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The Collection of Lee Bouvier Radziwill — style icon and muse to Warhol and Capote

The collection created by the New York socialite, who was equally at home among Manhattan’s avant-garde as she was with Washington’s political classes, will be offered in a dedicated sale in New York in October

It takes a while to spot Lee Bouvier Radziwill (1933-2019) through the lens flare and jump-cuts in Jonas Mekas’s diaristic 1999 film about the Kennedys, This Side of Paradise, but she emerges, a slight and beautiful figure keeping to the background as her children and their cousins splash about in the waves.

The faded colour and Mekas’s impressionistic style adds to the woozy quality of a long hot summer spent at Andy Warhol’s house in Montauk in the 1970s. In those days, Radziwill was one of the most photographed women in the world, appearing on magazine covers and in the press, yet few were able to penetrate her enigmatic presence; one that had been at the epicentre of the political elite.

In October, The Collection of Lee Bouvier Radziwill will be offered as a highlight of Christie’s Collector Week  sales in New York. The contents of the collection offer a glimpse into her fascinating life, spanning her years as a prominent socialite, princess, designer, and witness to a momentous era in American history.

The living room of Lee Bouvier Radziwill’s New York home

The living room of Lee Bouvier Radziwill’s New York home

Princess Caroline ‘Lee’ Bouvier Radziwill was born into New York ‘royalty’ in 1933. Her father was ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, a stockbroker; her mother was Janet Norton Lee, a socialite with huge ambitions for her offspring. As a child, Lee was well acquainted with her mother’s aphorism, ‘Weakness isn’t something you’re born with… you learn it.’

But she had inherited her father’s rebellious spirit: at the age of eight she made her escape and got across the Triborough Bridge before turning back, explaining that it wasn’t easy to run away from home in her mother’s high heels.

Artistically inclined, her first love was Renaissance paintings, leading her to track down the Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) to I Tatti in Italy when she was a teenager. Of meeting the great man she said, ‘I felt like I’d met God’, and kept up a lively correspondence with him throughout the remainder of his life. In one letter she wrote, ‘I am so terribly thrilled when I find anything concerned with art and at the height of enjoyment in an art gallery or museum.’

Fashion writer Hamish Bowles said Radziwill ‘defined dynamic American style for decades’

Lee escaped her mother’s presence at 20 by marrying the publishing executive Michael Canfield, whom she left five years later for Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill (1914-1976). ‘Stas’, a charismatic, Polish-Lithuanian who The New York Times  described as ‘the epitome of all that is considered chic, and therefore elegantly understated’, doted on his young wife, and the couple became part of a wealthy, international set.

Fluent in French and Italian, Lee was able to navigate New York and European high society, and support her sister Jackie (1929-1994), who became the First Lady when her husband John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected President of the United States.

In fact it was Lee’s innate style — one that journalist Hamish Bowles described as having ‘defined dynamic American style for decades’ — that helped shape Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe and transformed her into a fashion icon. Lee had a ‘taste for the exotic and unexpected’, and understood how clothes could be used to make a statement in the political arena.

As a close confidante of the President and his wife, Lee often travelled on diplomatic missions. It was Lee who was standing next to JFK when he made his famous statement, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, on his historic visit to Berlin in 1963.

‘I abhor the American idea of starting with a tabula rasa every few years and getting rid of everything. When I buy something, I intend to keep it for ever’ — Lee Radziwiłł

As the 1960s progressed, Lee became society’s most in-demand guest — no Manhattan party was complete without her — be it on the Upper East Side or in the Meatpacking District. She was one of Truman Capote’s ‘Swans’ — the beautiful socialites he doted on — and when he threw his spectacular Black and White masked ball at The Plaza in 1966, she was a guest of honour.

Yet she was just as comfortable at the Factory, mingling with Gerard Malanga and Andy Warhol, or on the Rolling Stones’ tour bus with Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca, who holidayed with her in the Hamptons.

Throughout this time, Lee was also collaborating with artists and designers. She was Giorgio Armani’s muse, and her friendship with Warhol resulted in a series of portraits, and later Polaroids, which Lee loved, saying, ‘This is how I want to be seen — simple, casual, free’.

Her close relationship with the photographer Peter Beard and his friends the Maysles brothers led to a documentary about her eccentric aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Little Edie, who lived in a faded, rodent-infested estate in Long Island. The film became the cult hit Grey Gardens  (1976), and revolutionised the fly-on-the-wall genre.

The dining room at Lee Bouvier Radziwill’s home in New York

The dining room at Lee Bouvier Radziwill’s home in New York

Her work as an interior designer was also prolific. She collaborated closely with the ‘architect of illusion’, Renzo Mongiardino, and their alchemic blurring of eras created some remarkable interiors. Most notable were Lee’s own houses in London and Oxfordshire, where they glued Sicilian scarves to the dinning room and painted her children’s favourite animals on the walls, explaining that she liked to create rooms that were essentially traditional and then add ‘touches of the bizarre and the delicious’.

The result so impressed the dancer Rudolf Nureyev that he invited Radziwill and Mongiardino to transform his London house into a Russian-Oriental harem.

Later in life, Lee explained her design philosophy as essentially European: ‘I abhor the American idea of starting with a tabula rasa every few years and getting rid of everything. When I buy something, I do so with the intention of keeping it for ever. I’m constantly falling in love with objects, and they follow me around the world.’

Some of those objects, including jewellery, fine art and photography from her homes in New York and Paris, will be offered for sale at Christie’s in October. ‘Lee’s taste and style stands alone as a global symbol of sophistication and connoisseurship,’ says Christie’s Chairman Marc Porter, ‘embodying the elegance of a more glamorous era.’