Sofia Coppola, Giambattista Valli and Peter Beard share their favorite moments with Lee Bouvier Radziwill, as reported in The New York Times Magazine in 2013.
Sofia Coppola, Filmmaker (see brief documentary Coppola made of Lee below)
Lee and I recently ended up on the same flight to Paris. As we were waiting at the airport, she shared a delicious, tiny chicken salad sandwich that her housekeeper had wrapped in foil for her. I was practically in pajamas and, as always, she was in cream cashmere, looking, as always, perfectly put together. At one point, she asked me to watch her dog, Zinnia, as she sneaked off to the ladies’ room with one of her thin Vogue cigarettes. When I asked her where she was going, she said, “I’m not telling,” with a little smile and disappeared.
I got to know Lee through Marc Jacobs when I was living in Paris. She helped him pick out beautiful linens and dishes when he was setting up his apartment. Lee knew all the best places to go, and they got beautiful tablecloths at D. Porthault and silver at Puiforcat. Of course, she has impeccable taste and knows how things should be done. My upbringing was crazy and fun, with ’70s artists in Northern California, not at all like the precise world Lee seems to live in, which I find so interesting. I love her classic and chic apartments with beautiful flowers and books and grown-up furniture. I love having lunch with Lee. Recently I met her, and she looked great in bright pink slim Céline trousers and a hat. I always wonder what she thinks of the world around her today, how different it must be to when she grew up. I think she likes me because I’m not really gaudy or ostentatious.
I love hearing stories of her life. My favorites are about when she and Truman Capote went on tour with the Rolling Stones and got caught in the middle of a drug bust. And I love hearing the glamorous love stories. She told me her greatest romance was with Peter Beard in Greece one summer, when he was teaching art to her niece and nephew. That ended her marriage, but how great to have that be your romantic summer fling?
Lee keeps everyone on their toes — you feel like you have to be your best with her. I remember having dinner with her, and she ordered a delicate plate of asparagus. I got a big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese, and she looked horrified. I have a great memory of being on a boat in Corsica with Lee, and after a picnic of Corsican cheese and rosé she dove into the turquoise water and swam to a little island. She always looks chic, whether just out of the ocean, hair back in a sleek one-piece or at dinner on vacation in white trousers.
I also love that she’s so honest, doesn’t tolerate phoniness, tells great stories and always has perfect hair. I love the way she speaks. I don’t know anyone else who phrases things the way she does. She once described a lunch with someone as, “Just truly a life-diminishing experience.”
One of my most vivid memories of Lee is visiting her apartment in Paris with my young daughters for tea. Romy was 4, and Lee gave her a plate of brownies and pastries. I was terrified of a hyper kid surrounded by cream furniture and toile, and Lee, in a perfectly calm voice and a smile, said to her, “Romy, I will just kill you if you get chocolate on my chair.” They have been friends ever since.
Giambattista Valli, Fashion Designer
Synthèse,” in the French Rationalist meaning of the term, is the word that immediately comes to mind when thinking about Lee Radziwill. It is a sense of synthesis in every aspect of her life that struck me when I met her at my very first fashion show eight years ago, and is still what I love most about her today: in the way she presents herself to people, in her style, in her silhouette. There is a streamlined essence to her point of view. “Editing” could be the equivalent word in the world of fashion, my world. She is capable of capturing an art masterpiece or a person with a single adjective. Sharp to the point.
Lee is also of the moment. “Nostalgia” is not a word for her. She is beyond her past lives. Her curiosity about writers, artists, poets, even fashion designers, has never stopped. Sometimes, in our long conversations, she admits that she would have loved to accomplish some kind of artistic work, like the people in her circle of friends. Lee does not realize that she is all of that.
With her signature understatement and childlike glee, she doesn’t seem to realize that she has lived history in the making. She shared “happy times” with a young Rudolf Nureyev. She danced at the Black and White Ball with Truman Capote. And traveled through India with sister Jacqueline, where they met Prime Minister Nehru and rode on top of an elephant. She toured with the Rolling Stones and shared houses with Andy Warhol and Peter Beard, among others. She knew powerful men who changed the course of history. Always, Lee has been appreciative of the people she has encountered: Nehru, the queen of England, Gianni Agnelli, Renzo Mongiardino, Onassis, André Malraux.
She had a fortunate upbringing and has led an even more privileged adult life. And while she has lived luxury at its bygone best, her life has not been without great sadness and tragedy. With her sense of synthesis, she has streamlined those relationships to their essence: that of human being to human being. It is probably that idea of going straight to the point of something and having a profound sense of herself and of loneliness that has allowed Lee to survive tremendous sorrows.
Although I have become close to Lee only recently, she has been in my mind for a very long time. She was an obsession of mine when I was growing up in Rome and forging my way in the world. She is one of those figures you hold up in your universe that are part of your vocabulary, your imagination. I remember coming across this very rare documentary, “This Side of Paradise,” by Jonas Mekas, and all that I had ever envisioned her to be came true in this little film. She was a mythical figure to me. There she remained, closely present, until I had the chance of meeting her in Paris.
I disagree with Andy Warhol, who said it’s best never to go backstage for fear of a star’s true nature being revealed. Not long after we met, I proposed that Lee accompany me on a trip to Florence. She had not been back to the Tuscan city in years. We walked the same paths and roads she had done as a young girl, when she went there for the first time with her sister. I will never forget her enthusiasm when she entered Bernard Berenson’s Florentine retreat, Villa I Tatti. Lee always says that happy times are a rare few in life. I had one, for sure, that day.
Peter Beard, Artist
I met Lee when I was visiting Jackie and Ari Onassis on Skorpios. Lee was the artistic one — the humorous adventurous outsider on the inside. I was lucky to be there wherever we were: in Greece, France, Kenya, Montauk, Mustique, Barbados. Then, of course, there was Lily Pond Lane, where her crazy and fabulous aunt Edie, and her cousin Little Edie, lived in hiding. Lee and I had the idea to do the documentary “Grey Gardens.” We began filming it all with Jonas Mekas, the pet raccoons and the 52 very strange cats. Then we brought in the Maysles, who, at a regrettable turning point, took over the project; but my original footage — by far the most fabulous — remains to be seen.
Lee was always the one with high taste, humor and brains. We went on the Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” tour with our friend Truman Capote — and on some super side trips afterward. Back at Lee’s Fifth Avenue pied-à-terre, we had visits from Andy Warhol, Richard Lindner, Larry Rivers and Rudolf Nureyev. There were so many life-enhancing and extraordinary individuals. Lee was the key element. And talk about Lee’s flair for brilliant surroundings: the door opened onto one of the seriously great Francis Bacon paintings, collected early in the 1950s, before Bacon was really known, and well before I actually introduced him to Lee. (Bacon, by the way, thought she was great, too.)
Bernard Berenson was a mentor during Lee’s early life, and she liked to quote the advice that he gave her — to go for “whatever is life enhancing.” And actually that sums up Lee Bouvier Radziwill — everything was life enhancing. A couple of years ago I spent a few weeks visiting her in a house she had taken in Monte Argentario, in Tuscany. I was delighted to see that Lee was still going for it.
For more reading about the socialite and one of the last of Truman Capote's "SWANS," please see "The Real Lee Radziwill."