IMAGE: Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier
AP file
Princess Grace Kelly waves to cheering crowds lining the road as she rides in an open car with Prince Rainier III following their wedding on April 19, 1956.
updated 3/26/2005 10:04:42 AM ET 2005-03-26T15:04:42

Their romance captivated the world — an American movie queen, a European prince and their enchanted life in a hilltop palace overlooking the Mediterranean.

The mystique of Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly has endured the two decades since her death, in part because the 81-year-old ruler never remarried and filled his tiny principality with countless memorials to the woman he loved.

Some see Rainier’s ailing health as the final chapter in the fairy tale of Monaco — a subject that draws a mixture of sadness and smiles in the place where it all started.

“Princess Grace is still here. I can’t explain it,” said Nathalie Ponsenard, 40, who teaches at a nursery school not far from the royal palace. “She was just magical, full of warmth and generosity and humanity.”

Here in Monaco, those of a certain age recount fondly how Princess Grace would take her children biking along the seaside or would wave and say, “Bonjour,” in reply to passers-by.

Though she never returned to the screen after her 1956 marriage to Rainier, the actress brought her elegance and charm to the role of princess. And the world took note.

“The day Prince Rainier married Princess Grace — one of the world’s most famous and beautiful women — was the day Monaco was born on the international stage,” said Vincent Weylan, chief editor of the royalty division of Point de Vue magazine, a French weekly that focuses on Europe’s royalty.

'Irreparable loss'
Many here speak of 1982, the year of her tragic car accident and death, as a time of national sadness. The fact that Rainier remained alone all these years is seen by some of his subjects as a testament to his love. Experts agree.

“He never really got over her death. It was an irreparable loss,” said Philippe Delorme, a French biographer of Rainier. “It would have been very hard to replace her.”

On the 20th anniversary of her death in 2002, the royal palace published a glossy book in honor of the late princess filled with pictures of the royal couple. Rainier himself penned the preface.

“Twenty years after her disappearance, Princess Grace is always present in our hearts and in our thoughts,” the prince wrote. He praised her for “carrying out to perfection her role as spouse and mother.”

Grace’s widower has helped to keep her memory alive.

Along the coast by the elegant Monte Carlo casino is Princess Grace Avenue; down by Monaco’s yacht-filled harbor is the Princess Grace Library; and, outside the hospital where Rainier was clinging to life on a respirator Friday is the Princess Grace Theater.

A statement issued late Friday by three doctors appeared grim, saying Rainier’s state of health “remained worrisome.”

“Because of the fragility of his cardiac, respiratory and kidney functions, the vital prognosis remains reserved,” the statement said.

At the 19th century Monaco Cathedral, where Princess Grace was laid to rest beside Rainier’s three predecessors, hers is the only grave permanently honored with fresh flowers.

It was at the cathedral on April 18, 1956, that the couple was married, in what was called at the time the “wedding of the century.”

'End of an era'
Precisely where the fairy tale began is where it will end. Beside her tomb is an empty slab of marble waiting to be engraved with the prince’s name.

“The end of Prince Rainier will certainly be the end of an era for Monaco. But it is larger than that,” said Weylan. Most of Europe’s royal elders who witnessed the historic events of the last century have died, including the queen mothers of England and Denmark, the father and mother of the king of Spain.

“It will also be the end of an era for Europe,” he said.

The heir to Rainier’s throne is his son, 47-year-old Prince Albert, who is unmarried and has no children.

With his father in serious condition, Albert appeared on a palace balcony Friday afternoon, looking on as many supporters in the street below prayed for the prince’s life.

It was Albert’s first appearance since Ranier entered an intensive care unit Tuesday with heart, kidney and breathing problems. Doctors refused to say whether the 81-year-old ruler of Europe’s longest-ruling dynasty might survive.

At Monaco’s cathedral, Archbishop Bernard Barsi offered prayers for the ill, “in particular our prince ... and our pope,” a reference to ailing Pope John Paul II.

Monaco changed its succession law in 2002 to allow power to pass from a reigning prince who has no descendants to his siblings. Both of Albert’s sisters — Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie — have children.

Rainier assumed the throne in 1949, seven years before he married. Some see in Albert the hope for a new fairy tale.

“What I hear,” said 22-year-old Sandrine Negre, “is that he’s not married yet because he’s looking for someone like Grace Kelly.”

“You never know,” she said, peering through sunglasses on a walk near Princess Grace Avenue. “Maybe Monaco will have another American princess.”

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