Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Grace Kelly - The Barefoot Princess Next Door

Grace outside her family's Ocean City home at 26th Street in Ocean City.

Vision of Grace
(This article first appeared in Atlantic City Magazine, January 1999)

Grace Kelly grew up at the Jersey Shore. The people who remember her as the kid next door recall her rise to Hollywood stardom, then royalty.

The Princess Next Door – Grace Kelly, screen actress and royal princess, summered at the Jersey Shore, where she is remembered as the girl next door.

By William Kelly

The Princess Next Door

Grace Kelly was a princess of our very own, who spent most ever summer vacation of her life on the Ocean City beach.

She was a princess who died suddenly in a tragic automobile accident in France, causing the world to stop and reflect on the life of the beautiful women who came from humble roots, married royalty, became a patron of charities, and was popular with ordinary people.

Princess Grace of Monaco, formerly Grace Kelly of Philadelphia and Ocean City, died nearly 15 years ago to the day before the death of Princess Diana. The death of Diana brought a sense of déjà vu to many people who knew Grace, sparking memories of the actress and Princess who her Ocean City neighbors knew as the barefoot girl next door.

“As in their death, their lives took similar paths,” noted Julie Knipe Brown in an article that appeared in The Philadelphia Daily News at the time of Diana’s death:

“Both young, shy and strikingly beautiful, they were swept off their feet by prince charmings, married in lavish ceremonies, and dogged by gossip columnists and photographers the world over. They produced heirs to thrones, played host to worthwhile charities, and spawned fashion trends that served as benchmarks of elegance and grace. One renounced Hollywood to marry a prince. The other eventually renounced her prince and fell in love with a Hollywood prince charming. Neither lived happily ever after. Diana’s marriage ended in scandal and divorce, while biographers often portrayed Grace as a drinker, distanced from her husband. Somehow, frailty made us love them even more, as tragic and heroic figures.”

Of the dozens of books that have been published about Grace Kelly, few ring true, especially references concerning her life at the Jersey Shore. One “interpretive biography” claims she spent her summers in “…Margate, the nicest section of the town.” After publication of one sensationalist pseudo-biography, Grace’s cousin John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy, noted, “If any fraction of what that book described had taken place, do you think that the press would have let that gone unreported? Do you think it is only a coincidence that ever person that he accuses her of having an affair with is now dead?”

Those who knew Grace Kelly in Ocean City, even those merely acquainted with her, remember her as a beautiful, talented women with ambition, who prized her family and cherished Ocean City’s hometown family spirit.

Like many Philadelphia families, the Kellys vacationed in Ocean City, eventually buying property and building a house that they returned to ever spring. The Kellys were famous, however, before Grace became and actress and princess. The family tree is firmly rooted in her father, John B. Kelly, Sr., who was born near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia to immigrant Irish parents.

John B. Kelly left school to work in the building trade and eventually had a hand in constructing practically every major skyscraper in center city Philadelphia during his lifetime, beginning with the John Wannamaker department store when he was a teenager. Growing up on the Schuylkill, home of Boathouse Row, he became a member of a rowing club and went on to win two gold medals in the Olympics and both the singles and doubles rowing championships in 1920 and in 1924. Yet Kelly was not permitted to compete in the Diamond Sculls at Henley, England. The competition was only open to so-called “gentlemen,” and as a bricklayer, who worked with his hands, he was considered a common worker, and not a “gentleman.”

At the christening of his son, he vowed that John B. Kell, Jr. (Jack, aka ‘Kell”) would avenge the slight, and he groomed him to win at Henley from a very early age.

Establishing his own construction company, with the slogan, “Kelly For Brickwork,” Kelly prospered. But the Philadelphia Main Line blue blood society of “old money” shunned the new wealth of blue-collar Kellys, who lived on Henry Avenue in East Falls.

In the summer, Kelly the family to Ocean City, which later became known as “America’s greatest family resort,” where he rented a seasonal house for few years before he built a brick house in the then popular Spanish Revival style on the northwest corner of 26th and Wesley Avenue in 1929, the year Grace was born.

As it was just across the street from the ocean, the house was a retreat from active days in the water and on the beach. Family friend Marie Magee recalled, “little as she was, (Grace) would go out in that ocean and swim through the huge waves.”

Both John B. Sr. and Jr. were supporters of the Ocean City Lifeguard Association and often took the lifeguard boats out beyond the breakers, where they rowed from one end of the island to the other, preparing for the day Jack would row at Henley. Eventually, he did go to Henley and won the Diamond Sculls championship that was denied he father.

“No American family has given the nation a legend more honorable than this,” wrote John McCall, an Ocean City neighbor, “we are American gentlemen because of that.”

As the boys became gentlemen in boats on the water, it was also in Ocean City where the girls grew up to become ladies. As biographer Sarah Bradford described it, “At Ocean City there would be nights on the boardwalk…The Moorlyn Cinema, where Grace often used to go, is still there, a period piece with a facade designed to look like the noise of a 1950s automobile. There were no bars, because Ocean City was, and is, dry, and Grace and her friends would go to Matt’s to have hamburgers and coke after the movies and dance to the jukebox barefoot on the boardwalk so they got splinters in their feet.”

In their early teens, Grace and her friends Carol Macallister and Maree Rambo got jobs as waitresses at the Chatterbox restaurant on 9th Street and Central Avenue (which is also still there). That summer Grace dressed like a beauty queen and waved to the crowd from the Chatterbox float in the annual boardwalk parade, but their waitress jobs were taken away when Maree Ramob’s mother learned they were going to work at night, past curfew, and they still weren’t allowed to date.

The Kelly family grew and prospered. In addition to older brother Jack, Grace had older sister Peggy and younger sister Lizanne.

While his family played on the beach, Grace’s father could often be found on the Northfield Links of the Atlantic City Country Club, where he met Frank “Hap” Farley and James “Sonny” Fraser. With Farley, who took over as political boss when Enoch “Nucky” Johnson went to jail, and Fraser, a state legislator, Kelly became part of the syndicate that bought the Atlantic City Country Club during World War II.

But they had bigger ambitions – bring legal gambling to Atlantic County by establishing the Atlantic City Race Track, which was built by Kelly’s construction company. The Track opened on July 22, 1946, and quickly became the most popular attraction at the Jersey Shore, routinely drawing tens of thousands of people for every meet, including President Eisenhower and celebrities like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

But the beach was still the place for the Kelly family during the day. “Each summer there was Ma Kelly’s Labor Day party and open air barbeque in Ocean City,” wrote Sarah Bradford. “Parents, children, everybody was invited.” As friend Alice Waters recalled, “There were games, we had watermelon spitting contests and we had hide-and-seek, and we sang and roasted marshmallows. It was something I grew up with and loved.”

Mrs. (Margaret) Kelly, who attended Temple University and was a physical education instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, was as much into the sports scene as her husband and children. She ran the house and the beach.

Jim Campbell, who used to rent beach chairs for Bert’s Beach Service at the 26th street beach recalls, “Every morning the first thing I did was set up some chairs and umbrellas for Mrs. Kelly. She would come out to the porch and wave, and later bring me something cold to drink, and at the end of the day she would give me a dollar tip.”

When dinner was ready, Mrs. Kelly rang a bell on the porch that would signal everyone to come in for the evening meal.

Grace’s sister Peggy Kelly Conlan, recalled for Ocean City historian Tim Cain, “My brother was always their mascot, so we always knew the lifeguards. There were very few people on our beach in the early days…”

One lifeguard, William Ashmead said, “One year I had the distinction of working for about three weeks in the early part of the season at 26th Street. The Kelly family (was) very nice, great to the lifeguards. Grace would bring us down sandwiches and milk and sodas…Grace was probably about 16 at the time. Who knew then that she would become that famous?”

All the boys on the beach remember Grace, especially when she became old enough to date.

“The beach was a very big part of the routine here,” recalls Grace’s sister Liz LeVine. Swimming, walking along the beach and boardwalk, riding bikes and going to 14th Street – that was the most popular beach at the time.”

“I met her on the 14th Street beach the year she got out of Stevens School [a high school in the Germantown section of Philadelphia] recalls Dick Boccelli. “My father knew their family from the same neighborhood in Philly, and I knew her brother Jack, who I played basketball with down at the 6th Street courts. But it was an old chum of mine who introduced me to her on the beach, and we started dating.”

“I took her out in my father’s 47 Lincoln, so her father thought I had money,” says Boccelli, “but she knew and to her, it didn’t matter.” Boccelli recalls taking her to shows in Atlantic City and ending up at Vaughn Comfort’s club on the Somers Point Circle, where they were entertained by singing waiters.

“Grace had a great personality…a good sense of humor, was bright, sharp, fun to be with, and there were no pretensions about her,” says Boccelli, who played football at West Chester College at the time. “The whole family is big into sports and when she came to one of my football games I had a friend of mine sit with her in the stands so nobody would hit up on her. My mistake was that after we were going out for about six months, I introduced her to the most handsome man at West Chester, and that was it for me.”

“She wanted to be an actress,” recalls Boccelli. “I went up to New York and saw her in her first role [1949 Broadway production of The Father] and she did a wonderful job. She was picked out, not because of who she was, but because she was that good and stood out. To me, she was a natural,” adds Boccelli, “and when they gave her that phony accent, they missed the boat, but that’s Hollywood.”

In the summer, the Atlantic City Race Track was known as the “Hollywood by the Sea,” and Grace was the vivacious daughter of one of the owners.

“We all knew Grace,” recalls Henry Block, a former jockey at the track. “She would sit in the owner’s box, but we’d see her around the town, and she was always up for something. One day I ran into her at the Circle Diner in Somers Point, and since we were both heading out to the track, she said, “do you want to race?’”

According to Block, she drove a station wagon down Shore Road, cut over through Bargaintown, and beat him to the track.

Others remember her going with the crowd at night to Bay Shores and Tony Marts in Somers Point, where she would drink and dance to the rock & roll bands. “She was a beautiful person and a beautiful dancer,” recalls Carol Macallister, who attended Stevens School with Grace. “I could never understand why Hollywood didn’t play up her dancing.”

Once she became a movie star, she began dating men she met in Hollywood and New York. As one biographer put it, “Of course it was never easy to be Grace Kelly’s boyfriend, but when Grace brought Oleg Cassini home to meet her folks, the conversation at the dinner table was uneasy, as both John B., and her brother Jack did not take a shine to the European Casanova…Then, while attending the Canes Film Festival on the South of France, she was persuaded to take a photo shoot at the castle home of Prince Rainier of Monaco at nearby Monte Carlo.”

Grace’s marriage to Prince Rainier Grimaldi III of Monaco was the international social event of the 1950s. Rainier came to Ocean City on more than one occasion, visited the Kelly family at the beach, and sat in the owner’s box at the racetrack. Scruitized by Grace’s father, Rainier was acceptable, even if a little stuffy compared to the carefree Kellys.

Her career as an actress was over, however, as she would devote herself full time to her family and never return to the silver screen.

Of course, the wedding was not in Philadelphia, nor in Ocean City, but at Monaco’s Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Rainier arranged for an ocean liner to bring the entire Kelly clan to Mone Carlo – a voyage, ceremony, and party that became the most sensational news event in the world.

Even after she attained Royal Status, Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco returned to Ocean City on a regular basis with children Caroline, Albert and Stephanie, usually around Labor Day, to attend the annual family reunion and beach barbeque.

“Ocean City was an important part of Grace’s life,” wrote Sarah Bradford. “She would bring her own Grimaldi children to the Shore every year as if to remind them that this solid Middle America resort with its healthy pleasures was as much art of their heritage as the glittering life of the Cote d’ Azur…it ws part of Grace’s plan that the =children should remain aware of their American heritage, and they would spend part of every summer with their Kelly cousins at Ocean City.”

By that time, the Kelly clan had outgrown the original house, and in 1960, the year John B. Sr. died, a new home was built on the beach across the street from the first house. Capping a successful life for Grace’s father, it was naturally made of brick.

Neighbor Kate Field said, “I don’t think of them as royalty,” and recalled one afternoon when the young Stephanie and Albert were riding skateboards in the house up and down the hall when her grand-mother said, ‘Put the skateboard away.’ And that was it for the skateboard.”

Grace enjoyed returning to Ocean City because it was a place where she could be herself, without being bothered by the press or the public. As one of her bridesmaids, Judith B. Quine, explained, “Grace relaxed…at Ocean City…Together with her brother (Jack) and sister-in-law Mary, and with her two sisters and their husbands, they took the family’s younger se for walks on the beach and boardwalk, collecting souvenirs and seashells as they ambled. There were the inevitable barbecues, potato sack races, horseshoe crab games, and other competitions, which reminded Grace of every childhood summer she had spent with her family at the shore.”

Cousin John Lehman, who keeps the family Labor Day beach tradition going, said, “We have surfing contests, bake-offs, and other competitions at a kind of a picnic. Grace used to come and officiate the competitions…She never lost sight of or forgot the values of ‘the family first.’ And that is so rare, since so often you find people who succeed, and totally sacrifice their family, and she didn’t.”

On Lehman’s birthday, September 14, 1982, the first season she did not make it to the family reunion in Ocean City, Grace Kelly died after her car swerved off a road and went over a cliff in the south of France, an accident her daughter, Stephanie, miraculously survived.

Ocean City neighbor Kate Field recalled hearing about it on the radio. “I’ll never forget hearing about it because I was taking laundry down and I went to reach for a clothespin, and I couldn’t touch it,” she told Tim Cain. “That’s how paralyzed I as. I went to Lizanne’s house, and by the time I got there Lizanne was on the phone and I wrapped my arms around her and she said, ‘My God, I can’t believe what we’re hearing.’ All Lizanne kept saying was, ‘Isn’t it terrible, isn’t it terrible!’”

“The phone rang and then they got the official word,” Field recalled, “and I don’t think it was five minutes…we looked out the picture window and on the sand dunes there were TV cameramen out there.” Lizanne’s husband Don LeVine remembered saying, “How can they do this to us now?”

“I think the Kellys were role models,” said Field. “I think they meant stability. There were many times in their lives when they met with difficulties, and they showed that you just have to hang in there and pull it together and make it through.”

Grace’s sister Peggy and Ma Kelly have since died Daughter Caroline was in Ocean City when her husband was killed while participating in a speed boat race. In 1985 brother Jack suffered a heart attack while jogging in Philadelphia. Within hours, only a few blocks away, Peggy’s husband also died of a heart attack. East River Drive, which runs along the Schuylkill River, was renamed Kelly Drive in the Kelly family’s honor.

Grace is also honored by the Princess Grace Foundation, which awards scholarships to artists, dancers, actors, and actresses every year at a gala ball in New York’s Waldorf Astoria. Liz LeVine’s son is on the Board of Directors that chooses the scholarship winners annually. LeVine and her husband now live at the house on the 26th Street beach.

SHORTLY AFTER PRINCESS DIANA DIED, A NEIGHBOR OF mine bought Flannery O’Conner’s Irish Short Stories at a garage sale for 50 cents, and opened the cover, where there was an inscription signed by Grace Kelly. As a member of the “other” Kelly family that lives on Wesley Avenue in Ocean City, I was shown the inscription and asked to authenticate it. I called Liz LeVine to ask if she would authenticate the signature as her sister’s handwriting.

“Come on over,’ she said. So I rode a bike down the street, rang the doorbell, and was quite surprised when a young women answered the door. “Hello, I’m Grace, Grace LeVine, come on in.”

Liz Levine looked at the inscription and immediately noted that it was not her sister’s signature. She closed the book and sighed. “The death of Di has certainly stirred a lot of memories of Grace,” she said. “We’re getting phone calls from people we haven’t heard form in years. There are a lot of strange similarities in their lives, though Grace was 52, and not as young as Di. It doesn’t seem that long, but it’s been almost exactly 15 years since Grace died, so a lot of people have been remembering things and calling.”

And their paths did cross, she said. Grace attended Princess Di’s wedding, and Diana went to Grace’s funeral as the official representative of the British royal family.

“Grace was not a prima donna,” her younger sister said. “Certainly did not dress like an actress or a princess, at least not while she was in Ocean City. She’d come in, kick off her shoes, and run around barefoot, just like the rest of us.”

Just like the rest of us. And that’s how her Ocean City neighbors remember Grace, the barefoot girl next door.

This article first appeared in Atlantic City Magazine – January 1999

[William Kelly can be reached at ]


  1. Oh darn I lost my comment trying to sgn in, I'll just do a short version - this is filled with truth. I thank you & wish more people were interested in the real Grace Kelly who became Princess Grace. She was just such a nice, kind, thoughtful woman who is now oddly remembered so much for things she didn't have much interest in, like fashion. I so agree with what John Lehman said, my two decades of research have proved to me that she did not do those things. She was so thoughtful, always remembering birthdays, doing things for others, making people feel special, never thinking she was a big deal.

    Well, i liked my first comment best, but mainly just wanted to thank you for this, i quote enjoyed reading it. :)

  2. Yes, Grace was indeed a down to earth person. She was a friend of a friend of mine and used to cycle alone from the Palace to Cap Ferrat to visit.
    No bodyguards.
    She always said that she loved doing it.... feeling the freedom.

  3. Yes, Grace was indeed a down to earth person. She was a friend of a friend of mine and used to cycle alone from the Palace to Cap Ferrat to visit.
    No bodyguards.
    She always said that she loved doing it.... feeling the freedom.

  4. Yes, Grace was indeed a down to earth person. She was a friend of a friend of mine and used to cycle alone from the Palace to Cap Ferrat to visit.
    No bodyguards.
    She always said that she loved doing it.... feeling the freedom.