Last Friday, the world lost yet another prolific name. Lee Radziwill died in her home in New York at the age of 85. Those in the know may be all too familiar with her name. But for the uninitiated, who was she?
Born Caroline Lee Bouvier to stockbroker John Vernou Bouvier III and socialite Janet Lee Bouvier, Lee was a socialite and interior designer. She was also the younger sister of Jackie Kennedy.
Lee may have entered the society through Jackie, but she has made a name in her own right. Over the course of her life, she worked as an actress, public relations executive, writer, editor and interior decorator. During her studies at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, she dropped out to work as an assistant for Diana Vreeland, an illustrious fashion journalist at Harper’s Bazaar. She also penned articles for Ladies’ Home Journal and befriended Truman Capote, who was a huge fan of hers, and once said: “I can’t think of any woman more feminine than Lee — not even Audrey Hepburn.”
In fact, Lee was one of the “Swans”, a nickname Capote had for his favourite socialites. Indeed, she was society’s most understated “it girl” at that time.
She kept a glamorous circle of friends around her, which included Carolina Herrera, Mick Jagger and Marc Jacobs. She was also part of Andy Warhol’s scene, making an appearance on the cover of his Interview magazine.
Yet, despite all her success, she was still most famously known as Jackie’s younger sister.
Relationship with Jackie Kennedy
The sisters’ relationship was notoriously sour, and is one fuelled by jealousy and competition — both for the attention of their parents and men. Jackie had always been the favoured daughter since young, which resulted in an inferiority complex in Lee. For those who knew the sisters, it was obvious that Lee has always lived in her sister’s shadow.
This spiralled even further after Jackie’s marriage to John F. Kennedy, which put her on the spotlight as the most celebrated First Lady in U.S. history. This was witnessed by the world, especially when it came to a head in early 1961 at a swinging party in Lee’s house near Buckingham Palace, in which she famously exclaimed: “How can anyone compete with that? It’s all over for me now.”
Yet, Lee, who had always been known for her more sophisticated style, was Jackie’s de facto stylist for years during her term as First Lady, helping her find just the right look for state dinners and official outings.
Lee has always been fascinated with design, whether its film, theatre, ballet or home decor. She was known for her impeccable taste in fashion and design, and famously decorated her own homes (from three different marriages — namely to Michael Canfield, Polish aristocrat Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill and filmmaker Herbert Ross). This started at the young age of 17, when she dreamt up a dramatically contemporary apartment — splashed with hues of purples, whites, blacks and reds — for her stepbrother Yusha Auchincloss.
She also worked with New York City decorator Michael Greer for her home at 45 Chester Square in London. After her 1959 marriage to Radziwill, she hired London tastemaker Felix Harbord, and then Renzo Mongiardino, an Academy Award-winning Italian set designer coveted by the affluent set. Under Mongiardino’s directions, Turville Grange and the Radziwills’ townhouse near Buckingham Palace became some of the most influential private residences of the 1960s.
“I suppose I wanted to lull myself into thinking I was in the English countryside,” Lee said in Architectural Digest’s January 1982 issue, when the magazine’s cover is plastered with a photo of her Park Avenue dining room photographed by Derry Moore. Indeed, the decor of her homes evoke sophisticated Victorian elements, looking like they belong in a lush countryside.
In 1976, with no training of any kind except working on her own homes, Lee announced that she had become an interior decorator with her firm, Lee Radziwill Inc. Her first big client was Americana Hotels, for which she designed private suites. Although she was not formally trained, she added: “I have a good background in the history of art, because that was the subject that really interested me.”
(Featured image credit: Horst P Horst/Condé Nast via Getty Images)