Prince Rainier III of Monaco: 1923-2005

updated 04/25/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/2005 01:00AM

His final official public outing was under the big top—a fitting setting for a man whose life was part fairy tale and part circus. When Prince Rainier III of Monaco appeared in January at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, a pet project he founded in 1976, he was fatigued and pale. But as acrobats soared and horses pranced, Rainier smiled and laughed from his ringside seat.

On April 6, when Rainier died at 81 after a nearly 56-year run as Europe's longest-reigning monarch, his subjects lost a regal ringmaster who almost single-handedly turned their tiny principality—it's no bigger than New York City's Central Park—from a sleepy Riviera casino town into a glittering resort and financial center. The patriarch also struggled with the headline-grabbing antics of his children Prince Albert, now 47; Princess Caroline, 48; and Princess Stephanie, 40 (see sidebar).

Still, more than anything, it was his marriage to Grace Kelly that riveted the world's attention, from their lavish 1956 wedding to her death at 52 in a car crash. Biographer Jeffrey Robinson says he once asked Rainier about remarrying and was told, "How could I? Everywhere I go, I see Grace."

The son of a French nobleman and a mother who was the illegitimate daughter of Prince Louis II of Monaco and a young laundress, Rainier fought in the French army in World War II and inherited the 652-year-old throne in 1949. He was a dashing 31-year-old bachelor when he met the 25-year-old Kelly—fresh from an Oscar win for 1954's The Country Girl—during the Cannes Film Festival. "I remember her saying, "I found my prince,' " says her bridesmaid and fellow actress Rita Gam. "I thought she meant the generic term. Then I found out he really was a prince."

At first his matchup with Kelly, a Philadelphia blue blood, didn't impress the oddsmakers. Designer Oleg Cassini, now 92, who was once briefly engaged to Grace, told her, "You will never do another picture. Culturally, you're different. It's going to be a disaster. And she said, 'No, I will learn to love him.' "

She apparently did. But in time Kelly found Monaco "restricting," recalls Gwen Robyns, a friend who says that when Alfred Hitchcock offered her the lead in 1964's Marnie, Rainier put his foot down. By the late '70s Kelly was spending part of each year in Paris without her husband.

On Sept. 13, 1982, Grace and Stephanie, then 17, were driving on a road near Monaco when their car careered 120 feet down a steep mountainside. (Doctors later reported that Kelly suffered two strokes.) The Princess died the following night, and "part of Rainier died with her," says Robinson. Afterward, "although the Prince could be very funny, there was an undertow of melancholy and loneliness."

The family drew closer after Grace's death. While Rainier did privately fume at his children's shenanigans, he always stood by them. "They were a real family and extremely close," says Robinson. Caroline was "the one he counted on the most," says French journalist Isabelle Rivère. Albert, who had an apartment in Monte Carlo, stayed in the palace a few days a week, because, as he told Robinson, "if I didn't, my father would be all alone."

But the spirited Stephanie, who dated an elephant trainer before marrying an acrobat in 2003, may in some ways have been the most solace for a father bound by duty. "What most people don't understand," says Rivère, "is that in running away with the circus, she lived out his lifelong dream."

Rainier's health began to slip in 1994, and his children and grandkids were often at his bedside at Monaco's Cardio Thoracic Center. In his last days, "the family was all there," says a nephew, Christopher Le Vine. Rainier, he says, will be laid to rest "at the cathedral where Aunt Grace is buried, where they married." At his death, his son succeeded him; a ceremony will be held in six months. (If bachelor Albert dies without an heir, the throne passes to Caroline, then to her son Andrea, 20, the oldest of Rainier's seven grandchildren.) It won't be easy to fill the Prince's shoes. "The shadow of Rainier," says Rivère, referring to Monaco as its natives do, "will fall on the Rock for a very long time."

Susan Schindehette. Peter Mikelbank in Paris, Pete Norman and Simon Perry in London, Alicia Dennis in Austin and Jennifer Frey in New York

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