Treachery, Bankruptcy and Grace – the Grimaldi’s of Monaco


 “I avoid looking back.  I prefer good memories to regrets.” – Princess Grace of Monaco

What royal family has a vast fortune originally acquired through gambling profits, a current reigning ruler with two illegitimate children, and had an ancestor oust their way into power by wearing a costume, seeking sanctuary in the stronghold of Monaco, and then murdering the blokes on guard?

Welcome to the world of the Grimaldis.

I visited Monaco last week. I had always wanted to visit, but knew nothing about it. Unfortunately, I did a lot of my research on the royal family after my visit, which would have enhanced my trip greatly. So you don’t make the same mistake, I’m going to introduce you to the rather ridiculous world of Monaco’s royal family.


Firstly, a primer on why there is a Prince and Princess of Monaco, as opposed to a King and Queen. Monaco has, largely, operated as a principality of France. As a principality, the Grimaldi’s were directly answerable to the French monarch. There was no need to have their own King. In fact, French law states that, if a suitable offspring is not produced ( or adopted) by the Grimaldi’s, the territory would pass back to the French. This holds particular importance in the later years of the reign.

The Grimaldi's


It seems hard to believe, but before the 1800s, the Grimaldi’s were a very poor royal family. They acquired Monaco through trickery. Originally a stronghold of Genoa, in 1297 Francis Grimaldi and his supporters conquered the castle of Monaco disguised as friars. The Grimaldi’s became the lords of Monaco, and have remained so until today, with the only exception being a short occupation during the French Revolution.

Outside of this time, Monaco has operated as a principality of France or Sardinia. For decades the unhappy, destitute and adulterous rulers of Monaco set out to increase their standing in French society, largely ignoring the local Monégasque people.

In 1814, the principality of Monaco was re-established after the end of the French Revolution, but under the protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia. It remained so until 1860, when Sardinia was ceded to France by the Treaty of Turin, including the surrounding county of Nice – which included Monaco.


Princess Caroline, the wife of Prince Florestan I, was the one who managed to turn the finances of Monaco around. Florestan was a pretty inefficient ruler, and ceded power to his son, Prince Charles III. On February 2nd, in 1861, Prince Charles III gave up Monaco’s rulership of the local townships of Menton and Roquebrune to France. He did this as an exchange for total independence from French political influence – and four million francs.

Losing control over Menton and Roquebrune meant that Monaco shrunk roughly 95% in size. It also lost considerable revenue as a result of the loss of taxation on the citrus fruits and byproducts sold in the region. The four million francs received were mainly used to enhance roading and rail links to an isolated Monaco. Within a few short years, the money was going to run out.

The Grimaldi's

Despite her son being in power, Princess Caroline was still calling the shots. A former actress with an astute head for business, she developed a plan to reinvigorate the finances of the small principality. She had seen the popularity of towns on the French Riveria with British society-makers who wintered there. Taking advantage of the temperate climate of the region, she recognised that Monaco could too become a popular attraction for the rich and famous – even more so if they were able to gamble. Casinos were, at that time, banned in mainland France and Italy.

She encouraged the creation of the bizarrely named Société des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Étrangers à Monaco (Society of Sea Baths and Circle of Strangers in Monaco – S.B.M), which commenced operations in 1863. Although it isn’t entirely obvious from the name, this was the organisation who ran the casino established in the new neighbourhood of Monte Carlo (Mount Charles), along with the opera and Hotel de Paris.

The ‘strangers’ aspect refers to the fact that local Monégasque people were, and still are, barred from gambling at Monte Carlo. The sea bath reference came from the creation of a thermal resort for wealthy Europeans to ‘take the waters’ in Monaco, despite them lacking mineral properties.

Today, the S.B.M is 6% owned by the Qatari royal family, an interesting choice of investment given their religious background.  S.B.M also opened a resort on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, home of the Lourve Abu Dhabi. It gave up on this venture in 2014.


By the time Albert I (son of Charles III) ascended the throne, things were pretty swell money-wise. Much like many other royals in Europe at the time, he sat around like a spare part, waiting for his day to rule. He decided to throw himself into his love of oceanography, eventually creating the famed oceanographic institute in Monaco and travelling as far as the North Pole.

This is more than can be said for Edward, the Prince of Wales, in waiting to the British throne at the time. He frequented the gambling tables of Monte Carlo under an assumed name, but insisted on carrying around his prized pooch. The jeweled collar on his pup read ‘I belong to the Prince of Wales’.

the Grimaldi's
This handsome devil is Albert I. Clearly a dab hand on the old bicycle. Photo credit: Oceanographic Institute of Monaco 

When he was eventually brought into power in 1889, he had already separated from his first wife, which was to be followed be a tumultuous second marriage. Albert I was pretty much married to the sea, and a distant father and partner. He disapproved of his son, Louis II, who didn’t see Albert I between the ages of one and 11. Louis II went on to further sever ties with his father by joining the French Foreign Legion, and by knocking up a cabaret singer in Algeria called Marie Juliette Louvet. All class, was Louis II.


To complicate matters, he didn’t have any more children. His daughter, Charlotte, was borne out of wedlock. In order to prevent the end of the Grimaldi line of succession, Louis II adopted Princess Charlotte following the death of her mother. The line of succession was safe for a little longer, provided that Charlotte one day gave birth to a son. She did, in an extremely unhappy marriage to the Prince de Poliginac, who she divorced as soon as she had popped out an heir to the throne. Given his homosexuality, it could have been predicted that things wouldn’t work out too well.

The two offspring of the marriage, Antoinette and Rainier, were shuttled between the parents throughout their childhood, with the Prince de Poliginac eventually being banished from the principality. Princess Charlotte wasn’t much better, turning the family estate into a rehabilitation centre for ex-convicts and later shacking up with a notorious jewel thief. She kept a small troupe of dogs that were so vicious, her children gave up visiting her in later years.

By the time Prince Rainer III came to rule, he realised he needed to diversify the income Monaco gathered. By the 1960s, the S.B.M was controlled by Aristotle Onassis, who had edged into power using a range of holding companies registered offshore. Though Prince Rainier was originally supportive of Onassis, this relationship quickly soured when he realised they had different ambitions for the principality. Prince Rainer wanted to turn Monaco into a resort for the middle class in addition to the well-to-do, and encourage a small amount of manufacturing.

Onassis only had eyes for the luxury market, and reflected this in his business decisions. To make matters worse, Prince Rainier’s sister Antoinette vehemently hated her brother, and used every opportunity to try and usurp his power. This isn’t some ancient battle for power we are talking about. This is less than 70 years ago.


In order to try and strengthen his position, Prince Rainier decided he better find himself a wife. Following WWII, there weren’t many eligible bachelorettes to be found. His wife needed to be Catholic, not previously married or divorced, and wealthy – as the Grimaldi’s, while rich, still didn’t want to stump up for a wedding. After quickly exhausting their options for a European princess, the Grimaldi’s turned to Hollywood. The meeting of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly in 1954 was actually preceded by a meeting in 1953. She was filming ‘To Catch a Thief’ in Monte Carlo, and Rainier – with little interest in Hollywood – coolly greeted its stars.

He did have a greater interest in actresses in general, though, and was previously linked to the French film star Gisèle Pascal. When Grace was told she was going to meet Prince Rainier for publicity photos at his palace at the time of the Cannes film festival, she seemed rather bemused.

the Grimaldi's
Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly. Photo credit: W Magazine

Things moved fairly quickly from then on, with a rather wholesome letter writing campaign leading on to Prince Rainier visiting Grace in the US. Protocol meant that he could not ask her to marry him if there was any chance of a refusal, so the question was awkwardly broached through various intermediaries. It wasn’t quite the fairytale romance portrayed by the media.

Grace had a fairly rough upbringing, with a father that was extremely hard to please. He undermined her every achievement. When asked by the press what he thought of Grace winning an Oscar in 1955, he replied:

There’s been too much publicity about Grace. Peggy’s the family extrovert. Just between us, I’ve always thought her the daughter most on the ball.

Desperately seeking a kindly father-figure, Grace tied herself up in affairs with various older men – some married – in her search for happiness. To a middle-class American from Philadelphia, the opportunity to become a Princess must have been fairly overwhelming. Her father put up $2M USD to pay for the wedding, she completed her last film with MGM, and married Rainier in 1956.

the Grimaldi's


To be honest, in terms of personal relationship scandals, this period of Grimaldi history is the least dicey. Sure, Grace felt trapped in the marriage, and a bit useless, having given up a successful career to become a living prop. However, apart from a few issues with wild teenagers, the period was one marked largely with Grace’s melancholy sadness. The children were mainly raised by their nanny. The couple never divorced, which puts them one up on a good 90% of prior Grimaldi’s.

She died in 1984 when driving herself and princess Stephanie down the windy Route de la Turbine to the Palace, ostensibly the result of a stroke. The corner where she died was called ‘The Devil’s Curse’. Stephanie struggled with the death of her mother, becoming a well known royal wild child. Rainier never remarried, and died in 2005.

Then along came the reign of Prince Albert II. His mop of curly blond hair sadly dissipated during his twenties. This didn’t seem to make him any less attractive to various women of the world. It could have been his money that did the trick. In 2011, Albert was listed as the 10th richest monarch in the world, worth about $1B USD.

To be honest, so far, Albert hasn’t done anything particularly exciting, except have two children out of wedlock, neither of which can inherit the Grimaldi throne. And you thought the famous Grimaldi adulterous streak had ended! He also is somewhat famous for competing in – and presumably creating – the Monaco bobsled team at the Winter Olympics. Yes, he was the flag bearer for Monaco.

Princess Caroline, the oldest of the children of Grace and Prince Rainier, had a short first marriage, and a tragic second, with her husband dying in a motorboat accident. Princess Stephanie is best known for shacking up with a circus performer.


Visiting Monaco today, the thing you notice is how incredibly crowded the place is. Apartment blocks stacked on apartment blocks. Real estate prices are incredible. A 32 square metre apartment was listed for €1.6M when we visited. The buildings themselves, for the main part, look like the tacky old high rises that haunt Juan-les-Pins, clearly a product of the 1960s. There are still the majestic royal buildings, gardens and parks, but the whole area gives off a strangely Disney-like vibe. It’s very clean. The harbour is full of mega yachts. As long as you’re not a citizen of France (who have double taxation laws), you to buy a small studio in the principality, and then buy a bigger home in nearby Menton. You’ll then live a tax free existence.

You’re going to need all the pennies you can gather, because everything in Monaco is insanely inflated. That’s what you pay to live in one of the most exclusive, and safe, areas of the world. It makes its money today through a range of financial services based in the country, currency exchange, tourism, gambling profits and, oddly enough, football player transfers. Companies face a 33% tax on unless they can show that three-quarters of profits are generated within the principality. The state retains monopolies in tobacco, the telephone network, and the postal service.

The Grimaldi's

I enjoyed visiting Monaco. The history of the place is fascinating. I had no idea that, while the royal families revenues are today diversified, it is a principality built on gambling. It wasn’t so long along that the family was nearly bankrupt. Imagine what they could have achieved if they weren’t constantly at each other’s throats, trying to undermine the efforts of one another.

I’d like to return some day, to better try and imagine what the rocky outcrop of Monaco looked like before the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo was a reality.


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The 58th Floor is the travel and lifestyle blog of Belinda Birchall, based in Dubai. It provides advice and information on travel throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as useful information for living in Dubai - and anything else of interest!
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