adore life.” “She is rather shy, but she has a very strong personality,” her mother, Princess Grace, averred proudly two years ago. “She is also very affectionate and terribly loyal—a delight!”

Away from the pomp and glare she hates, she has always been the most ebullient child of Monaco’s reigning family. But since those fatal minutes last September when a tragic car crash took her mother’s life and left her with a fractured neck vertebra, Stephanie Marie Elisabeth Grimaldi, 18 next Feb. 1, has been a stunned, withdrawn girl. “She is deeply shaken by her mother’s death,” a friend of brother Albert says. “She hardly talks, she doesn’t laugh.” Monaco wonders when, and whether, its sleeping Princess will wake.

The youngest in the family, Stephanie was left alone by the press as a child. Within the palace, she was the pampered family pet, although her mother did make her clean her own room. At 4, Stephanie was privately tutored, and at 6, she got her first cartable (book bag), put on a navy-and-white uniform, and walked with her mother to parochial school. She loved circuses and tagged along to soccer games with Albert, seven years her elder. “He’s my chouchou [sweetheart],” she confesses. She was a tomboy in jeans who stuck her tongue out at reporters and was so impressed by Nadia Comaneci that she took up gymnastics.

Then, as a maturing teenager, the tomboy took to Dior dresses and cutting up. She pressured her mother into letting her go to a coed school in Paris. On vacation, she zoomed recklessly down ski slopes with her Walkman blaring Elton John and Stones tapes—”the classics,” she said. Four years ago, a family friend recalls, she was barred from her sister Caroline’s wedding eve party because she insisted on wearing pants. A year and a half ago she banged up her face in a motorbike accident, and she had to put off her coming out for a year. Suddenly she became the media’s darling. “I don’t understand why people are interested in me,” she protested. “I want to be an ordinary girl. I can’t stand for my friends to call me ‘Princess.’ ”

Last June she and Paul Belmondo, the 19-year-old son of French star Jean-Paul, set tongues wagging by nuzzling openly at a Monaco tennis tournament. Since the death of Princess Grace, young Belmondo has been the only one who can cheer her up. “She adores him,” says a friend. “She can’t be without him.” Adds a palace gardener, “When you see her walking and holding hands with Paul Belmondo, it is a comforting sight for people like me who are fond of our young Princess.”

Her friends are sure Stephanie will come through her ordeal. “She’s a fighter,” says one. With the family mourning period just ended, her father has insisted she begin her studies at the official School of Couture Fashion in Paris next month. “He knows life must go back to normal as soon as possible,” says a former family attendant. Stephanie has been urged on by Marc Bohan of Dior, her mentor in fashion, and by Vera Maxwell, the 81-year-old New York designer. “She designed some fabrics for me when she was only 14 and we printed them,” says Maxwell fondly. “She’s clever. I think she’ll go far.” Then, with emphasis, she adds: “She’s got what it takes.”

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