Remembering Lee

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Monday, February 25, 2019. At ten o’clock this morning at the Church of St. Thomas More on East 89th Street, there was a Funeral Mass held for Lee Radziwill who died on Friday, February 15th at her home here in Manhattan.

It was a private service, by invitation, conducted by Rev. Kevin V. Madigan. There must have been about 300 attending, including Lee’s daughter, Tina Radziwill; Lee’s niece, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and her family; and many close friends including William Ivey Long, Hamilton South, Deeda Blair, Ralph Rucci, Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera, Davd Story, Hannah Pakula, Marc Jacobs, Meryl Gordon, Andre Leon Talley.

The beautiful music was provided by the Choir and Orchestra of the Cathedral of St. John Divine, conducted by by Kent Tritle, Musical Director and David Briggs, Organist, and Susanna Phillips, soprano. The Prelude was Puccini – “music without words” which was Lee’s favorite bedtime music.

Besides the music and traditional order of prayer and liturgy including Bach, Brahms and Faure, There was a “First Reading” from The Book of Wisdom 3:1-9, read by Sofia Coppola (The souls of the just are in the hand of God; and no torment shall touch them.). The Second Reading was from 1. Corinithians 13:1-13, read by Alejandra Cicognani (Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud …). Lee’s daughter Tina read E. E. Cummings’ “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May” (went down to the beach (to play one day) …. For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

Lee’s longtime loyal friend Hamilton South then read a short Eulogy about the history of their relationship and how much she brought to his life with her kindness and loyalty in friendship, and her unerring eye for detail, for beauty and curiosity.

South was followed by the Choir and Susanna Phillips singing Amazing Grace.

The vast bowers of flowers of pink and green and white were provided by David Monn who organized and supervised the ceremony. The sadness of the Mass was lifted throughout by those flowers, the music and the readings. My thoughts were of the lady who was finally at rest, and whose memory was reflected in the beauty and the lightness of the occasion.

As we were leaving the church, the Sun burst from behind the clouds as if Lee herself had ordered its warmth and brightness for us to complete the day.

The following is a history of my timely, yet brief experience of meeting and getting to know Lee. She possessed the gift of friendship and she shared it generously and always with warmth and curiosity.

She died at home — in her bedroom in her apartment on East 72nd Street on Friday afternoon, February 15, 2019, sixteen days before her 86th birthday on March 3rd. It had been a long life, longer than her parents’ lives, and longer than her sister’s. She lived it well and dramatically, as well as harshly and indulgently at times. She smoked and drank, right up to the end. Not profusely as it had once been, but nevertheless.

Lee, around the time I got to know her. Photo: Patrick Mcmullan/PMC

The last years were troublesome with her health and her habits, but she endured. In the last few months she had lost her everyday mobility, making everything that was difficult even more difficult. Like a trouper, she kept up seeing people, talking to people, lunching (at home), sometimes dining with friends. She was always curious about people and that was a reward. But for a woman who had lived a very active social life all her life, the limitations of age were always present, including the specter of loneliness.

It had been a big life. Her sister was the queen. The king of the hill, numero uno. The age difference – four years; Lee was 3/33/33 and Jackie was 7/28/29  was just enough to set them apart in a child’s mind. And those mindsets always remain for us, known only to the self, defining one’s self.

I knew who she was as long as the American public knew who she was. The queen’s sister. The beautiful queen’s beautiful sister. She was elegant, svelte, the beauty in the family, beautifully coutured, etc. A princess herself, in real life when she was married to Prince Stanislas (Stash) Radziwill. Everyone who was interested knows the story because she was famous.

I grew up hearing about their father, Black Jack Bouvier, because my father back in the late 1920s, early 1930s, was Bouvier’s driver, and my father loved the memories of what was his flaming youth. Chauffeur was the word.

John Vernou Bouvier III with his daughter Jacqueline, circa 1949.

As a child a couple of decades after that employment, I’d hear about this guy Black Jack at the kitchen table. For my father, those were the days. The two men were of the young automotive generation (turn of the 20th century). And from the reputation that followed Bouvier, I can see he and my father also had common pleasure pursuits (outside marriage). Although my father stayed away from the bottle. Both men evidently knew how to flatter and titillate at the same time.

Lee with her father in East Hampton, same year.

Bouvier had a Stutz Bearcat — the coolest — comparable mentally to a Ferrari today. My father loved recalling how he’d drive Black Jack out to East Hampton, on dirt roads going “90 miles an hour.” That was how this kid heard it from the source. It sounds like a happy bit of nostalgic exaggeration (the mph! on dirt roads?) all these years later. But whatever it was, I got that Black Jack was a cool guy.

All this recollection was recounted to me back in the late ‘40s and ‘50s before the man was famous to the world for his daughters; and before they were famous. I never heard a reference to either daughter in my father’s stories; they were totally unknown to the world. Their international fame and fortune came after their father’s death at 66 in 1957.

Jack and Janet Bouvier had two very dynamic daughters. They had their mother’s ambition and their father’s social charm. The drama of the parents’ marriage was the foundation of the girls’ future lives. In their generation they were the girls who “married well,” coming of age when America was at its zenith of post-War prosperity. They were not born to the purple in New York society terms of that era. Those circles were predominantly WASP oriented. But that all changed for the world during their young womanhood, and in a way, they represented that change: they were welcomed anywhere (they wanted to go).

The sisters’ fame came with the Kennedy Presidency and the campaign leading up to it. They filled the role of the American version of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Both Jackie and Lee were very popular social figures in their youth, and well known within those socio-economic circles in which they grew up. But the Kennedys’ move into the White House was the beginning of a new age and a new generation of women (and men), and international fame for the sisters as society morphed into celebrity.

The Bouvier sisters a few decades later.

Over the years thereafter, moving around the playing fields with interest, I came to know many who knew Lee, who socialized with her, old family friends’ of hers, as well as friends of her family. During those years, Lee who had been married briefly (and before her sister) to Michael Canfield, had it annulled so she could marry Radziwill. That marriage opened up a life and world at the most favorable moment in her history. Favorable in terms of celebrity and its potential accoutrements such as financial assets.

I’d seen Lee Radziwill around the town over the past twenty-five years. Always at a public event, ballet, movie; at dinner or lunch in this restaurant or that. I was once at a small dinner (for eight) at Swifty’s at which she was also a guest and seated one away from me. I did not engage her in conversation; the vibe advised otherwise. She said very little to anyone at table. Depending on how you look at things, it looked like complete disinterest. In reality, it could have been any number of things. She might even be shy, for all I knew. (I later learned that she wasn’t.) I can’t remember our hosts but everyone mainly knew each other and it was a pleasant evening; and she was the first to leave, having said little to anyone at a very conversant table.

Lee at ABT’s annual gala in 1988. Photo: Mary Hilliard.

In the international world of social life, she has been a much talked about figure and not without controversy or criticism. She had a reputation for being very difficult and even cold and curt at times to people who were serving her or waiting on her. A very close friend of mine, a very kind and sensitive and sensible woman who worked in couture, once told me Lee was the worst person she ever had to deal with from that world. Adding that her sister Jackie was the nicest. There were other stories, gossip really, always about her apparent insensitivity to people who in one way or another were serving her. Everybody heard those stories.

That was my experience, or rather non-experience of her. I didn’t know her and so I couldn’t know her. Her reputation was curious to me because people with that kind of temperament very often suffer some kind of demon. It’s common among us homo-sapiens.

About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine, Alejandra Cicognani, who was a close friend of the lady, told me that Lee would like to meet me, and asked if I would like to lunch with her at her apartment. It was very surprising, not something that I’d ever given thought to, but I was naturally curious why, out of the blue, this person wanted to meet me. I couldn’t see why it wouldn’t be interesting to find out; so I told Alejandra, and the following Saturday I went over to Lee’s apartment on East 72nd Street at one p.m.

Lee with her good friend, Alejandra Cicognani. Photograph by Zach Hilty/

She was in my memory’s eye, a great beauty at her age. This thought came to me the first time I met her and remained thereafter. I wasn’t surprised at her natural elegance because her whole household environment reflected it. It was a mainly white room, not large, but cozy in feeling. There was a table set up for two in front of the fireplace.

Her maid served the lunch and we chatted the way two strangers first engage in conversation. When I’m in the company, the presence, of someone whom I don’t know, or whom I don’t know and is famous, I tend to let them make the conversation and I don’t ask questions. Until I know that is possible and maybe even desirable.

This was my first time with her after all these years, and it was obvious that she was at that moment in her now long life, dealing with the vagaries of age. She also had her personal issues, aside from being a smoker, that had begun to take their toll. She spoke haltingly in a voice that was quiet but deep.

Dorothy Hirshon, photographed by Horst for Vogue in 1938. Lee wanted to know what it was like to be in Dorothy’s company.

She told me that she read me, that she didn’t read me all the time, but she read me from time to time. And I thanked her. Then she told me that what was curious to her was that I “never said anything bad about anybody.” And she wanted to know why I didn’t.

That made me laugh. It always makes me laugh. It’s not unconscious on my part, or accidental. I don’t see any point in making judgments, but rather let the actions speak for themselves. I didn’t tell her that this first meeting — which was a pleasure for me, or that the Lee I had heard so much about who was so unattractive — was not even remotely present on meeting. The woman who had never seemed to be aware of my presence even at a dinner table, now was expressing her interest, and I was naturally flattered.

I could see her charm in action. Her curiosity was real. She then told me that she knew that I had known (the late) Dorothy Hirshon. Dorothy, whom I’d been written about, was also a fascinating woman. She’d been the first wife of Jack Hearst, son of the Old Man, and William Paley, besides Walter Hirshon. Dorothy was a charismatic woman, and she had curiosity, which is the ace in this world. Lee and she had that in common.

Lee told me that she had always heard about her, but never had the occasion to meet her. She had no sense of what it was like to be in Dorothy’s company, and she wanted to know. I related some anecdotes about Dorothy and later gave her a brief memory I’d written for the Sotheby’s catalogue of Dorothy’s estate auction.
The luncheon lasted for a little more than an hour. I then had the sense that she was not comfortable enough physically to remain at table. She called me a day later and asked me to lunch again on the following Saturday. At one p.m.

Lee with Rudolf Nureyev. According to Lee, he was the most charming man she ever knew. Photo: Mary Hilliard.

Lee conducted our conversation. She was naturally curious and from that there were no quiet moments. Somehow Rudolf Nureyev came into the conversation.

She said he was the most charming man she ever knew. She then related the last time she went to see him at the end of his life, describing what he was wearing and what he talked about, all of which amused her.

“The most charming off-stage as much he was on stage,” she recalled, adding “Unlike (Maria) Callas who was so charming on stage, but off-stage … nothing.” Then she added in afterthought: “She was the only person I knew who died of a broken heart.”

“A broken heart?” I asked, adding, “because of Ari?”

“Yes, he died of a broken heart too,” she pondered quietly, adding, “But not because of my sister.”

“Why? Because of Callas?”


I asked her what was it about their relationship, what was their glue?

“Greek,” she replied instantly.

That moment, of all of our conversations was the only time she talked about her sister and her life around Aristotle Onassis, whom she knew before her sister did. Jackie’s marriage to the Greek shipping magnate had been a sisterly slap that, it has been written, and she never quite recovered from.

But at this point in her now long life, so many of her wide variety of friends had long departed. She had been fortunate that her own curiosity about life could still provide a relief for the emotional and physical isolation of aging. But by this time, she also made known to those around her, those who saw her regularly, that she was ready to close the book. And so it was.

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