Princess Lee Radziwill and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, photographed by prom cocktail dresses 2018 Benno Graziani in Conca dei Marini, Italy, 1962.
© Benno Graziani/Photo12.
Born to dazzle, they were the most famous sisters in the world, the Bouvier girls—Jacqueline and Caroline Lee. Jackie was studious, dark-haired, athletic, and reserved. Lee—three and a half years younger—was light-haired, chubby, mischievous, adventurous. As young girls, they called each other “Jacks” and “Pekes.” “When I was seven and we lived in New York, I ran away,” Lee, now 83 and still stunning, once told Gloria Steinem. “I took my dog and started out across the Brooklyn Bridge…. I didn’t get very far…. It’s rather difficult to run away in your mother’s high heels.”
Raised in a 12-room duplex apartment at 740 Park Avenue in Manhattan, the sisters summered at the family estate, Lasata, on Further Lane in East Hampton. They adored their father, John Vernou Bouvier III, known as “Black Jack” for both his perpetual deep tan and his roguish reputation. A stockbroker and ladies’ man, he resembled Clark Gable so closely that he was often approached by autograph seekers. His relentless womanizing, heavy drinking, and diminishing fortune ended up derailing his marriage, to Janet Lee Bouvier, but he doted on his daughters, encouraging them not only to work hard but to “be the best.”
But there could be only one “best.” Lee loved her older sister, but she found it difficult to live up to Jackie’s accomplishments, such as winning equestrian prizes and earning top grades at Miss Porter’s School for girls, in Farmington, Connecticut. Jackie would grow up to be universally regarded as one of the most beautiful and stylish women in the world, but among those who knew both sisters, Lee was seen as being equally—if not even more—beautiful and stylish, with a keener eye for fashion, color, and design.
When asked if a love of beauty is possibly an inherited trait, Lee answered, “I think there’s a seed. If you do have it, and have the means to live that way, people who love beauty—we’re a tribe, really.”
I visited Lee in her sun-drenched apartment in April during the Greek Independence Day Parade—ironic, given her and her sister Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s connection to the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Lee looked resplendent in tan slacks and a white sweater with a high, ruffled collar, her champagne-colored hair immaculately upswept into a regal coif. She is still alluring, still sensuous, and she still possesses a marvelous laugh. At one point she donned sunglasses as the sun moved brightly across her beautifully appointed living room.
Her longtime maid, Theresa, who had recently come out of retirement in Florida to help Lee, served us an exquisite luncheon of baked salmon on a small folding table in front of the fireplace. Once Lee accepted the fact that I was indeed doing a story about her, she said, “Please tell me this is not a story about my sister and me. I’m just sick of that! It’s like we’re Siamese twins!”
But it’s difficult to meet Lee and not think of her sister. Looking into her face, one has the uncanny sense of seeing Jackie’s face as well. She shares her sister’s widely set eyes and high cheekbones, although her features are more refined than Jackie’s, her coloring lighter. Truman Capote once described her eyes as “gold-brown like a glass of brandy resting on a table in front of firelight.”
One is struck by the Eastern influences in Lee’s living room, such as the kneeling ceramic camel, inspired, one guesses, by Lee’s celebrated trip to India and Pakistan with Jackie, in 1962. “Taste is an emotion,” Lee once said, and the emotion conveyed in her living room is one of peaceful refuge. As her friend André Leon Talley, the former editor-at-large for Vogue, told me, Lee is one who took to heart Diana Vreeland’s famous remark “Elegance is refusal.”
“The lack of clutter, the choices of things to put on the wall,” Talley said, “it’s all done with care and love of that objet, a sense of editing—editing her clothes and editing her friends and editing the menus for dinner. And she edits people. She edits herself. She edits her wardrobe. She edits her life.”
Perhaps the thing Lee has edited most carefully is her relationship with her sister and the Kennedys. “It’s the subject you never bring up,” Talley explained. “I mean, there’s an unspoken rule that if you’re friends with Lee you don’t talk about her sister at all.”
Lee realized early on that her father “favored Jackie…. That was very clear to me, but I didn’t resent it, because I understood he had reason to … she was not only named after him … but she actually looked almost exactly like him, which was a source of great pride to my father,” Lee recalled in her 2000 book, Happy Times.
After a bitter divorce, when Jackie and Lee were 10 and 7 years old, Janet married the unprepossessing but wealthy investment banker Hugh D. Auchincloss. As she had been trained to do by her wealthy, social-climbing father, James Thomas Aloysius Lee, Janet married smartly—at least she did the second time around. Whereas Bouvier’s money had been depleted by a series of bad investments, Auchincloss’s fortune was nourished by Standard Oil. Janet moved with her girls to Merrywood, Auchincloss’s stately Georgian house with terraced gardens overlooking the Potomac River in northern Virginia, and they spent summers at Hammersmith Farm, his sprawling, 50-acre wooded estate in Newport, Rhode Island.
Suddenly thrust into a family with four step-siblings (Auchincloss had a son, Hugh, from his first marriage, to Maya de Chrapovitsky, and a son and daughter, Thomas and Nina, from his second marriage, to Nina Gore, who had a son of her own, Gore Vidal), Jackie and Lee were no longer the center of Janet’s fierce attentions. The late Gore Vidal once described his stepfather as “a magnum of chloroform,” but “Uncle Hughdie,” as Jackie and Lee called him, proved to be a steady husband to Janet and father to the girls. Lee in particular was enchanted by Hammersmith Farm: “To arrive there, as a child … was just a fairy tale,” she once reminisced to The New York Times. “It was good for my imagination.”
Nonetheless, the two girls were aware that they were coming into an established family and unfamiliar circumstances. “They were like little orphans,” the writer and socialite Helen Chavchavadze, who had been in the same class as Lee at Miss Porter’s, told Sally Bedell Smith, for the 2004 book Grace and Power. “Jackie and Lee were very fused, the way sisters are when they haven’t had much security.”
After the divorce Bouvier had moved to a rather small, sunless one-bedroom apartment on East 74th Street. When his daughters visited, he would serve them dinner on a card table, as the dining room had been turned into a tiny bedroom for them. Their father’s reversal of fortune would leave the sisters with a lifelong awareness of their own financial security. According to biographer Sarah Bradford, Jackie once remarked to bandleader Peter Duchin, who had been raised under similar circumstances in the household of New York governor Averell Harriman, “You know, Peter, we both live and do very well in this world of WASPs and old money and society…. But you and I are not really of it.”
The normal sibling rivalry was not diminished in the sisters’ new circumstance, however. At Jackie’s coming-out party, at the Newport clambake club, in August of 1947, Lee found a way to steal Jackie’s thunder by showing up in a daring pink strapless dress sprinkled with rhinestones. (Jackie didn’t seem to mind, and in fact appropriated that dress for another debutante party.)
In their teens each sister developed her own style. Lee, now slimmer and sleeker than her older sister, had more flair. She loved color, and she loved to be noticed. Jackie saw how boys flocked to Lee, admiring her fine-boned features and more feminine shape. (Jackie, though already a beauty, was big-boned and flat-chested.) One thing they did have in common, however, was a soft, whispery way of speaking. Lee’s voice was slightly huskier; Jackie’s had the breathy, little-girl quality of Marilyn Monroe’s, which belied her strong intelligence.
Jackie, flanked by Lee and industrialist Gianni Agnelli, in Ravello, Italy, 1962.
From A.P. Images.
The Grand Tour
Rather surprisingly, after months of coaxing, Janet agreed to let 18-year-old Lee travel to Europe, in the summer of 1951, with Jackie—who had already lived in Paris, having taken her junior year abroad to study at the Sorbonne. The trip was Lee’s high-school graduation present, but it had another reason: as a consolation for Jackie after her mother and Uncle Hughdie had made her turn down Vogue’s Prix de Paris award for an essay she’d written that year. The prize was to spend a year working in Vogue’s Paris and New York offices.
With 21-year-old Jackie as her sister’s chaperone, and armed with Auchincloss letters of introduction to ambassadors and doyennes throughout Europe, the two young women made their way into the greater world, tootling around in a Hillman Minx.
What could have been more delightful for a pretty young girl in 1951 than to have been let loose in Europe? The two sisters kept a journal of their travels, illustrated with charming drawings and poems. Their reassuring letters to their mother (“We DO sew on all our buttons and wear gloves”) were belied by snapshots showing the girls in St. Mark’s Square dressed in slacks and sandals (Jackie) and a short skirt and ankle-strap shoes (Lee). “Look at us,” Lee later remarked to The New York Times about the half-century-old photographs. “How did those countries let us in? We look like two criminals arriving off the boat.”
Among their adventures: sneaking into first-class dinner dances on shipboard and Lee’s wardrobe malfunction at a gala reception when her underwear fell down while she was being introduced to an ambassador. On the trip Lee met one of her heroes, the art historian Bernard Berenson, when she and Jackie were invited to drop in on him at I Tatti, his Florentine villa. Thanks in part to Berenson, Lee would have a lifelong fascination with art history, especially Renaissance art. “I felt like I’d met God,” she recalled.
After returning to the States, Jackie took a job, in the fall of 1951, as an “inquiring camera girl” for the Washington Times-Herald for.50 per week and managed to interview, among others, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Instead of going to Vassar like Jackie, Lee enrolled at Sarah Lawrence, but dropped out after three terms. More exciting things were in the offing: she worked as a special assistant to Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and she married Michael Temple Canfield, beating her older sister to the altar.
On April 18, 1953, Lee wed the shy, handsome book-publishing scion, whom she had known and dated since she was 15. Auchincloss hosted the wedding reception at his stately Merrywood home, and Jack Bouvier—chastened by and envious of his successor’s wealth—gave away the bride. Auchincloss had slight misgivings about the marriage, though, not because of Lee’s youth at 20 years of age but because “he will never be able to afford her,” he confided to a friend, according to Diana DuBois’s book, In Her Sister’s Shadow.
Michael had been adopted by Cass Canfield, the wealthy and distinguished publisher of Harper & Row (which would become the Kennedys’ publishing house), but he was rumored to be the illegitimate son of the Duke of Kent and Kiki Preston. Kiki was an American adventuress who had first met the duke in Kenya, where reportedly she introduced him to cocaine. As a result of this thrilling rumor, young Michael assumed rather dapper English airs and dress, and—at six feet three inches, blond, and slim—he did cut an elegant figure. Lee later said that one reason she married so young was “I couldn’t wait to be on my own … and he was very bright and super-handsome.” They moved into a tiny penthouse apartment in New York, which Lee delighted in decorating, but soon thereafter the couple decamped to London. Sent abroad to work in Harper & Row’s office there, Canfield was instead approached by the American ambassador, Winthrop Aldrich, to take the position of his special assistant, which quickly won the young American expats entrée to the best of London society.
Truths Universally Acknowledged
By marrying first, Lee had upstaged her older sister, but within two months of catching Lee’s bouquet, Jackie trumped her once more by becoming engaged to the most eligible bachelor in America, the dashing soon-to-be senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Not only was he extremely handsome, witty, and intelligent, he was very, very rich.
The wedding, held that September 12, was touted in the press as “the social event of 1953.” The gala reception, organized by Janet, was in Newport. Once again, Black Jack Bouvier had been invited as father of the bride. After years of disappointment and decline, he no longer cut a dashing figure, and on the big day he sulked half-dressed with a bottle of scotch in his room at the Hotel Viking, where, sadly, he got too drunk to walk his favorite daughter down the aisle. The honor fell to Hughdie Auchincloss.
In London, Lee enjoyed an extraordinary social whirl, but the marriage was not particularly happy. For one thing, Canfield was quite a heavy drinker, and for another, the couple were unsuccessful in their attempts to conceive, according to DuBois. When Jackie visited her sister in London and Canfield asked her how he could hold on to Lee, Jackie answered, “Get more money, Michael.” When he demurred that he already had a good salary, Jackie explained, “No, Michael. I mean real money.” But what finally ended the marriage was Lee’s affair with the émigré aristocrat Stanislaw “Stas” Radziwill.
Radziwill’s Polish family had been impoverished by the German invasion. Stas escaped to London at the end of World War II. Virtually penniless, he traded on nothing but his charm, his title (prince), and his wits, marrying a Swiss heiress and eventually earning a fortune in real estate. Bighearted, larger than life, sometimes imperious, he was well liked in London, and by the time Lee met him, he was married to his second wife, the heiress Grace Kolin. James Symington, then an attaché at the American Embassy, recalled in a phone interview the dinner party he gave for the Canfields, the Radziwills, and Lord and Lady Dudley on March 26, 1957. “I remember the date because it was a birthday party for my son. After their divorces, Lee married Radziwill, Grace married Lord Dudley, and Michael married Lady Dudley. It was quite a trio!”
Lee and Stas had their first child and only son, Anthony, less than a year after the wedding, and the marriage allowed her to flourish in a much grander style. She was now living a life that even Jackie might envy, in a handsome house at 4 Buckingham Place (near Buckingham Palace) and a 17th-century bakehouse called Turville Grange, on roughly 50 acres of gardens, stables, and a courtyard, an hour’s drive from London. She worked closely with the set designer Renzo Mongiardino to transform both houses into stunning showplaces.
Jackie was just 31 years old when she moved into the White House, becoming First Lady (a term she never liked, she said, because it always sounded too much like the name of a saddle horse). “They were our happiest years,” Jackie recalled. Kennedy was particularly proud of his wife and sister-in-law. His eyes brightened when he talked of Jackie, and according to photographer Cecil Beaton’s diaries, he once told Lee, “I love her deeply and have done everything for her. I’ve no feeling of letting her down, because I’ve put her foremost in everything.” For the better part of six decades, Lee has remained discreetly silent about her brother-in-law’s conga line of paramours, which included Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Judith Campbell Exner.
The Kennedys were disappointed when Lee and Stas stayed in London and missed Jack’s inauguration because, the previous August, Lee had given premature birth to a second child, Anna Christina “Tina” Radziwill, which had left mother and infant in precarious health.
But there was something else brewing. According to John H. Davis, a Bouvier cousin, in his 1969 book, The Bouviers, Jackie’s “accession to the White House promised to magnify a problem [Lee] had had to cope with for some time, the problem simply of being Jackie’s sister. Although she was abundantly gifted herself … she had often been obscured by the shadow of her sister’s prominence, and now that shadow threatened to eclipse her identity.”
Nonetheless, Jackie’s two and a half years in the White House brought the sisters closer together. Overwhelmed by her new status and responsibilities, Jackie relied on Lee. “She had to travel a lot and liked to have me with her,” Lee recalled in Happy Times. “Apart from mutual affection, I think our strongest bond was a shared sense of humor.” Lee and Stas made frequent visits to the White House, Lee occupying the Queen’s Bedroom and Stas in the Lincoln Bedroom. The couples spent three happy Christmases in Palm Beach together, with all their children.
Jackie hosted an early dinner dance in the White House for the Radziwills. Both sisters dazzled, Jackie in a white sheath gown and Lee nearly upstaging her in red brocade. Jackie, in fact, often consulted Lee in matters of fashion. Lee was more daring, and more European, in her taste, wearing the French designer Courrèges and smuggling Givenchy dresses into the White House because the president wanted Jackie to wear only American couture. “Lee was the first to be dressed in a Paris couture house, and not Jackie,” Talley explained. “Jackie loves Paris, but she’s as American as a sweater … but she’s not as American as apple pie.”
The fashion designer Ralph Rucci, who became close to Lee in 2000, agrees. “Lee has always been an original. Mrs. Vreeland said that Jacqueline Kennedy released style in this nation. Well, she had a great deal of assistance, and she had the best tutors. But Lee did it on her own. She understands clothes. Lee could put on a coat and will know how to turn her shoulder and her head and her arm and hold the coat so that it’s perfection.”
Lee Radziwill on the cover of the July 14, 1967 issue of LIFE.
By Pierre Boulat/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images.
Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds
But Jackie’s spectacular success on a trip to Paris in 1961 turned Jackie, not Lee, into an international fashion icon. Kennedy famously introduced himself to the French press as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” and Time magazine christened Jackie “First Lady of Fashion.” In fact, Lee had been instrumental in selecting Jackie’s Givenchy wardrobe for this defining moment on the world stage.
It was the same story during the sisters’ historic state visit to India and Pakistan, in March 1962, when more than 100,000 people lined the road as Jackie’s motorcade made its way slowly through New Delhi, shouting, “Long live Mrs. Kennedy,” as Lee sat silently beside her.
The sisters even rode a ceremonial camel, where they were perched sidesaddle in sleeveless summer dresses, pearls, and high heels. (One of Lee’s shoes fell off and was lost.) Lee was in front, holding the reins until Jackie ordered, “Hand me the reins, Lee,” according to Secret Service agent Clint Hill’s 2012 book, Mrs. Kennedy and Me, and she did.
The focus of attention was always on Jackie, who became aware of how Lee was being overlooked throughout their trip. Jackie was becoming “the most photographed woman in the world,” Cecil Beaton wrote in his diaries in February of 1968. “She is still the most photogenic person in the world, infinitely more so than her infinitely more beautiful sister, Lee Radziwill.”
What Jackie didn’t know at the time was that Lee’s marriage to Stas was disintegrating. Stas took other lovers but remained devoted to Lee, even admiring her extravagance in spite of himself. “The little girl is very, very small,” he once confided to a friend, according to DuBois. “It is fantastic how much she costs to dress.”
Perhaps the glamour of her sister’s life encouraged Lee to find a way to, if not outdo Jackie, at least match her with a friend as worldly, influential, and charming to women as John Kennedy, but far, far richer: the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Socrates Onassis.
Lee described Onassis to talk-show host Larry King as “magnetic. [He] moved like a potentate, noticing and wanting to be noticed … an habitual cigar in his hand.” His estimated worth was 0 million, equivalent to more than billion today.
When I asked if she had thought about marrying Onassis, she answered, “Who didn’t?”
At the time, Onassis was still involved with the opera diva Maria Callas, though Callas was married and their open affair had created a scandal in Europe. Former V.F. editor in chief Leo Lerman wrote in his diaries that Callas said, “I never disliked Jackie, but I hate Lee. I hate her.” Stas, with world-weary acceptance of his wife’s new relationship, was made a director of Olympic Airways, owned by Onassis.
Many speculated that Onassis’s interest in Lee had been enhanced by her connection to the White House. Jack and Robert Kennedy actively disliked and mistrusted Onassis, and Jack, according to Bedell Smith, told his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, that he considered him little better than “a pirate.” (Onassis had been sued by the U.S. government in 1955 for removing from the U.S. a fleet of ships he had bought and promised to keep here. He ended up paying a million fine.) By the summer of 1963, Onassis’s friendship with Lee was being noticed: Drew Pearson wrote in The Washington Post, “Does the ambitious Greek tycoon hope to become the brother-in-law of the American President?”
Bobby Kennedy regarded Lee’s relationship as “a betrayal of the whole family,” recalled writer Evan Thomas, and Bobby hit upon the idea of luring Lee away from Onassis by asking her to accompany Jack on a European tour to Great Britain, Italy, Germany, and Ireland. Jackie was seven months pregnant and, having already endured one miscarriage, did not want to risk the travel. The trip was another triumph as the president was met by three-fifths of West Berlin’s population when he made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in the Rudolf Wilde Platz, with Lee, not Jackie, by his side. “It was the most thrilling experience of my life,” Lee later recalled.
Afterward, Lee returned to London and to Greece, where she resumed her relationship with Onassis, though all was not perfect there. “I always thought Ari’s bathing trunks were too tight,” she said. “I told him so. I thought it was vulgar.”
On August 7, 1963, Jackie gave birth to Patrick, who died 39 hours after being born. Lee received the news while cruising the Aegean with Onassis. She flew to Boston to attend Patrick’s funeral and to comfort her sister, who was plunged deeply into grief. Terribly concerned, Lee urged Onassis to invite Jackie aboard the Christina, his 325-foot yacht.
Jackie couldn’t face returning to Washington so soon after the loss of her baby. Concerned about appearances, Jack actually went down on one knee, their friend Martha Bartlett recalled to Sally Bedell Smith, to beg Jackie not to make the trip. But she was determined to go. In his journals, Camelot historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recalled hearing nasty gossip at a dinner at columnist Stewart Alsop’s about “how terrible it was for to go off on the Onassis yacht.”
What many didn’t know was that Jackie was allowed to go on the cruise as an opportunity to persuade Lee not to marry Onassis, for the sake of the Kennedys, claimed Evan Thomas.
Onassis left the sisters alone for much of the trip, during which they exchanged confidences in their luxurious staterooms. Onassis mostly stayed in his own stateroom, making business calls and dining on lobster thermidor. Four weeks later, Jackie left the cruise, rested and restored to better spirits. As parting gifts, Jackie was given a diamond-and-ruby necklace, and Lee three diamond-studded bracelets. Lee wrote to her brother-in-law that she felt Jackie’s rubies outshone her “dinky little bracelets that Caroline wouldn’t wear to her own birthday party.”
When President Kennedy was assassinated, at 6:30 P.M. London time, November 22, 1963, Lee was at home, at 4 Buckingham Place. She flew to Washington and stayed on in the White House after the funeral. To comfort her sister she left a note on Jackie’s pillow that read, “Good night my darling Jacks—the bravest and noblest of all. L.” But later Lee confided to Cecil Beaton that she “had gone through hell” trying to help her sister: “She’s really more than half round the bend! She can’t sleep at night, she can’t stop thinking about herself and never feeling anything but sorry for herself!”
Jackie even slapped Lee across the face. Lee told Beaton that Jackie was “so jealous of me, but I don’t know if it’s because I have Stas and two children, and I’ve gone my own way and become independent. But she goads me to the extent that I yell back at her and say, ‘Thank heavens, at last I’ve broken away from my parents and from you and everything of that former life.’ ”
Jackie tried putting her life back together, protecting her children and working to burnish the legend of her husband’s brief presidency by conjuring the myth of Camelot. But now it was Lee’s time to shine. She had always hated what had been written about her during the Kennedy years: “It was so limited, so … jet-set, empty, cold, and not true,” she told Steinem in an interview for McCall’s magazine.
“There were so many things I couldn’t do when my brother-in-law was president,” Lee whispered to me in her sun-drenched apartment. “Finally, I’m free.”
MISTRESSES OF DISGUISE
Lee and Jackie, photographed by Ron Galella, while shopping on Capri, in Italy, 1970.
The Truman Show
In 1964, Jackie bought an apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue, just up from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Robert Kennedy persuaded Stas to buy Lee a duplex at 969 Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park, so she would be nearer to Jackie and so her children could spend more time with their cousins.
Lee again turned to Mongiardino to transform the somewhat faded duplex into what many considered the most beautiful showplace in New York, choosing a dramatic, cherry-red velvet for the living room and placing an 18th-century “nursery” painting of a monkey shaking hands with a dog in the dining room. In the hall library she hung Francis Bacon’s 1962 oil painting Figure Turning, which Stas had acquired when he covered the reprobate painter’s gambling debts.
Lee began writing articles on fashion and culture for Ladies’ Home Journal. And when she became friends with Truman Capote, the mischievous, diminutive, and waspish writer, he noticed “her first-class intelligence,” as well as her femininity. “I can’t think of any woman more feminine than Lee Radziwill—not even Audrey Hepburn.”
“Truman fell in love with me,” Radziwill reminisced, elegantly smoking a thin cigarette, a rueful smile playing across her lips. “He thought there was nothing I couldn’t do, and that I must go in the theater and I would be the perfect Tracy Lord,” the heroine of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, a role made famous by Katharine Hepburn. “He would arrange it with such taste. He was convinced that I could do this.”
Stas “was violently against” her going on the stage, Lee recalled. “He said, ‘You have everything in life, a perfect life. Why do you want to go out and get criticized?’ ‘Why?’ I said. ‘Because I’ve always wanted to do this.’ ”
Truman became obsessed with showcasing his favorite “swan,” as he called his society women friends, arranging almost every aspect of the production. In light of Lee’s acting inexperience, it was thought best to open for a four-week run in a small theater in Chicago. Lee “was very excited about it. Truman pushed and pushed, in spite of my husband being so against it.” Yves Saint Laurent was brought in to design all of Lee’s costumes. Kenneth was flown in from New York to do her hair, and Truman was on hand to orchestrate the three-ring circus, coaching Lee and calming her nerves while dancing to his favorite records on a portable phonograph. Doctors kept coming by to give some of the exhausted cast and crew vitamin-B injections, probably the kind made infamous by Dr. Max Jacobson.
“So, all that didn’t help my nerves for opening night,” Lee remembered. Makeup man “George Masters was so excited that Rudolf Nureyev was coming, and Margot Fonteyn, he almost lost his mind. He did dye my hair blond, and he made me a nervous wreck by the time it opened. Then he spent the day on opening night dressing [to impress] Nureyev, in an absolutely snow-white suit. I sat in my dressing room waiting for him, until Rudolf came backstage and just held me in his arms. I was weeping.”
Even though Lee had insisted on using her maiden name in the credits instead of “Princess Radziwill,” the four-week run was sold out, and the first-night audience was studded with the rich and famous. But one famous face failed to appear: Jackie, who was in Ireland at the time. Some have suggested that Jackie’s long trip abroad, coinciding as it did with Lee’s debut in The Philadelphia Story, was Jackie’s polite rebuke of her sister’s latest venture. Could she have been envious? She once told writer Gore Vidal, “I’d love to act. Do you think it’s too late?,” and she’d thought of doing a studio screen test, but the Kennedys wouldn’t allow it. Jackie had become a kind of movie star in her own right, as Vidal later observed: “A silent star of unmade films, her face on every magazine cover almost to the end.” Whatever her true feelings, Jackie sent a pretty little mauve box to Lee on opening night with her wishes for good luck.
When the curtain was raised on the first night of the run, Lee found herself frozen with fear. “I remember so well,” she recalled. “The first scene opened with Tracy trying to write a letter. I could not move [my hand] to the end of the paper. I was totally paralyzed.” Though she looked beautiful in Saint Laurent’s dresses—the audience oohed and aahed after each costume change—she failed to command the stage. She explained to Hollywood columnist Dorothy Manners, “It is difficult for someone raised in my world to learn to express emotion. We are taught early to hide our feelings publicly.” The reviews were mostly bad (LEE LAYS GOLDEN EGG) with a few encouraging notes thrown in (MISS BOUVIER’S BRAVADO SHINES), yet the audience loved it and left the theater raving about her couture.
“I got terrible reviews,” Lee recalled with a small smile, “but I really believe they were written before the play opened.”
Despite the reviews, Life put a radiantly smiling, 34-year-old Lee on its July 14, 1967, cover, for an article titled “The Princess Goes on Stage” (with the pull quote “Girls who have everything are not supposed to do anything”). Diana Vreeland arranged a 10-page fashion story with Lee for the September issue of Vogue, bringing in the celebrated photographer Bert Stern.
Lee made plans to appear in a TV movie, again at Truman’s insistence, in the title role of Laura, in a remake of the 1944 Otto Preminger classic starring Gene Tierney. Filmed in London for the ABC television network, it aired on January 24, 1968. Capote, just coming off his great success with In Cold Blood, was at the height of his fame and influence. He wrote the adaptation, with TV producer and talk-show host David Susskind. Again, it was widely watched, fiercely criticized. One wonders in retrospect, however, if Truman’s urging Lee to jump unprepared into two starring roles was evidence of his conflicted feelings toward “the Principessa.” Ralph Rucci told me, “I think he was in love with her, totally in love with her. And because he couldn’t psychologically handle that, he had to hurt her, which is so twisted and unfortunate.”
Lee was offered other roles in movies and plays, but Stas had had enough. “He said, ‘I’ll never let you see the children,’ so I couldn’t do that,” she recalled. “What a shame, having gone through all that and now not being able to continue. A terrible shame.”
When asked by Gloria Steinem if she had pursued acting to become more famous than her sister, she answered, “Look, I am doing this to be myself, my own person, in a way I feel I’ve never been allowed to be... If one wants fame, I can think of easier ways of getting it.”
It was four A.M. in New York on June 5, 1968, shortly after Bobby Kennedy had won the California primary for the Democratic nomination for president, when, according to Cecil Beaton’s diaries, Jackie saw the flashing light on her bedside telephone. It was Stas calling from London. “Isn’t it wonderful!” she said to her brother-in-law when she answered the phone. “He’s won. He’s got California!”
“But how is he?” Stas asked.
“Oh, he’s fine, he’s won.” But Stas again asked how he was, until he finally had to tell Jackie, “He’s been shot!” To the shock and consternation of the world, 42-year-old Robert Kennedy had been shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Once again, Jackie was plunged into grief, but now she was frightened for the safety of her children as well, telling a friend, “They’re killing Kennedys in America.”
Four months later, on October 20, 1968, Jackie married Aristotle Onassis. According to Rucci, she had not told her sister about her secret engagement, though it was leaked to the press. “Onassis told me,” Lee recalled. “He begged me to come to the wedding.” When Lee heard, she was devastated. According to DuBois, she called Capote, saying, “How could she do this to me!” Though she put a brave face on it, saying publicly, “I am very happy to have been at the origin of this marriage, which will, I am certain, bring my sister the happiness she deserves,” it was a staggering blow from which their relationship would never completely recover.
To those who were shocked that Jackie had traded her legacy as America’s Widowed Queen to marry one of the richest men in the world—a short, bullish man reputed to be a pirate and a vulgarian—many observed that Ari was in fact immensely charming, keenly intelligent, with a deep knowledge of Greek mythology and human nature. Gore Vidal wrote, “Ari was more charming and witty than she, and in the glittering European circus, where, to her credit, she did not particularly want to shine, the word was, ‘What on earth does he see in her?’ ”
What he saw in Jackie was the ultimate trophy—world-famous beyond Lee and Maria Callas, in need of his protection, and ennobled by her tragic history. By re-marrying, Jackie would be giving up her income from the Kennedy trust, so, like two heads of state, Jackie, through her representative, the Parisian-born investment banker André Meyer, and Onassis himself negotiated a dowry of million cash, plus million in trust for each of her children, and 0,000 per year for her in the event of divorce or his death, dresses according to C. David Heymann’s A Woman Named Jackie. They were married in a Greek Orthodox wedding on Skorpios, Ari’s private island west of mainland Greece, which offered complete seclusion among pines, cypresses, and olive trees. Lee came to the wedding.
Jackie and her children may have been well protected in a sun-drenched paradise, but she and her new husband had very little in common. Leo Lerman recorded in his diary, “She will not sit in El Morocco with him and his three or four cigar-smoking Greek chums…. Mrs. K likes ‘intellectuals’—Galbraith, Schlesinger—but this is not why he married her. He wants to display her; she won’t be displayed... Onassis is bored with Mrs. K.” A month after the wedding, Onassis returned to his former paramour, Maria Callas, according to Lerman’s diary.
Callas, still furious at having been thrown over for Lee and now for Jackie, tried to evict Onassis when he stripped naked after dinner at her Paris apartment and refused to get dressed. The opera diva called the police, who escorted him out, while she flung open the window, shrieking into the empty Parisian streets, “Shame on you! And on the anniversary of your second wife’s first husband’s death!” (It was November 22, 1968, five years after Kennedy’s assassination.) But she soon took him back, gleefully noting that “Mr. O is in constant torment—Mrs. O has nothing save the name, the fortune, and his wrath.” Onassis evidently complained to Callas about another reason for his marital unhappiness. Theater impresario Larry Kelly told Lerman, “Mrs. Kennedy won’t do it,” referring to Onassis’s Greek proclivities.
Blindsided by Jackie’s marriage, Lee managed, once again, to make a new life for herself. On Skorpios she met Jackie’s friend Peter Beard, the handsome photographer, diarist, adventurer, and wildlife advocate. Also a close friend of Stas’s, he was Kennedy-esque in his boyish charm and appeal to women. (He even had Kennedy hair.) The affair essentially ended her marriage to Stas.
Beard moved in with Lee at her Manhattan apartment, and Lee rented a house belonging to Andy Warhol and film director Paul Morrissey, on a sprawling compound of five houses in Montauk designed by Stanford White. It was Peter who introduced Lee to the Warhol circle. Jackie was as enamored of Peter as Lee was. She had already had the dashing photographer tutor her children in art history. Thus the sisters continued to haunt each other’s love life, “like two trees whose branches kept getting tangled up, their shadows indistinguishable,” observed avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas.
Lee and Jackie, photographed by Peter Beard in Montauk, New York, 1972.
© Peter Beard/Art + Commerce.
Lee threw herself into the liberated 70s with abandon. She appeared on the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine and hosted Mick Jagger in Montauk. Accompanied by Peter Beard, she joined the Rolling Stones on their 1972 North American concert tour. Capote covered the tour for Rolling Stone magazine, with Beard supplying the photographs.
Lee doesn’t dwell on regret, but if she has one, it’s that she wasn’t “brought up to have a métier.” Still determined to carve out her own identity, she launched an interior-decorating business and began to write a memoir. She made a pilot for her own talk show for CBS, Conversations with Lee Radziwill, in which she interviewed some of her friends—John Kenneth Galbraith, Nureyev, Gloria Steinem, Halston—but it was lost in the hard-news Watergate frenzy of the era.
In the spring of 1972, Lee set out to make a documentary about her childhood in the Hamptons, using her Bouvier aunt, Edith Beale, as the narrator. Peter Beard suggested David and Albert Maysles as “the perfect filmmakers for the project.” But she soon discovered that her Bouvier aunt and cousin, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, were living in squalor in their decaying, 28-room house near Georgica Pond, in East Hampton. Appalled by the dilapidated condition of their once splendid home and gardens—60 cats roamed the filthy corridors—she enlisted Jackie to help save their house from being condemned. Lee recalled in Happy Times that the Maysleses “became so intrigued”—with the eccentric Beales—“they persuaded me to let them control [the movie] completely, making it a film solely on mother and daughter.”
Not surprisingly, what got left out of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens (which spawned a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical and an Emmy Award-winning HBO movie) is the degree to which Lee spearheaded the rescue mission.
A filmmaker and friend of Lee’s told me that missing from the movie is “incredible footage—Lee with Big and Little Edie. She’s actually cleaning the house. But who got the credit for cleaning up Grey Gardens? Jackie. But it’s Lee actually moving the refrigerator out of the kitchen. And Big Edie’s so excited to have her there. There’s this great part where she’s screaming to someone, ‘Lee! Lee’s here! My niece Lee’s here from Montauk!’ And Lee looks so beautiful.”
Lee’s divorce from Stas became final in 1974. He was heartbroken; his fortunes had dwindled considerably by then, and he had become a rather haunted figure. The following year, Onassis initiated divorce proceedings against Jackie. On March 15, 1975, however, before their divorce could move forward, he died in Paris; he was buried on Skorpios shortly thereafter. Jackie was in New York at the time of his death. It would take nearly two years before a settlement was finally reached with Ari’s daughter, Christina: million in cash to Jackie and another million to cover inheritance taxes, according to Heymann.
In 1993, Lee’s son, Anthony, became engaged to Carole Ann DiFalco, whom he had met while both were working as producers at ABC News in New York. Carole, an intelligent, coltish woman from a colorful, blue-collar Italian family in upstate New York, is currently a reality-TV star on The Real Housewives of New York City. “I have to correct people when they say, ‘Oh, you’re married into the Kennedy family,’ ” she told me. “ ‘No, I married into the Radziwill family.’ It was a point of honor for me.”
Lee was in her 50s when Carole met her, and she often invited Anthony and his fiancée to her house in the Hamptons for Sunday lunches. Lee, Carole said, “was always gracious, even to her ex-lovers. She has that feminine quality that’s hard to put your finger on. Men just fell at her feet. There is an elegant casualness that I don’t think I’ve seen since.”
Anthony and Carole were married in 1994, but in a cruel twist to a fairy-tale romance, the five years of their marriage were spent in multiple surgeries and agonizing treatments for Anthony’s cancer, which had been diagnosed in 1990 and which recurred just after their wedding. Carole recounted her years spent as Anthony’s wife and a close friend of Carolyn Bessette and John Kennedy Jr.’s in a searing 2005 book, What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love.
In June 1976, Stas Radziwill died of a heart attack, just 62 years of age, during a weekend party in Essex, England. On his death, it was discovered that his estate was essentially bankrupt, with nothing to leave to his children. Five months later, in November of 1976, Hugh D. Auchincloss, once referred to as “the first gentleman of New York,” died from emphysema, having lost most of his fortune.
Earlier, Lee had sorted through old diaries and letters in the attic of her childhood home. She was still hoping to use what she found to write her memoir. That’s when she discovered “One Special Summer,” the sweet, funny, girlish account she and Jackie had made of their first trip to Europe, in 1951, a lifetime ago. It had survived as an artifact, a testament to how close the sisters had once been, poised to make their marks on the world stage. Lee and Jackie agreed that they should publish it, just as it was.
In 1979, with her romance with Peter Beard long over, and after relationships with the lawyer Peter Tufo and the architect Richard Meier, Lee came close to being married for a third time, to Newton Cope, a successful San Francisco hotelier. But just prior to the wedding, Cope suddenly pulled out. Apparently, Jackie was behind the dashed plans. Cope told Bradford that Jackie had her lawyer privately contact him and suggest that he settle,000 per month on Lee as a prenuptial. “I don’t think Lee would have thought of something like that,” Cope recalled to DuBois. “She wasn’t as money-hungry as Jackie was. Lee wanted to be taken care of, yes, but I don’t think she would connive in that way.”
Cope ended up feeling manipulated and bullied, according to DuBois, telling Jackie’s lawyer, “I am not buying a cow or a celebrity the way Onassis did! I am in love with this woman!” Cope, too, was surprised to see how Lee was intimidated by her big sister. “Why the hell are you so afraid of your sister?,” Cope asked her one night after leaving a dinner party Jackie had given in honor of the couple. He later said, “It’s too bad Lee couldn’t get away from that sister of hers. Being just a few blocks away, it was like an unhealthy bond she couldn’t escape from.”
By now Jackie was a rich woman; the inheritance from Onassis had grown to 0 million, under the astute guidance of her trusted friend and new companion, Belgian-American businessman and diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman. In addition, she also reportedly owned an estimated million worth of art, antiques, jewelry, and real estate. Lee was still struggling, and in 1979 she sold her Fifth Avenue duplex and bought a much smaller penthouse two blocks away, at 875 Park. Later, she would sell that apartment and be reduced to renting or buying even smaller apartments. She sold the Francis Bacon painting at Sotheby’s for 0,000, just before the booming 1980s art market; within a couple of years the painting was worth millions. Like Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Lee was facing the prospect of a slow and steady fall.
The End of an Era
Jackie was relieved, then, when Lee married the filmmaker Herbert Ross (Footloose, Steel Magnolias) on September 23, 1988, and she hosted a dinner for the couple at her Fifth Avenue apartment. According to Bradford, she told a friend, “I’m happy for Lee, because between you and me Lee has stared into the jaws of hell.” The Brooklyn-born Ross, who had started his professional life as a dancer and choreographer, was witty, expansive, and warm. Though their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, and many believed that Ross was bisexual, at last Lee seemed to have found both security and love, and in photographs with Ross she looks radiantly happy.
In early 1994, Jackie, then 64, was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, and in a few short months it invaded her liver, spinal cord, and brain. With hundreds keeping vigil outside her building, she died at her home at 1040 Fifth Avenue, surrounded by her family, on May 19, 1994, Black Jack Bouvier’s birthday. On her deathbed, according to Bradford, she advised her children to “sell everything. You’ll make a lot of money.” The auction, at Sotheby’s in 1996, reportedly netted more than million.
When she’d first heard of Jackie’s illness, Lee rushed to her sister’s side. At Jackie’s death, she wept inconsolably.
But Jackie would leave a final reproach in her will, which transferred much of her holdings to her children, with substantial cash bequests and valuable mementos to family, friends, and employees—helping everyone, it seemed, except Lee, because “I have already done so during my lifetime.” Although the will set up 0,000 trust funds for Tina and Anthony, not even a memento was left for her sister. Lee must have been deeply hurt.
On July 16, 1999, John Kennedy Jr., his stunning young wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, were killed when John, a novice pilot, became disoriented on their way to a family wedding in Hyannis Port. Soon after, Lee and Stas’s son, Anthony, succumbed to cancer. Lee’s marriage to Ross didn’t survive, and they divorced in 2001. Through everything, Lee Bouvier Canfield Radziwill Ross has managed to endure. Perhaps that has been her greatest gift after all: to survive, and to do so with grace and courage. “Did you see that small, fifth-century Roman head over the mantel?,” Rucci asked me. “She’s had it in her life for many, many years. It’s one of her favorite things because it looks like her son, Anthony, and that’s why it gives her comfort.”
Until recently, she divided her time between New York and her Paris pied-à-terre, on the Avenue Montaigne, though she admitted that Paris, too, has changed. “There’s a McDonald’s in the Louvre,” she exclaimed. She dines with longtime friends, such as designer Carolina Herrera and her husband, Reinaldo, a V.F. contributing editor; Peter Beard and his wife, Nejma; designer Marc Jacobs; interior designer Nicky Haslam; filmmaker Sofia Coppola; and her closest friend and confidant, Hamilton South.
When I visited her in April, Lee was in a philosophical state of mind. The lease on her Paris apartment, a place she loves, was due to lapse in October. When I suggested that they should pay her to live there, she answered, “Yes, they should. But they won’t.”
“I feel like I’m in my own world, in the world but not a part of it.” Lee no longer goes to the movies, which she used to love, because she feels that contemporary films lack both romance and mystery. She finds going to the ballet or theater “such a chore now—they go through your handbag looking for bombs.” One thing she would like to do, however, is visit Mantua “to say good-bye to a favorite Rubens. I’d like to go this summer to say good-bye, but it will be so crowded, and I’d like to go with someone who knows more about the art. If only it could be Bernard Berenson!”
“It’s so close to the end,” she added, “closer than life is. I think you know what I mean.”
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