Caroline Lee Bouvier is better known as Lee Radziwill, younger sister to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and sister-in-law to President John F Kennedy. She has led a remarkable life, surrounded by prominent politicians and members of the cultural elite.
Text Marlene Tolbod
Taken from the Summer 2014 issue of The Horse Rider’s Journal
Born into a wealthy American family, the Bouvier sisters saw their parents divorce in 1940, after which they went back and forth between their mother and father’s homes. Jackie was four years older than Lee, which meant that Lee often found herself home alone. In an interview with Sofia Coppola for T Magazine, Lee tells the story of how she was so lonely as a child, with Jackie off at Miss Porter’s Boarding School and her mother and stepfather away in Chile deep-sea fishing, that she gathered her allowance, called a cab and went to an nearby orphanage to adopt an orphan to keep her company. “My mother gave me hell when she returned from her trip and found out,” Radziwill tells Coppola. “She was so worried. I couldn’t quite see why, since she was in Chile on a motorboat.” Lee Radziwill was and remains a woman of the world, thanks in part to her sister’s marriages – first one to President John F Kennedy and later to the Greek oil tycoon, Aristotle Onassis.
Lee often travelled with her sister, both on holiday and in an official capacity, and in her memoirs Happy Times, she takes the reader everywhere from India to Greece and Italy, as well as a giving a tour around her many different homes. She lived in a town house in London and a manor house in Turville before she moved to Fifth Avenue, New York.
She married no less than three times. Her first husband was Michael Temple Canfield, the alleged son of Kiki Preston and Prince George, Duke of Kent – this marriage was later annulled. In 1959, she married the man with whom she had her children, Anthony and Christina, the Polish prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill. They divorced a couple of years before his death in 1976. Twelve years later, Lee embarked upon her third marriage, to Herbert Ross, a director of over 20 films including Footloose, The Sunshine Boys, The Turning Point, and The Goodbye Girl.
Lee always surrounded herself with culture and she counted Truman Capote, Cecil Beaton, Peter Beard, and Andy Warhol among her closest friends – she spent many summers with Andy, renting his house in Montauk. In the summer of 1972, Rolling Stone magazine commissioned Truman Capote to follow and write about the Rolling Stones as the band toured the United States. Truman convinced Lee to tag along, hanging out backstage with the band and sleeping in bunk beds in the tour bus. It was also Truman who convinced her to give acting a go. She made her stage debut in The Philadelphia Story in Chicago with a stage wardrobe by Yves Saint Laurent. Later, Capote rewrote the old noir film Laura and adapted it for television so that Lee could star in it. Both her attempts at acting got somewhat mixed reviews, and Lee did not pursue it any further. She did however initiate the iconic film Grey Gardens, about her eccentric aunt and cousin, ‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’ Beale, in their home in the Hamptons.
The project initially came about because Lee had so many fond memories from spending her summers there as a child, and wanted her aunt to narrate them. She got the renowned filmmakers Albert and David Maysles involved in recreating her childhood for cinema, and it took them weeks to charm their way into the Beale home. T he Maysles brothers got so excited about the potential of the relationship they saw playing out before their eyes that, with Lee’s and the Beales’ permission, they ended up making a film about the odd couple of mother and daughter. To this day, Grey Gardens remains a cult film.
In her book Happy Times, Lee explains why she prefers to celebrate happy memories rather than dwell on the bad ones. “Happy times were a better choice for me. I am always aware that I’ve had a special and privileged life, yet it has been balanced by tragedy as it has been for so many others. I believe that without memories there is no life, and that our memories should be of happy times.” This kind of spirit and personality had already been eloquently described in a 1976 issue of Vogue by Truman Capote. In a piece entitled “Lee – a fan letter from Truman Capote”, he wrote: “Ah, the Princess! Well, she’s easily described. What I like about her best is that she can be both cosy and candid at the same time, a very rare combination, an almost impossible one; still, if you ask her opinion, be prepared for an honest reply – honest, yet always delivered in a manner that is warm and encouraging.” • assouline.com