No one was as worshipped and no one was as doomed as Princess Lee Radziwill. The younger sister of Jackie Kennedy, Lee’s whole life seemed to be a battle with her sibling over who could be more glamorous, more scandalous, and finally, more tragic. Dust off that faded debutante dress for the gripping, heartbreaking story of Lee Radziwill, the American Princess.
Long before she became a princess by marriage, Lee was true American royalty. Her father, “Black Jack” Bouvier, was a tough-talking New York City stockbroker, while her mother Janet was a classically beautiful socialite in the restrained East Coast style. In many ways, Lee’s childhood on Park Avenue seemed idyllic—but it had a chilling dark side.
Although the Bouviers summered in the Hamptons and socialized with the cream of American society, there was something rotten at their core. Lee’s father, whose rakish looks were notoriously similar to Clark Gable, drank and womanized throughout his entire dysfunctional marriage, which came to a bitter end in 1940 when Lee was only seven. Yet worse was on its way.
Even as a young girl, Lee had to deal with some messed-up Freudian family dynamics. Her older sister Jackie, AKA the woman who would one day become Jackie Kennedy, was her father’s firm favorite, mostly due to the fact she looked exactly like him in her broad cheeks and big eyes. Lee, meanwhile was slender in stature and face—but there were other reasons she could never compete with Jackie.
Daddy Bouvier was a toxic father if there ever was one, and he insisted that his darling little girls not only work tirelessly on their education, elegance, and elocution, he also demanded they “be the best” at all times. Well, there can only ever be one “best”—and that was Jackie, not Lee. In case you’re wondering, yes, this was a recipe for disaster.
In August 1947, Jackie had her coming-out ball, and Lee found the perfect way to ruin her sister’s moment. Although these well-to-do debutante balls were supposed to be stately, cream-colored affairs, Lee showed up in a loud, pink strapless dress with rhinestones, effectively yanking Jackie’s big day away from her. As Vanity Fair once noted, Lee “loved color, and she loved to be noticed". And oh boy, did people start to notice her…
When Lee was just 18, she and Jackie did a girls’ Grand Tour of Europe together, and it didn’t take long for the spitfire heiress to get into deep trouble. While hobnobbing with diplomats and VIPs at a gala party, Lee experienced a mortifying wardrobe malfunction; her underwear fell down while she stood in front of an ambassador. Granted, the next thing Lee did was even more attention-grabbing.
Ever since she was an adolescent, Lee had been romantically involved with the dapper, strapping hunk that was Michael Temple Canfield, an heir to a modest publishing house fortune. But that wasn’t his most scandalous claim to fame. More than that, people whispered that Canfield was really the illegitimate son of the philandering Duke of Kent and his bad girl mistress Kiki Preston.
With a salacious pedigree like that, how could Lee resist making horrible decisions about her future?
On April 18, 1953, a barely 20-year-old Lee married Michael Canfield at her stepfather’s Merrywood estate. Of course, with the Bouviers’ famously exquisite taste, it was a perfect day all around—made all the more satisfying because, lest we forget, Lee beat her sister Jackie to becoming a bride. Only this was where her triumph ended.
Before the wedding even got going, Lee’s family revealed an unsettling truth. They didn’t think the marriage was going to last. As her stepfather put it when talking about Michael Canfield: “He’ll never be able to afford her". Lee, meanwhile, later admitted that she had gotten hitched mostly because, “I couldn’t wait to be on my own". Is it any wonder it all fell apart?
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Besides her looming marriage troubles, Lee had another pressing concern. Less than a year after her wedding, Jackie dealt the next attack in their rivalry by marrying all-American hero John F. Kennedy. Kennedy wasn’t just handsome and gracious; he was also stinking rich. Lee’s new marriage to the much less wealthy Canfield was already coming apart at the seams, and now it was about to burst.
While Lee was married to Michael Canfield, the young couple posted up in London, England. Yet underneath the glamour was cruel tragedy. The couple were struggling and failing to conceive a child, and Michael was drowning his sorrows in drink with alarming dedication. One day, it led to an extremely awkward conversation.
Despite his flaws, Michael still deeply loved Lee and wanted to make their relationship work. He got so desperate, he even begged a visiting Jackie Kennedy to tell him what could win his wife back. Jackie immediately replied, “Get more money, Michael". Then, when Canfield protested that he already made a good income at his job, Jackie quipped, “No Michael, I mean real money".
With no mega trust fund, Michael Canfield’s blood simply wasn’t blue enough for Lee. So she moved on to someone who had it in spades.
With her marriage to Canfield crumbling, Lee stuck it to her husband in a ruthless way. In the late 1950s, she began an affair with the debonair and worldly Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill, a Polish aristocrat about town who loved glamorous parties almost as much as Lee did. There was, however, a huge problem with their tryst.
If Lee was tied up in matrimony during her aristocratic fling, that truth went double for Prince Stanislaw. Not only had the prince’s first marriage to a Swiss heiress gone down the drain already, he was currently married to another heiress, Grace Kolin, when he met Lee for the first time. But all that was about to go out the window.
Eventually, the drama became too much even for this jet-setting social circle, and Lee dissolved her marriage with Canfield while Prince Stanislaw split from his own union. Then, in 1959, Lee made an honest man out of the noble and married Prince Stanislaw, officially becoming Princess Lee Radziwill in the process. However, it was hardly a fairy tale.
To be sure, the new princess started out her marriage in royal style. She and Stanislaw moved into 4 Buckingham Place, a stately mansion just around the corner from Buckingham Palace and the Queen herself. Moreover, Lee finally got the child she so desired, a son she named Anthony. Then just as she got settled, Lee was in for a nasty surprise.
In 1961, Lee received life-changing news. John F. Kennedy had won the presidency, and her sister Jackie—still only 31 years young—was now the First Lady of the United States. Accordingly, she moved into the White House, putting all Lee’s paltry English manors to shame. And let’s just say that Lee didn’t respond to her sister’s success in the most mature way.
John F. Kennedy’s inauguration is a huge milestone in American history, but it was missing one thing: His sister-in-law Lee Radziwill. That’s right, Lee skipped out on the biggest day of Jackie’s life, staying at home in London while the festivities were going on. Officially, she wanted to stay and nurse her newborn daughter Tina, who was premature. Unofficially? Many believe she was deeply jealous.
If Lee already worried about Jackie upstaging her, she had worse in store. Although her family had always considered the attention-seeking, adventurous Lee as the more stylish of the girls, Jackie was the one who was starting to become an American fashion icon as First Lady. Ironically, though, Lee was directly behind this image…
Lee practically made it her mission to dress Jackie, and she would often sneak French Givenchy dresses into the White House, even as President Kennedy insisted his wife only wear American designers. In fact, when the First Couple went on a wildly successful trip to Paris in 1961, Lee handpicked Jackie’s Givenchy (what else?) wardrobe. But no good deed goes unpunished.
By 1962, after several successful international tours, Jackie had all but eclipsed Lee on the style and celebrity fronts. As photographer Cecil Beaton quipped about the sisters, “[Jackie] is still the most photogenic person in the world, infinitely more so than her infinitely more beautiful sister, Lee Radziwill". Talk about a backhanded compliment.
It seemed that the sisters’ rivalry was at an all-time high. Only, let this be a lesson: It can always get worse.
As Lee walked in the shadow of her sister, her life was falling apart from the inside. Her marriage to Stanislaw was in shambles, with the prince taking up with a series of other lovers and driving Lee into the arms of other men as well. All this was scandalous enough…and then Lee chose the exact wrong lover for herself.
While Jackie lived in the White House, Lee made a new “friend” in the disgustingly wealthy shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Yep, you read that right: Although Jackie later became famous for marrying the notoriously brash Greek tycoon, Lee found him first. So you can bet this all isn’t going to end well. It didn’t start well, either…
When Princess Radziwill began yachting around with Onassis, the businessman already had a ton of first-class baggage. Most infamously, his affair with the married, hotheaded opera diva Maria Callas had set all the tongues in Europe wagging, and this fling hadn't exactly ended by the time he and Lee ignited their flame. Well, Callas had something to say about that.
Callas wasn’t known for her kind, understanding nature, but she really let it all out when it came to Lee Radziwill. One of her friends recalled her saying to him one day, “I never disliked Jackie, but I hate Lee. I hate her". So at least there’s one thing that Lee was actively beating Jackie in. And then in an instant, everything turned upside down.
In 1963, Lee tried to perform a comforting act for her sister, only to have it blow up in her face—big time. That year, Jackie had lost her newborn son just hours after the birth, and to help her recover, Lee got Onassis to invite the First Lady over to his massive yacht for a little family rest and relaxation. She would come to regret it.
Of course, this visit seemed innocent enough on the surface, and Onassis mostly left the sisters alone to chat and grieve together. But when they left, the tycoon gave Lee an insulting gift. While Jackie got a honking diamond and ruby necklace, Lee only got a set of spare bracelets—and it was a difference that Lee didn’t fail to clock, calling them “dinky little” things.
Eventually, this vacation would come back to haunt her. Yet before Lee could get too up in arms, tragedy struck.
On November 22, 1963, the unthinkable happened: Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, throwing Lee and her family into chaos. Lee rushed immediately to see her sister and help her through the nightmare that had become both their lives, even leaving a note on Jackie’s White House pillow that read, “Good night my darling Jacks—the bravest and noblest of all. L". But lest you think this was the moment Lee overcame her sibling insecurities…think again.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Lee made a disturbing confession. When talking to her friend Cecil Beaton, she admitted that helping Jackie out during this crucial moment was “hell,” and that Jackie had even once slapped her full in the face in a fit of grief and rage. Then again, Lee wasn’t exactly understanding about the whole thing, either.
As was their usual dynamic, the Bouvier sisters devolved into toxicity even when their world was falling apart. In a supremely unempathetic move, Lee once complained that “[Jackie] can’t stop thinking about herself and never feeling anything but sorry for herself!” Gee, I wonder why? But when it comes to Lee’s tone-deaf response, that wasn’t all.
Years later, Lee admitted that Kennedy's end was actually a good thing—for her, anyway. After all, Kennedy’s violent passing freed Lee from the standards of propriety that both the White House and the Kennedy clan expected her to uphold. As she put it, “There were so many things I couldn’t do when my brother-in-law was president. Finally, I’m free". Her next move was a famous one.
After the tragedy, Lee and Prince Stanislaw posted up in an iconic Fifth Avenue residence and started living the life most New Yorkers can only dream about. While in this heady atmosphere, Lee met the urbane writer Truman Capote and became one of his notorious “Swans,” the group of uber elegant women he kept around himself at all times. Sadly, this influence wasn’t a good one.
Truman Capote quickly became obsessed with Lee, once saying, “I can’t think of any woman more feminine than Lee Radziwill—not even Audrey Hepburn". According to Lee herself, the author was thoroughly in love with her, and he even started trying to turn the East Coast socialite into a star of the stage. It ended in disaster.
In no time flat, Capote convinced Lee that she should star in an upcoming stage production of The Philadelphia Story. There was, however, an enormous hurdle. Lee’s husband Prince Stanislaw despised the idea, and thought his wife’s pursuit of stardom was tasteless and tawdry. Well, she probably should have listened to her husband.
When the curtains swung on Lee’s opening night in The Philadelphia Story, it seemed like everything went wrong in an instant. First, her sister Jackie never showed up, possibly out of (you guessed it) jealousy, and Lee was so nervous and trembling that she could barely hold onto a prop piece of paper. Unsurprisingly, the critics’ reviews were horrific—and there’s an even darker side to this story.
Lee’s own friends believed that Truman Capote’s attention toward her wasn’t completely pure and altruistic. Fashion designer Ralph Rucci claimed that Capote actually secretly wanted Lee’s acting dreams to crash and burn, saying, “I think he was in love with her, totally in love with her. And because he couldn’t psychologically handle that, he had to hurt her, which is so twisted and unfortunate". But before Capote could fully realize his “plan,” Lee had a rude awakening.
In 1944, Lee starred in a panned remake of Otto Preminger’s classic noir Laura, and this was the final straw. No longer willing to watch his wife make a fool of herself, Lee’s husband Prince Stanislaw threatened to keep her children from her if she continued on with her Hollywood pipe dream. That was the end of that…but as always with Lee Radziwill’s life, another twist was coming.
In 1968, Lee’s sister Jackie dealt her the coldest betrayal yet. That autumn, she married Lee’s old, bullish lover Aristotle Onassis. Even worse, she never even told Lee about their engagement, and the princess had to find out about it from Onassis instead. On the surface, Lee’s reaction was all high-society manners, and she released a statement professing her happiness at the union. In private, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
Behind bedroom doors, Jackie's decision devastated Lee. She reportedly called up her frenemy Truman Capote and wailed through the phone, “How could she do this to me?” In many ways, it was the last blow their relationship ever sustained, and the sisters never recovered any true semblance of intimacy after that. If anything, they only grew more dysfunctional.
Still licking her wounds from Jackie’s treachery, Lee threw herself into a new tryst, this time with her husband’s friend Peter Beard. Beard, who was half photographer, half adventurer, introduced Lee to a whole new kind of social circle. Soon, Lee was lounging around in Andy Warhol’s Factory and inviting Mick Jagger to her Montauk home. And this high-speed life came with some very high stakes.
In 1974, Lee’s fairy tale came to a crushing end. Her affair with Peter Beard was the nail in the coffin of her marriage to Prince Stanislaw, and the “royal” couple filed for divorce. While Lee seemed impassive about the split, Stanislaw was completely heartbroken at the loss of his wife. Unfortunately, that heartache took its toll.
In 1976, just two years after his split from Lee, Prince Stanislaw suffered a fatal heart attack while attending a weekend shindig in England. At the time, he was only 62 years old and Lee herself was barely into her 40s. Obviously, the loss was enormous for Lee…and that was before she discovered the shocking contents of Stanislaw’s estate.
In the aftermath of Prince Stanislaw’s end, the executors of his will revealed the sour truth. He was on the verge of bankruptcy, and had absolutely no money left from his once impressive inheritance. This also meant that Lee’s children with Stanislaw got approximately zero cents from their dearly departed dad. Ouch.
By her mid-40s, Lee had mostly gotten over her disappointments and romantic upheavals. Indeed, she was ready to settle down again, this time with her new fiancé, the West-coast hotelier Newton Cope. Finally, things were looking bright and rosy in Lee’s future—which is how you know it was all about to unravel in a spectacular manner.
Although Cope and Lee had a loving, solid companionship, there was one constant issue between them: Lee’s big sister Jackie. The sisters, though emotionally distant, lived near each other, and Cope balked at how much Jackie controlled Lee’s life. He once spat out to her after a dinner party at Jackie’s, “Why the heck are you so afraid of your sister?” Turns out, Lee probably should have been more afraid.
Just as Lee was happily planning her wedding to Cope, it came crashing down around her. Practically on the eve of their wedding, Cope called the whole thing off, ending what might have been the society marriage of the year. After all that, what would make a man turn tail and run? Well, Cope’s rumored reason was a doozy.
According to Cope himself, Jackie Kennedy Onassis was directly responsible for his broken engagement. As the wedding ramped up, Jackie’s lawyer called the groom-to-be and advised him to sign a whopping prenuptial contract before tying the knot with Lee. The notion immediately disgusted Cope, as did Jackie’s “conniving,” so he dropped Lee like a hot potato. Thanks, sis.
Though Lee eventually did marry again, to Footloose director Herbert Ross in 1988, the later years of her life were maybe even more tragic than her early ones. In 1994, she received gut-wrenching news. Jackie got lymphatic cancer and was dead within months. For all their issues, Lee deeply mourned Jackie’s passing, and reportedly sobbed uncontrollably at her sister’s bedside.
Yet just as with her late husband Prince Stanislaw, Lee could never have been prepared for the horrific revelations of Jackie’s will.
When Jackie passed, she was a very rich woman, and she made sure to take care of her children and friends, leaving them various gifts, bequests, and mementos. There was, however, one glaring omission on her list of benefactors. Lee herself got zilch. As Jackie said, she didn’t want to help Lee because “I have already done so during my lifetime".
That’s right, Jackie didn’t pass on a single trinket to her sister. Of course, maybe she had a good reason for this…
According to one of Jackie’s biographers, the former First Lady had a clear and justified vendetta against her little sister. That’s because—get this—Lee may have had an affair with John F. Kennedy right behind Jackie’s back. In which case, the whole “marry Aristotle Onassis and cut her completely out of my will” thing makes a whole lot more sense.
Eventually, even the lives of American Royalty calm down. Besides her divorce from Herbert Ross in 2001, Lee Radziwill lived out the rest of her years in relative quiet. When she passed in 2019 at the ripe old age of 85, she did it like a true East coast socialite, spending her final moments in her apartment on the Upper East Side in New York.
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