THE white Jaguar sped through the narrow, twisting roads leading up to the former priory.
Security lookouts lined the route, their walkie talkies crackling into life as soon as each checkpoint was passed. This was not the first car to make the four-hour journey from the principality of Monaco to the remote French village of Villie-Morgon that day, but the beautiful female occupant was by far the most important.
Her arrival had been planned in detail and no expense had been spared. The cascades of white flowers that decorated the priory were for her benefit alone. To its head of security, they had seemed an innocuous detail but one he knew he must get right if he wanted to stay in favour with his boss, Joseph di Mambro. As di Mambro's most trusted employee, he was familiar with the need for subterfuge when it came to deceiving the rich men and women who engaged in ritualistic practices at the priory. Even he, however, was dumbfounded when the car pulled up and its blonde passenger disembarked. The woman before him was Princess Grace of Monaco, and soon she would undergo a sexually charged initiation into the murderous cult of the Solar Temple.
First the princess was taken to a derobing chamber, where an acupuncturist, who to this day is still haunted by the princess's intense blue eyes, began to relax her by placing needles on meridians known to give sexual pleasure. Then Grace was given something to drink, perhaps a tranquilliser. At about 7pm, dressed in a white templar robe with a red cross, she was escorted down an inner staircase to the crypt of the priory, where she lay down on a huge round altar marked with a mixture of cabalistic signs and pictures of the 12 apostles. As Wagnerian music rose in a crescendo, the higher entities were asked if they agreed that Grace should become high priestess of the order, to which they responded yes. The princess was taken back upstairs and in the early hours of the morning was driven home in the Jaguar that had brought her to the priory.
There has been much written about Grace Kelly since her death, in 1982. Beautiful, serene and mysterious, she captivated the world for decades. A much-anticipated exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum next month will focus attention on her role as a style icon, with pieces from her wardrobe displayed alongside her films and photographs, yet apparently, beneath the glamorous facade of her fairy-tale life lies a dark underbelly. Whispers of sexual promiscuity and even the suggestion that Kelly was not at the wheel when the car carrying her and teenage daughter Stephanie plunged off a rocky hillside continue to surface. None is more bizarre, though, than the claim that, shortly before her untimely death, Kelly was initiated into a cult called the Order of the Solar Temple. The allegations centred on interviews with a man who worked for over a decade for di Mambro, a senior leader of the sect, and an acupuncturist who claimed she helped prepare the princess for the initiation ceremony that is said to have taken place in the summer of 1982 in an ancient priory in Beaujolais.
The Order of the Solar Temple achieved worldwide notoriety in 1994 when 69 members in Europe and north America died in what appeared to be a planned series of mass suicides and murders. All the dead were followers of Luc Jouret, a 46-year-old self-styled guru and supposed homeopathic healer who lectured on New Age theories. While di Mambro directed the group from behind the scenes, Jouret was its persona. Like many cult leaders, Jouret warned his followers of a coming apocalypse. He explained this would occur through environmental disasters and only the elite would survive.
Documentary producers David Cohen and David Carr Brown had just completed a film about the tragedy that had engulfed the cult when they stumbled upon an apparent connection with Kelly. "We had been working on the documentary for more than a year and were pretty sure we knew the story inside out," recalls Cohen.
Shortly after their film was shown across Europe, however, a mysterious Frenchman contacted the filmmakers. "He told me we didn't know the full story. Which, of course, got our attention," says Cohen.
It was only after several parts of the mystery caller's story checked out, however, that the filmmakers agreed to meet the man – who insisted on remaining anonymous due to the continuing police investigation into the cult – in Paris. "During the filming of our documentary about the Solar Temple, former members had told us that we needed to track down di Mambro's head of security, as he was the man who knew all the secrets," Cohen recalls. "He was happy to talk about his role. But it wasn't until we had met him a few times that he mentioned Grace. One of the most unusual things about the Solar Temple was the amount of rich and successful people that had become members, but the notion that Grace Kelly may be one of them seemed too far-fetched." But still they persisted.
Kelly was born in 1929 in Philadelphia. She was the third child of Jack Kelly, a handsome, domineering man who was convinced his daughter would never amount to much. For the rest of her life, Kelly looked elsewhere for love from men. After finishing school, she rebelled, enrolling at the Academy of Dramatic Art in New York against her parents' wishes. As a conciliatory measure, she agreed to lodge at the Barbizon in Manhattan, a ladies-only hotel with strict rules. But she quickly found ways around them, developing a passion for older, rich men. Kelly got her big break in her 20s, opposite Gary Cooper in High Noon, and it wasn't long before she had become one of the biggest stars of the 1950s.
In 1955 the magazine Paris Match arranged for Kelly to meet Prince Rainier of Monaco at the Cannes Film Festival. Both had tired of unsatisfactory liaisons, and the prince was in need of an heir, so Kelly finally married. Their apparently fairy-tale wedding was one of the most captivating of the 20th century. Officially Kelly was happy in her role as devoted wife, mother and philanthropist, but reports over the years have pointed to a more conflicted reality. It has been suggested that she came to find the perimeters of her kingdom confining.
Donald Spoto spends much of his new book, High Society, defending the image of the Hollywood star. His biography stems from hours of interview tapes he collected from Kelly prior to her death. The two became friends, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he gives short shrift to questions about her connection to the Solar Temple. "I heard (about the rumours] once but I defy anyone to give me any shred of credible evidence that they are true," he says. "It goes against everything in Grace's character. Here was a woman who, long before we had the word 'feminist', thought for herself, who acted strongly and independently against the constraints of the studio system, a woman who always had her eye on being a wife and mother and never cared to climb the ladder to success.
"She was a good and decent woman. She was also a very traditional Roman Catholic. Her faith was enormously important to her. It wasn't that sort of superstitious, knee-jerk, frightened, guilt-ridden kind of Irish-American Catholicism. It was very deep. It was tolerant. It was open.
"It's just like all of the tales about Grace's hundreds of lovers. The whole thing is comical. Did she have boyfriends before she married? Of course she did. She was a beautiful, sensual, passionate woman who enjoyed male company, and men loved her. But it was no more than that."
Allegations that Kelly belonged to the Solar Temple were also dismissed as "sick fantasies" by a Monaco palace spokesman at the time the documentary went out on Channel 4 in 1997. But while there are those who prefer to deny anything that suggests a wildness in the princess's life, they are in the minority. Since her death, biographers have struggled to chart the exact number of her lovers. In her book True Grace, Wendy Leigh paints a picture of a woman whose sexual appetite borders on the wanton. She unearths compelling evidence that the princess enjoyed passionate relationships with many men, including one with David Niven that is said to have lasted for decades.
Quite how far Kelly indulged might never be known. Kelly's life was paradoxical: she was indeed a spiritual but highly sexual woman who, according to many, was frustrated by the limitations of life as a royal. Could that be why she turned to the Order of the Solar Temple in the last months of her life?
There may be no direct corroboration for her connection to the cult, but the circumstantial evidence is strong, according to Cohen. "We know that di Mambro's security guard was an integral part of the inner workings of the Solar Temple. He was di Mambro's driver, but he also looked after security and the cult's finances. We were able to corroborate this through former members of the cult.
But the biggest breakthrough was when the acupuncturist agreed to speak to them. "She also wished to remain anonymous, and we wondered at first whether she had been pressurised into speaking to us. As she talked, though, it became clear that it was the Solar Temple she feared. Her description of how she had prepared the princess for the initiation ceremony, by calming her through acupuncture, convinced us that the former film star had indeed become part of the cult as she searched for happiness just months before her death."
According to Cohen, di Mambro's former security guard told him that, after the ceremony at the priory, Kelly was asked to donate 20 million Swiss francs to the order. She agreed to pay 12 million francs into a bank in Zurich, but shortly after began to have doubts and quarrelled with di Mambro. "They got greedy and asked for too much cash," he says. "Grace threatened to expose di Mambro's demands for money, and her attitude spooked him. She was, after all, not the only person of influence in the order, and di Mambro could not afford to alienate his rich patrons."
A few months later, on 13 September, Kelly was out driving with her younger daughter Stephanie when their car crashed over a mountainside, landing, bizarrely, in a garden owned by another Solar Temple member. Kelly was pulled alive from the wreckage, but had suffered serious injuries and died in hospital the next day, bringing to an end an exceptional life, and with it all possibility of a reliable resolution to the eternal enigma of her life.
Grace Kelly: Style Icon, V&A, London, 17 April to 26 September; High Society, by Donald Spoto, is published on Thursday (Arrow, 8.99)
• This Article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, March 28, 2010