On March 26, 1957, James Symington, an attaché at the American embassy in London, held a dinner party for three urbane couples: the publishing scion and ambassadorial assistant Michael Temple Canfield and his wife, Caroline Lee Bouvier, the younger sister of Jackie Kennedy; Prince Stanislas ‘Stas’ Radziwill, an émigré Polish aristocrat displaced by the second world war, and his wife, Grace Kolin, a Swiss shipping heiress; and Lord and Lady Dudley, a Conservative politician and a Viscountess. “I remember the date because it was a birthday party for my son,” Symington said later. “After their divorces, Lee married Radziwill, Grace married Lord Dudley, and Michael married Lady Dudley. It was quite a trio!”
This relationship roundelay may be indicative of post-war social ferment, or of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark to Ernest Hemingway that “the rich are different from you and me”. Hemingway’s alleged riposte — “Yes, they have more money” — is particularly pertinent in the case of the Radziwills. Lee’s mother, Janet Lee Bouvier, had taught her daughters one simple rule: marry into a fortune. Stas, 19 years Lee’s senior, had built a substantial one by investing in London real estate. Together, and with their wealth of political, artistic and aristocratic connections in Europe and America, the Radziwills fashioned themselves into a potent social force, with the poised, free-spirited Lee, bankrolled by an indulgent Stas, serving as the ultimate muse for designers and authors, from Lorenzo Mongiardino to Truman Capote. But Lee always maintained that there was a lot more to the union than mere expediency. “Being married to Stas was certainly the happiest part of my life, so he must have been the love of my life,” she recalled in an interview with the interior designer Nicky Haslam in The New York Times.
If sparks did fly between Lee and Stas at that pivotal dinner party, it may have been because each recognised in the other a kindred, restive spirit. As a girl, Lee had lived in the shadow of her elder sister, whom her father — the stockbroker, ladies’ man and notorious drinker John Vernou Bouvier (known as ‘Black Jack’ in homage to his perpetual deep tan and roguish reputation) — ostentatiously favoured. Jackie won the equestrian trophies and earned top grades at their Connecticut school, but Lee was generally regarded by those who knew both sisters as equally, if not more, beautiful and stylish, with a keener eye for fashion, colour and design; she was trim and dauntingly erect, with a swan-like neck and high cheekbones, huskily voiced, and favoured with eyes that, as Capote enthused, were “gold-brown, like a glass of brandy resting on a table in front of firelight”.