On April 18, 1956, the world rather spectacularly changed. The change itself was a miniscule one, but the spectacle was something to behold. Grace Patricia Kelly was a sort of homegrown aristocrat. Her father was an wealthy contractor and a winner of two gold medals in rowing at the 1920 Olympics (although stories that portray him as a brash upstart are overstated; he was perhaps the best-known oarsman in the world at the time). He later became first oarsman inducted to the Rowing Hall of Fame. Her mother was a gifted swimmer and the first women’s athletics coach at the University of Pennsylvania. Her uncle George was a popular playwright, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Craig’s Wife (though politics within the committee may have skewed the vote). But there’s American aristocracy, and then there’s aristocracy; Kelly’s marriage to the handsome (if somewhat shifty-eyed) Prince Rainier of Monaco put her in touch with the real thing. Monaco isn’t much of a kingdom; its economy is based on tourism and its position as a pan-European tax haven. But it’s a principality of some standing; the heir to a centuries-old throne was getting his glamour from the Oscar-winning granddaughter of an Irish bricklayer who had once dated Ray Milland. Beauty has always helped elide class distinctions, of course, but the couple was snubbed by the other royal families of Europe; instead, a different breed showed up, with the thousands of guests including the beautiful (Ava Gardner), talented (W. Somerset Maugham), and rich (Aristotle Onassis). The media frenzy and Hollywood-crafted imagery (the wedding was filmed by MGM, loathe to let Kelly out of her contract) helped renew American interest in giant weddings, an interest which continues to this day.
Kelly’s last film before her marriage was High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story (with Bing Crosby in the Cary Grant role and Frank Sinatra standing in for Jimmy Stewart). Philadelphia is largely irrelevant to The Philadelphia Story, but the Main Line isn’t. Katherine Hepburn’s (and later Kelly’s) character, Tracy Lord, was based on Hope Montgomery Scott, the highest of society names in the bluest blooded town south of Boston. Both Hepburn and Kelly had been born to wealth, but Katherine had been born with a pedigree that Kelly lacked; Grace, for all her money and charm, would never have been invited to the Philadelphia Assemblies. Held annually since 1748, the Philadelphia Assemblies were American’s most exclusive debutante balls, cleaving to a rather breathtaking insularity:
Although Philadelphia and Boston are both fair-sized cities, their approach to society seems more insular than New York. Says one elite party-goer: "’For inbred Yankees […] publicized parties are in poor taste, and kind of, well, disgusting. […A] debut is a family tradition and, quite frankly, no one else’s business." In fact, according to one report a "newcomer" whose family had only been in Philadelphia since 1860, was given restricted permission to attend one of Philadelphia’s Assemblies "as an out of town guest."…[I]t seems that, at least as far as the debutante tradition is concerned, they have maintained past attitudes toward consumption perhaps to a greater degree than one might find in New York.
As a third-generation American (and, what’s more, a Catholic), Kelly could only dream of attending and mingling with the descendants of eighteenth century Quakers.
The WASP aesthetic of the Philadelphia Assemblies was based on quiet superiority; it’s linked in my mind to the Weberian notion of ascetisism. But Kelly leapfrogged that, and she won; the Philadelphia story wouldn’t be written today, because there just wouldn’t be interest in a publicity-shunning Main Line family’s wedding. There’s hundreds of more glamorous (and famous) people out there getting married. The Social Register’s decline has to be, at least in part, due to the decline of interest in emulating the Four Hundred. New money no longer seeks to emulate old money. New money wants to emulate new money. It’s an immensely more democratic system; not everyone can claim an ancestor on the Mayflower, but even a pickup-driving shopkeeper in Arkansas can get rich, and Nashville’s Miss Fire Prevention can become one of the most influential people in America. Carolyn Montgomery‘s grandfather founded the Merion Cricket Club; his grandfather’s cousin was Hope Montgomery Scott. Today, Carolyn Montgomery is a cabaret singer; a 1999 performance found her in a gay bar singing "Boa, Boa, Boa". We don’t live in Jay Gatsby’s world any more.