Lee Radziwiłł, the Sister of Her Sister



From the moment John Kennedy was elected president, she was dubbed “the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy.” Since then, Lee Radziwiłł forever stayed in her sister’s shadow and never accepted that. “She is so jealous of Jackie!”* said famous writer Truman Capote.

When, in 1971, Lee Radziwiłł came with her husband, Prince Stanisław Radziwiłł, to Poland for his older brother Edmund’s funeral, she was accompanied by her sister. And it was she, as usual, who attracted all the public’s attention, who multitudinously gathered crowds at the Wilanów cemetery. After this visit, the world press published information that after the funeral of the prince, Mrs. Kennedy Onassis had to escape from the pressing crowd through a potato field. Luckily, one nice resident gave her his hand, put her in an empty streetcar and told the tram driver to leave. A couple of streets away she transferred to the American embassy car. That nice man was – as he calls himself – Zbigniew Buczkowski, the famous actor, at that time a 20-year-old boy who, seeing Jackie in the potato field, screamed to the crowds “Move away!” and after holding out his hand said “Madame, please.” It was the only thing he could say in English.

Black Jack Legacy

They were called “the whispering sisters” because at famous New York house parties they often sat in the corner and whispered between each other about their common issues. Lee, Stanisław Radziwiłł’s wife, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the former first lady – celebrities that in the ‘60s and ‘70s appeared at the parties in America and Europe.

Her real name was Caroline. Lee’s nickname came from her mother Janet Lee’s maiden name (Bouvier, after marriage), who in fact came from a poor Irish immigrant family, but always claimed that she had aristocratic ancestors, which looked much better in the eyes of New York aristocracy. From childhood, Lee and Jacqueline were made to feel exceptional, which was slightly undermined by their parent’s divorce. Their father, John Bouvier, a stockbroker and celebrity, in many circles called Black Jack because of his strong tan, love for gambling, alcohol and rakish way of life, in the end made his wife tell him to leave. Lee always defended her father: “I saw him drunk only once in my life: a day before Jackie and John Kennedy’s wedding.”* Their mother did not invite him to the family dinner, so he got so drunk from despair and loneliness that in the morning he was unable to walk her sister to the altar.

The girls were not fond of their mother, who sometimes lost control and would slap them in the face, and was never fully satisfied with her daughters’ achievements. Their father was also demanding and always believed that his daughters should be the best at everything, yet they loved him more. He stayed present in their lives as much as he could, teaching them — as it soon turned out — a very useful thing: the ability to take center stage and attract the world’s attention with carefully chosen attire. Fashion sense became the trademark of both Bouvier sisters. Their parents’ divorce in June 1940, which in those times was a family disgrace, united the girls in common tragedy, and when the mother remarried, their bond became even stronger.

Empty-Headed Bitch

Lee claimed that her mother favored the four-years-older Jacqueline and told her that she was too fat and that she would never equal her beautiful sister. “Even when we came for the summer to our stepfather’s house in Newport, Jacqueline was given a room with the view of the bay and ships swimming in the distance, and I had to settle in a room with a window to the meadow, where two cows, called by the stepfather Caroline and Jacqueline, were grazing,”* complained 80-year-old Lee. However, it was Jackie’s duty to take care of her sister when their mother fell into depression after the divorce, drinking and taking tranquillizers. And it was she who took more responsibility for each prank.

Intelligent and lively, Lee felt unappreciated and worse than her sister. Jackie, more serious and reserved, was regarded as more beautiful, did better at school (she was even treated as a star), and she was very good at horseback riding, for which she constantly won laurels in competitions and compliments from family. “It’s more than sure that Lee had a Jackie complex,”* remembered their cousin John Davis.

Rivalry between the sisters had already started when they were children. Once in the Chaplin School, which Jackie attended, there was a piano concert. Jackie did not want to take part in it and with great difficulty prepared Johan Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” but then she discovered that her younger sister entered the competition herself. Crying, Jackie ran to her mother — “But she does not even know how to play!” Janet calmed her daughter. She was mistaken. Lee secretly practiced and played the famous waltz with no difficulty.

Yet the Bouvier sisters were united. They spent their youth living in prosperity, at social meetings, trips abroad, playing tennis, horseback riding and in love affairs. Residents of Newport, where they went for vacations, remembered them as much more sophisticated then the rest of their peers and a bit supercilious. One of their companions from those years bluntly claimed that Lee was an “empty-headed, little, arrogant bitch.”*

It’s Good To Get Married

Lee never showed any special desire to study. Therefore, at first opportunity she ran away from school and home to marry. She chose Michael Canfield, the son of a New York publisher and drunkard. It was not important, what mattered was that she was ahead of Jackie on the way to the altar. “I was very young, and he seemed to have all the assets in his hand: good looks, privileges, friends, fun,”* she explained.

The wedding of the 20-year-old Lee took place in April 1953. Five months later the other Miss Bouvier got married to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a handsome senator from Massachusetts.

One can debate whether she got the better candidate when it comes to a man, but in terms of the publicity and importance of the marriage, Jackie defeated Lee again.

However she very quickly realized that life with a senator and womanizer can be difficult. But when at the beginning of the relationship she wanted to divorce, both families gathered at a meeting and proposed to give her $1 million if she changed her mind. Making a political career, Kennedy could not afford for this to happen.

Lee lived in London with her husband, where she had the active social life she had always wanted. Because her husband worked as a diplomat, they had extensive contacts and the list of parties never ended.

Royal Connections

At one of those parties Lee met Prince Stanisław Radziwiłł, whose excellent origins, relationship with many royal families and alleged fortune impressed her. After the September campaign, during which Prince Stanisław served in the cavalry, he managed to leave Poland, and later the government of General Sikorski appointed him as the representative of the Polish Red Cross in Geneva. In 1946, he settled in London. He was penniless, as was the entire Radziwiłł family at that time, who the communist authorities deprived of their fortune. To his luck and owing to connections, he became involved in the property market, a job that in fact “denigrated aristocracy,” but allowed him to live at a high level.

This way, he could support his father, Prince Janusz Radziwiłł, who was the leader of the Polish conservatives before 1939, briefly a prisoner of the NKVD at the beginning of the war (he was discharged after the Italian royal family intervened), and spent sometime in a Berlin Moabit prison after the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, Prince Janusz again ended up in the NKVD’s hands, and after release returned to Warsaw, refusing to go abroad. The authorities gave him a two-bedroom apartment at the Saska Kępa, and the Radziwiłł’s Warsaw residence, the Pebendowski Palace, was turned into the Lenin Museum.

Staś — as friends called him — was 19 years older then Lee and represented the old school aristocracy. Friends appreciated him for his “big Polish heart, wonderful human kindness” and remembered him as somebody who laughed until tears, had an amazing sense of humor and connections that opened all doors.

Vatican Play

When Lee started her romance with Radziwiłł, her sister lost her first baby, daughter Arabella, and came to London depressed. Lee’s husband, feeling that his marriage was in shambles, took the opportunity to ask his sister-in-law how to make his wife happy. “Give her more money,” was the answer. “I give,” he replied honestly. “I am talking about real money,”* specified the senator’s wife. According to Diana DuBois, Lee’s biographer, her rowdy attitude toward life and other people resulted from a lack of parental love.

Both sisters wanted to belong to the elite class. They wanted money and friendship with the rich, influential people. Lee divorced her husband and, due to Radziwiłł’s request to marry in the church, tried to annul her first marriage. It took three years, and it was surely Jackie who convinced the Vatican. After Kennedy won the elections, as the wife of first American Catholic president, she visited Pope John XXIII and spoke on behalf of her sister. The Vatican agreed to annul Lee’s marriage, but the matter was to remain secret. Five years later, Italian weekly ABC published the case with details, and on Nov. 12, 1967, the police entered the print shop and confiscated the newspapers.

My Brother-in-Law the President

“I experienced the happiest moments when married to Staś,” remembered Lee, forgetting to add that she constantly cheated on him. “He was my biggest love. Never again did I feel such a joy and felt that I lived the life like then. When Kennedy and my sister came to London, they stayed in our house at Buckingham Palace more often than in the embassy, and I took part in all those wonderful parties.”*

The Radziwiłł’s often flew to Washington or to the Kennedy’s summer residency in Hyannis Port. Kennedy was close with him to such an extent that even on the day of his swearing-in he called him a couple of times in London. Lee called that period in his life the “political epoch” — the president loved his sister-in-law’s company, liked to deride and jeer, something at which Lee was equally good. He considered his wife’s sister to have a much more interesting nature. “You know,” he said once to Lee, “Jackie lacks imagination. We can do absolutely everything but she hasn’t got any idea.”*

It was Lee — because Jackie was pregnant — who accompanied Kennedy in his journey to West Berlin, during which he spoke the famous words: “Ich bin ein Berliner” — “ I am a Berliner.” Radziwiłł informed the president before the embassy about all the developments in Great Britain.

But I Am Better!

In those times, Lee and Jacqueline were regarded as an authority in the fashion world, and an image in the likeness of the younger sister was published in Voque in a series of articles about chic celebrities. When she became the president’s sister-in-law, magazine journalists watched her every outfit, and she was invited (as one of five elegant women) to review the Parisian autumn collection of 1961. And she criticized Christian Dior, writing that his collection is “extravagant, exotic and not for me.”* At the end of the ‘60s she was ranked first among the best-dressed people in the world. “She could wear a jumper worth 20 shillings and make it look good,”* a designer once claimed.

Lee complained however to her new friend, writer Truman Capote, that it was she who understood fashion, it was she who understood arts, that she was elegant and skilled, but all those attributes were assigned to Jackie. “She is so jealous of her,”* noted Capote after the meeting.

Following the Kennedy election, Lee was forever known as Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, and when the famous journalist Barbara Walters introduced her as such in a studio she almost left. Walters later said that Lee’s biggest problem was the inability to decide who she wanted to be: the president’s sister-in-law, a house wife, a celebrity, a world dame, a style icon or the author of fashion articles.

Lee could write in various magazines, but demanded exorbitant rates. She tried to become an actress, but her debut performance at the theatre in Chicago ended in failure. The film “Laura,” in which she played the main part, shared a similar fate. Lack of a useful occupation deepened her frustration and caused her to drink even more.

She was only good at being the first lady’s sister, which she played publicly beyond reproach. During a semiofficial trip to India, she so politely stayed in the shadow that Jacqueline said: “I am so proud of her. Nobody ever will come between us.”* She was wrong. Their friendship was soon to be threatened by a very rich man — Aristotle Onassis.

Jealous of Onassis

Lee started a romance with Onassis at roughly the same time she married Radziwiłł. In 1963, she spent a holiday on his yacht, the Christina, where she found out about John and Jackie’s son Patrick’s death. He died three days after his birth. She immediately flew to the U.S. to support her sister and later invited her to the Christina. Onassis was delighted with Jackie, which depressed Lee because her sister and the Greek ship owner had probably already started their romance. Perhaps Jackie would not have married Onassis if not for the death of her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy, to whom Jackie became very close after the Dallas assassination. There were also rumors about an affair in this case. So when Robert was assassinated in 1968, she was devastated. “Will it happen also to my children? They are also Kennedys! I hate America!”* she told Onassis when he visited her in America.

That same year, escaping America to — as she thought — a safer part of the world, she married Onassis. But this marriage also did not work for her. Onassis publicly humiliated her, and when he got bored of her, he told his acquaintances that going to bed with her was like lying next to a corpse. After the billionaire’s death and a difficult legal battle, she barely got $25 million of the $500 million fortune.

Yet Lee was also not happy with Radziwłł, who apparently got angry easily. “He was volatile, very Polish,” said one of his friends. At that time, Radziwiłł was taking amphetamines and valium injections prescribed by the controversial doctor Max Jacobson, who similarly drugged John Kennedy, and according to some it was precisely doctor ”Feelgood” — as he was called — who was responsible for the prince’s moods. They divorced in 1974.

My Name Is Lee

High life, friendship with the famous — dancer Rudolf Nuriejew, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, artist Andy Warhol, writer Truman Capote — and many more figures from the cultural and political world, receptions and foreign trips clearly did not give Lee happiness. Despite running an interior design studio for rich friends, she was constantly lacking money, and Jackie eventually refused her loans.

She tried to marry Californian hotel magnate Newton Cope, but an hour before the ceremony he called it off because of Lee’s financial demands. He said then: “Friends asked me: ‘How can you be with that woman? She and her sister are the worst piranhas in the U.S. Lee will chew you up and spit you out.’”*

For the third time she married, to film producer Herbert Ross, but it also ended in a divorce. She had problems with her daughter Anna Chrisitina Radziwiłł, who moved out and lived with aunty Jacqueline. One afternoon in the summer of 1981, in front of the St. Martin Church in East Hampton, not far from Long Island, a car stopped and two elegant women got out of it. Jackie Kennedy walked her sister to the church pew, and then sat in the car to make sure that Lee stayed at the meeting until the end. That afternoon her sister was to say “My name is Lee and I am an alcoholic.” Like before, Lee supported Jacqueline in her successive tragedies, so now Jacqueline tried to help Lee in her struggle with alcoholism, which was caused by her greed for fame, money and the urge to be a role model. It was a role reserved for her sister.

*Editor’s Note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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