Review: Vivien Horler
The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters – the tragic and glamorous lives of Jackie and Lee, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (Harper/ Jonathan Ball)
The reported crudity of the Donald Trump-led White House stands in stark contrast to the style in which Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived their White House years.
Elegance, beauty, appreciation of art and erudition were hallmarks of their lives (with a fair bit of bed-hopping thrown in).
Like Trump, both the Kennedy and Bouvier families were wealthy, although like Trump, Jack’s father Joe Kennedy sen was, according to the American writer Gore Vidal, “exuberantly and successfully a crook”.
But Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and Jackie and Lee Bouvier were altogether more sophisticated, smart, clever and educated than the present White House incumbent. The sisters particularly appreciated beauty and wit, and were themselves well informed about history and art.
Scores if not hundreds of books have been written about the Kennedys, and a good few about Lee Bouvier Radziwill, but this one focuses on the sometimes warm, often fractious relationship between the two sisters.
Jackie was the eldest, born in 1929 and Lee in 1933. The family split its time between Manhattan and Long Island. Their father was a handsome man known as Black Jack Bouvier, an investment banker whose daughters adored him. But the Wall Street crash in 1929 dealt him a blow, and his philandering and drinking led the girls’ mother Janet to divorce him in 1940 – unusual in a high society Catholic family of the time.
Their social prominence also meant the embarrassing details of the divorce, and of Bouvier’s various lovers, were published in the tabloids
The authors of this book say as children the sisters were close, but Jackie was her father’s favourite, Lee her mother’s, and this may have held the seeds of the jealousy, rivalry and competition between them as they grew older.
Fortunately for the Bouvier girls, Janet remarried, and her second husband was another investment banker, the fabulously wealthy Hugh D Auchincloss.
Janet’s rules for her girls were: “observe decorum, dress beautifully but conservatively and marry a rich husband (or two)”.
Money was always an issue for the Bouvier girls. When Lee, aged 20, was engaged to marry Michael Canfield, son of the publisher of Harper & Row, Auchincloss reportedly had misgivings about the match. “He’ll never be able to afford her,” he told a friend.
Later, with the Canfields living in London, it became clear the relationship was breaking down and Lee was having affairs. When Canfield asked Jackie how he could hang on to Lee, Jackie replied: “Get more money, Michael.” Canfield pointed out he had a trust fund and a good salary, but Jackie replied: “No, Michael. I mean real money.”
Jackie followed her own advice. A month after Lee’s marriage, Jackie became engaged to “the most eligible bachelor in America”. Not only was Senator John F Kennedy “handsome, witty and intelligent, but also, as a Kennedy scion, he was very, very rich”.
After her divorce from Canfield Lee married Stanislas Radziwill, an émigré Polish prince who had worked for the Polish underground during World War II and fled to London after the war. When he became a British citizen he had to give up his princely title, but he never really did – and nor did Lee. They had two children, who grew up close to their Kennedy cousins, Caroline and John.
The tragedy that stalked the Kennedys began early in their marriage when Jackie had a miscarriage, followed by the stillbirth of a daughter Arabella. Caroline and John came next, and then in August 1963 the Kennedys had a son, Patrick, who was premature and lived for only two days.
Just three months after Patrick’s death, his father was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
The sisters had lives of great privilege but also great suffering. Jackie was spared the tragedy of the death of her son John and his wife in an aircrash in 1999 since she herself died of cancer five years before.
Then Lee lost her son Anthony to cancer in his early 30s. Knowing his cousin was fatally ill, John Kennedy had been preparing a eulogy for his funeral, but ironically it was the dying Anthony who delivered the eulogy at John’s funeral.
Tracking the sisters’ relationship through this book, the authors contemplate their differences. Lee was extrovert, flirtatious and fun, Jackie was shy, intellectual and bookish. Lee, who at one point wanted to be an actress, wanted to shine, while Jackie resisted fame and was as private as possible.
“The great irony of their lives is that fate handed shy, introverted Jackie a role on the world state – for much of her adult lifetime she was arguably the most famous and admired woman in the world – and Lee, who longed to shine, was handed the lesser role of lady-in-waiting.”
This gossipy but not unkind account is studded with the names of the rich and famous, including of course those of Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. You’ll love it if you’ve always been interested in the Kennedys.