reading the signs

Lee Radziwill and the Cinderella Trap

Glamorous in life and even after death, the princess was forever compared to her sister.

Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Lee Radziwill knew she would always be “the sister of” — that no mention of her, no matter what she’d accomplished — could ever appear without acknowledging her far more famous and dazzling sister. And now, even in death, Radziwill again takes a back seat to Jackie Kennedy, as virtually every tribute to her seems to view Lee’s life solely through the prism of that sisterly relationship. “She will forever be remembered for her style and relation to her older sister,” wrote USA Today. “She achieved only pale reflections of the spotlight on her sister,” the New York Times opined. Vanity Fair magazine, trying valiantly to give her her due, called Lee “an icon” — but added “in her own right,” that tell-tale phrase that always means its own opposite.

Lee remained locked all her life in the struggle for “her own right.” Even back in 1976, when her great friend (later, enemy) Truman Capote, tried to praise Radziwill, he could only do so via a withering remark about her sister: “She’s all the things people give Jackie credit for,” he told People, “All the looks, style, taste — Jackie never had them at all, and yet it was Lee who lived in the shadow.”

If this were simply the misfortune of one woman’s personal life, we could lament it and move on. But press coverage of Lee Radziwill’s death starkly illuminates a far larger problem: our tendency to view womanhood as a zero-sum game — my gain is your loss. These obits make clear how natural it still is to imagine that women spend their lives locked in rivalry, tussling with one another over who is the most beautiful, whose husband the richest or most powerful, who is the most glamorous, etc. — just as the stories paint the rivalry between Jackie and Lee.

Lee Radziwill excelled in nearly every category demanded by traditional femininity: Looks? Check. She was a photogenic beauty — high sculpted cheekbones, wide-set eyes, delicate features. Thinness? Check. The sylph-like Lee kept her model’s figure until her dying day. Elegance? Check again. Lee was a fashion icon, and looked impeccable in her designer wardrobe. Marrying well? Lee earns a check plus here for having become a princess, like Cinderella, when she married second husband (of three), Polish émigré, Prince Stanislaus Radziwill.

Lee Radziwill at the 1973 Spring Party and Benefit Preview at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

But according to the narrative that has long followed Lee, sister Jackie bested her in all of those categories. And not only did Jackie see Lee’s prince and raise her a president, she may well have “expropriated” Aristotle Onassis from Lee, to borrow a term from Radziwill biographer, Diana DuBois (who called her bio In her Sister’s Shadow). According to this famous theory, Lee had been having an affair with Onassis and was blindsided when the billionaire (to whom she had introduced Jackie) shifted his attention to and eventually married her sister, making Jackie one of the richest women in the world.

Lee’s accomplishments were in keeping with her generation and her class. We know that Janet Bouvier, their mother, raised her girls with an eye toward turning them into exemplary wives for wealthy men. In this she succeeded. By any lights, and despite the real tragedies that marked both Lee and Jackie’s adult lives (Lee lost her son Anthony to cancer in 1999), both girls fulfilled the conventional goals of successful, upper-class womanhood: being alluring, demonstrating grace, cultivating the arts, attracting and marrying men who granted them status and security.

But while both may deserve the Cinderella prize, both — it appears — cannot hold onto it at the same time. Lee’s life must be counted a failure in comparison to her sister’s. We must be given to understand that her star shines more dimly. Why? Because this kind of intra-woman rivalry is actually woven into the Cinderella story, which has for so long been the touchstone, the foundational narrative, of womanly success.

Lee Radziwill and Herb Ross at the Dia Center for the Arts Fall Gala in 1991 in New York City. Photo: Kelly Jordan/WireImage

What makes Cinderella such a compelling story is not the prince but those evil stepsisters and stepmother. Without the rivalry among the women, Cinderella would seem less worthy of our sympathy. The stepsisters’ ugliness and desperation cast Cinderella’s beauty and virtue into sharp relief. We root against them and for her. Note that no such competition exists among the men in the story. We know little of the prince except that he is handsome, even less about his father, the king. The men are bit players. The real drama — as always — lies with the women.

Lest you think this centuries-old fairy tale irrelevant to modern womanhood, consider the extent to which Cinderella remains a living, daily part of our own popular culture. Cinderella provides the underlying structure for all beauty pageants (who will be crowned the fairest?); all homecoming dances at high schools and colleges; television shows like The Bachelor; and reality TV franchises like The Real Housewives, in which groups of carefully primped women fight endless battles with one another. There is even a direct link between the Real Housewives and Lee Radziwill: Lee’s daughter-in-law, Anthony’s widow, Carole Radziwill, is a cast member on the Real Housewives of New York, where her real-world proximity to royalty (or former royalty, Lee relinquished her title) lends glamour to the rest of the cast. And, of course, the basic Cinderella story is implicit in every obituary of Lee Radziwill, with Jackie winding up wearing the metaphoric glass slipper every time.

Pitting women against one another, assessing them like so many beauty pageant contestants, is so natural and omnipresent that it can become invisible. We can be blind to the Cinderella presumptions all around us, which can affect women of all types at any time. When Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave a speech meant to be about her state’s infrastructure, she got attacked for the style and fit of her blue dress. She did not win the Cinderella prize. As for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, no matter what policy she endorses or legislation she supports, she is repeatedly attacked on classic Cinderella fronts: her outfits, her dancing, and most recently, her boyfriend. Sometimes we still hand out the Cinderella prize, as we do in virtually every story about Meghan Markle, who is consistently praised for her style and grace — but really for having risen to become the Duchess of Sussex, for having won a prince. (Meghan even has an obligingly villainous sister, Samantha, who appears periodically to spice up the story.)

It’s exceptionally hard for women to escape the universalizing quality of the Cinderella story line. Whatever our accomplishments, a tsunami of cultural information tells us daily that we are all lined up at the ball, in endless competition for that moment of princely recognition, the moment of being chosen, the moment we rise above our sisters. A student of mine once confided to me that, every new semester, she could not stop herself from inwardly assessing the beauty of all her female classmates and ranking herself among them. I understood. In my youth, an older female relative once advised me never to have girlfriends who were more attractive than I, so that I wouldn’t risk losing any potential suitors to them.

Let’s mourn the passing of Lee Radziwill, a vibrant, multitalented, intelligent, and admirable woman. But let’s also take this opportunity also to consider how we admire women in general, how easily we can all internalize and succumb to Cinderella narratives of female competition and resentment — as perhaps Lee and Jackie did in their lifetimes.

Let’s get out of the ballroom lineup.

Lee Radziwill and the Cinderella Trap