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Mother Knows Best

Why can't Caroline be more like Jackie?

2:58 PM, Dec 30, 2008 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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IF YOU THINK Caroline Kennedy is following her family's lead in trying to start at the top in a big job in politics (which has sometimes been referred to as show business for ugly people) with much too much chutzpah and too few credentials, you would be right, but you might also be somewhat mistaken in where the true model might lie. True, in 1962 Uncle Ted jumped into the Senate at thirty with naught but his name to commend him, but it is true too and largely forgotten that in 1967 and 1968 Caroline's Aunt Lee, her mother's younger and even more beautiful sister, tried to jump into show business (which might be called politics for good looking people), through family names, extended connections, and powerful friends. Substitute Caroline Kennedy for Princess Lee Radziwill; substitute Ted Kennedy and Mayor Mike Bloomberg for Truman Capote; substitute the Senate for the great stage that it sometimes resembles, and you have déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once put it: the same reflective celebrity, based on the same woman and family; the same second-hand and borrowed charisma; and the same sad story of rash expectations, and the nemesis hubris can bring.


Jealous of Jackie and keen to outshine her, bored in her marriage to Polish nobility, Lee had begun studying acting in the mid-1960's, in search of fame, recognition, and a triumph to call all her own. Friends in show business, such as Rudolf Nureyev, urged her to start slowly in small roles and work her way upward, but Truman Capote, whose hobby was tending to well-to-do women, began giving different advice. "Truman made Lee his protégée," writes Lee's biographer. "He was convinced stardom was within her grasp. He deluded her into thinking that she could sail into the top of a profession as easily as she had become a celebrity, without the proper apprenticeship or peer recognition. He brushed aside the knowledge, gleaned from his own personal experience, that only years of hard work got him where he was."

Powerful friends plus the commercial lure of the JFK linkage battered down doors that most aspiring actors take years to negotiate, and so Lee's first roles were not small ones or walk-ons, but leading ones in remakes of cherished stage and film classics that had been performed by great stars. She was in The Philadelphia Story, in a theatre outside of Chicago, playing a role created by Katharine Hepburn; and in a TV film based on the film mystery Laura, in which Gene Tierney had starred. Lee was surrounded by make-up artists, hair-dressers and couturiers, heavily coached, and relentlessly publicized, but she was also not terribly good. 'Wooden' and 'agonized' were some of the comments, and her lack of technique and of talent unnerved the professionals with whom she was trying to act. People tuned in and bought tickets but they were watching a curiosity and not a performance. "They came to see Lee Radziwill with her bouffant hairdo and her magnificent clothes and her nice legs and shoes," said one fellow actor. "They gave Lee a new costume every time she went on stage, and the women in the audience would start discussing it out loud." Cast members sometimes called it a 'freak show.' In the end, how to get rid of her gracefully became a major concern to her erstwhile backers. "[David] Susskind [the producer of Laura] had ties to the Kennedys and was uncomfortable with firing her outright," says Lee's biographer. "Instead, he instructed his director to make it so miserable for her by attacking her acting . . . that she would quit rather than go on." She did not quit, but she was savaged again by the critics. The short cut to fame led to profound and unneeded embarrassment. Being indulged much too much is not always a blessing. Free rides do not always come free.


However, not all of the Bouviers or Kennedys seem to have taken this path. Lee's son, a television producer (who died in 1999, weeks after his best friend and cousin), worked his way up in the ABC newsrooms. Maria Shriver, her Kennedy cousin, worked her way up from local newscasts in backwater markets. And then there is Jackie herself. At the end of her second career as a trophy wife, a role that had made her rich but not happy, she took a publishing job in a mid-level role, and worked for the rest of her life in what passed in her terms for productive obscurity. Her daughter should heed not her aunt, but her mother. There are some times when mother knows best.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.