America’s Princess

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It was an extraordinary friendship between photographer and subject. Over a period spanning 27 years, from the early years of her Hollywood fame to her tragic car accident in 1982, Howell Conant captured Grace Kelly as she blossomed from a movie legend into a princess and then mother and royal role model. In the process, Conant broke through the cold, goddess-style portrait style that was the vogue and created a new look in Hollywood portraits: natural glamour. Yet throughout, Conant acted not just as her official photographer but also her confidante, who had access to Grace in her most private moments. Conant learned photography in Marinette, Wisconsin, as an apprentice to his father, who made his living shooting family events in a rural community on Sturgeon Bay. During World War II, Conant worked for an elite photo unit attached to Admiral Chester Nimitz’s staff, and rose to become its highest ranking enlisted man in charge of 350 photographers in the Pacific theater. After the war he settled in New York City. By 1950, he had opened his own commercial studio, specializing in advertising and fashion photography.

His friendship with Grace began with a cover assignment he received from the movie fan magazine Photoplay early in 1955. While already a hot Hollywood property, she had not yet won her Oscar for The Country Girl. When Conant framed Grace through his lens, he stopped suddenly, transfixed by her beauty, and became uncharacteristically hesitant. Grace quickly took over, curtly directing him and urging him to set his lights and finish. 

Before Grace left for an interview with the gossip columnist Earl Wilson, she asked to borrow a headband from Conant’s inventory. He agreed, provided that Grace herself brought it back. When she returned to his studio, she was struck by some of Conant’s underwater photos and they struck up a conversation. Conant, a scuba enthusiast, was particularly proud of his images of U-853, a German submarine that had sunk late in the war not far from his Block Island summer home.

By this time, Conant had landed an assignment to shoot Grace for Collier’s, a popular weekly variety magazine. Kelly and magazine editors, however, could not agree on a photo shoot concept. Kelly and her sister Peggy flew to Jamaica for a much-needed vacation. In less than a year, she had shot and promoted six films—Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Green Fire, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Country Girl, and the yet-to-be released To Catch a Thief. Shortly after arriving, she surprised the editors by sending for Conant, whom she now wanted to photograph her while on holiday.

His iconic photo of Grace rising from the green waters of the Caribbean, hair slicked back, shoulders bare, eyes intensely blue, proved to be Conant’s money shot. When that issue hit the newsstands, there wasn’t a woman in America who did not wish she looked that good all wet. And there was not a man alive who did not want to take her home and introduce her to his mother.

From the first shot in Jamaica in 1955 to his last session with her in 1981, Conant’s images of Kelly have a vitality that invites the viewer to linger and speculate on what lies beneath. The earliest photos convey a warmth that suggests something smoldering behind that flawless patrician facade, something not only undeniably sexy, but fresh, natural, and classy.

For Hollywood, this “natural glamour” was impressively new. In the movies, sex appeal had always been associated with bimbos, vamps, tarts, and hussies. Grace Kelly wrapped it up in a Tiffany box and invited us to tug on the ribbon. Some said she inspired “licit passion!” Alfred Hitchcock, who was smitten with her, called it “sexual elegance.”

Her star had been on the rise since she’d replaced the psychologically troubled Gene Tierney in Mogambo late in 1952, but a year later she was still a second-choice actress, getting roles that had first been given to others. When she was cast in The Country Girl, it was as a stand-in for Jennifer Jones, who had become pregnant right before the beginning of principal photography. 

By the time Collier’s came out on June 24, 1955, however, Grace Kelly had catapulted far beyond anyone’s idea of first runner-up. After her acclaimed performance in Rear Window and her Oscar night besting of Judy Garland (who, it is said, never got over it), Grace’s popularity soared. By June of 1955, Grace Kelly was Hollywood’s go-to girl, all at the age of 25.

The month before, Grace had led the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of The Country Girl. After a chance encounter with a Paris Match reporter (who wanted a royalty photo op—the Prince of Monaco meets the Queen of Hollywood), an introduction was arranged with Prince Rainier, Monaco’s bachelor head of state, who spoke impeccable English from his schooling at an exclusive British boarding school. After the shoot, Grace declared the prince to be “charming,” wrote a thank-you note, and returned to Cannes. 

Collier’s quickly gave Conant another Kelly assignment. In September 1955 she began filming The Swan, first on MGM sets in Los Angeles, and then on location at the palatial Biltmore estate in North Carolina. In a storyline that foreshadowed future events in her own life, Grace’s character, a young princess, marries an older prince from another kingdom.