By Susan Schindehette
November 07, 1988 12:00 PM

There never was a public memorial service for him, because that’s how he wanted it. But on Oct. 19, nearly two years after Cary Grant died of a stroke at age 82, 940 of his most stellar admirers and friends met to pay tribute to the man Tom Wolfe once called “consummately romantic.” Barbara Grant, Cary’s widow, was an organizer of the evening: a $1,000-a-plate dinner for the Princess Grace Foundation at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. From the event, nearly $1 million was raised to assist young talent in theater, dance and film through scholarships. Barbara is a foundation trustee, as was Cary, who remained devoted to the Grimaldis after the death of Grace, his friend and co-star. On this evening, the guests recalled the magical span of his 72-film career. Scant mention was made of Archie Leach, the troubled child of a broken home who ran away to become an acrobat and later fashioned himself into a paragon of charm called Cary Grant. No mention was made of his moodiness, insecurities, LSD experiments. No mention either of his four divorces, the last a bitter split from actress Dyan Cannon, the mother of his only child. Cannon didn’t show. Neither did his frequent co-star Katharine Hepburn, who once referred to Grant as “a personality functioning.” This night was reserved to cheer a man who had given all of us, in the words of Prince Rainier, “a legacy of joy.”

On this night the royalty of Monaco mingles with royalty of Hollywood, who are honoring one of their own. Ronald Reagan sends greetings from the White House. Sophia Loren sends a taped message from Italy. The night has glitz. It has glamour. It has Barbra Streisand, who arrives with old flame Richard Baskin in place of Don Johnson and—gads—allows herself to be photographed.

Guests are seated for dinner in the ballroom at round tables with peach-colored linen and rose-and-daisy centerpieces. Emcee Merv Griffin, the new owner of the Hilton, ad-libs a few plugs for its refurbished ballroom and a ladies’ room decorated by his lady love, Eva Gabor. Then he asks the guests to stand for the spotlighted entrances of Barbara, 38, Grant’s daughter, Jennifer, 22, and the First Family of Monaco: Prince Rainier, 65, Princess Stephanie, 23, and Prince Albert, 30. So far, the Grimaldis had not proved a talkative bunch. Albert, who said that Cary “told jokes to Dad all the time,” couldn’t recall an example despite the fact that Grant had visited his home in Monaco once a year for 10 years. Stephanie praised his forbearance. “Every time he was at affairs like this one,” said Steff, “he’d be gracious to people he didn’t want to be gracious to.” Could she mean the press? What was that chill?

No matter. Rainier is telling the crowd that his late wife’s foundation has awarded $840,000 in aid since 1984. Then everyone falls to a dinner of smoked salmon, Chateaubriand, green salad with Brie and chocolate meringue swans stuffed with white chocolate mousse. Good. Now is the chance for discreet neck craning. Jennifer Grant, painfully thin arms poking out of a loose, black velvet dress, merely picks at her food. She chats amiably with her table companions, Prince Albert, his date, Sandra Kronemeyer—who is in the corporate-gift-basket business—Liza Minnelli, Jack Haley Jr., Shirley Temple Black and Jennifer’s fiancé, Randy Zisk. Barbara Grant shares a table with her date, mogul Kirk Kerkorian, Prince Rainier, Merv and Eva, Angie Dickinson and Barbara and Frank Sinatra. Surprisingly, neither Barbara nor Jennifer, a recent graduate of Stanford University with a degree in history and political science, takes the stage.

The main show begins after dinner with film clips, starting with 1955’s To Catch a Thief. Cary is kissing Grace Kelly on a cliff overlooking Monaco, near the hairpin turn where the Princess’s car went out of control in 1982. During the scene, Jennifer—seated between Albert and her fiancé—holds hands with the Prince.

Scores of personal tributes follow the films. Dina Merrill, Grant’s co-star in 1959’s Operation Petticoat and cousin of Grant’s second wife, Barbara Hutton, says, “I think every woman in this room is a little in love with Cary Grant.” Robert Wagner talks of sneaking onto the set of 1957’s An Affair to Remember to catch firsthand Cary’s “style, grace, elegance and timing.” Eva Marie Saint, his co-star in 1959’s North by Northwest, tells why Grant sometimes charged 25 cents for an autograph: “He felt if you put a price tag around your neck, people appreciate you more.”

Michael Caine, host of an ABC special on Grant scheduled to air on Nov. 3, rises to announce that Cary’s genius was in “making the impossible appear effortless.” Frank Sinatra insists that “never has elegance been worn more modestly or charm more gracefully.” Roger Moore quotes one of Grant’s most famous and telling lines about himself: “I pretended to be someone I wanted to be, and finally I became that person.”

Later several Grant intimates talk about their friend’s private side. Photographer Maureen Donaldson, author of a forthcoming book on her romance with Grant from 1973 to 1977, says, “Most people did not really know him. He didn’t let many people get beyond a certain point, and he didn’t have mates. His home was his private cocoon and very few entered it.” Author Cleveland Amory remembers being shown around Grant’s Malibu home. As Cary paused at his daughter’s room, which was large enough to share with a friend, Amory recalls him saying, “I never want her to be lonely. I was lonely as a child.” For Amory the moment was “very moving.”

But this evening is not dedicated to regrets or tears. Jennifer, whom Sophia Loren once called “the dream of Cary’s life,” beams at the encomiums. There are musical tributes to Grant’s movies from Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini, songs in his honor from Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. Merv sings an off-color lyric that Cary had written as a youth: “They brought me a box of tin soldiers/ I threw all the generals away/ I smashed up the captains and sergeants/ Now I play with my privates all day.”

Then Dean Martin reads telegrams from absent friends, including Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum. “Everybody wanted to be Cary Grant,” sighs Dean, “especially me.”

Appropriately, the evening ends with a film scene that is quintessential Cary Grant, although his secret may have been that they all were quintessential Grant. The moment is from Charade, a romantic thriller he made with Audrey Hepburn in 1963. “You know what’s wrong with you?” demands Hepburn. “What?” he asks. With an expression of rapture on her face, she produces the perfect movie reply: “Nothing.”

—Susan Schindehette, and the Los Angeles Bureau