Icons / April 2016

Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill: Sisters of Providence

The Rake charts the privileged, prominent, marriage-rich lives of the Bouvier sisters — Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Caroline Lee Bouvier Canfield Radziwill Ross.

The Bouvier sisters on vacation, circa 1960s.

As a measure of the triumph of popular culture, it’s hard to beat; type the words ‘Bouvier sisters’ into Google, and the first entries that come up are devoted to Patty and Selma, Marge’s chain- smoking, slatternly siblings in The Simpsons. This, however, would probably suit the previous claimants of the title down to the ground. While Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Caroline Lee Bouvier Canfield Radziwill Ross (best known as Lee Raziwell) were seemingly trained to seduce rich and powerful men from their coming-of-age, thereby accruing a level of public fascination in the US and beyond that would have kept a thousand Perez Hiltons micro-blogging till steam poured from their laptops, they went about their picaresque business in a manner that, in an age of sex tapes and papped up-skirt shots, seems impossibly reticent and discreet. But then, that was their birthright.

The Bouviers were third-generation French Catholic immigrants who, in the intensely class-conscious America of the ’20s, felt it necessary to fantasise about their ancestry, elevating their shopkeeper forebears into nobles. “I don’t know how they got away with it,” said author and essayist Gore Vidal, friend — and relative — to Jackie and Lee (in the merry-go-round common among the WASP elite at the time, their mother Janet would later marry Vidal’s stepfather, Standard Oil heir Hugh D. Auchincloss). “[The press buying this idea] that they were somehow Plantagenets and Tudors — it was just nonsense. They were pretty lowly born.”

Such myth-making, however, would feed into both sisters’ ideas of themselves as embodiments of an exceptional mantle. Jackie (born 28 July 1929) and Lee (3 March 1933) — or ‘Jacks’ and ‘Pekes’ as they were known in the family — cultivated an air of apartness from the beginning: as Jackie later remarked to society bandleader Peter Duchin, “We’re both outsiders.” Not that this made the sisters feel inferior; quite the contrary. They never felt it necessary to follow the society herd, and felt more of an affinity with artists and misfits. Of the men who they wouldbecome inextricably linked with — John F. Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Truman Capote — not one could remotely be described as a WASP.

The other strain running through the sisters’ lives was the family’s sexual politics, with power emanating from the dominant male, and the women left to dance attendance. They had two spectacular role models on hand. Their paternal grandfather, Major John Vernou Bouvier Jr., known to all and sundry as ‘The Major’, was a dapper, expansive former trial lawyer who presided over the summer household at Lasata, in then-just-fashionable East Hampton, a stucco, ivy-clad house on 12 acres complete with tennis court, vegetable garden and stabling for eight horses. The name is Indian for ‘place of peace’, a comprehensive misnomer as far as the explosive Bouviers were concerned. The Major, stone- deaf, was given to loud explosions of temper — “Goddamn it to hell!” — while keeping his Poirot-style moustache impeccably waxed and roaring off to church in his red Nash convertible.

But while the sisters loved their grandfather, they adored their father, the glamorous, larger-than-life figure of John Vernou Bouvier III, a Wall Street stockbroker known as ‘The Sheikh’ or, more commonly, ‘Black Jack’, in honour of his saturnine complexion and thick, raven hair with arrow-straight parting. With his pencil moustache and piercing blue eyes, he was often mistaken for Clark Gable; and, with his undisciplined and self-indulgent lifestyle, it was easy to imagine him declaiming: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (The vexed Major frequently threatened to disinherit him, a sanction that yielded diminishing returns).

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Stuart Husband