lee radziwill has died.
there. i did it. i wrote that sentence without referencing that she is the sister of jackie onassis.
this actually isn’t my chief complaint about the obituaries, as it seems inevitable and, possibly, unavoidable.
as you may or may not know, i have many complaints about obituaries and sadly the obituaries of lee radziwill are not exempt from them.
though… surprise! i’m not going to talk about the daily mail! because the daily mail is basically this and this warmed over and left out on the table to sit for a few months. and we don’t need those leftovers in our lives.
no, i’mma talk about the washington post.
though, dear new york times, you didn’t do any better with your paragraph quoting the whispers of “maybe jackie did sleep with rfk after jfk was murdered.”
which, tbh, i am like one more shitty obit away from saying men should not write women’s obituaries, because this stuff is just beyond not ok. it is 2019. we should not be memorializing women with the tropes of yesteryear.
but here we are, in the post, running amok.
there are different ways to tell this story.
there’s the daily mail way of “THE SISTERS COMPETED FOR EVERYTHING- LOVERS! CLOTHES! SHOES! RUDOLPH NUREYEV’S ARMS- UNTIL THEIR DYING BREATHS!!! (btw, lee has now died).”
then there’s the slightly more zen way of “tra la la, a woman who was related to a famous woman and knew some famous people and lived a kind of silly life has died.”
this is, i would argue, the route of the washington post. this is, i would also argue, a very gendered thing.
think about the intellectual somersaults taken to make george h.w. bush sound amazing when he died.
remember that? remember how odes to the WASP were published? that one was an opinion piece, yes, but my point is that we are willing to take all manner of intellectual and imaginative leaps when a man dies- in order to preserve his legacy, in order to preserve the reigning order and norms and whatever else it is we’re loathe to let go of.
this is my major complaint about obituaries– they are so worried about preserving the old order that they seldom look to the future. they also seldom look at the past through new eyes and, instead, recycle the same old stories with the same old interpretations. a reality directly connected to their production process and one which means there are stories on which we miss out.
obituaries are not handled with care.
so i am not at all surprised that lee radziwill has been memorialized in the context of being stylish and being jackie onassis’s sister. i am surprised, however, by how much ink has been spilled in mocking lee radziwill’s efforts to forge a career.
the post starts this early, with reference to her “varied career”.
that she “parlayed her cachet” suggests she did nothing throughout the 1950s, when she was in her 20s.
the myth that the bouvier girls had money is parroted.
in reality, they grew up in financially precarious circumstances. with their mother’s remarriage, yes, they lived in large houses, but they had limited access to money of their own, which they received through their father- whose wealth was on the decline- rather than their step-father, who owned all the mansions.
appearances can be deceiving.
when jackie married jfk in september 1953, the papers hailed her as an heiress.
this was not true. these women were heiresses to nothing.
this then makes lee look like someone who grew up filthy rich and didn’t know what to do with herself in adulthood as a result:
for one thing, being brought up in great wealth is not the same thing as having great wealth. for another thing, i would like to point out the levels of judgement occurring in this paragraph.
the logic here suggests she tried to be an actor and failed and then spent all her time pursuing marriage to royalty and had to settle for a polish man, who was just one of her many husbands. which is an entirely inaccurate chronology. her acting career began in the mid- to late-60s, when she had been married to radziwill for a number of years.
what work is the “but” doing here?
she is remembered for her sense of adventure, her looks, voice and glamour?
“style” is evidently the main aspect of her legacy. which is somehow about being “queen of style” rather than actual hard work.
we are told she worked with vreeland and “inspired” saint laurent and jacobs but are given little in the way of specifics. (props to WWD for their incredibly thorough and humane reporting on how this work looked.)
she was a muse, in other words. which, as we know, is a difficult thing to quantify and deserves far more attention and credit than it typically gets.
here is my main problem though:
in quoting people magazine here, and in not including the date (which i’m assuming is the late 70s), the writer gives people the last word.
so that this rather cruel assessment of lee radziwill’s efforts to carve out a career for herself is now lee radziwill’s epitaph– she tried “on careers like so many halstons.”
a memorable quote, but no effort is made to contextualize it- a circumstance which renders her rather ridiculous.
otis’s obituary of radziwill was syndicated, so this is a sentiment that also appears in the l.a. times, the telegram, and other places.
the thing overlooked in this equation is that this is someone of whom astonishingly little was expected– a privileged white woman of her time, she was supposed to marry and to marry well. AND YET SHE TRIED, for herself, to do something beyond that.
in spite of the intense pressure of having the whole world watching because she was jackie kennedy’s sister and in the face of repeated, excruciatingly public failures. (the obituaries seem almost gleeful in repeating her bad reviews.)
in her 2001 memoir, happy times, radziwill recounted how her mother had low expectations of her, always saying, “jacqueline is the intellectual one, and lee will have twelve children and live in a rose-covered cottage.”
these are women- talented, artistic, intelligent women- who weren’t expected to do anything but marry. and they needed to do so in order to financially secure their futures.
that sounds distant, like something out of a henry james novel. it was antiquated even then, and neither of the bouvier girls were drawn to it.
“i didn’t want to marry any of the young men i grew up with,” jackie told an interviewer in 1960. “not because of them but because of their life.”
look at that sentence again.
because of their life.
because, in marrying, she would be losing her own life and taking on that of someone else—the life a man had made for himself, in which, as his wife, she would be a companion, an adjunct, all of her energies funneled into him.
lee was in the same bind.
“the world i grew up in—of family business and bridge playing and special schools—that was something i wanted out of,” she later said. “it couldn’t have been more pleasant, you understand, and yet it had no meaning for me.”
and so she got out and went to europe and then she came home to america and tried theater and TV.
in happy times, she recounts telling andy warhol, “my deep regret is that i wasn’t brought up or educated to have a métier… the only thing that gives you any real sense of fulfillment is to accomplish something, no matter how small or insignificant it might be considered.”
she repeated a version of this publicly, telling the new york times in 1974, “for the first time, i really feel true to myself […] i think there’s nothing that makes you happier than to be really involved in something. i can’t imagine a totally idle life.”
what if that were the story here? the story of how a privileged white woman in financially precarious circumstances tried to do something different, tried to forge a life of her own– taking risks so she wouldn’t be reduced to just being a princess or some man’s wife or her sister’s sister.
what if this were a story of trying? and failing and trying again?
what if we took her seriously on her own terms? it’s 2019. that really shouldn’t represent such a difficult imaginative leap.