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The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee


The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee

If you want a gossipy but thoroughly well-researched and well-told biography, look no further than Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s latest collaboration, THE FABULOUS BOUVIER SISTERS. So much has been documented and published about the famous sisters, each having their own jam-packed histories of extraordinary highs and epic lows. So what more could be said? Here, we see the women in the light of their relationship to each other, which makes the book a standout. Also, it benefits greatly from extensive interviews with Lee, now in her mid-80s, looking back on both their public and private lives.

Born on Long Island in 1929 and 1933, respectively, Jackie and Lee were born into wealth --- sometimes abundant, other times tenuous. Their parents’ volatile relationship ended in divorce when the girls were young, each believing that one parent favored the other child: “If Jackie was her father’s favorite, Lee, by some accounts, was her mother’s.” A longtime Kennedy friend who knew the sisters when they were in their late teens admitted that she “found that household to be really unhealthy. Their mother clearly favored Lee.” And if Jack Bouvier was especially close to Jackie, “he wasn’t around very much, or for very long, so that didn’t equal out, really.” This environment left its mark on each of the sisters in different ways. Jackie retreated into books, horses and art, while Lee longed for other children, even going so far as taking a cab to a local orphanage in an effort to adopt another sister. With their mother’s remarriage to wealthy investment banker Hugh D. Auchincloss, they saw their immediate family’s station rise, while their charming father’s nest egg dwindled.

"So many gossipy stories and recollections fill this breezy and entertaining, yet informative, read. To see these two impressive women through a sisterly lens is a new take on an oft-told story."

Both Jackie and Lee were sent to Miss Porter’s exclusive boarding school in Connecticut and received a classical education for girls of their station. In the wake of their parents’ divorce and mother’s remarriage, they grew closer, but even given their bond, a “certain jockeying for attention continued between the two girls.” They were alike in so many ways --- both treasured all things beautiful, adored the arts, and all things European, especially French and Russian, and each possessed their own style, which matured and evolved over time. But they were also “different in important ways. One loved to stand out; one sought to fit in. One was outgoing, flirtatious, and fun-loving; the other was bookish and intellectual, with a deep thirst for knowledge…. The great irony of their lives is that fate handed shy, introverted Jackie a role on the world stage…and Lee, who longed to shine, was handed the lesser role of lady-in-waiting.”

In adulthood, their paths would diverge. Jackie married John F. Kennedy, and became First Lady when her husband became the youngest U.S. president in history in January 1961. By this time, Lee was married to her second husband, Stas Radziwill, the scion of an aristocratic Polish family, granting his new wife the title of “Princess.” Each had an immensely full life, but life in the White House tended to trump Lee’s accomplishments: “Her sister’s ascension to the White House promised to magnify a problem Lee had to cope with for some time, the problem simply of being Jackie’s sister. Although she was abundantly gifted herself and was quite capable of shining on her own, she had often been obscured by the shadow of her sister’s prominence, and now that shadow threatened to eclipse her identity…. If Lee felt any sibling resentment of her sister’s success, however, she was brave and intelligent enough not to show it.”

While her husband was a leader on the world stage, Jackie made sure to leave her mark on the White House, intending to restore some former glory while also bringing it to the forefront of American style. As her friend and favorite fashion designer, Oleg Cassini, remarked, “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America.” Between the renovations and her incredibly successful foreign tours, where throngs of people came out just to catch a glimpse of what the First Lady was wearing, or how she was doing her hair, a Kennedy insider keenly observed, “There was nobody to touch Jackie using style as a political tool.” Despite their sibling rivalry, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, it was Lee who Jackie turned to in her grief. As Jackie adjusted to her post-White House life with her children, Lee’s life also took a turn.

Much like her mother, after having two children, Anthony and Tina, Lee became disillusioned with her marriage to Stas, and it wasn’t long before she began looking farther afield. Her close friend, Truman Capote, once posited, “When you are a very, very rich girl, you don’t marry the same way a real girl marries. You marry the way another person travels in a foreign country. You stay there until you tire of it, then you go elsewhere.” It was as if the yoke of proper behavior was lifted after JFK’s assassination: “After the death of my brother-in-law,’ Lee admitted years later, ‘I was finally free.” Encouraged by Capote (their friendship could be a book in itself), Lee decided to give acting a try. She was more adventurous in her love life as well, pursuing dancer Rudolph Nureyev, photographer/adventurer Peter Beard, and even wealthy Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Yes, the same Artistole Onassis who would go on to wed Jackie in 1968. How’s that for a recipe for sibling friction?

One would think there couldn’t be much more to say about Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, but THE FABULOUS BOUVIER SISTERS proves otherwise. So many gossipy stories and recollections fill this breezy and entertaining, yet informative, read. To see these two impressive women through a sisterly lens is a new take on an oft-told story. Fans of JACKIE, ETHEL, JOAN and other society memoirs like IT SEEMED IMPORTANT AT THE TIME will devour this latest book about two women whose lives saw great triumph and deep sorrow, and was anything but a fairy tale.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on September 28, 2018

The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee
by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

  • Publication Date: September 24, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062364995
  • ISBN-13: 9780062364999