The Bouvier Sisters: A Zero Sum Game

By Ana Daniel
Lee Radziwill and Jackie Kennedy on vacation in Ravello, Italy, in the summer of 1962. Benno Graziani/Photo12

“The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters”
Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger
HarperCollins, $28.99

In “The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters,” the sisters in question are, of course, Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, fabulous because they have become fables and fabulous because they were icons of glamour. 

Cut out of the same cloth, they were “raised as snobs” but, “like little orphans,” without fortune. They were also opposites. “The great irony of their lives,” the authors, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, tell us, “is that fate handed shy, introverted Jackie a role on the world stage,” while Lee, “who longed to shine, was handed the lesser role of lady-in-waiting.” 

Through this recounting of their private and public lives runs the theme of sibling rivalry, starting in their childhood, much of it spent on an estate on Further Lane in East Hampton, when they competed for the attention of Black Jack Bouvier, their father, and ending with the question: “Why was Lee so completely left out of her sister’s will?”

One can’t help but think of a similar relationship in the case of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. And because the elder sister in each case is a dignified character with gravitas (and because the highlights of Jackie’s life are better known), the savory story in this book is really about the younger. Intentionally or not, it is the saga of Princess Radziwill and her “fierce Darwinian struggle for recognition and triumph in the eyes of the world.” Truman Capote once wrote to Cecil Beaton, “My God, how jealous she is of Jackie.” 

Of course, Lee was never really a princess. The title comes from her second husband, Stanislas Radziwill, a descendant of Polish aristocracy who was a British citizen and therefore could not officially use the title of prince. But Lee insisted on being called Princess Radziwill by all and sundry for the rest of her life. Toward the end of the story, the authors tell of an incident showing how much the title meant to her, when, married then to Herbert Ross, a film director, she attended the premier of her husband’s film “Steel Magnolias” in London:

“Lee balked at the seating arrangement, which had the film’s principals in the front row and with spouses in the second. This was unacceptable to Lee, who did, after all, still retain the (somewhat dubious) title of princess . . . so she immediately took one of the seats in the front row, between her husband and Prince Charles. . . . When Julia [Roberts, who starred in the movie] tried to take her seat, whispering to Lee that she was in the wrong place, Lee ignored her. . . . In the end, Prince Charles and Lady Diana [my italics] moved their seats to accommodate the cast of ‘Steel Magnolias,’ amid embarrassment all around.” 

For this reader, that about sums it up.

As for the similarities between them, “the two sisters discovered over the course of their marriages that they could abide infidelities — but not insolvency. Lee and Jackie both knew that the style to which they were bred needed constant infusions of cash — and those infusions invariably came from the men in their lives.” Thus, first Lee and then Jackie pursued and were pursued by Aristotle Onassis — who loved women, money, and power — but Jackie, once again, caught the ring.

Both sisters were big spenders, it seems. J.F.K. and Onassis found fault with Jackie’s extravagant spending, and Lee — described by Diana Vreeland as having “an extraordinary sense of luxury” — also worried her several rich husbands with “how quickly [she] ran through large sums of money.” Later, Jackie, her future cushioned by her settlement with Onassis, found professional success in publishing. Lee too tried her hand at business, but less successfully, needing gradually to downsize her living arrangements. Apparently, Jackie occasionally had to come to the rescue.

“Like Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton’s ‘House of Mirth,’ Lee was facing the prospect of a slow and steady fall, made harder to bear by her sister’s wealth. One wag even joked that since Lee had been involved with Onassis before Jackie and had introduced them, Jackie should have given Lee ‘a finder’s fee’ when Onassis left her a wealthy widow.” 

The estrangement between the sisters appears to have started during the Onassis period, when Jackie accepted his proposal without telling Lee. They came and went separately to their stepfather’s funeral. Lee and her daugh­ter were not included in Caroline Kennedy’s wedding party or, eventually, Jackie’s will, leaving Lee “nothing — not a piece of jewelry, not a trinket, not their father’s writing desk, which Lee had given to Jackie after inheriting it,” because, to quote the will, she had “already done so much during [her] lifetime.”

The authors end their tale with this comment: After Jackie’s death, “Lee found herself befriended by a younger generation” who, “drawn to her unerring chic, her sophistication, her endurance . . . elevated Lee to the role she was born to inhabit once Jackie’s long shadow had begun to fade: style icon.” 

There is a darker story of loss and death linking these two sisters. Jackie and Lee always made a special effort to foster closeness among their respective children: John-John and Caroline, Anthony and Christina (known as Tina). Onassis too had a son and a daughter. All three of these sons died young, in plane accidents or from cancer. “This conflict with the gods is the essence of Greek tragedy,” Jackie is quoted as having written.

But “The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters” is journalism, not literature, though the raw material for a tragedy is present. It is a tale for the curious, with an excellent index allowing readers to retrace their steps as the plot thickens. There are many thoughts attributed to the characters, one assumes supported by five pages of bibliography. All the material in this review is drawn from the book. 

Ana Daniel is the special projects editor for The Southampton Review. She lives in Bridgehampton.

Lee Radziwill once had a house in East Hampton Village.

Jackie invited Lee on a diplomatic trip to India and Pakistan in March 1962. They are seen here in Karachi, Pakistan. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger Tate Delloye and Gordon Ball Photos