Lee Radziwill died Friday in New York. She was 85.
A slender, sloe-eyed and stylish brunette beauty, she was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ younger sister. She was born Caroline Lee Bouvier on March 3, 1933 to Janet Norton Lee and stockbroker John Vernou Bouvier 3rd, known as “Black Jack.” Another of his nicknames, as Radziwill pointed out, was “the Black Orchid.” Radziwill had three careers — briefly, as an actress, promoted by her friend Truman Capote but reviled by the critics; later, and more successfully, a short stint as an interior designer, and then as a brand ambassador, public relations executive and special events coordinator for Giorgio Armani.
According to sources close to her, over the past week, she was in good shape and still extremely present.
“It’s a natural end of a marvelous life. She had everything a woman can desire…beauty, intelligence, style, fame.…I am sure she had moments of happiness, too,” said Valentino Garavani.
Radziwill was considered a true fashion icon due to an elegance and sophistication she demonstrated not only with her personal style, but also through her work as an interior decorator. She also stood out in the international jet set with her sense of humor and her kindness.
Having known Radziwill since the early Eighties, Giorgio Armani recalled, “She was an extremely elegant women. When I met her in the early Eighties, I had the impression that she represented a very contemporary irony about American aristocracy, which is almost impossible to define. It is one that combined ease and sophistication, spontaneity and respect for the rules.”
Of their professional relationship, he said, “We have collaborated for a long period, choosing together those personalities, who were able to represent the Armani style on the Hollywood stage. She was very intuitive and well-respected. Maybe that was because looking at her it was impossible not to see in her fragments of the American history.”
“For me Lee was one of the most elegant women I have ever known, with innate class and intelligence that made her a unique and admirable person,” said Massimo Ferragamo, chairman of Salvatore Ferragamo USA.
In her personal style, Radziwill went for the streamlined, in looks from Givenchy and Courrèges, Halston, Giorgio Armani and Marc Jacobs, a good friend. She also became a muse for Michael Kors. After being chubby as a child, she was always slender as an adult, her hair worn back from her forehead in a smooth, straight, above-the-shoulders or just-past-the-shoulders cut. She often chose simple separates for day and strapless column dresses for evening. She wore a spiral-seamed, sequined silver-and-white Mila Schön evening dress to Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball.
“I’m sure everyone is saying this, but it’s the truth: Lee was one of a kind. There will never be anyone like her. Not only was she famously elegant and stylish, one of the world’s greatest style icons ever, but she was also razor-sharp. She read the papers every day, pored over every magazine, saw every play and every movie, and was up on all things current, more so than people half her age,” said Andrew Saffir, founder of Cinema Society. “At dinners with her, not only did you need to be sartorially on point, but you had to be up on everything, as she was so completely on her game always. Right up until the very end. There will never be anyone like her, and as cliched as it may sound, it really does feel like the end of an era. We’ve lost one of the great style icons, a woman who radiated elegance and grace like no other, while remaining absolutely whip smart, right up until the end. We will miss our dinners with her in a corner at Cipriani talking about everything under the sun, and most importantly, will miss our friendship. Rest in peace, Lee. There will never be another like you.”
Tory Burch named a handbag for her friend Radziwill and she drew inspiration for a collection from some botanical prints that Radziwill had given her. Burch said Radziwill was “one of the greatest style icons of our time. She…was a constant source of inspiration for so many. The thing I admired most was that she was wickedly funny with perfect timing and always hilarious one-liners. Her character was arresting and her stories brilliant. I feel very fortunate to have known her. She was a dear friend.”
Michael Kors said, “Stylish, curious beautiful, smart and with a sly sense of humor, Lee has it all. I recall flying to Paris sitting next to her and hearing wonderful stories and great recollections, during the flight. This was the rare case of being thrilled on a long flight with your seat-mate.”
Kors added, “Her passing is the end of an era of elegance and style that cannot be created ever again.”
Giambattista Valli posted a tribute on Instagram in the form of a letter. “Dearest Lee, I will miss your voice, your hugs, your laugh…our quality time…our love story. You left me terribly sad today…but I know how happy you can finally be now that you can hug your precious Anthony…and meet again all the extraordinary friends that you were missing…’Little Andy…Crazy Rudolf…and chatty Truman…’ As I have told you on the phone few days ago…you are with me every day…I promise you…you will be forever! Bon Voyage beautiful Lady. We will always hang up with a ‘Good Bye and Much Love,’” he wrote.
In terms of her work, Radziwill’s career as a p.r. executive for Armani was by far the most successful of her endeavors, not least because she looked absolutely wonderful in his clean-lined clothes. She once said, “Taste is emotion,” but her career as a decorator, while it once seemed promising, never brought in much money.
“Lee was the original bohemian. I will miss her razor-sharp wit, her discerning eye and her day-to-day insightful commentaries. She never suffered fools and never got it wrong. She mastered the art of editing in every aspect of her life,” wrote her close friend textile designer Lisa Fine.
WWD and its then-sister publication W covered her extensively, particularly during the Sixties and Seventies, when she was part of a small group of influential women whose fashion choices and purchases in New York and Paris the publications tracked and reported on. There was particular attention paid to items ordered at the Paris couture. It was Radziwill, after all, who sneaked Givenchy pieces into the White House when her sister was supposed to be wearing only American designers.
Radziwill was married three times, to publishing executive Michael Canfield, Polish aristocrat and real estate developer Stanislas Radziwill, known as Stas, and director Herb Ross. Her first marriage was annulled, while her second and third ended in divorce. She had two children with Radziwill, Anthony, who was diagnosed with cancer and predeceased her — dying shortly after John Kennedy Jr., his cousin and close friend, was lost in a plane crash — and a daughter, Anna Christina, called Tina. Lee was a fixture on the Best Dressed List, entering its Hall of Fame in 1996.
Radziwill’s father Black Jack — partly named for his perpetual dark tan and partly for being mad, bad and dangerous to know — was handsome and charismatic. On the street, he was often taken for Clark Gable. But he was also a heavy drinker who was frequently unfaithful. His stockbroking fortunes declined after the stock market crash of 1929. When the Bouvier girls were young, their parents divorced, and their mother married a second time, to Hugh D. Auchincloss, who was the heir to a Standard Oil fortune, whom they called Uncle Hugh. They went to live at his luxurious Hammersmith Farm in Newport and his Merrywood estate in McLean, Va.
Both sisters attended the tony Miss Porter’s School. Radziwill went to Sarah Lawrence, where she spent only three semesters, while Jackie chose Vassar. Jackie was always much more academic than her sister and got better grades. They shared certain attitudes; both were devoted to their father and considered their stepfather and his formal social life with their mother very dull.
When they were young girls, Radziwill was regarded as “the pretty one,” while her sister Jackie was considered “the smart one.” Radziwill called her sister “Jack,” while Jackie’s nickname for her was “Pekes.” Lee — their mother’s maiden name — was also Jacqueline’s middle name. The sisters were close, but also competitive. They competed for men. Black Jack openly preferred Jackie, partly because she looked so much like him. Radziwill had married Canfield several months before Jackie married then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, which, since in those days, an older sister was expected to marry first, was rather provocative. Radziwill was also involved with Aristotle Onassis before he married Jackie.
Radziwill wrote in her book, “Happy Times”: “One always looks up to older siblings for guidance. One tries to emulate them and follow their achievements. That’s what I did with my sister. But as we were so different physically, Jackie being strong and athletic, I being soft and chubby, I never followed her when she rode horses, in spite of my father’s efforts. “
Later in the book she added: “With the wedding, Jackie’s destiny led to another life. As the wife of the President of the United States, she was extremely busy. She had to travel a lot, and liked to have me with her as we were very close. Apart from great mutual affection, I think our strongest bond was a shared sense of humor, which was endlessly enjoyable.”
As an example, Radziwill recounts an anecdote that took place when she and Jackie were touring Morocco. They found themselves marooned in the harems not only of the current king but also of his father and grandfather. Suddenly, Jackie announced that Lee would entertain the group with renditions of “In an Old Dutch Garden Where the Tulips Grow,” followed by “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Lee felt compelled to comply.
One of the first times the two sisters traveled together was when they went to Europe alone in 1951, which they recounted in a book “One Special Summer,” the only book ever to feature Jackie’s drawings. Later, they famously toured India and Pakistan when Jackie was first lady, wearing colorful shift dresses, even riding a ceremonial camel, each wearing a dress in a shade of pink and mounting a richly caparisoned elephant, also together. They were an ensemble on Onassis’ yacht, all hanging out before Jackie annexed the tycoon. Radziwill’s niece, Caroline Kennedy, was named after her.
Radziwill later recalled of “That Special Summer,” which was picked up by a commercial publisher in 1974 and republished in 2005, “We were so young. It was the first time we felt really close, carefree together, high on the sheer joy of getting away from our mother, the deadly dinner parties of political bores, the Sunday lunches for the same people that lasted hours; Jackie and I were not allowed to say a word.” Radziwill later published “Happy Times,” pictures and text about her life in the Sixties, and an autobiography, “Lee.”
“That Special Summer” is enlivened by photos of the two women and Jackie’s drawings — including photos of them walking in the streets with Jackie in a short skirt and Lee in shorts, next to text saying in a letter home that they never go out without wearing clothes they could wear to church. There is a striking illustration of the two of them in plaid summer dresses, looking at the Eiffel Tower in the distance, featured on the cover. Jackie also wrote poems for the book, although most of the other text is Lee’s.
Australian designer Martin Grant mourned a woman he considered a close friend. “Lee was one of my dearest friends, she was like the chicest, naughty aunt you could wish for,” he said. “We spent many summers together, swimming, painting, smoking. Lee loved to be ‘cozy,’ we spent a lot of time just the two of us, not social, enjoying simple things. Lee was the last of another time, she was truly chic and fabulous. I am very sad to have lost a very dear friend who was like family,” Grant said.
Once at a formal party, Radziwill’s underwear fell down as she was introduced to an ambassador. But it was also when she met and spoke to one of her heroes, Bernard Berenson. She had been fascinated by him since she was very young, and she was delighted to have an opportunity to spend some time with him. They had been corresponding.
She wrote, “Anything you do, he could find a philosophy for. ‘Anything you want, you must make enemies and suffer for,’ and he would much rather make enemies than be loved by all.”
He also told her, “I was born to talk and not to write, and worse still, to converse rather than to talk and then only with stimulating interlocutors. Oddly enough, these are not necessarily friends. They may be total strangers or the merest acquaintances. I delight in the flowing sympathy of the audience, but I require it to participate and stimulate.…This kind of audience will not be recruited among hard-boiled, too-grown-up adults. We shall find it rather among individuals of whatever age or sex who remain adolescent-minded to the end.”
Radziwill noted, “Life is much more casual now. I look at pictures of myself and my friends in the early Sixties and I think of how dowdy we looked in those boxy Givenchy coats. The whole thing was overly neat.” (Most people looking at those photos today, however, would not agree — and would say instead that they looked great.)
Reinaldo Herrera met Radziwill when he was seated beside her at a dinner party in the early Fifties (it was later that night she became engaged to Canfield.) Their friendship ebbed and flowed over the years, but they became close again in the last 15 years. Asked what made her exceptional, he said, “It was the personality. She was born with it. She was always competitive in that sense. She was a brain and a beauty since birth.
From Herrera’s point of view, Radziwill’s style was a matter of taste. “Taste is innate. You don’t learn taste. You learn to look at things. But she had this great natural taste. She deserves all that she gets because she gave a lot. She was not an easy person to live with. She was very lucky to have been spoiled rotten all her life. That made her different. She did have a lot of advantages over a lot of people in the sense that she had style and taste and great looks and she could be very funny. She could be very difficult as anyone who knew her well would know. But she was always first class and that is very important. I think she would rather be remembered as intelligent and amusing and liking. She liked her friends. She loved to know what was going on now. She was not a woman of the past.”
While still married to Canfield, Lee began an affair with Stas Radziwill, and they later married, which gave her the title of princess. He was 20 years her senior and had made a fortune in real estate. She said she never learned so much from anyone else in her entire life.
Lee Radziwill was known as a good and stalwart friend, and some of her pals, such as Truman Capote and Rudolph Nureyev, each of whom she frequently went out on the town with, had a strong influence on her life. She described the dancer to WWD in 1978: “Nureyev, like all Slavs, can be tough to deal with, but he does have immense charm.” He helped fan her already strong enthusiasm for the arts. Capote, for his part, was highly instrumental in creating her acting career, and he relished his role as Svengali. He acted as a one-man publicity team during her ventures onstage and on television, but she was savaged. She did a four-week run in Chicago in June 1967 in the role of Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story,” wearing Yves Saint Laurent. Radziwill later said she felt that the critics had written their reviews before they even saw her performance.
Her next star turn was in the title role of “Laura,” which appeared on ABC TV in January 1968. Many seemed to feel that she had only been given these roles because she was Jackie’s sister. Others have noted that the critics’ vitriol may have in part been motivated by displaced animosity toward Jackie, who, in this pre-Onassis period, was still the untouchable embodiment of American widowhood. Capote also seems not to have realized that, in getting Radziwill — a neophyte who had only been studying acting for a year — to perform roles that had already been brilliantly realized on-screen by other actresses, he was unwittingly setting her up for failure. Her husband hadn’t wanted her to try acting.
Cecil Beaton and Leonard Bernstein were also close friends of Lee’s.
The prominent decorator Renzo Mongiardino designed a duplex penthouse on New York’s Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, a London town house and an English country place in Buckinghamshire for Radziwill, called Turville Grange, and she learned a great deal about interior design from him, which she was to use when she established her own career in that métier. In that role, she once described doing a house for a wealthy couple who expected to use it only three days a year.
The original Mongiardino designs for her own properties were elaborate. Over the years, certain pieces — John Wooton’s painting of a monkey playing with a dog; the figure of a giraffe, and her Bessarabian rugs — recurred in other configurations. Another notable artwork was Francis Bacon’s painting “Man in a Cage,” which Stas Radziwill had received as a payment for paying the painter’s gambling debts. In her town house — on Buckingham Place, only four blocks from Buckingham Palace — there was an entrance room filled with Anglo-Indian botanical watercolors. One room the decorator did for her was an Orientalist fantasy, and she posed in it for photographs by Cecil Beaton wearing a caftan given her by Hassan II of Morocco. The room was swathed in many yards of Palempore, a kind of Indian hand-blocked cotton that was a forerunner of chintz. She also had a bedroom in various patterns in shades of pink and white.
Andy Warhol was also a friend, and Lee was very much a part of the Warhol set. When she left Stas Radziwill for artist Peter Beard, she rented Warhol’s Montauk property from him, a complex originally designed as a fishing camp by Stanford White, and she lived there with Beard and her children. Warhol often photographed her, and they frequently attended parties together. He helped to keep her au courant. She also joined the Rolling Stones North American tour in 1972, along with Beard, who took pictures, and Capote, who was writing about the tour for Rolling Stone magazine.
When asked in a story in Interview magazine if she had any regrets about her life, she mentioned that she wished that she had been raised to have a “métier.” One job she greatly enjoyed was working for Diana Vreeland at Harpers Bazaar as a young girl. Later, she worked in the Paris offices of Vogue. These positions would seem a perfect fit for her, but she never pursued these endeavors long enough to make magazines a career.
Lee and Jackie are still au courant. A new book: “Jackie, Janet and Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill,” by J. Randy Taraborrelli, was published in 2018 and immediately made a stay on The New York Times bestseller list. It received a glowing assessment in The New York Times book review, with its writer observing that the character of Janet is the real revelation in the book. The author of the book, Taraborrelli, had already written two others about the Kennedy family.
While she was out in Montauk, Radziwill got into contact with the documentarian Maysles brothers, asking them to do a film about her and Jackie’s early life in East Hampton. Radziwill wanted her cousin Edith Beale senior to narrate the film. Their introduction to the Beales led to the Maysles becoming fascinated by Big and Little Edie, and their unusual lifestyle as eccentric recluses at their Hamptons house. The Maysles dropped their film on Radziwill and went on to make a celebrated documentary about the Beales named “Grey Gardens” after their ramshackle, falling-down country house with holes in its roof, filled with the scent of 60 cats, cat poop and raccoons, surrounded by overgrown grounds. Their Bouvier relatives all disliked it. It later became a musical.
When the Beales were threatened with eviction, and it was publicized, both Jackie and Lee came to their rescue financially, helping them straighten out and repair the house and bring it up to code. Aristotle Onassis provided most of the funds. Years later, the house was sold to Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, who swore that cat odors could still be detected when it rained.
After her marriage to Ross fell apart, Radziwill kept company with attorney Peter Tufo and almost married real estate investor Newton Cope, who owned the tony Huntington Hotel in San Francisco and a Nob Hill real estate firm. The marriage plans reportedly dissolved because Jackie tried to force Cope to sign a prenuptial agreement in Lee’s favor that would have provided her with $15,000 a month. Cope felt as if he were being held up and canceled everything on the very eve of the wedding. However, Lee apparently had reportedly received approximately $20 million from Ross, who was wealthy. And she and Cope went on their honeymoon trip together anyway, since it had already been paid for.
Radziwill, it seems, was perennially improvident financially, and, in fact, ended up selling her Fifth Avenue penthouse because she needed the money right before the real estate market took off like a bottle rocket.
However, by contrast, her Mongiardino-influenced interior designs had the antiquarian richness for which he was known. Later, her decorating style also became considerably more minimalist.
Kenneth Battelle, the star hairdresser who tended to both Bouvier sisters, said of them, “They are two women who managed to relate to the newest without ever looking tough. They both also share a great deal of femininity. Although they have the knack of always hitting the fashion, they never lose their femininity.”
Lee’s husband Stas Radiziwill once said of her, “The little girl is very, very small. It is fantastic how much she costs to dress.” She remembered herself, “I used to have a passion for shoes. When I think of all the shoes I had made at Roger Vivier, it’s too silly.”
Despite leaving a $150 million estate — before the blockbuster sale of her personal effects that Jackie had told her children to hold — her sister left her nothing in her will, not even a piece of furniture, suggesting in that document that the reason was that she had already helped Lee out financially during her lifetime. Jackie also reportedly resented the fact that at one point their mother Janet sold an apartment and gave the resulting money to Lee only, making the point that Jackie was very rich, whereas Lee had relatively little. Toward the end of Janet’s life, she could no longer afford to keep up Hammersmith Farm, but Jackie declined to buy it and keep it for her, even though she had recently bought some supermarkets as an investment for about what the estate would cost to keep.
Launch Gallery: Lee Radziwill: Style Through the Years