WHAT A life it must have been, to be as fabulous as the world can allow, and still become just a footnote in somebody else’s story. Caroline Lee Radziwill, style icon, and one of the characters of the great Kennedy panoply, died in her New York home on Feb. 15, aged 85. Yet for everything she had been (socialite, writer, interior designer, PR executive, actress; princess, even), it is both a blessing and a curse that she will enter history known primarily as being the younger sister of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
Born in 1933 as the second daughter of John Vernou Bouvier III and Janet Norton Lee, she lived a charmed life with her family in New York and its environs, at least before her parents’ divorce in 1940. Her mother moved on to marry Standard Oil heir Hugh Auchincloss, Jr. in 1942, gaining the sisters entrance to Newport society, where they were hailed as debutantes. By the arbitrary dint of birth order and, well, better decisions, what Lee could do, older sister Jackie could do better, or at least, first. Lee finally beat her at something, when she was married first in 1953 to Michael Temple Canfield, an adopted son of a publishing family (but rumored to be royal by birth). Jackie would still win in the end, wedding future president John F. Kennedy that same year. Lee’s marriage would end in divorce; enabling her to marry prince-in-pretence Prince Stanislaw Radziwill in 1959.
All her life, Lee Radziwill would bask in and balk at her place under her sister’s shadow. While she was acknowledged in social circles for her beauty and impeccable taste, the world would fall in love with her sister for the same traits. During her sister’s tenure as First Lady at the White House, Lee Radziwill accompanied her on official trips, and supported her sister with her duties at the White House. She was also of great support to her sister after the assassination of her President Kennedy in 1963. She did feel slighted, however, when shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, whom she had been seeing, chose Jackie over her when he married the widowed former First Lady in 1968. Prompted to talk about Onassis in an interview for T Magazine, Lee Radziwill simply answered, “No.”
The late 1960s and ’70s were a period of great liberation for everyone, including Lee Radziwill, who would blossom in this period, freed from her marriage to Radziwill. While her acting appearances were critically panned, her entry into the world’s best-dressed lists, the homes she would decorate, and her associations with creatives (Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and even The Rolling Stones among many others) were met with more enthusiasm. These relationships would culminate in arguably her biggest contribution to the art world: introducing filmmakers, the Maysles brothers, to her eccentric aunt and cousin, both named Edith Beale. Their lives would be shown as the documentary Grey Gardens.
There would be time for one more marriage in 1988 to director Herbert Ross, which ended in divorce in 2001. She found some fulfillment in a career in PR with Giorgio Armani, and would pop out a few books reminiscent of the old world: One Special Summer in 1974, and Happy Times in 2001. In 1996, Lee Radziwill was inducted into the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame. For the layer of gloss over her life, however, depression and alcoholism constantly hounded her, problems from which she would eventually recover. Still, it wouldn’t have helped that the people who shaped her world — her sister, her son, her ex-husbands, then the glamor figures — dropped off one by one. Lee Radziwill died as the guardian of the memories of that magical sphere she once occupied, while she was left behind in this decidedly less-glamorous world of ours.
In an interview with T Magazine by Nicky Haslam (“The Real Lee Radziwill,” published 2013) she said, “One can’t help but be a bit melancholy when you see how the world has changed, and I don’t mean that nostalgically. Every day one is confronted by words and visions of human misery. You would have to have a heart of ice not to be a bit melancholy. I’ve been happy, and am happy now. My life has been exciting, active, changeable.” — Joseph L. Garcia