It takes a while to spot Lee Bouvier Radziwiłł (1933-2019) in Jonas Mekas’s film about the Kennedys, This Side of Paradise, but she emerges, a slight and beautiful figure keeping to the background as her children and their cousins splash about in the waves.
The faded color and Mekas’s impressionistic style adds to the woozy quality of a long hot summer spent at Andy Warhol’s house in Montauk in the 1970s. In those days, Radziwiłł was one of the most photographed women in the world, appearing on magazine covers and in the press, yet few were able to penetrate her enigmatic presence; one that had been at the epicenter of the political elite.
Princess Caroline ‘Lee’ Bouvier Radziwiłł was born into New York ‘royalty’ in 1933. Her father was ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, a stockbroker; her mother was Janet Norton Lee, a socialite with huge ambitions for her offspring. As a child, Lee was well acquainted with her mother’s aphorism, ‘Weakness isn’t something you’re born with… you learn it.’
Artistically inclined, her first love was Renaissance paintings, leading her to track down the Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson(1865-1959) to I Tatti in Italy when she was a teenager. Of meeting the great man she said, ‘I felt like I’d met God’, and kept up a lively correspondence with him throughout the remainder of his life. In one letter she wrote, ‘I am so terribly thrilled when I find anything concerned with art and at the height of enjoyment in an art gallery or museum.’
Lee escaped her mother’s presence at 20 by marrying the publishing executive Michael Canfield, whom she left five years later for Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwiłł (1914-1976). ‘Stas’, a charismatic, Polish-Lithuanian who The New York Times described as ‘the epitome of all that is considered chic, and therefore elegantly understated’, doted on his young wife, and the couple became part of a wealthy, international set.
Fluent in French and Italian, Lee was able to navigate New York and European high society, and support her sister Jackie (1929-1994), who became the First Lady when her husband John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected President of the United States.
In fact it was Lee’s innate style — one that journalist Hamish Bowles described as having ‘defined dynamic American style for decades’ — that helped shape Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe and transformed her into a fashion icon. Lee had a ‘taste for the exotic and unexpected’, and understood how clothes could be used to make a statement in the political arena.
As the 1960s progressed, Lee became society’s most in-demand guest — no Manhattan party was complete without her — be it on the Upper East Side or in the Meatpacking District. She was one of Truman Capote’s ‘Swans’ — the beautiful socialites he doted on — and when he threw his spectacular Black and White masked ball at The Plaza in 1966, she was a guest of honor.
Yet she was just as comfortable at the Factory, mingling with Gerard Malanga and Andy Warhol, or on the Rolling Stones’ tour bus with Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca, who holidayed with her in the Hamptons.
Throughout this time, Lee was also collaborating with artists and designers. She was Giorgio Armani’s muse, and her friendship with Warhol resulted in a series of portraits, and later Polaroids, which Lee loved, saying, ‘This is how I want to be seen — simple, casual, free’.
Her work as an interior designer was also prolific. She collaborated closely with the ‘architect of illusion’, Renzo Mongiardino, and their alchemic blurring of eras created some remarkable interiors. Most notable were Lee’s own houses in London and Oxfordshire, where they glued Sicilian scarves to the dining room and painted her children’s favorite animals on the walls, explaining that she liked to create rooms that were essentially traditional and then add "touches of the bizarre and the delicious". The result so impressed the dancer Rudolf Nureyev that he invited Radziwiłł and Mongiardino to transform his London house into a Russian-Oriental harem.
Later in life, Lee explained her design philosophy as essentially European: ‘I abhor the American idea of starting with a tabula rasa every few years and getting rid of everything. When I buy something, I do so with the intention of keeping it forever. I’m constantly falling in love with objects, and they follow me around the world.’
In October, The Collection of Lee Bouvier Radziwiłł will be offered as a highlight of Christie’s Collector Week sales in New York. The contents of the collection offer a glimpse into her fascinating life, spanning her years as a prominent socialite, princess, designer, and witness to a momentous era in American history.