This Day In History: April 19

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On April 19, 1956, American film actress Grace Kelly, 26, marries Prince Rainier of Monaco, 32, in a spectacular ceremony—a "royal wedding of the century" watched by more than 30 million viewers on live television. The two had begun a secret correspondence after the Hollywood star was introduced to the prince in May of 1955 during a trip to the Cannes Film Festival. The prince proposed eight months later.

The massive church wedding was actually the couple's second nuptial, as dictated by Napoleonic law. The first ceremony, a civil one, took place at Monaco's royal palace on April 18, in front of friends, family members and dignitaries. The April 19 ceremony was a far grander affair: a High Mass held at St. Nicholas Cathedral in the presence of 700 guests, attended by luminaries like Cary Grant, Ava Gardner and Aristotle Onassis. MGM Studios had acquired the rights to broadcast the wedding globally, reportedly in exchange for releasing Kelly from her contract.

Kelly's lavish gown, gifted to her by MGM, was designed by Helen Rose and created by the studio's wardrobe artists. According to LIFE Magazine, they crafted it with 25 yards of silk taffeta, 100 yards of silk net, thousands of tiny pearls and 125-year-old rose-point lace bought from a museum. After the wedding, Kelly gifted the gown to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Kelly, the daughter of a former model and a wealthy industrialist, began acting as a child. After high school, she attended the American Academy for Dramatic Arts in New York. While she auditioned for Broadway plays, she supported herself by modeling and appearing in TV commercials. In 1949, Kelly debuted on Broadway in The Father by August Strindberg. Two years later, she landed her first Hollywood bit part, in Fourteen Hours. Her big break came in 1952, when she starred as Gary Cooper’s wife in High Noon. Her performance in The Country Girl, as the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic songwriter played by Bing Crosby, won her an Oscar in 1954. The same year, she played opposite Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

While promoting another Hitchcock movie, To Catch a Thief (1955), at Cannes, Kelly was introduced to Prince Rainier of Monaco at his royal palace. It wasn’t love at first sight for Kelly, but the prince initiated a long correspondence, which led to their marriage in 1956. According to the 2021 documentary Grace Kelly: The Missing Millions, the actress was required to pay a $2 million dowry to the House of Grimaldi, draining her entire Hollywood earnings and much of her family inheritance.

Afterward the fairy tale wedding, she became Princess Grace of Monaco and retired from acting. She had three children and occasionally narrated documentaries. Kelly died tragically at the age of 52 when her car plunged off a mountain road by the Cote D’Azur in September 1982.