When two Hollywood icons met on a train, a modern day legend was set in motion

By Peter Mikelbank
Updated July 26, 2020 01:15 PM
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Olivia de Havilland and Grace Kelly (left) in 1955
Edward Quinnn, © edwardquinn.com

Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco remains a fairy tale for the ages — and Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland was there when it all began.

“I’m tempted to think it was destiny,” de Havilland previously told PEOPLE. She, along with her then-husband, Pierre Galante, engineered the couple’s introduction.

In the spring of 1955, the Gone with the Wind star (who turns 104 this July and has lived in Paris since October of 1953) was newlywed to Paris-Match editor Galante. On May 4, the couple arrived at the Gare de Lyon in Paris to catch Le Train Bleu — an Orient Express-type overnight sleeper connecting France’s northern port of Calais and Paris with towns and villages along the French Mediterranean coast and the Italian border.

Their destination was Cannes, where the eighth edition of the young film festival was already underway.

Amid the vast station’s echoing noise, the couple headed to their compartment. Moments behind them, Kelly hurried down the platform.

Though de Havilland and Kelly had never met, both shared a reputation for rebellion. De Havilland’s battle against Warner Brothers studio in the late 1930s had already established continuing legal precedent. And at the time she and Kelly would meet, Kelly was under a well-publicized suspension from her own studio, MGM, having refused to make a film opposite Robert Taylor. By chance, though, Cannes had invited Kelly to present The Country Girl, (a film she’d made on loan-out to Paramount), which, just five weeks earlier had won her the Oscar for Best Actress.

Kelly in Cannes in 1955

De Havilland believes "destiny" played a considerable part.

“It was an idea that struck [Pierre] for the first time while dining on the train,” she recalled, “after he learned Grace Kelly was a fellow passenger.”

“My husband had been born in Nice on the Cote d’Azur,” she added. “He suggested the meeting between Grace and Rainier at dinner with Paris-Match editor-in-chief Gaston Bonheur, en route to Cannes — an idea immediately and enthusiastically accepted by Gaston.”

With everyone at the table agreeing to the desirability of Galante’s idea, only two parties remained to convince: Grace and Rainier.

Urged on by her husband and Bonheur, de Havilland rose to catch then departing Kelly.

“Grace struck me on the first encounter as a rather reserved, self-possessed, well brought up young woman,” de Havilland said, recalling their fateful exchange which occurred “on the small platform between the dining car and the next carriage when I overtook her to ask if she would agree to a meeting with Prince Rainier.”

“She immediately agreed but made the highly professional proviso that such a meeting must first be approved of by the studio sponsoring her visit to Cannes: MGM.”

With Kelly’s “immediate agreement” secured, Galante set to work Thursday upon arrival in Cannes. He telephoned Kelly to announce Rainier had invited her to his palace at 4 p.m., Friday afternoon. Explaining her required presence at a Cannes cocktail for her film at 5:30, she declined. Later, when Galante called back saying Rainier had consented to move their meeting up to 3, Grace relented.

Friday morning started badly — and got progressively worse.

Waking late, Kelly washed her hair before discovering a labor strike had cut off all the festival city’s electricity. No hairdryer, makeup lights or iron. With two cars waiting downstairs outside The Carlton hotel, Kelly pulled her hair back, arranged it with flowers, put on her one unwrinkled outfit (a thick silk taffeta “Easy To Sew” floral model she’d worn a year earlier for McCall’s Patterns) and of course, finding the elevators without power, rushed down several flights of stairs, to meet Galante and a carload of photographers.

Grace Kelly on her wedding day to Prince Rainier
Howell Conant/Bob Adelman Books, Inc.

A fender-bender with photographers in a following car delayed them and when they eventually arrived at the Palace, Rainier wasn’t there. When he finally arrived, he invited Kelly to see his 225-room palace. She said she’d already had the tour. Undeterred, he proposed they visit his private zoo. They walked ahead, speaking privately, in the garden. Paris-Match photographers quickly recorded their meeting before Kelly hurriedly rushed back to Cannes. During the return, she described the prince as “charming.”

De Havilland remembers, “Pierre praised afterward how flawlessly Grace endeavored to observe the protocol required for presentation to the prince.”

“I guessed things had gone wonderfully well by Grace’s manner upon returning from her presentation to Rainier,” says de Havilland, who also attended the Friday afternoon cocktail party in Cannes.

“When she took her place at the head of the receiving line at the American reception, instead of offering her hand for a handshake, Grace extended her hand as if offering it to be kissed. She was in a state of enchantment.”

After their initial meeting, Kelly and Rainier began a private correspondence. Despite rumors, they largely succeeded in keeping their developing romance secret until Rainier sailed for America, proposing seven months later during Christmas.

Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier
Courtesy Palace of Monaco

Having played a hand in the beginning, de Havilland “was not particularly surprised by the [engagement] news, but I was particularly charmed by it,” she recalled. Expecting the birth of her daughter, she was unable to attend the “the wedding of the century” in Monaco alongside Galante.

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They would only cross paths one other time. “I saw Grace Kelly only once in the long years after our meeting on the train and Cannes,” said de Havilland. “I was lunching with an American friend at a restaurant in Paris and saw Princess Grace at a table across the room with Princess Caroline, then about 10 years of age.”

“When they finished and were leaving, Princess Grace very graciously came to my table to greet me. Of course, I rose and curtsied.“