PRINCE Rainier of Monaco, Europe’s longest-reigning monarch, died last week at the age of 81 after a long illness. The ailing Pope had sent Rainier his blessing just days before his own death. Ironically, the two smallest countries in Europe lost their heads of state in the same week.
For 56 years, Rainier had presided over the tiny Mediterranean principality that became a by-word for glamour and a playground for the super-rich. Monaco’s reputation was further enhanced by the staging of a Formula One Grand Prix on the capital’s streets and by the Prince’s marriage to movie star Grace Kelly in 1956. But Monaco’s status as a gambler’s paradise led British writer, Somerset Maugham, to describe it as “a sunny place for shady people”.
Rainier first met Grace Kelly at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. The romance between the Prince and the ice-cool Kelly, heroine of Hitchcock movies such as To Catch a Thief and Dial M for Murder, captivated the world. But the fairytale ended tragically in 1982 when Princess Grace was killed in a car crash on the twisting roads of the Corniche. Princess Grace’s funeral service, broadcast live on television, vividly captured Rainier’s grief. The Prince never remarried and, many years later, he said in an interview that he still felt her loss deeply.
A descendant of the Genoese House of Grimaldi, Rainier was educated in Britain and Switzerland. He then attended university in France where he studied political science. In June 1944, the heir to the throne became second-lieutenant Grimaldi in the First Algerian Regiment of the First French Army and survived the winter campaign in Alsace. In 1945, he received the Croix de Guerre for his operations under enemy fire. Two years later, he was awarded the Legion of Honour with bronze star for his military service. He held absolute power following his accession to the throne in 1949 and vigorously defended the rights of his 800-year-old dynasty. When, in 1958, Monaco’s parliament, the National Council, sought constitutional reforms in order to gain greater influence in state affairs, he made it clear that he would tolerate no attempts to curtail his powers. Later he announced the appointment by decree of a national assembly, chosen from among “a wide range” of Monegasque circles, who would act in the same capacity as the former National Council.
In 1962, Rainier defied President de Gaulle when the latter tried to bring Monaco under French tax law. Then, in the mid-1960s, the Prince thwarted an attempt by Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis to buy Monaco’s casino. Prince Rainier changed the law so that the casino was allowed to generate no more than five per cent of state income. Aware that his country had no natural resources, he used his contacts and business acumen to improve modern light industry and develop Monaco as a tourist resort and a tax haven for the wealthy, and a fashionable centre for business conventions.
He put in place measures to ensure Monaco was on a sound financial footing. Following Princess Grace’s death, press attention focussed on the tempestuous and sometimes troubled love lives of his three children, Stephanie, Caroline and Albert. (Only the day before Rainier’s death, Princess Caroline’s third husband, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, was taken into intensive care suffering from an acute pancreatitis.)
But Prince Rainier himself never seemed disturbed by the press attention and his dignity and composure did much to sustain the popularity of the Grimaldi dynasty.