Vintage News | The Complicated Sisterhood of Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill

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Princess Lee Radziwill and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, photographed by 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.


The Grand Tour
ather 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 $42.50 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.

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Lee and Jackie, photographed by Peter Beard in Montauk, New York, 1972. © Peter Beard_Art + Commerce

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