Swirling World of High Society Drama: Bouvier Sisters, Truman Capote and Aristotle Onassis. Plus the final insult: Jackie Kennedy’s will

In the records of American high society, few stories captivate like the intertwined lives of Lee Radziwill and Jackie Kennedy, the Bouvier sisters who charmed and scandalized the world’s elite. From dazzling White House galas to intimate dinners with Truman Capote, their lives were filled with glamour, whispered secrets, and a rivalry that often spilled into public view.

An Uneasy Alliance in the Spotlight

Caroline Lee Bouvier, known professionally as Lee Radziwill, often found herself in the enormous shadow cast by her older sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Lee’s journey through the glittering world of social elites was marked not just by her style and charisma but also by her complex relationship with Jackie. Although they shared unforgettable moments of closeness, their relationship was perennially strained by competition and one-upmanship.

Born into the illustrious Bouvier family, Lee Radziwill was no stranger to privilege. Her childhood on Park Avenue exuded wealth and sophistication, but beneath the surface lay a family plagued by dysfunction. Lee grappled with complex family dynamics, constantly overshadowed by her older sister Jackie, who held favor with their father and society alike.

Lee’s quest for attention and independence led her down a tumultuous path. She embarked on a whirlwind romance with Michael Canfield, only to realize that marriage wasn’t her ticket to freedom. Later, she sought solace in the arms of Prince Stanisław Radziwiłł, officially becoming Princess Lee Radziwill, but the fairy tale quickly unraveled as she found herself trapped in a cycle of infidelity and disappointment.

Amidst Jackie’s rise to fame as America’s First Lady, Lee struggled to find her own identity. Their sibling rivalry reached new heights as Jackie became a fashion icon, leaving Lee in her shadow. Lee’s attempts at stardom, orchestrated by Truman Capote, ended in humiliation, further fueling the sisters’ toxic relationship.

Truman Capote: The Literary Matchmaker

One of the more flamboyant characters in their social circle was Truman Capote, the literary genius behind In Cold Blood. Capote was famously close to both sisters, drawn in by their charm and their connection to the echelons of power. He was particularly taken with Lee, whom he once considered more feminine than even Audrey Hepburn. Capote played a pivotal role in Lee’s brief and ill-fated theatrical career, encouraging her to star in a production of The Philadelphia Story. The endeavor was a disaster, critically panned, and it deepened the rift between Lee and her sister, as Jackie chose not to attend the performance.

The Onassis Affair

Perhaps the most dramatic chapter in the sisters’ saga involved Aristotle Onassis, the wealthy Greek shipping magnate.

Lee was initially linked romantically to Onassis.

Onassis was still involved with the opera diva Maria Callas, though Callas was married and their open affair had created a scandal in Europe. Former V.F. editor in chief Leo Lerman wrote in his diaries that Callas said, “I never disliked Jackie, but I hate Lee. I hate her.” Stas, with world-weary acceptance of his wife’s new relationship, was made a director of Olympic Airways, owned by Onassis.

Many speculated that Onassis’s interest in Lee had been enhanced by her connection to the White House. Jack and Robert Kennedy actively disliked and mistrusted Onassis, and Jack, according to Bedell Smith, told his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, that he considered him little better than “a pirate.” (Onassis had been sued by the U.S. government in 1955 for removing from the U.S. a fleet of ships he had bought and promised to keep here. He ended up paying a $7 million fine.)

Lee introduced him to the high-flying lifestyle of the Mediterranean elite. However, after her own relationship with him fizzled out, Jackie shockingly married Onassis in 1968.

This marriage was a deep betrayal to Lee, who felt that Jackie had not only stolen her former lover but had also overshadowed her once again, this time on a global scale.

Public Faces, Private Strains

The personal dynamics between Lee and Jackie were complex and often fraught with jealousy and competition. Jackie’s ascent to global icon status as the First Lady only intensified these feelings. Lee, despite her own successes and titles—having married Polish Prince Stanisław Albrecht Radziwiłł—often felt sidelined. Their sibling rivalry was persistent and pervasive, influencing not just their personal interactions but also their public personas.

The Final Insult: Jackie’s Will

The ultimate strain on their relationship, however, came after Jackie’s death in 1994. The contents of Jackie’s will revealed that she had left Lee nothing, a clear indication of the deep fissures in their relationship. Jackie’s decision to exclude Lee was seen by many as a final statement on their lifelong rivalry, cementing a narrative of betrayal and familial discord that had lasted decades.

Legacy of the Bouvier Sisters

Today, the legacy of the Bouvier sisters remains a fascinating study in the power dynamics of family, fame, and fortune. Their story is a testament to the complexities of sibling relationships, especially under the glaring scrutiny of public life.

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