Sibling rivals in the court of Camelot

Remembering Lee Radziwill, a woman whose grace was all her own.

“How now, spirit? Whither wander you?” – Prospero to Ariel in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

There are few rivalries more intense than that of siblings, especially sisters, and few sisterly rivalries more pronounced in the media than that of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her younger sister Lee Radziwill, who died Feb. 15 of natural causes at her Manhattan home. She was 85.

Memoirist, interior designer, Armani events planner, actress, Radziwill nonetheless created a far more lasting public effect as Jackie’s sister and the wife of Prince Stanislas Radziwill, the Polish emigré turned London real estate investor. That was, she acknowledged to The New York Times, her blessing and her curse.

And her irony. Though she was, in the manner of younger sisters, the pioneering “blithe spirit,” roaming over the seas of adventure, it was the more cautious older sister who made the ultimate impression. Perhaps that was because while Lee was often the first to try new things, Jackie (1929-94) was the one to pick up the ball and score. She had more perseverance.

It was Lee, once an assistant editor to Harper’s Bazaar legend Diana Vreeland, who introduced the shy, bookish Jackie to fashion; Lee who married first, to diplomat Michael Canfield; Lee who first loved the ancient Greeks – and one ancient Greek in particular, Aristotle Onassis. Tellingly, in those iconic photographs of Jackie and Lee on a camel  during a 1962 good-will tour of Pakistan and India on behalf of President John F. Kennedy, it is Lee in the front. She was the vanguard.

But Jackie would prove to be the closer. It was she who is remembered as the fashion icon of her generation; she who had the editing career that might’ve been Lee’s had she stuck with Vreeland; she who made not one but two glittering marriages, the latter to Onassis, which seemed to strain an intimate, albeit competitive sisterly bond. After the Onassis marriage, Lee flitted from role to role, never alighting for long. In a way, she was like Britain’s Princess Margaret – younger sibling of Queen Elizabeth II, with whom she shared a few artistic friends – always searching for love and purpose in the shadow of her sister’s sun.

Camelot – as Jackie fashioned the 1,000 days of the Kennedy presidency that ended in his assassination – was one of Lee’s finest hours. She was there in good times and in bad – standing in for her sister as hostess when Kennedy went to then West Berlin to deliver his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, which she would remember as one of the great thrills of her life; and seeing Jackie through the ordeal of the assassination and relocation to Manhattan. If Jackie held the nation together with her poise in a tragic time, Lee held Jackie together, leaving a note on her pillow that read, “Good night, my darling Jacks – the bravest and noblest of all. L.” 

There was more loss to come — divorce from the affable “Stas,” as the prince was known (a third marriage to filmmaker Herbert Ross would also end in divorce); the death of her sister, who would leave money to Lee’s children, Anthony and Christina, yet nothing for her; the deaths of her nephew, John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, the former Carolyn Bessette, and her sister, Lauren, in a 1999 plane crash; and then, three weeks later, the death of her son Anthony from metastatic testicular cancer.

In her book “What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship & Love,” Anthony’s widow, Carole, describes her mother-in-law visiting Anthony in the hospital. “Let’s be up,” she advises Carole before they go in to see him. Schooled and steeled at the graveside, Lee bore life’s tragedies with a grace that matched her delicate beauty. Grace was something that was always attributed to Jackie.

But in the end, Lee’s grace was all her own.

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