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It began so innocently, a loving mother indulging a daughter's whim. A chauffeur was available to drive Princess Grace and her daughter, Stephanie, from their French farm, Rocagel, to the palace in Monaco on the morning of Sept. 13. But Stephanie insisted that she and her mother make the trip alone, so that her dresses might lie flat and unwrinkled on the unoccupied rear seat of their Rover 3500. Grace acceded to her daughter's request and apparently took the wheel, although she had given up driving several years ago after a minor accident in Monaco. "She was a terrible driver," says Rupert Allen, Monaco's consul in Los Angeles and a friend of the royal family. "Her mind was always someplace else." During the snaking 12-mile trip through the coastal mountains, Grace, according to the official palace version, suffered a stroke and lost control of the car. She died the next day. Stephanie, 17, sustained a hairline fracture of a neck vertebra—and the inevitable guilt that plagues the survivor of a fatal crash. "Stephanie is suffering not just from her injuries but from the trauma of being there when it happened," says John B. Kelly Jr., Grace's brother. "I think maybe in some way she might be blaming herself for not having done something to save the situation."

Today the Grimaldi family is forever changed because of the tragedy. Prince Rainier, Grace's husband of 26 years and Monaco's absolute monarch for 33, "is devastated," according to Lizanne Kelly LeVine, 53, Grace's younger sister. Even before Grace's accident he had been shaken by the death a year earlier of Roger Crovetto, a favorite hunting companion. Yet Rainier, 59, went through the funeral formalities resolutely, even attending a second requiem mass a few hours after the first. "I would think they are all assessing the future and where they are all going from here," says Allen.

Ironically, it was Prince Albert—the shy 24-year-old son who shunned the limelight as assiduously as his sister Caroline basked in it—who has shouldered the family's burdens in the first weeks after the accident. "Rainier was so bereft that Prince Albert stepped in and fielded most of the calls that were coming in from Grace's friends all over the world," says Allen. "He was grieving just as deeply—maybe even more so—but he managed to step in anyway. He showed a great deal of character." Almost immediately Alby, as the family calls him, postponed plans to learn international finance at the Morgan Guaranty Bank in New York this winter.

In the two months since the tragedy, Princess Caroline, 25, has been spending her days "minding" her father—ordering his meals and overseeing the palace housekeeping. She lives just a three-minute walk from the palace in the 19th-century villa Grace and Rainier gave her when she married French boulevardier Philippe Junot. When Stephanie was convalescing, Caroline sometimes stayed overnight in her sister's hospital room, and Rainier would visit and play cards with his younger daughter several times each day. The family has drawn tightly together in its sorrow, and as the private mourning period continues, they slipped out of Monaco for a 15-day vacation at the posh Lyford Cay Club on the Bahamian island of Nassau. The family took daily cruises on a yacht loaned by a friend, swam and played tennis. "I think Prince Rainier is leading their emotional recovery," dutifully asserts Nadia Lacoste, Monaco's director of information. "They were very close before, and he is again playing the role of a father. He is like a steel hand within a velvet glove with the kids."

Not all agree. Always a painfully shy man, Rainier must now run his tiny principality (470 acres and 30,000 inhabitants) without the woman whose fame and glamour compensated for his reticence. "I think he's having a very hard time," says Lizanne Kelly LeVine. "He let Grace do a lot of things that he'll have to take over himself. I don't know how he's going to handle it." The depth of the Prince's sorrow seemingly gives the lie to rumors—persistent in recent years—that the couple's marriage was strained. The Rainiers did spend long stretches apart, she in Paris or abroad, he at their estate in northeast France near the Belgian border. But friends stress that such drift is common when spouses have strong personalities, differing interests and many family responsibilities. "Anglo-Saxons don't grasp the nuances of a Mediterranean marriage," explains a sophisticated Monegasque.

But now, with his Princess tragically removed from his life, Rainier is reimmersing himself in the affairs of the realm. Foremost of them is the preparation of his heir to the throne. He is the child who most resembled Rainier's wife in both appearance and temperament—Albert. "Caroline and Stephanie have always tended to be more like Rainier's daughters, strong-willed, a little more Latin and full of beans," says Judy Quine, a longtime friend of Grace's and one of her bridesmaids 26 years ago. "Alby seems to me to be more of a piece of Grace's American soul."

Where his sisters were regarded by some as headstrong and flamboyant, Albert seemed to be a kind but retiring individual. "He was very shy and as the middle child caught between his bombshell sisters," recalls Quine. "Those girls bullied him unmercifully when they were children," another friend adds. In 1977 his parents decided to send Albert to Amherst College in Massachusetts for a leavening exposure to nonroyal life. His stutter disappeared almost overnight, and Albert Grimaldi, as he was known to his fellow students, began to mature and gain confidence. He majored in political science at Amherst (class of 1981), sang with the glee club and was active in sports—tennis, football and swimming. Yet he made only a small splash. "He's very accommodating—almost too much so," says Allen. "He bends over backwards to hold people's chairs. The Monegasques want a leader who is strong. Albert is going to have to develop some toughness if he wants to take over the leadership of Monaco."

Since Britain's Prince Charles married in 1981, Albert has been considered by many the world's most eligible royal bachelor. Like Charles, Albert promises to remain single at least until he is 30. And he evidently enjoys playing the field. "He has a very healthy male attitude toward women and is not a virgin anymore," reveals one family friend. "But he is very private about it, and he shows no signs of losing his head."

Albert is following a carefully planned path to power. On graduating from Amherst, he spent six months as an ensign aboard the French naval ship La Jeanne d'Arc. After studying international finance in New York—now rescheduled for next year—Albert will return to Monaco for more leadership grooming by his father. There are some palace insiders who confidentially predict that Rainier will abdicate when his son is ready to rule—within the next four years. Princess Grace's death may have toughened the young Prince considerably. "It's still too early to tell the full effect on him of his mother's death," says a family friend. "But tragedy is a known hardening agent that can shorten the process of maturing. If there is anything positive in the tragic situation, it is this."

Intimates of the royal family say that Grace's death has had a similar "sobering effect" on Caroline, the most flamboyant of the Grimaldi children. She has stopped moping over her broken 1978 marriage to Junot. Grace had openly opposed the couple's engagement and tried to prevent the marriage. "They [Grace and Rainier] kept telling her she could always return the presents—and there were fabulous presents from all over the world," remembers Rupert Allen, "but she was so in love with Junot." Rainier consented to the union, another friend explains, "because, like a softie, he was afraid to cause Caroline's unhappiness and therefore lose her affection."

As Grace had feared, the marriage broke up in less than a year. Caroline has since been seen in the company of tennis pro Guillermo Vilas and has taken up her on-again off-again relationship with Robertino Rossellini, son of the famed Italian filmmaker and Ingrid Bergman. An acquaintance predicts the couple will not marry because young Rossellini is "too pliable. She needs a strong man to handle her." Or as a palace observer puts it, "Caroline is sweet, but emotionally not exactly the Rock of Gibraltar."

In the meantime, she will fill Grace's role until Albert marries and his wife becomes the reigning Princess of Monaco. Caroline will accompany her father—or stand in for him—at the principality's social functions such as the Monaco flower show and the annual Red Cross ball. The young Princess is shunning the party circuit, though, to write a novel. The subject is unknown, but friends are confident that Caroline, who has already been published (on growing up in Monaco) in the International Herald Tribune, has the talent.

As for Stephanie, one of her "nice young boys" is Paul Belmondo, the 19-year-old son of French matinee idol Jean-Paul Belmondo. The pair created a stir last spring by cuddling at a tennis tournament in Monaco. In July Belmondo appeared as Stephanie's date at a party her parents held in her honor at the Beach Club in Monte Carlo. And after the accident, Belmondo drove a Ferrari from Paris to Monaco in a speedy eight hours to sit by her bedside and hold her hand.

Although she still wears a neck brace, Stephanie has returned to the palace and has almost recovered from her miraculously minor injuries, much to the family's relief. "What has really kept the family going since Grace's death is that Stephanie is okay, that she wasn't hurt badly," says Lacoste. "She's still alive and she has her life in front of her." But psychological scars no doubt persist—as does conjecture that she, not Grace, was driving during the accident. "I have to accept and live with the official version," says one palace confidant loyally. "But the truth will eventually come out because there is a survivor—moreover one with a low barrier of resistance. I can't imagine that she will be able to keep it in forever with the questions following her around. At some point, she'll have to break." Before the accident, Stephanie was going through a difficult phase. "She was a spoiled and willful young woman," says one of Rainier's friends. Grace and the Prince had always wanted a large family, but Grace suffered at least one miscarriage. As their last child, Stephanie was doted on by her parents and her much older sister and brother. It is hoped that she will eventually pursue her interest in haute couture by studying at the Fashion Design School in Paris.

Ultimately, the family outlook is optimistic. "I spoke to Rainier on the phone one month after Grace's death," says John Kelly. "He sounded fine." Not long ago, the Prince sent off an elegantly handwritten letter of thanks to an old friend. The letter was delivered to an address in the principality by one of the palace's white-uniformed motorcycle couriers. "Mon cher ami," it began. "Thank you for your sympathy. My grief is immense and my loss is irreplaceable. But one has to live."

By Peter Carlson with reporting from Greg Walter, Philadelphia; Eddy Van der Veen, Monaco; Fred Hauptfuhrer, London; Doris Bacon, Los Angeles; Joel Stratte-McClure, Paris.

  • Contributors:
  • Gioia Diliberto,
  • Greg Walter,
  • Eddy Van Der Veen,
  • Fred Hauptfuhrer,
  • Doris Bacon,
  • Joel Stratte-McClure.