Sibling Revelry: The parallels of Pippa Middleton and Lee Radziwill
Midway through the seventies, Lee Radziwill—her cheekbones Chopard-sharp and her heels Louboutin-high—was the society mountaineer of the decade. Having held court on the international party circuit, the former princess and sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis grew tired of being known solely as the belle of all balls and decided it was high time she got a job. She snapped up a plum TV position hosting a CBS talk show called Conversations With Lee Radziwill, an opportunity offered to her by good friend and broadcast impresario Bill Paley (husband of Babe). The show’s MO seemed right up Radziwill’s alley as it involved purring sit-downs with the famous (translation: her friends). Filmed in the sitting room of her Fifth Avenue pad, her show’s subjects ran the gamut from Gloria Steinem to Rudolf Nureyev to Jaws scribe Peter Benchley. Unfortunately, the show was bludgeoned in the ratings. One particular interview with Halston left few limbs intact: When Radziwill asked the famed designer what clothes from his label women could purchase for $25 or less, he gravely shot back, “Nothing.” The show was cancelled after six episodes.
“I’m nobody’s kid sister,” coursed the cover quote next to Lee Radziwill’s visage on the front of People magazine in November 1976, cresting her Easy Breezy hair and artichoke-sized diamond studs. That magazine tag could easily be attached to another professional kid sister—Pippa Middleton.
A tabloid bull’s eye, Kate Middleton’s younger sibling is the closest thing we have to a 21st-century other Boleyn girl. According to the Daily Mail’s royal writer, Katie Nicholl, there is no template for Pippa’s role. The author of William and Harry: Behind the Palace Walls has hinted in print that this is what makes the younger Middleton both riveting and dangerous. But there is one template, and one dusty script, found in the trajectory of a swan known during the JFK reign as America’s “first sister-in-law.” Eons before Middleton and the derrière that was said to launch a thousand hits, there was Lee Radziwill with her piggyback fame.
Take, perchance, the wicked Truman Capote, who delivered a not uncommon psychological assessment in a letter to Cecil Beaton in 1962. After a lunch he had with Radziwill, he revealed this of her to his friend: “My God, how jealous she is of Jackie: I never knew.” Or take the theory espoused by Radziwill’s biographer Diana DuBois, who maintains that her subject served a useful role in the cultural narrative: “Lee was always the whipping post, the underside of the public’s feelings about Jackie. They had Jackie walking on water, but Lee could never do anything right.”
In an effort to both capitalize on and recalibrate her fame (like Radziwill before her), Middleton has spun herself off with a party-planning book, Celebrate. Unlike the last time the sybarite seriously lit up the wires (earlier this year, she was caught in a contretemps in Paris, papped in a convertible with three frisky Frenchmen, one of whom aimed a fake gun at a pack of photographers), Pippa Middleton is back in the glue-gun and party how-to safe zone. One quart Martha Stewart, another Colin Cowie, the brand is questionable indeed.
The 79-year-old bon vivant whose name now stacks up as Caroline Lee Bouvier Canfield Radziwill Ross could, of course, teach a Pippa a thing or two about career capriciousness. Besides her thwarted attempt to pull an Oprah, Radziwill put in time as a Penny Lane (travelling with the Rolling Stones in 1972), tried her hand at acting (“disastrously,” as gossip columnist Liz Smith described her turn in the Capote-penned TV movie Laura), and did a stint as a PR exec for Giorgio Armani (a happier alliance, given Radziwill’s international status as a style avatar). Enduring the glare of the spotlight while sitting in her sister’s shadow, she also managed to pump out two books, most recently a photo-tome called Happy Times in 2001. Did we mention Radziwill’s fling with interior decorating? Her clientele being what it was, she once did a house, as she later told New York magazine, for “people who would not be there more than three days a year.”
Oh, and the men! While Pippa Middleton’s love life is assiduously tracked, she’d need to work much harder to catch up to Radziwill’s romantic resumé. Thrice-married—once to a Polish prince—and linked to many a first-rate man-friend (famed photog Peter Beard, for one), Radziwill has always known the power of arm-candy, romantic or not. She’s arrived with George Hamilton (Vanity Fair Oscar party), Calvin Klein (New York City Ballet gala) and André Leon Talley (countless functions). Many moons ago, she used to arrive with Aristotle Onassis, who most historians now concur was hers first and later Jackie’s.
Pippa Middleton, meanwhile, see-saws between being depicted as an insatiable man-eater and a Miss Havisham-in-training, as exemplified by a late 2011 Life & Style cover story titled, “Why Am I Undateable?” Inside the tabloid, photos of seven bridesmaid outfits Middleton has worn over the years were strategically lined up on the page. Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott had a cruel observation: “[This] resembles a fugly montage from Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
The rumour that Middleton might jump the pond and move to Manhattan—presumably to get away from the British tabloids and life as a full-time hanger-on to the Windsors—is reminiscent of Radziwill’s own expat stint in London. Though, in Middleton’s case, the possibility of a move in some ways emphasizes her you-can-run-but-you-can’t-hide royal albatross. One source was quoted in the New York Post as saying, somewhat sadly, “A move to New York is almost as much Kate’s decision as it is Pippa’s.”
For Radziwill, life certainly hasn’t always been easy—particularly during the ’90s when she lost her only son, Anthony, to cancer. In gruesome serendipity, it happened two weeks after Jackie’s only son, JFK Jr., perished in a plane crash. In an even odder coda, Radziwill’s son’s widow, Carole Radziwill, was announced this year as the latest addition to The Real Housewives of New York. Asked what she thought her mother-in-law might say about her new gig, the younger Radziwill told The Daily Beast: “I think she would be bemused.” OK, all just fine and dandy, but here’s a memo for Pippa, direct from Her Majesty The Queen: No Celebrity Apprentice for you!