"She's a remarkable girl. She's all the things people give Jackie [Onassis] credit for. All the looks, style, taste—Jackie never had them at all, and yet it was Lee who lived in the shadow of this super-something person."
So rhapsodizes Truman Capote of longtime friend Lee Radziwill, jet-set original, one time princess, younger sister of Mrs. Onassis. From other rooms come other voices. "She's a real operator. She's got dollar signs in her eyes," warns a mover and shaker in the high-fashion world. "Very beautiful, very bright," says Rudolf Nureyev. "After all, she's not just a socialite; she attracts people of intellectual substance." "Not an intellectual by any means," responds architect Philip Johnson. "But her knowledge of people, her warmth, her glow—outgoing and delicious!"
In whatever light, Lee has stepped out on her own. Eight months ago she launched a career as an interior decorator with a model room for New York's Lord & Taylor department store. A contract to design VIP suites for Americana Hotels followed and her first two suites should be completed by year's end in Bal Harbour, Fla. ("Miami to you and me," she confides.) She has done them mostly in red, white and blue, with oodles of fresh plants ("They're essential"), outsize paintings and furniture durable enough, as she says, to withstand "people throwing beer, pizza and cigarette butts on it." Mario Di Genova, president of Americana Hotels, who signed her up, says: "Her rooms have that touch of class, yet not with severe traditional furnishings and antiques. She's not locked into a style."
Now more commissions are rolling in—a residence in San Francisco, a club in Houston, a resort in Brazil. "It's no joke," she says in her satiny thoroughbred voice. "I've been far more successful than I ever imagined."
Her decision at 43 to join the ranks of the working rich is not dictated—Lord knows—by any need to make money, or simply to follow in the footsteps of Jackie, 47, who took a job as a book editor last year. "Don't be silly," says Lee icily. "I never even conferred with her." ("There is a general preference not to comment on one another's activities," comes the word from Jackie.) "Decorating has always been my hobby," Lee continues, "but now I'm taking it seriously. It's been cooking in my mind for 15 years. I've always been interested in art, architecture, color."
Indeed, both Caroline Lee and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier grew up in a Gatsby milieu of beautiful homes in Manhattan, East Hampton and Newport. Their mother, Janet Auchincloss, recalls, "Jackie was a bookworm. Lee was always moving furniture around and redecorating people's rooms. You'd think they would be furious—but she always improved things." At college age, Jackie opted for the bluestocking life of Vassar, while Lee went to progressive Sarah Lawrence. "Art history," she recalls, "got me through school. I was obsessed with it."
The two sisters spent much of their time together until 1953. A few months before Jackie married Sen. John F. Kennedy, Lee wed Michael Canfield, son of a prominent publisher, and moved to England. In 1958 the marriage broke up, and the next year Lee married Polish émigré nobleman Prince Stanislas ("Stash") Radziwill, a London real estate investor. She threw herself into refurbishing their house in Buckingham Place and later a sprawling country house near Henley. Lee recalls, "We were always repairing, painting, taking out floors."
In time, however, life in London palled, and Lee grew dissatisfied at being Stashed away. Despite her friendships with stars like Nureyev, former London friends say she was never accepted by British society. "She overdid the bit of playing princess," sniffs one English aristocrat. Lee recalls, "I felt I led a useless life then, a life that gave me very little pleasure. I was not participating."
Determined to express herself, Lee began trying on careers like so many Halstons. First came her acting debut in a Chicago production of The Philadelphia Story in 1967, and later a TV appearance in Laura. She was panned in both. Lee knows where the blame lies: "With Philadelphia Story, I think the director was stone deaf, and in Laura, the director was totally disorganized. The critics had written their reviews even before they saw the performance." Added to this was her husband's disapproval. "He just never understood," she says. "He always felt, why expose oneself when it's not necessary."
Tension between the two led to her permanent return to New York in 1972, and two years later they were divorced. (Stash died earlier this year, giving her custody of son Antony, 17; their daughter, Anna Christina, 16, had been with her since 1973.) Home became a Fifth Avenue duplex, with French maid and cook, seven blocks south of Jackie. Lee's downstairs living room, done in rose, is designed for entertaining; the upstairs is redolent of Kennedy memorabilia—from the portrait of JFK by her bedside to the photomontage of family snapshots in the hallway.
Lee's efforts to find a career continued to sputter. After publishing a book of youthful memoirs with her sister, One Special Summer, she debuted as an interviewer on CBS-TV with old friends like economist John Galbraith and Gloria Steinem. CBS did not press for more. A stab at writing adult memoirs (she was offered $250,000 for them) also fizzled. "It was too private and would hurt people," Lee decided after two years of "absolute agony," and canceled out.
Decorating eventually proved to be a natural. "It's what my friends have been telling me to do for years," Lee says, "and I finally got it together." Based in an office she has rented from John Carl Warnecke, a favorite Kennedy architect, Lee spends her day scouring the market for furnishings and overseeing draftsmen and artists. "You've got to be up early to talk to plumbers and contractors," she says, "but then I always wake up at dawn, no matter how late I've been up."
Indeed, working has interfered little with Lee's chic life-style. A trim 5'6", she has little trouble staying at 105 pounds. "I eat like a horse," she jokes, "sometimes I think I must have cancer." Lee is not lacking for escorts although she coyly protests, "I hardly ever go out." Her name has been linked with eligibles from photographer Peter Beard ("He did not break up my marriage," she volunteers) to current beau Peter Tufo, 38, who is chairman of the New York Board of Corrections and her lawyer. "He's so bright, he'd be good in politics," Lee says of Tufo, with such enthusiasm that this could be the start of something big. "He has terrific guts. He reminds me of the early '60s—his style, his drive, his belief that things could be better."
Has she read Dolores, the Jacqueline Susann best-seller, which is thinly veiled fiction about Jackie? In it, Lee is depicted as Nita, the cool, calculating sister, locked in relentless competition with her sister for the spotlight. "Yes," Lee says, and finds it "laughable and corny.
"It's just the most ludicrous talk in the world that we're rivals," she explains. "We're exceptionally close and always have been. We're together very often. In fact, endlessly." Has she lived in Jackie's shadow? "I'm nobody's kid sister," she snaps. "It's such a stale, rehashed question. I think it's time to make up a new story or go to bed." Had she ever hoped to marry Aristotle Onassis, as rumors once had it, before he was smitten with Jackie? "Not for anything," she says vehemently.
What's important right now, she insists, is her career. Marriage? Maybe someday, but she is apprehensive. "It's nobody's business," she says, "but I'm so happy on my own. The children have been deprived of a family life, and I'm trying to make up for everything." Any weaknesses? Well, maybe just one. "I have an absurd kind of extravagance. If I see an orchid that's fantastically expensive, I'll buy it. It's worth it, for no other reason than it gives me pleasure."