Obituaries

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ sister Lee Radziwill dies at 85

Mrs. Radziwill (left) was the sister of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Above: the sisters in London in 1965.
Getty Images/File
Mrs. Radziwill (left) was the sister of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Above: the sisters in London in 1965.

NEW YORK — Lee Radziwill, the free-spirited former princess who shared the qualities of wealth, social status, and ambition with her older sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but who struggled as an actor, decorator, and writer to share her sister’s aura of success, died Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.

It could not have been easy living in the shadow of one of the world’s most famous women, the wife of President John F. Kennedy, and Mrs. Radziwill was not immune to competitive instincts. Jackie Kennedy had helped create the mystique of the thousand days of Camelot — a woman who had made her new home a place of elegance and culture.

Mrs. Radziwill, the wife of a Polish émigré nobleman, Prince Stanislas Radziwill, was an international socialite and fashion icon who for years was on lists of the world’s best-dressed women. Like Jackie, she had cultivated passions for painting, music, dance, and poetry.

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For years — especially before and during Kennedy’s time as first lady — Mrs. Radziwill had been close to her sister, sharing holidays and family gatherings; attending state functions; visiting the White House; hosting the Kennedys at the Radziwill town house in London; and, notably, taking a monthlong 1962 vacation with Jackie in Italy, India, and Pakistan.

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Cementing family ties, the Kennedys had named their firstborn child Caroline, after Caroline Lee, who had always been known by her middle name. John Kennedy had been godfather to the Radziwills’ daughter, Anna Christina.

It changed dramatically with the president’s assassination in 1963.

Rushing to Washington from her home in London, Mrs. Radziwill brought sensitivity and emotional support. In the ensuing days, with the nation watching, she was a visible support for the widow, escorting her husband’s body to the Capitol to lie in state, during the funeral at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, and at burial ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mrs. Radziwill kept her composure until Air Force One, passing overhead, dipped a wing in salute. Then she wept.

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Behind the scenes, she pinned a note to Jackie’s pillow, expressing love and admiration for her courage. And she helped Jackie get through the last terrible day, leaving the White House with her children.

Mrs. Radziwill helped Kennedy resettle in New York, a few blocks up Fifth Avenue from an apartment Mrs. Radziwill had.

In the small world of celebrities, it is hardly surprising that Kennedy’s future husband, Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate, had been a close friend of the Radziwills. They had hosted dinner parties in London for him and had joined him on cruises aboard his yacht, the Christina. Indeed, tabloids had long romantically linked Mrs. Radziwill and Onassis, a notorious womanizer.

In a brief telephone interview for this obituary, Mrs. Radziwill scoffed at the notion that she had had an affair with Onassis and insisted that she had “no regrets, none at all,” about her relationship with her sister, which was widely reported to have been strained after Kennedy married Onassis.

In August 1963, after Kennedy gave birth prematurely to a third child, Patrick, who died after a day, Mrs. Radziwill called her, relaying an invitation from Onassis to recuperate on his yacht. A grieving Kennedy, wanting privacy, accepted the invitation and, accompanied by the Radziwills, joined Onassis for an extended cruise in the Aegean Sea.

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“The story of Jackie’s effect on Ari during that cruise has been told many times,” Diana DuBois wrote in “In Her Sister’s Shadow: An Intimate Biography of Lee Radziwill” (1995). “Lee would tell her intimates later that she was only trying to do something nice for her sister when she brought her along on the Christina and that Jackie co-opted Onassis on that cruise.”

Echoing news accounts of the era, the book added: “Jackie’s expropriation of Onassis drove a deep wedge between the two women, which, when coupled with a parallel development between Jackie and Robert Kennedy in the aftermath of the assassination, was the beginning of a profound change in their relationship, one that would last.”

In the months after the assassination, according to historians and news reports of the day, Robert Kennedy provided deep emotional support in a time of psychic trauma for Jackie, and the fact that the two were frequently seen together in absorbed conversation gave rise inevitably to rumors that their relationship was something closer than the kindness and comforting of an in-law. But nothing more substantive was ever demonstrated.

Five years after the president’s assassination, in a made-for-tabloids event, Kennedy and Onassis were married. Mrs. Radziwill attended the wedding on Skorpios, Onassis’ private island.

As the sisters drifted apart, Mrs. Radziwill in the 1960s made new, creative friends, including dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn and writer Truman Capote.

In 1967, encouraged by her friends, Mrs. Radziwill began an acting career. She studied with teachers from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Capote advised her to make her debut as Tracy Lord, the spoiled, spirited socialite in “The Philadelphia Story.” It had been Katharine Hepburn’s role on Broadway and in a Hollywood film.

The revival was staged in Chicago. Publicity hailed the star as Jackie Kennedy’s princess sister. The opening was a media circus. The reviews were devastating. “A new star is not born,” The Chicago Tribune crowed. Other critics called her performance wooden and amateurish. She was hurt, but audiences were not put off, and she finished a four-week run.

Capote then urged David Susskind, the producer, to put his protégé in a television play. A remake of “Laura,” the classic 1944 Otto Preminger film, was chosen, with Mrs. Radziwill again in a role made unforgettable by another star, Gene Tierney. Capote helped write the script. It aired nationally on ABC in January 1968.

The reviews were not kind. Mrs. Radziwill returned to London, her acting career over.

In 1976, Mrs. Radziwill founded an interior design firm. She attracted a few corporate and wealthy private clients and drew favorable publicity, including a feature spread in Architectural Digest. But her designing career was brief.

Her writing ambitions fared no better. She was contracted to write a memoir in the early 1970s and another in the late ’90s, but neither book was finished. In 2001, she published “Happy Times,” a slim picture book with reminiscences on the Bouvier sisters’ early years.

Caroline Lee Bouvier was born in Manhattan to John Vernou Bouvier III and the former Janet Norton Lee. Her mother was socially prominent and her father, a Wall Street broker called Black Jack.

The parents were divorced in 1940, and Janet Bouvier married Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr., a Standard Oil heir, who had three children by previous marriages and two, Janet and Jamie, in his marriage to Bouvier.

Lee grew up in the shade of her sister, who was nearly four years older and was her father’s favorite and an accomplished equestrian. They lived in commodious Manhattan apartments and at estates on Long Island and in McLean, Va., and Newport, R.I., where they learned to sail on Narragansett Bay.

Lee enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College but left in her sophomore year to study art in Italy. She joined Harper’s Bazaar in 1950 as an assistant to the legendary editor Diana Vreeland. She held the job briefly, but it sparked her lifelong interest in fashion.

In 1951, Lee and Jacqueline Bouvier toured London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, and Madrid. Their reminiscences were collected in “One Special Summer” (1974).

In 1953, Lee married Michael Temple Canfield, the adopted son of Cass Canfield, chairman of publisher Harper & Brothers. They had no children and were divorced in 1958. The marriage was later annulled by the Catholic Church.

In 1959, she married Prince Radziwill, 20 years her senior, who had made a fortune in real estate. The couple had an estate near Henley-on-Thames and a Georgian town house near Buckingham Palace. They had two children, Prince Anthony and Princess Anna Christina, and were divorced in 1974. Anthony died in 1999.

In 1988, Mrs. Radziwill married Herbert Ross, the director and choreographer whose films included “The Sunshine Boys” (1975), “The Goodbye Girl” (1977), and “Steel Magnolias” (1989). They were divorced shortly before his death in 2001, and she resumed the Radziwill surname.

After Jackie Onassis died in 1994, her will made no material provision for her sister, “for whom I have great affection,” Onassis wrote, “because I have already done so in my lifetime.” It left bequests to each of her sister’s children. The disinheritance of Mrs. Radziwill was widely interpreted as another sign of strain between the sisters, whose relationship had captivated the press and public throughout their lives.

Mrs. Radziwill, who lived in Manhattan, said in a 2013 interview with The Times that being Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ sister had been double-edged.

“In some funny way, I’m lucky that there was so much more interest in my sister,” she said. “At times it was annoying, at times funny. Perhaps the most depressing part was that whatever I did, or tried to do, got disproportionate coverage purely because of Jackie being my sister. But you learn to deal with scrutiny, even the lies, as long as it’s not malicious.”