In an interview with the NYT six years ago, Lee Radziwill was asked about being the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her response turned out to be prescient: “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.” That is sadly ” le mot juste” to describe her NYT obituary, penned by Robert D. McFadden with a heavy dose of nasty, inappropriate and irrelevant thrown in for good measure.
The lead sentence sets the tone of treating the subject as if she were the severed, less functional part of Siamese twins, not a person in her own right entitled to a consideration of her own life and death: ” 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 on Friday at her home in Manhattan.” (NYT 2/17/19) The theme of this consideration of a person’s life is less about what she did and more about her repeated failures to score as high as her famous sibling. We are taken back to her years at Miss Porter’s School where teachers found her “bright and imaginative, but her grades were average, whereas her sister was remembered as a star.” Later on, after studying with teachers from the Royal Academy, Lee starred in a revival of The Philadelphia Story and Mr. McFadden quotes the devastating reviews that called her performance “wooden and amateurish.” Subsequently starring in a remake of the film “Laura” on television, Lee was characterized as “A stunning clotheshorse upon which no Thespian demands were made.” Mr. McFadden was assisted in his homework of digging for dirt about the deceased by Doris Burke and lest you think you knew the aphorism about not speaking ill of the dead, you will be surprised to learn that attempted careers at design and writing are here summarily dismissed as flops.
Even though no negative aspect of her life was left unscrutinized, it remains shocking that mention is made of her “disinheritance from her sister’s will.” Of what relevance is this in her obituary? The writer reports it as “another sign of strain between the sisters” as opposed to a recognition that one thing Lee Radziwill managed to do completely on her own was marry a prince who made a fortune in real estate and then a successful Hollywood director of several big money-maker films. We can safely assume from her addresses and lifestyle that she was well taken care of in both of these marriages and divorces and that she had neither need nor expectation of inheritance from her sister.
It’s sad for Lee’s surviving family and friends that the NYT chose to diminish in every way the life of a prominent fixture in high society who might have been lauded for her attempts to break out of the mold of ladies who lunch. We will never know how far her sister would have gone in a professional sense without having been the youngest, most photogenic First Lady of the youngest, most photogenic president who was tragically assassinated and immortalized in the public consciousness and conscience Without that standing, it’s possible that Jackie and Lee might have continued their jaunts together to faraway places on more level footing - both equally interested in men of means and lives touched by artistry and luxury.
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