Sunday, October 28, 2012

Carole Radziwill

Act One.

Death is a difficult concept to embody. The final act of life leaves behind a heavy burden for those associated with the deceased. Since we know nothing about what becomes of us once we die, we are often afraid of the finality and unknowns.  We project this fear onto those left behind with labels, awkward phrases (ie. "He's in a better place"), and a code of conduct for how they are to act and mourn. They may have some notice, such as a long illness or old age, but the pain of loss can come abruptly and without warning, delivering an excruciating and oftentimes life altering blow.   
"Once it was the four of us, with all of our dreams and plans, and then suddenly there was nothing." - What Remains
Carole Radziwill became a widow on August 10, 1999. Her husband, Anthony, succumbed to the cancer he had been fighting the entire 5 years they had been married. She had prepared for his death as much as anyone can prepare for death. She was exhausted. He wasn't getting better and watching him undergo procedure after procedure had killed almost all of her hope for their lives together. 

I'm not superstitious or hold belief in adages like "all things happen for a reason", BUT I've always secretly thought if one terrible thing happens, you're safe from another terrible occurrence. I know, I know, it's childish, overly naive, and directly contrasts the way I've lived my life since my car accident; I don't drive mostly because I'm terrified of another accident. So, maybe I don't really believe it, but since for as long as I can remember I've thought this way. It's comforting I suppose. When I hear a story like Carole's, newlyweds dealing with incurable cancer, I don't believe it could get worse for her because that's her one terrible thing. But we all know that's not how life works. 

Anthony Radziwill was the son of Lee Bouvier and Stanislas Radziwill. His father was a Polish prince and his mother was Jacqueline Kennedy's sister. He was American "royalty" and actual Polish royalty. Carole became a princess when they married and John F. Kennedy Jr. was Anthony's best man. Coming from a working class family, she was thrust into a life few of us can relate to. When John Jr. met and married Carolyn Bessette, Carole found a friend and ally to navigate this new upper class world. 

Carolyn and Anthony at her wedding.
In her book, "What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love", Carole recalls her childhood with her Italian-American family, pot-growing grandmother, and classic 1970's teen angst. When Carolyn comes into the picture, the shy Carole was already dealing with what it means to be a "Kennedy", not only to the general public but as an outsider within the actual family. On top of that, her husband was dying. They are in and out of hospitals and their marriage wasn't a magical fairy tale. Carolyn breathes a familiarity into her life with Anthony she hadn't experienced before. She offers her a life boat in the sea of death. She stays with her in the hotel while her husband is in surgery, visits with Anthony when Carole simply needs a break, and mediates a sometimes tricky relationship with her mother-in-law, Lee. She quickly became a best friend, sister, and confidant. They shared a bond very unique due to their marriages but also because of who they were as individual women. Carolyn was Carole's light at the end of Anthony's life. 

The year of Anthony's death, the four friends summered in Martha's Vineyard to ensure they would get to be together as much as possible. Due to their busy lives, John and Carolyn were back and forth in their private plane piloted by John himself. Carole craved their visits because they ignited her weekends with laughter and normalcy. One night, when they were due back, life was still and quiet. First, they were simply late. Then, they never arrived. Their plane crashed just off the coast; they were killed along with Carolyn's sister, Lauren Bessette.

Lee Radziwill and Carole at Anthony's Funeral
After the three of them had died, Carole was lost. She was a new widow, her best friend whom she had counted on to guide her through this time was taken from her so suddenly, it made her upset her husband hadn't died first. She says she spent a lot of time alone, in her apartment, mourning; shut off from life. 

Act Two. 

If you're a follower of this blog, even a casual reader, you've noticed my propensity to reference "The Real Housewives". From Beth Phoenix and Katherine Dexter McCormick, to Maxine Hong Kingston, I've managed to mention my guilty pleasure. Now, I'm the first to admit this show is not to the benefit of women. It's really the soap opera of the 21st century; over the top and ridiculous. It shouldn't be taken seriously. Producers manipulate the actual lives of fame hungry, overly privileged "wives", to create money making reality fiction. The show is a major disservice for women in pop culture because it rewards shallow behavior and propagates the myth that women only care about shopping, gossiping, and Botox. Sometimes, it even takes on a faux-feminist angle of "independent women", doing it for themselves, all the while perpetuating stereotypical gender roles. But I can't stop watching. I really love it. 

Many of the "wives" turn their TV time into opportunities to cash in on their "star" status. They "write" cookbooks, "develop" wines, and become fashion "designers".  (So many quotation marks!) Or they just auto tune their way to pop stardom. Take "Countess" LuAnn DeLesseps' attempt at singing in her MUSIC VIDEO for "Money Can't Buy You Class": 

Two words: No words. Or, as Carole called it, "Bizarre."

While certain plot lines and twists are crafted by producers to make their show make some kind of sense, the deep levels of delusion are very, very real. I don't know whether or not money can buy you class, but I'd say it can buy you a fair amount of unhappiness and disappointment. Most of the women are in their 40's with grown children, crumbling or crumbled marriages, and massive debt; like, super massive debt. But they are truly gifted at denying everything from their own misused privilege to menopause. You'd think menopause was some kind of death sentence if you'd never heard of it outside of this show. So, for the most part, I view the cast members as a template for how not to be a woman/mother, how not to age,  and believe we can all learn how harmful blindly accepting "the female role" can be. 

Enter Carole. 

Carole was one of the new cast members of this season's "The Real Housewives of New York City". Now, you're probably wondering, why are you writing about a woman who actively participated in a show you're telling us devalues women and makes us look silly and vapid? Well, because Carole is the antidote. 

After she recovered from the first stages of grief, Carole spent 6 years writing and "It-Girling" herself around the world. Basically, she lived my dream. After leaving ABC News, her memoir became a best-seller, she was on "Oprah", she bought a loft in lower Manhattan, and became a contributor to Glamour Magazine. She dated George Clooney and I think broke up with him. She is best friends with designers Naeem and Ranjana Khan and dog sits for Susan Sarandon. She's cool and fabulous and I'm always jealous of her outfits and relaxed demeanor. Along the way, she met Andy Cohen and he eventually begged her to be on RHONY. She accepted which is how she ended up on reality TV.

Carole in her apt.
The couch was her mother in law's
and one of Carole's favorite possessions.
Now to get to how she ended up in CalistaJones (her crowning achievement ;). 

Carole met her husband while working as a journalist and producer for ABC News. She traveled the world, was embedded with troops in war torn countries, intricately pieced together stories, and won several Emmy's for her work. She and Anthony were equals who fell in love and enjoyed each others company. It didn't matter to him that she came from a lower income family, just as it didn't matter to her that he came from Polish royalty. 

On Assignment in Khandahar 
She writes about how she landed her job in journalism and the determination she had in working toward her goal is so inspiring to me. Since her family didn't have any money, she couldn't go to a top school, but took advantage of her time at Hunter College. This is one of her traits that I feel is so admirable. She doesn't complain about her situation or wish it was different, she simply works with it no matter the obstacles. I often think if I had different circumstances, I would have made different (read "better") choices. Carole just goes for it and understands success takes work and effort. She marched her way into the office of a top producer and recalls now if she had known how important this woman was at the time of her meeting, she probably wouldn't have done it. But she did, and was given an unpaid internship which eventually landed her her dream job. She had to work throughout her internship and pay for her own apartment and finish her degree. She is a self-made woman. 

Her relationship with Anthony was undefined for quite some time due to the nature of their careers. It was long distance and their status was "It's complicated" before they decided to commit. If other "Wives" were given the opportunity to marry Anthony Radziwill or thought they could become an actual princess, there would be no hesitation. For Carole, her job mattered a lot and entering the Kennedy world was quite overwhelming for her. Anthony gained her trust by making her feel comfortable within a family structure that has every reason to be wary of outsiders. I can't imagine how surreal it must have been for her initially when she was introduced to his mom Lee and "Aunt Jackie". When they finally decided to get married, they were already committed partners and she was in love with Anthony, not the pomp and circumstance of his life. They giggled about the grandiose wedding his mother planned for them and John Jr. teased Carole about her new title.  
Carole and Anthony

Her flippant attitude toward her new wealthy life doesn't mean she denies the privilege this period created for her. She knows she is very fortunate and has advantages now most people will never experience. A lot of people criticize her memoir for capitalizing on a Kennedy tragedy. She acknowledges this is why at first people were interested, but after reading her book, her writing is what makes it shine. It is her story after all, her heartbreak. Her sadness can be related to while at the same time is very unique. One of her greatest regrets is only having one photo of Carolyn and herself. Carolyn was hounded by the press, so naturally, she didn't take a lot of photos in her personal life. Privacy was very important and granted to her by her family and friends. While most of us have lots of pictures with our loved ones, there are never enough when we lose someone. The end of "What Remains" is so emotional because the way Carole recalls her loss forces you to think about those you love. You can feel her pain and share in it with her. She becomes very real.

When I first heard she was going to be on RHONY, I was a little worried. How does a woman with so much class and revered talent end up in reality TV?

As Carole says, after much contemplation, the decision was easy as she viewed it as just another job offer and way to sell more books. Luckily, she was right. She was back on the NYT Best Sellers list and just landed a 6 figure deal for two new books, her novel and a collection of essays. Her appearance epitomizes her "unplanned plans" mantra. She never knows where life will take her but she is open to all experiences, and purposely uses them to her advantage.

"What a perfectly stupid time we would have" sums up the attitude Carole has on RHONY. She never takes herself or the show too seriously as she recognizes it is a guilty pleasure. She maintains her cool throughout the season and doesn't allow herself to get wrapped up in the pettiness some of the other ladies like to promote on the series. She butts heads with "The Countess" throughout, mostly because she doesn't like the facade of "society" she promotes. Carole doesn't deny her privilege but she also doesn't promote it either. She walks a fine line the other ladies could learn from. As she points out in her blog about Sonja Morgan's ex (Morgan as in Chase Bank): 

"The Morgans are American royalty. Yes, royalty who charge us $3 to use their ATMs. There’s an Aristocrat for you. (Cheap!)"

When the other women struggle, like Sonja in her divorce, they are only able to focus on their own pain. This is what separates Carole from the rest of her cast and makes her POV refreshing. She maintains an open perspective even when she could easily shut out others.

In the ultra silly reunion show, the other women give her a bit of heat about her teasing quips at their expense and her intro line "I may be a princess, but I'm definitely not a drama queen." She defends that she doesn't take herself too seriously and wants to have fun with the show. She also reiterates her title is not how she defines herself. Her marriage, while special and important to her, did not give her life meaning. She is more proud of her writing and her journalistic achievements. My kind of princess!

Throughout "What Remains", Carole references Fortuna, the goddess of fortune. She can provide good luck or bad luck, neither being owed nor predictable; simply an erratic force in life. She writes about the good luck of landing her job and the bad luck of losing her husband. In the way Carole has responded to the fortune she has been dealt, she offers an original take on dealing with death. She certainly has given new life to the widow label and is unafraid to question the rules we are told to abide by when death leaves us alone. Her expression of the raw emotions she experienced is refreshing in the overly cliched world of loss. She doesn't find solace in empty comfort, but allows herself to sink into depression and then chooses her own path out. 

While I am thoroughly jealous of Carole's success and elegance, I am more taken by her self assurance. The best role models aren't the ones who make us want to be more like them, but those who encourage us to be more like ourselves. Maybe that is a contradiction, "I want to be more true to myself, just like Carole!", but the way she has lived her life, according to her own rules, makes me want to find my own way based on my own strengths and talents. Yes, I love her pretty dresses and imagining what my life would be like in her loft, but as I sit here on my couch, writing on my 3 yr old NetBook, I really like my life and the choices I've made. If pride in myself is a result from watching "The Real Housewives", that has to be a good enough justification, right? 

Carole is already Carole. So I guess I'll just happily be me. :)

Cover photo