The Kelly Family of Philadelphia

From Town & Country

The Kellys keep Grace's memory alive as they write new chapters of the ultimate Philadelphia story.

Grace Kelly swept through the door, pausing just long enough to kiss her sister Lizanne hello before dashing up the stairs to greet her mother. In her head scarf, sunglasses, and tailored black suit from London, she looked every inch the woman of style she had been anointed in the press.

It was late morning on October 13, 1954, and Grace had just been retrieved from the North Philadelphia train station by Godfrey Ford, a.k.a. "Fordie," the Kelly family's longtime chauffeur. The 15-room Kelly mansion was something of an outlier in East Falls, an old, blue-collar neighborhood nestled along the banks of the Schuylkill River, where the length of local ancestry determined whether one could rightly label oneself a "Fallser." (It still does.) The house boasted an ample back yard that held a tennis court that was flooded in the winter to create an ice rink for the children, and a huge cellar that was circled by an impressive train set every Christmas.

Grace had also come home to Philadelphia a week earlier to receive an award, a practice she would grow accustomed to over her too-short lifetime. The occasion was her being named one of the "Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania," a group that this year included banking heiress Sarah Mellon Scaife and the sculptor Janet De Coux. The governor had personally handed out the gold medals in Harrisburg.

It seems odd to think of Grace Kelly, just six months before she won her Best Actress Oscar for The Country Girl, taking public transit to Philadelphia on a nearly weekly basis and dashing into her parents' house like a teenager home from school. Or breaking off her relationship with fashion designer Oleg Cassini the month before because her family disapproved of him (specifically, his foreign birth and two divorces). But while Grace may have been an internationally known star and a "Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania," she was first and foremost a daughter of the Kellys, a clan that had emigrated from poverty in Ireland and within two generations won fame in the worlds of business, politics, sports, and the arts, and which, despite its humble beginnings, was now one of the city's most influential families.

As Grace told society columnist Ruth Seltzer, sitting at the dining room table that morning, "Home is here in Philadelphia. I never like to be away too long."

In his 1957 polemical novel The Philadelphian, Richard Powell brilliantly showed that the city's social pecking order has always been dictated by wealth, the authenticity of one's colonial roots, and the proper shade of blue in the blood. John B. Kelly Sr.'s Olympic rowing medals, business empire, and political connections helped grease his family's entrée into the better mansions of the Main Line, memorably conjured in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story, but even his daughter Grace's subsequent ascent to icon status never completely scrubbed the dirt from under the family's nails. Still, that did not stop the Kellys from becoming a shining symbol of wealth, glamour, and power to the populace of Philadelphia.

For a city with impressive historical bona fides that had gradually been elbowed out of the spotlight by New York to the north and Washington, DC, to the south, the Kellys proved an irresistible romance. An internationally recognized competitive rower, John Sr., known as Jack, had been denied entry to the 1920 Henley Regatta because he had worked as a bricklayer and was, therefore, by lofty British standards, not a gentleman. (Being Irish Catholic certainly didn't help.) Vowing revenge, he got it when he went on to win three Olympic gold medals, and his son John B. Kelly Jr., known as Kell, won Henley in 1947 and again in 1949.

There were other family achievers: Jack's brother Walter was a successful vaudevillian, and another brother, George, was a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. Jack literally built an empire from bricks-his business was called Kelly for Brickwork-and became a political kingmaker within Philadelphia's increasingly powerful Democratic Party. Kell was a three-time Olympian who later became a three-term city councilman and mayoral candidate. He was also a rather notorious playboy, his dalliances-including one with a transsexual nightclub owner named Rachel Harlow-breathy fodder for the city's gossip pages.

Photo credit: Corbis
Photo credit: Corbis

"There was just this attitude of exceptionalism," says Kell's son John B. Kelly III, who, like most of the Kelly men, is lean, athletic, and striking. "My grandfather created that atmosphere. It was neat that Grace was in the movies and everything, but it was my grandfather whose presence and image loomed large, even after his passing."

If there's a power couple today, a face of what might be called the Kelly Family 2.0, it is Christopher and Victoria Le Vine. Chris, the only son of Grace's younger sister Lizanne, splits his time between his financial firm, Monaco Asset Management, and Sweetwater Farm, a B&B and winery in the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley, outside Philadelphia, a region immortalized in the paintings of the Wyeths. (The couple live in Bryn Mawr.) Vicki, as she is called in the silk-stocking social circles through which she rotates, is one of the city's best-known philanthropists, and she sits on the boards of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other institutions. Her father was Robert L. McNeil Jr., of the pharmaceuticals family, who was also a distinguished benefactor as well as the owner of the finest collection of presidential china outside the White House, now housed at the museum.

Chris, at 56, has the square jaw and wavy chestnut hair that seems standard issue for the men in the Kelly family, and in the rustic Sweetwater setting he comes off like a well-bred ranch foreman, Ray Krebbs via boarding school. Slender, chic, and artistic, Vicki is intensely private, an interesting contrast to her outgoing, jocular husband. They have three children; their youngest, Ginna, is 23. Like her great-aunt Grace, Ginna caught the arts bug as a young girl, and despite her parents' reservations she is pursuing a career as an actress. "They're really a beautiful couple," says R.C. Atlee, a Main Line Philadelphia realtor whose grandmother was the best friend of Peggy Kelly Conlan, Grace's older sister.

Philanthropically, the Kellys were never in the league of the Cassatts, the Biddles, the Drexels, the Scotts-the illustrious Philadelphia families who chaired the balls and sat on the boards. Perhaps tacitly acknowledging this in his will, a document so witty it was published and sold commercially, Jack left none of his estate to charity. Instead he wrote to his heirs, "In this document I can only give you things, but if I had the choice to give you worldly goods or character, I would give you character."

Photo credit: Jean-Francois Campos
Photo credit: Jean-Francois Campos

Of the dozen or so Kelly cousins of the post-Grace generation still living in and around Philadelphia, most are what one could call quietly civic. John B. Kelly III, known as J.B., is a member of the conservancy for Fairmount Park, where one of the city's main thoroughfares, Kelly Drive, is named for his father, and is a former president of the august Vesper Boat Club, where he now takes his own son Nicholas to row sculls on the Schuylkill. Chris and Vicki Le Vine are among the city's most high-profile patrons of the arts; in addition to her work with the Museum of Art, Vicki is also the chair of Broadway Dreams, a national nonprofit that funds musical theater training for talented youth. Chris is a trustee of the Princess Grace Foundation–USA, created by Prince Rainier after Grace's death. "I've simply tried to be as successful as I could, and be a good person and all of that," Chris says, "and try not to hold comparisons up, because that's a little tough to do. There's no profit in that."

Which raises the question: While there's no doubt the Kellys still mean much to Philadelphia, how much does Philadelphia still mean to the Kellys? "I've asked myself, 'How much do they want it?' " R.C. Atlee says of the family's willingness to maintain its heritage. "How much do the Le Vines, or any of the cousins, want to claim their stake in the legacy that is Grace Kelly, or the Kelly family writ large? I think Chris wants it. I think he really enjoys it, and he's proud. And he should be."

She never understood her mystique.In this she was in good company. Like other goddesses of the second half of the 20th century-Babe Paley, Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Diana-Grace Kelly always seemed slightly bewildered by all the fuss, even if she was, beneath the serene smile and the couture, flattered by it all.

To be convinced of her membership in this glittering sorority you need only look at a scene from To Catch a Thief, one of three movies she made for Alfred Hitchcock. Treating the lobby of Cannes's Intercontinental Carlton Hotel as her personal runway, Grace floats through the picture in a cavalcade of filmy ensembles that foreshadowed her regal future and also netted Edith Head an Academy Award nomination. In one scene Cary Grant escorts Grace, in a flowing cornflower-blue gown that enfolds her like a warm breeze, back to her suite. Stepping just inside her room, Grace turns in the doorway and deftly slips her left arm around Grant's shoulder, drawing him into a smoldering kiss. She then closes the door, wordlessly. The camera closes in on Grant's expression: surprised, intrigued, charmed, disarmed, enraptured. Captured on five seconds of film, the net effect of Grace Kelly. "From the day in 1951 when she walked into director Fred Zinnemann's office wearing prim white gloves ('Nobody came to see me before wearing white gloves')," Time magazine declared in a 1955 cover profile, "the well-bred Miss Grace Kelly of Philadelphia has baffled Hollywood."

Not just Hollywood. Slight, often ill, and withdrawn, Grace grew up the middle child in every sense of the term, eclipsed by an eldest sister, Peggy, who was the family bon vivant; Kell, who was the family star athlete; and a younger sister, Lizanne, who was the darling baby. As his daughter, step by step, overshadowed his own fame, Jack Kelly remained a bit baffled himself. On the night of her Academy Award victory, in 1955, he infamously remarked that he could not believe Grace had won, because she was "the last one I'd expected would support me in my old age."

Grace spent her entire life fighting for her father's love, a battle she would largely lose. And despite her growing fame, she remained psychologically tethered to the Kelly approval matrix, even after her parents and siblings sabotaged her relationship with Cassini during an ill-fated visit to the family's beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey. And while she may have met Rainier through a Paris Match photo shoot at the palace in Monaco a year later, their romance was meticulously orchestrated by the Kelly family's priest.

Photo credit: Jean-Francois Campos
Photo credit: Jean-Francois Campos

A few years before her death, in 2009, Lizanne Le Vine told me about the first time she met Rainier, her future brother-in-law, at dinner at the apartment Lizanne shared with her husband Donald in Philadelphia. (Donald Le Vine was a successful stockbroker who quit the markets to become a well-regarded trainer of thoroughbred racehorses.) "She asked me if I liked him, and what did I think of him. And when I heard that I paused and said, 'Are you a little gaga over him?' But she was serious-she wanted to know how I felt about him and how Mother felt about him." I asked Lizanne what her verdict had been. "I thought he was great," she said. "He offered to do the dishes!"

Following the couple's whirlwind romance and wedding in 1956, Monaco would outshine Philadelphia in Grace's biography. Her visits home were front page news for Philadelphians craving some sparkle, and her sudden death, at only 52, after a car crash along the Route de la Turbie outside Monaco on September 13, 1982, plunged the city into a mother's mourning. On that twisting road high above the sparkling Mediterranean, what was lost was more than a princess. It was the Grace Kelly magic.

"I think there are women today who would like to be looked upon as a Grace Kelly, but I don't think there are any," says fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, who wrote the foreword to a 2007 coffee-table book on Grace. "I think that pop culture and celebrity have led us down a different path." Today, he tells me, "there are no secrets."

Ginna le Vine sits in a corner booth in the lounge of Manhattan's fashionable Gramercy Park Hotel, gingerly sipping a Diet Coke-she has an audition tomorrow-and relaying how she has just spent a gorgeous sunny day in Central Park. She wears a silvery gray tunic, jeans, and boots, a single delicate gold chain around her neck. Her hair is sun-kissed blond and feathered to symmetrical perfection, giving her the vibe of Farrah Fawcett, Charlie's Angels era. Lithe and lovely, with a heart-shaped face and twinkling green eyes, she has the sunny spirit of a California girl, and she exudes organized focus, nervous energy, and a slightly loopy charm. She's the three girls from Friends all rolled into one lissome package.

She enjoyed a Main Line childhood that was privileged and, in many ways, typical: ballet lessons, ice skating, gymnastics; later, lacrosse, soccer, swimming. But she attacked acting like a gladiator. She did workshops and plays, took lessons in London, won the lead in her high school production of West Side Story. ("The blondest Maria ever cast," she says, laughing.) Accepted at Yale, she opted instead for the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, where her famous lineage was an open secret. "Everybody sort of knew about the Grace Kelly thing," Ingrid Sonnichsen, her acting teacher, says. "But when push comes to shove, if you don't produce on your own, that connection will have done nothing but harm." She finds Ginna a hard worker and, most of all, committed, "which, given that legacy, could be very different."

Photo credit: Jean-Francois Campos
Photo credit: Jean-Francois Campos

"It can get you through the door," says Meg Packer, Peggy Kelly Conlan's daughter and Chris Le Vine's cousin, of the curiosity factor. "But, then, she's not Grace Kelly. There are a lot who did it-look at Goldie Hawn's daughter-so it can be done." Still, Packer says, that doesn't mean everyone should. "My youngest granddaughter came to me recently and said, 'Granny, I'm giving up my sports career. I am going to concentrate on acting,' " Packer says. "I said, 'No, you're not.' " She laughs. "It's a wonderful thought, but it's really difficult. I…" She trails off, shakes her head. "I'd much rather have my kids on the playing fields than in the theater."

But Ginna is hardly alone in her aspirations. Her sister Kelly is a successful costume designer in New York; her second cousin Katherine Kelly, J.B.'s daughter, is a theatrical stage manager in Philadelphia. Even so, Ginna is the only one pursuing a life in front of the camera. And so comes the catch-22: Her relation to Grace gives her a buzzy novelty that separates her from the thousands of other young blondes auditioning for roles, but it also brings inevitable comparisons with an icon, which could prove downright brutal. Because for every Drew Barrymore there is a Diana Barrymore, who buckles under the bright lights and scrutiny and spirals down the family drain.

"I want to earn everything I get, and I want to work toward my own career," Ginna says. "That said, I'm not ashamed. Grace is a part of my family. It's just a fact of who I am." She says she once asked Mamie Gummer, the actress daughter of Meryl Streep, for advice. "You just breathe," Gummer told her, "and remember that once you're there, it's just you." "I was sort of inspired by that," Ginna says. "But I'm sure that as soon as I book anything it's going to come up immediately."

She spends her days the way young aspiring actresses do-at least, young actresses from families whose largesse allows it: taking occasional classes, learning the guitar, auditioning, and networking.

"She can go around and work a room, and everyone will be very, very admiring of her," says Christina Haack, her best friend since childhood and current roommate. "But she can also be a quirky, fun girl. It's not all glitz and glamour."

Ginna's big credit to date is a 2009 guest spot on the acclaimed CBS drama The Good Wife, on which she played a dead man's ex-girlfriend who gets swept up in a civil case. When her agent called to tell her she'd gotten the part, Ginna sat on her bed and cried.

At 23, she is a year older than her great-aunt was when she scored her first big role, as Gary Cooper's steely Quaker wife in High Noon. Grace Kelly would never be anonymous again. I ask Ginna if she has thought about what her life will be like if she too becomes famous. "I think every actor does," she says, settling back into the booth. "I mean, the culture we live in now, it's horrifying what they do to people. So of course it makes me nervous. But I think it goes back to how my parents brought me up. You have to stay true to yourself." It's daunting, she says, to think of losing all her privacy, a concern her mother Vicki reinforces when she speaks of Grace and Rainier. "They lived in a nondigital age," she says wryly. "And weren't they lucky." For her part, Ginna simply says, "It is what it is. It comes with the territory. I'd be ready to deal."

Even with tabloid reports of her love life? Ginna Le Vine laughs the deep, throaty laugh of the girl at the party surrounded by adoring suitors. "Now, that seems absolutely terrifying," she says. "You can't even go to coffee with someone without someone saying, 'Oh, they're engaged and she's pregnant.' Who knows? I don't know how they date in Hollywood. But I can't worry about that until I really have to deal with it." She takes a quick sip of her Diet Coke. "But it does sound like it could potentially suck."

Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has a storied place in American history. For one thing, it's where Washington parked his troops before their surprise raid across the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 to defeat the sleeping Hessians. Its larger reputation, however, comes from its long-standing role as bucolic haven for the creative class. Writers Pearl Buck, Dorothy Parker, and James Michener, lyricists Moss Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, legendary Harper's Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch-all had country houses here where they would recharge, relax, and drink martinis in peace. George Nakashima crafted his furniture here; Robert Redford starred in the premiere of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park here, at the Bucks County Playhouse, in 1963.

Two years before her luminescent visage flickered across the big screen in High Noon, in 1952, Grace Kelly made her own stage debut at the Playhouse. So it is fitting that "From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly-Beyond the Icon," a traveling exhibit featuring 41 of Grace's dresses (eye candy couture from Givenchy, Dior, Balenciaga, and Madame Grès, among others), along with correspondence, photographs, and her Oscar, came to Bucks County for its one and only stay in the United States, at the James A. Michener Museum, in Doylestown, last fall. Prince Albert of Monaco and his wife, Princess Charlene, were there for the $500-a-plate opening gala, and their RSVP drew an eclectic crowd of political, cultural, media, and philanthropic luminaries from New York, Philadelphia, and Monaco to this tiny exurban hamlet to ogle both the show and the royals.

Albert still visits the Kelly cousins from time to time-mainly Chris and Vicki Le Vine-and he invited many of his Philadelphia family to Monaco in 2011 for his wedding, putting them up at Monte Carlo's Hermitage Hotel. "Albie is still a wonderful kid," says cousin Meg Packer, who at the age of 10 was a flower girl in Grace and Rainier's wedding. She catches herself and laughs. "Kid! I mean man. He's loads of fun and down to earth."

Albert and Chris-Albert was one of Chris's groomsmen and Chris was Albert's best man-often take what might be called male bonding trips together; they spent time recently in Deadwood, South Dakota, where they went horseback riding with Kevin Costner, who owns a ranch there. Albert's famous sisters, Caroline and Stephanie, have not been to Philadelphia in decades; any catching up with "the girls," as the princesses are called within the family, is done on the shores of the Mediterranean. "You know, they're doing all right," Chris says, sharing the latest family details. "Caroline's had some hard knocks recently with Ernst. But she's very pleased with Andrea's new bride and her grandson, though she probably would have liked them in reverse. And now she's dealing with Charlotte and her child. And Steph is doing fine. She's had kind of a wild life, but she's very much trying to stay out of the limelight, raise her kids."

J.B., meanwhile, says he doesn't read any of the tabloids or the magazine articles about his jet-set cousins. "But I do look at the pictures," he says with a laugh. "I want to see if I'm in any of them."

At the pre-dinner cocktail hour for the exhibit opening, the male guests stand sentry in various permutations of black tie, but of course it is the women one notices, a rustling, wandering flock of gilded birds in draping gowns of deep wine and rose and black augmented with opera gloves and tasteful estate jewelry. A string trio plays chamber music; bartenders serve cocktails with military dispatch. Chris and Vicki Le Vine play the part of unofficial hosts, representing the Philadelphia branch with the élan gained from years of such gatherings.

I am in a corner with Leslie Odom Jr., the actor and singer best known for his role in Hamilton. During his senior year at Carnegie Mellon, Odom won a $15,000 scholarship endowed by the Le Vines and friends of Chris's sister, Grace, who died in 1999. (The scholarship is one of some 25 awards in the arts that are given annually under the aegis of the Princess Grace Foundation.) We are watching Ginna, in form-fitting amethyst vintage Halston, gracefully turning through the room like a doll on a music box. "She has focus and drive, and a determination not to live on the name of her family," Odom says, adding that he absolutely believes she'll make it as an actress.

In his remarks Albert states that he hopes people will come to have the same curiosity about Grace Kelly as a wife and mother that they have about her as an actress and princess; he recalls "her generosity of spirit that will remain with all of us forever." Albert gives a lot of this type of speech, which is a testament to the staying power his mother has shown not only in the popular culture but in Monaco, where her memory envelops the principality like some sort of haute fog.

Odom sings three Nat King Cole tunes for the glittering assemblage, his voice buttery and gorgeous. It is somehow fitting that he closes with "Unforgettable," because that's the thing: Grace Kelly remains unforgettable, not only to her family but to the legions of devotees who still cling to her as a beacon of style, elegance, and that most elusive quality in modern celebrity, restraint.

I am seated at a table with several Monegasques, friends and business associates of Albert's. They are, predictably, very protective of him-there is no gossip, no funny anecdotes shared. In the center of the room Albert and Charlene are now surrounded by a throng taking iPhone photos. They know better, but Americans still tend to get a bit silly around royalty.

"I don't understand how he does it," I remark aloud to no one in particular. There is a bemused slight nodding of heads around the table. How do you live your entire life, I wonder, with people constantly pawing at you, clamoring for your time, your attention, your intercession? How do you find out who you are when you must continually stand in your mother's long shadow? "Maybe it's not a shadow," James Basson, a man sitting to my left who builds and maintains gardens for Monaco's elite, replies casually. "Maybe it's a sunbeam."

After dinner I wander back out to the exhibit, trying to take in any Grace archaeology I may have missed. I'm walking along a wall of photos when one stops me. It's black-and-white, more snapshot than portrait, and it appears to have been taken in front of a swimming pool in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1967. In it a nine-year-old Albert smiles impishly at the camera. Behind him his mother stands in a white bathing suit, hands folded protectively atop her son's head. Her hair is wet underneath a floral bathing cap, her skin dappled with droplets of water. She displays an expression of pure contentment as she glances off to the side, her eyes looking toward the sun.

This story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Town & Country.

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