Prince Rainier III, the man who transformed Monaco from a faded Riviera gambling backwater into a hugely successful financial center and a haven for the super-rich, died Wednesday, plunging the tiny Mediterranean principality into a state of deep mourning. Even the fabled Monte Carlo casino shut down for the day as residents, many fighting back tears, paid tribute to the man best known outside Monaco for his marriage to film star Grace Kelly.
Rainier, who ruled the principality of 32,000 people -- the smallest state in the world after the Vatican -- for more than 50 years, died at 6:35 a.m. after a month in the hospital battling lung, heart and kidney problems. He was 81.
He will be succeeded as ruler by Prince Albert, 47. Rainier's body was transferred from the hospital back to his hilltop palace Wednesday morning, where he will lie in state in the chapel until the funeral on April 15.
"Everyone here feels orphaned," Patrick Leclercq, Monaco's minister of state, said on French television. The presidents of France and Germany praised his reign, and the European Commission and Britain sent their condolences.
The prince will be buried alongside his wife at Monaco Cathedral, where they married in 1956. An empty slab of marble awaits beside her tomb. But if the world remembers him as the devoted husband (he never remarried) of the princess, and as the father of three errant children whose escapades kept the European paparazzi in gainful employ for decades, in Monaco Rainier is feted as the "builder prince."
It was his vision that created the magnet that Monaco became for the super-rich and super-beautiful, his energy that kept the jealous French at bay, his ambition that transformed a sleepy resort into a center of finance with a seat at the United Nations.
It may be hard to believe now, but when Prince Rainier inherited Monaco from his grandfather, Louis II, in 1949, it was a rather rundown sort of place. By then the principality had been in the hands of his family, the Grimaldis, for the best part of 700 years. In 1297 Rainier's ancestor Francois Grimaldi arrived in Monaco and, disguised as a monk, took over the fortress high above the Mediterranean on the site where the royal palace now stands in a bloodless coup.
As royal dynasties came and went across Europe, the Grimaldis held their own. Rainier III, however, was determined to push Monaco onto the international stage. He set about reinventing the place as a center for finance, a principality where the very wealthy could base themselves and watch their riches grow thanks to the very favorable, and very discreet, tax regime.
Under Rainier's watchful eye, Monaco, not much bigger than Regent's Park in central London, expanded in all directions. Elegant mansions and apartments were crammed onto its crags; shopping malls and a train station were built underground to save space; land reclaimed from the sea increased the country's size by 20 percent.
But Monaco would not have become the place it is without Rainier's marriage to Kelly, whom he met during a 1955 film festival. Aristotle Onassis summed it up at the time: "A prince and a movie star. It's pure fantasy." The presence of Princess Grace gave Monaco a sheen, a touch of class it might have otherwise lacked.
The Monaco Grand Prix also helped. Every spring its narrow streets are turned into a racing track that for many is the highlight of the Grand Prix calendar. Attracted by the glamour, and of course those tempting tax conditions, racing drivers, rock stars and tennis players made Monaco their home. But tragedy struck.
In September 1982 a Rover saloon carrying Princess Grace and Stephanie, then 17, plunged into a ravine from one of the hairpin bends that separate the Grimaldi family's weekend retreat from the royal palace in Monaco town. Princess Grace died the day after the accident.
Following the death of their mother, Stephanie and her sister, Caroline, seemed to lurch from one scandal to another. Stephanie had a series of affairs with men seen as inappropriate. Caroline, the older sister, caused outrage in Roman Catholic Monaco when she was photographed topless. She suffered more torment when her second husband, Stefano Casiraghi, was killed in a speedboat accident in 1990.
Staying a step ahead of the French was another challenge for Prince Rainier. In 1962, President Charles de Gaulle surrounded Monaco with troops and threatened to cut off its water if the French citizens who lived there did not pay taxes. They duly did so. More recently, there have been rows over the principality's banking secrecy laws and reputation for international money laundering.
But for Monaco's grieving citizens Wednesday, the question was whether the principality would survive Prince Rainier. Odette Sainsaulieu, 66, told French media outside the hospital that his had been a golden era and "a way of life, a way of living, of managing the principality."