Why Jackie knocked out her prettier sister with a croquet mallet
The first paragraph sets the tone. ‘Jacqueline Kennedy, the greatly admired former First Lady, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of sixty-four,’ reads the first sentence. ‘The illness spread rapidly through her body, and Jackie opted to die at home, in her spacious apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.’
The spaciousness or otherwise of an apartment has got nothing to do with her dying.
A death scene is no time for an author to summon the estate agent with his measuring tape. That misapplied little word ‘spacious’ signals the start of a book which consists of a weird, vulgar mixture of coffin-chasing and interior decoration.
Later in the same paragraph we are told ‘She died at home on May 19 1994 – ironically on her father “Black Jack” Bouvier’s birthday...’ Yet there’s little irony in dying on your father’s birthday. ‘Coincidentally’ is more like it.
Though Jackie is dead, her younger sister Princess Lee Radziwill is still with us, aged 85. She granted the authors an interview in 2014 for Vanity Fair magazine. They were, they say, ‘greeted at the door by Therese, her long-time lady’s maid, and ushered into a living room where light poured in from three tall, graceful windows’. Graceful – like ‘elegant’ and ‘sumptuous’ – is one of the authors’ favourite words. On the next page, they are ‘struck by the Eastern influences in the graceful room’, and, two short paragraphs on, they recall the way Lee’s sister Jackie ‘had become an international icon of grace, style and beauty’.
Therese serves the three of them ‘an elegant lunch of chilled cucumber soup and a watercress salad’. According to them, this grim repast ‘lived up to her reputation for serving exquisite meals that subtly matched her decor, such as serving borscht to coincide with the color of her dining room walls’. Are guests of Lee Radziwill forced to eat purple food morning, noon and night? Or, if she is planning to serve parsley omelettes as a main course, does she order her interior decorators to hastily repaint the walls yellow with green specks?
Jackie and Lee were born, three-and-ahalf years apart, to a snobbish, pushy mother and a drunken playboy father, John ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, who died in relative poverty, having first warned the girls that ‘all men are rats’, and advising them to ‘play hard to get and never be easy’. From the start, the two sisters were very different – Jackie shy, Lee gregarious, Jackie cool, Lee impulsive – though they shared a lifelong love of money.
They were both brought up to shine in high society, and their training paid dividends. We learn that Jackie ‘was named Debutante of the Year by the influential gossip columnist and social arbiter Igor Cassini, who wrote under the nom de plume Cholly Knickerbocker’. She then went to the Sorbonne in Paris, which prompted ‘a love affair with all things French’. This meant that, when she got back, she called her new horse Danseuse rather than Dancer.
Lee was always more reckless than Jackie. Aged 20, she married a wealthy man called Michael Canfield, who was ‘rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Prince George, Duke of Kent’. But, just a month later, Jackie trumped her by marrying the richer and more dashing young senator John F Kennedy.
It wasn’t long before Lee’s marriage went off the rails. Michael was a heavy drinker; Lee had affairs. Michael asked Jackie how he could stop her leaving him. ‘Get more money, Michael,’ replied Jackie. Michael pointed out that he had a trust fund and a good salary. ‘No, Michael,’ replied Jackie, ‘I mean real money.’
Lee then trumped Jackie by becoming a princess, marrying a Polish aristocrat 20 years her senior, Prince Stas Radziwill. First she had a son, Anthony, and then a daughter, Tina. Tina was born three months premature, in the wrong country, so Lee flew home to London, leaving a nanny to fly back with the newborn baby,
‘Jackie and Lee were both brought up to shine in high society, and their training paid dividends’
four months later. This is the sort of behaviour that the authors count as graceful and elegant.
Jackie Kennedy’s life has already been exceptionally well chronicled, which is presumably why she plays only a supporting role to the lesser-known Lee in this account of the two sisters. Their lives overlapped in an often creepy way: Lee seems to have had affairs with both Jackie’s husbands. In her fine biography of Jackie, written in 2000, Sarah Bradford revealed that Lee had hopped into bed with President Kennedy early in his marriage. The authors of The Fabulous Bouvier
Sisters attribute the rumour to the unreliable Gore Vidal, and seem doubtful about it – ‘it is hard to know if Vidal is telling the truth here’ – but Bradford had it confirmed by Jackie’s sister-in-law Joan, who had been told about it by Jackie.
Lee also had an affair with Aristotle Onassis, but this time before rather than after Jackie married him. Lee reportedly liked his ‘primitive vitality’, and appreciated his ‘sexual prowess, his Oriental tastes in that area’. Sadly, this has no explanatory footnote. As a consolation prize, Onassis appointed her cuckolded husband, Prince Radziwill, a director of Olympic Airways, which he owned.
Lee later wondered whether Onassis had just been using her as a way of roping in Jackie. Certainly, when both sisters stayed on his yacht, Jackie came away with the pricier gift. He gave Lee, who was then his nominal girlfriend, three diamondstudded bracelets, but he dug deeper for Jackie, giving her ‘a dazzling diamondand-ruby necklace estimated at $50,000’. This was before the assassination of President Kennedy. After it, Onassis set about wooing Jackie. ‘It’s a perfect match,’ said Onassis’s surly son Alexander. ‘My father loves names and Jackie loves money.’ On the eve of the wedding, JFK’s little brother Teddy stepped in to negotiate a pre-nup. In exchange for Jackie waiving her legal right to inheriting 12.5 per cent of his estate, Onassis settled $3 million on her, and $1 million for each of her children, plus $150,000 a year for life. Later, Onassis was plotting to divorce Jackie when, in the nick of time, he died. Her settlement somehow grew to $26 million overall, and, with crafty investment after his death, turned into $150million. Happy days!
Sibling rivalry is the theme of this book. At times, it reads like Whatever Happened
To Baby Jane? When they were little girls, Jackie knocked Lee out with a croquet mallet, but, says Lee, ‘I finally triumphed by pushing her down the stairs.’ As they grew up, Lee was generally considered the prettier, livelier sister, but it was Jackie who became the most famous woman on Earth, and was voted America’s most admired woman five years running.
Small wonder that Lee found it hard to swallow. ‘My God, how jealous she is of Jackie: I never knew,’ wrote Lee’s best friend Truman Capote to Cecil Beaton. But Lee insisted that it was the other way round, telling Beaton that Jackie was ‘so jealous of me’.
Certainly, Lee rarely had a good word to say about Jackie. Even when Jackie was recovering from the trauma of having seen her husband’s brains blown out by an assassin’s bullet, Lee was remarkably unsympathetic. ‘She can’t stop thinking about herself and never feeling anything but sorry for herself,’ she told Cecil Beaton.
Lee tried her hand at this and that – actor, chat-show host, interior decorator – but proved no great shakes at any of them. She followed The Rolling Stones around on one of their tours; Keith Richards called her ‘Princess Radish’. She even became ‘Director of Special Events’ for Giorgio Armani, which is surely second only to ‘Tequila Ambassador’ on anyone’s list of unjobs. Perhaps her greatest successes have been sexual. She once set her sights on the stalwartly gay dancer Rudolf Nureyev – in Henley, of all places. Nureyev later claimed he had managed to get her pregnant, but she remains adamant that he was just confused.
‘A perfect match,’ said Alexander Onassis. ‘My father loves names and Jackie loves money.’
The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic And Glamorous Lives Of Jackie And Lee
Sibling rivalry: Jackie Kennedy (in blue) and sister Lee Radziwill with their daughters Caroline (left) and Anna in London, 1965