The world’s most famous “little sister” passed away earlier this month when Lee Radziwill, younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, died at her Manhattan home at the age of 85.

Lee often struggled in Jackie’s shadow. But she forged her own path, often inspiring trends in fashion, art, and interior design more associated with her sister.

While it is out of fashion these days to celebrate rich, white women as role models, Lee is as fascinating as her sister. Even with all her privilege, Lee also had her share of sorrow and struggles. Her journey contains life lessons from which we could all learn.

Princess Lee Radziwill of Poland, sister of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, stands at the Prime Minister’s residence, Teen Murti Bhavan, in New Delhi, India.
(Public Domain)

Do It First. Who Cares Who Gets the Credit?

Lee did everything first, but the world didn’t seem to care.

She was the first to rise to social prominence. Before Jackie became America’s First Lady in 1961, Lee became a princess in 1959 when she married Polish aristocrat Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill.

Lee was also allegedly the first of the two sisters to have an affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. She reportedly read about Jackie’s engagement to him in the newspaper.

Lee’s interest in fashion, the Italian Renaissance, and Russian dance – interests Jackie would cultivate during her years as a book editor – predated Jackie’s.

While Jackie consistently topped annual lists of most-admired women, Lee led by example.

Have Your Own Style

Any fashionista worth her coveted, quilted Chanel bag cites Jackie as a style icon, with her tenure as First Lady as an enduring source of style inspiration.

Unlike Jackie, Lee lived her life away from the prying and thrifty eyes of the American public. This gave Lee the freedom to dress more daringly and stylishly than her sister. As early as 1960, Lee earned a spot on the International Best-Dressed List for the first time and remained there for many years.

Lee’s luxurious sense of style came from her father. She once quoted her father as saying: “Style is not a function of how rich you are or even who you are. Style is more a habit of mind that puts quality before quantity, noble struggle before mere achievement, (and) honor before opulence.”

Surround Yourself with Fabulous People

Jackie was one of the most famous women in the world, but she often seemed lonely. Lee, in contrast, counted some of the most innovative writers, dancers, artists, and fashion editors among her circle of intimates.

For example, she adored Russian contemporary dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev. They met in the mid-1960s and their friendship lasted until his death in 1993 of AIDS-related complications.

Her friendship with author Truman Capote was rocky. Some say he urged her to take on two iconic theater roles even though she was unprepared. But Lee was also grateful that Capote saw potential others overlooked.

As the sister of one of the most celebrated women in the world, Lee wasn’t attracted to the fame of her fabulous friends. She appreciated their unique artistic gifts and instinctively understood the pathos such talents could sometimes bring.

Carve Your Own Path

Lee would have likely felt out of place in the modern world of pussy hats and #metoo.

She grew up in a world in which a woman’s worth was measured by her husband’s bank account. While she enjoyed the privileges her sister’s rank, wealth, and opportunity afforded as First Lady, living in her sister’s shadow also gave her wide-berth to make mistakes while carving her own path.

Lee acted in a 1967 production of The Philadelphia Story and appeared in 1968 in a television adaptation of Laura. She also opened in 1976 a successful interior design firm in Manhattan.

Critics panned her acting attempts and she designed homes for wealthy people who lived in their homes for “three days a year.” But Lee had the courage to try, fail, and fail better next time.

Always Be There for Your Sister

Before 9-11, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was considered among the darkest days in the nation’s history.

As Jackie courageously held the nation together in a time of violence and uncertainty, not unlike our own, her sister was always by her side. Lee stood next to Jackie in the widow’s weeds as her nephew bravely saluted his father’s coffin. She was there when Jackie left the White House for the last time in the days following her husband’s death.

Lee reportedly rushed to her sister’s side when Jackie was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the disease rapidly spread throughout her body. That’s why it seemed surprising when Jackie left nothing for her sister but $500,000 each for Lee’s children in her will.

Despite the sisters’ intense, life-long rivalry, they vacationed together, cried together, discussed marriages, men, and children together. Their lives were intertwined in life and in death. One sister could not exist without the other.

It’s possible we may have heard of Lee Radziwill even if her sister wasn’t famous. But we are all better for the knowing of Lee and the extraordinary life she led.

Kerra Bolton is a writer and filmmaker based in the Mexican Caribbean. In a former life, she was a political columnist; Director of Communications, Outreach, and Oppositional Research for the North Carolina Democratic Party; and founder of a boutique strategic communications firm.


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