The True Story of How Jackie Kennedy Married Her Sister's Former Flame
Years before Aristotle Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy on October 20, 1968, he was involved with her younger sister, Lee Radziwill.
Radziwill, a former public relations executive, became close with Onassis at the end of her second marriage to Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, while her sister was still in the White House. According to Vanity Fair, Larry King asked Lee if she ever considered marrying Onassis, to which she answered, "Who didn't?"
Now, in his new book Jackie, Janet & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, author J. Randy Taraborrelli takes an intimate look at the sisters’ complicated relationship with the shipping magnate, and reveals for the first time what really happened when Lee learned her sister was marrying Onassis five years after John F. Kennedy’s death. Below, BAZAAR.com publishes an exclusive excerpt.
Lee Radziwill with Aristotle Onassis at a reception at the Athens Hilton in September 1963.
On August 22, 1963, Lee Radziwill and Aristotle Onassis attended the opening of the Athens Hilton in Greece. Nicky Hilton was responsible for the grand event. He and his beautiful wife, Trish, stood at the head of a long receiving line of executives, greeting all of the guests as they arrived, including Lee and Ari.
Nicky’s friend Bob Wentworth, who was along on this junket as public relations representative for the Hilton organization, said, “What I remember most about that night was what a striking couple Lee and Ari made. When they walked in, he in his tux and she in her long, shimmering gown, there was something magical about them. Everyone oohed and aahed and cleared the way for them as if in the presence of true royalty. Trish, who was wide-eyed, said, ‘My God, she’s absolutely gorgeous. Isn’t she a princess or something?’ I answered yes, and told her that she was married to Prince Stanislaw Radziwill. She wondered where the prince was, and why the princess was with Onassis. We then noticed that every time he put his arm around her, Lee pulled away a little and seemed uncomfortable. It was as if she wanted to be with him in public, but then again, she didn’t."
"What I remember most about that night was what a striking couple Lee and Ari made."
Later, Bob Wentworth overheard a strange conversation between Nicky Hilton and Onassis. Wentworth recalled, “Nicky told him, ‘She’s a real looker that one,’ referring to Lee, ‘you’re a lucky man.’ Onassis said, ‘I am lucky. She’s magnificent, isn’t she? You know she’s Jackie Kennedy’s sister, don’t you?’ The way Onassis said it was as if this was what distinguished Lee most, her relationship to Jackie.
"Nicky looked at Onassis with a puzzled expression. ‘Well, I think she’s even lovelier than the First Lady,’ he said. Onassis smiled and said, ‘She is, isn’t she? Jackie seems empty-headed. But not Lee. Lee is smart.’ Later, I saw Ari and Lee in a corner, deep in conversation, completely captivated by one another as if no one else was in the room. Even from a distance, you could feel the heat between them.”
By the end of September, more than a month had passed since [Jackie and John F. Kennedy’s second son] baby Patrick’s death. Jackie was no better. If anything, her psychological state had only deteriorated. Lee wanted to help her in some way and made the extremely bold suggestion that Jackie cruise with her and Aristotle Onassis on the Christina. “I think when Lee looks back on this trip she believes it was the second biggest mistake she ever made,” said one person who knew her at that time, “the first one being renewing her vows to Stas.”
An undated photo of Prince Stanislas Radziwill and his wife Lee
In May of 1968 [five years after JFK was assassinated], Jackie Kennedy joined Aristotle Onassis on a cruise of the Virgin Islands on the Christina. [Ari’s friend] Joan Thring recalled, Onassis’s staff began preparing the yacht by positioning photographs of JFK and Jackie all about the premises, “and we all laughed with each other,” she said, “because Ari never told you anything, it was very secretive. He never said, ‘Well, Jackie’s arriving tonight,’ or anything like that. So I said to them, ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner— it must be Jackie.’ They were all getting off that day, so I went to see them off. Then I came back about an hour later. I looked out my window and there was Jackie, arriving.”
Apparently, it was on this excursion that Jackie and Ari began serious discussions about a possible future together. However, Joan Thring reports that the two still slept in separate rooms.
Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill in 1951.
“There were no endearments or touching or anything like that,” she recalled. “I was absolutely convinced that nothing had gone on while we were there. I think in the afternoons they spent an hour or two together and they were sort of working out some sort of agreement.”
Apparently, it was on this cruise that Ari asked Jackie to marry him, assuring her that if she agreed she would still have her freedom. Perhaps more important, though, she would also have protection by his army of security men, 75 strong, some with machine guns. For a woman still suffering from PTSD from the murder of her husband, this was vital information. He loved her, he said, at least in his own way—which meant that he, too, would have his freedom, ostensibly to see other women, like [opera star] Maria Callas. What Jackie didn’t know was that just six months earlier, he and Maria had set a wedding date of November 4.
Some may have argued that, as a matter of loyalty to Lee, Jackie should have stayed clear of any man with whom her sister had ever been involved. In Jackie’s defense, though, never once did Lee confirm to her that she was even involved with Onassis! He didn’t, either. Jackie had to have suspected it, though. Everyone suspected it. After all, it had been going on for about six years!
Making things even more complex, Jackie decided not to discuss Onassis’s proposal with either [her mother] Janet or Lee. In other words, the secrets and lies of omission just kept stacking up among the three Bouvier women.
How could she do this to me?” Lee Radziwill asked Truman Capote, at least according to the later memory of the writer Eleanor Perry.
Perry was collaborating with Capote on writing a screenplay for television when the call came in from Lee. She says that Lee was screaming so loudly, she (Perry) could hear her words through the receiver: “How could she? How could this happen?” Truman didn’t know what to tell her. “She’s crying and weeping and sobbing,” he later told friends of Lee. “I can’t tell you what she said, but it’s going to be in the news. It’s the biggest piece of gossip there is, and she’s crying her eyes out because of it.”
Lee Radziwill joins her sister Jackie Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy on a trip to London in 1961.
After Truman had a falling-out with Lee (in 1977), he made more than a few telling statements about the famous siblings. Since he had been Lee’s best friend, his commentary can’t be ignored, though it should probably be put into context by noting that the ending of their friendship was particularly bitter.
Where the shipping mogul was concerned, Truman said, “Lee really thought she had Onassis nailed down. She pretended to have great contempt for Onassis and the marriage. She wasn’t in love with him. But she liked all those tankers.”
"Lee really thought she had Onassis nailed down."
Obviously, Truman Capote couldn’t have known for certain whether or not Lee was in love with
Ari had specifically asked her not to renew her vows to Stas in the Catholic Church, but she’d decided to do so, anyway. Things had never really been the same for them since.
Jackie and Lee as their childhood home in East Hampton
“It was actually a simple equation,” reasons [Jackie and Lee’s half-brother] Jamie Auchincloss. “Jackie’s husband and brother-in-law were now both dead. Onassis was, in effect, saying to Lee, ‘I’m going to be the person whose shoulder Jackie can cry on now. I can provide her with the protection, the security, the love, and the money nobody else can.’ It wasn’t exactly him saying, ‘Lee, I’m choosing your sister over you.’ It was more the equivalent of: ‘Though I know this is hard
Lee learned about the pending nuptials from Aristotle Onassis, who called her while she was on a vacation in Tunisia to extend a personal invitation. “He begged me to come,” is how she later put it. The details of their conversation are unknown, but one might imagine it was tense, considering their painful history. The fact that Jackie wasn’t the one to call Lee had to have stung.
Jackie and Aristotle Onassis on their wedding day in 1968.
Of course, Lee was angry and upset when she arrived in Greece, and she would be the first to admit it. However, when she eventually laid eyes on her sister standing on board the deck of the Christina with Onassis, both bathed in moonlight, Jackie was laughing. Lee had to stop and try to remember the last time she’d seen her sister truly happy; most certainly, it had not been in years.
This was a defining moment for Lee, as she would later recall it to intimates. Was it possible that this man, Aristotle Onassis—someone who had vexed and confounded her for many years, a man with whom she’d had such a tortured relationship—could be a worthwhile, valuable person in her sister’s life?
Jackie and Aristotle were married until his death in 1975.
From a safe distance, she stood and watched the two speak to each other for about half an hour. There was nothing romantic about their interaction, just something easy and relaxed. Lee hadn’t spent much time with Onassis lately, but whenever she did, there was nothing but tension and angst between them. There was no doubt about it; Lee had to acknowledge that Jackie seemed happy.
After a while, Lee approached. Onassis, apparently, didn’t have the heart to even face her. When he saw her come close, he turned and walked away from Jackie after giving her a small peck on the cheek. The two sisters then stood on the massive deck of the Christina, alone in the shadows.
Jackie and Lee attend a Broadway play in 1971.
Jackie embraced Lee and thanked her for coming. Then, according to what Lee would remember, Jackie firmly grabbed her forearm with her two hands and, with great urgency, said just four words: “I need this, Lee.” That’s was all she said—“I need this, Lee.” Lee looked at her closely, studied her anguished face . . . and she knew it was true. “I know you do,” she said. “And you should have it.” That was the full extent of the Bouvier sisters’ discussion about Aristotle Onassis.
Jackie then asked Lee to be her matron of honor. Lee agreed.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors