Trademark is Refinery29’s series that highlights women who aren’t just known for their passions — be that in fashion, art, or music — but their killer, signature style.
Carole Radziwill has two types of fans: Those who know her as a cool, unusually articulate Bravo star, and those, often of a different generation, who know her as the three-time Emmy, Peabody award-winning journalist and best-selling author.
The Real Housewives of New York franchise has certainly added spectacle to Radziwill’s profile, but What Remains, her first memoir, is what defines her story. Off-camera, she’s not even a housewife; on email, she goes simply by the letter C. And as far as “children,” she’s got a few cats and a Baby (her much-doted-on miniature goldendoodle). But after a life that’s been almost too real for reality television, in both glamour and tragedy — and at a time when frenemies have sniped that she doesn’t have a career — Radziwill is at ease.
“My surroundings are very important,” she insists, as her personal makeup artist applies some finishing touches before our photoshoot in a West Village penthouse. “I have to live with beauty, even if I can’t afford it...my eye gets offended by things that I don’t feel are beautiful.” She’s not lying: Her couch, which belonged to her mother-in-law Lee Radziwill (and was once covered in tiger print), is considered an honorary cast member of RHONY. Unlike many of her cohorts, however, she wasn’t born into fortune. She earned it.
Radziwill grew up in Suffern, New York, about an hour’s drive north of where she lives now in Soho. Of her upbringing, she bills her younger self as a “girl with no money but a certain aesthetic.” Her summers were spent at the Saugerties home of her grandparents Tony and Millie DiFalco; she calls the latter a “huggable mass of love” who slipped her cigarettes when no one was looking, exclusively wore muumuus, and was the town’s local smuggler of fruit, marijuana, and God knows what else. Radziwill, barely a teenager, danced in creeks, drank water from used milk jugs, and sported T-shirts and denim cut-offs: “I had my first sip of beer there, my first cigarette, my first crush, and my first broken heart.”
After moving to the city to attend Hunter College, majoring in English, Radziwill landed an internship at ABC News, in postproduction for 20/20. The network would later hire her as one of the few women on the newsdesk, a job she’d hold for 15 years. It’s there she learned how to observe without intruding, traveling the globe reporting on stories for the network, and later, for Peter Jennings’ documentary unit, Peter Jennings Reporting; it’s also where, during her interview for the internship, she got a crash course education in style.
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“It was very important to have the right outfit. I’d recently seen a movie called Broadcast News with Holly Hunter, and in the film, she’s wearing a black skirt with a matching peplum and a brooch; I loved it,” she remembers, pausing to smile. “I was like, ‘I’m so perfect. I look like Holly Hunter. I’m gonna get this job in news.’ So, I go to the interview and the woman who I’m interviewing with asks me a bunch of questions — I knew what was going on; you kind of fake-it-till-you-make-it a little bit — and she gave me the job. But on the way out, she said, ‘Oh, and by the way, we don’t really dress up that much.’ It was devastating to me.”
The next day, she returned in “the outfit of journalists:” khaki pants and a white button-up shirt. “I got the memo on that,” she laughs, adding that chinos are the “cousin” to her first love, carpenter pants. (Sure, Carole.) During her time at World News Tonight, fashion may have not been top of mind, but it’s where she familiarised herself with clothes in a practical sense. Her first assignment, which saw her covering landmines in Cambodia, required a certain look. “I remember thinking, ‘Ugh. I have to wear safari clothes.’ So, I went to Banana Republic and bought safari clothes. Christiane Amanpour was always in places like that, and she always had the best pockets, so I bought one of those vests with all of the pockets. You need a lot of pockets when you’re out in the field.”
In 1990, while on assignment in Los Angeles covering the Menendez murders, Carole met Anthony Radziwill, a literal Swiss prince and Jackie Kennedy’s nephew (the only fairytale aspect, really, of what would become a tragic tale). To Carole, he was just a handsome producer at HBO, but to anyone who could count backwards on a family tree, he was royalty. They were lucky to have had careers they were both crazy about, the two bonding over their intoxication for the news — but they fell in love gently. “Our courtship starts and stutters. We meet on the murder story and four weeks later board separate planes to fly back to New York.” They’d move into a one-bedroom apartment on 82nd and Madison and eventually get married; in 1994, a beach wedding.
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In November of that year, Anthony was diagnosed with high-grade fibrosarcoma, metastatic, to his lungs bilaterally. For the years leading up to his death at age 40, Radziwill was her husband’s primary caretaker alongside his first cousin, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his wife, Radziwill’s close friend Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. In What Remains, Radziwill awaits the impending loss of her husband across hundreds of pages, using inpatient hospital records as more of a countdown than a timeline. But on July 16, 1999, three weeks before losing her husband, she received an unexpected call. JFK, Jr. and Bessette-Kennedy had perished in a plane crash. “Once it was the four of us, with all of our dreams and plans, and then suddenly there was nothing," she writes. “We have been wearing black, it seems, for three solid weeks. We are getting good at this, the funerals.” Radziwill goes on to describe the suit she picked out for her husband’s wake, navy, noting that every stylistic decision was punctuated with He would have liked that.
Radziwill refers bittersweetly to the time that followed as the Lost Years. “I did all of the things you’re not supposed to do: sold my apartment, quit my job of 15 years, up-ended my life. So, I landed in this tiny little studio,” she says. Radziwill was “squatting” at Bessette-Kennedy’s pal and wedding dress designer Narciso Rodriguez’s apartment on the Lower East Side. “I didn’t have any closets there. But it was a very sweet little space.” She felt unmoored to anything. “I kind of wandered through those years. When I was in my 20s, I never went out or went to clubs or anything like that. So, the Lost Years were also my clubbing years.” It’s also when Radziwill started writing.
“They were the years of experimenting. What was I gonna do? What was my life gonna look like?” she remembers. Radziwill needed to wear something that was counterintuitive to grief. “Part of that lightness of being was reflected in what I was wearing. At the time, I definitely wouldn’t have said that or thought that — and probably if anyone would have said something about the sheerness of my fashion, I would have been shocked,” she says. Radziwill entered a phase where all she wore was Rick Owens skirts with fishtails, flat boots, and only in the day. “I would go out at night to an event or someplace and I would dress down,” adding there was a lot of Yohji Yamamoto, too, a favourite of Carolyn’s.
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In fact, she learned a lot about fashion from Carolyn, who, during their friendship, worked at Calvin Klein and often lent “Lamb” (or “Lambie,” depending on the day), the nickname she gave to Radziwill, her luxury hand-me-downs. One dress, in particular, stands out from the others she inherited. Before Carolyn married John, the couple did everything and nothing to attempt to stay out of the sights of the paparazzi. For an opening night at the American Ballet Theatre’s spring gala, Kennedy, Jr. needed a date, so he asked Radziwill instead.
“She dressed me. I always joked with her because I had to take it in. It was a black, see-through dress with velvet cut-outs, a design that sort of covered you exactly where you needed it to. It was so pretty; Calvin Klein, naturally. There’s a picture of me in it with John in a car. That’s her dress. It was funny because no one knew who I was — it was before I got married — so everyone assumed I was the new girl. We had a good laugh about that.” Radziwill is partly responsible, too, for the iconic style her best friend would become known for. To sedate the paparazzi, she suggested Bessette-Kennedy wear the same thing every day so they’d get bored of her. “She did that for a while, but they were relentless,” Radziwill says. “Yet she wasn’t precious about clothing. She really wasn’t.”
Radziwill doesn’t keep much, either. But those relics that hold the memories of her previous life still remain in her closet. She has a few of Bessette-Kennedy’s dresses but doesn’t wear them — “I just keep them because they were hers” — and an amethyst ring Carolyn bought her from Tiffany’s to commemorate Radziwill’s graduation from NYU (where she got her MBA) and their friendship, inscribed with their initials and the acronym “’s.f.f.’, secret friends forever.” Of her late husband’s closet, she has a few of his shirts, including what was given to her in the days after his funeral: his sneakers, a Swiss army watch, and his gold wedding band.
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In her grief, she walked away from her news career and What Remains went on to become a New York Times bestseller. She’s since penned a popular fiction novel, A Widow’s Guide To Sex and Dating, and, for the past five seasons, has served as (in this writer’s opinion) the most grounded, logical component of The Real Housewives of New York. Her decision to join the show left many confused, asking why, after such a serious career as a journalist, would she join Bravo’s pop cultural juggernaut. For Radziwill, that’s exactly why she did it.
“My young life was filled with very serious endeavours. I was very intense in my 20s and 30s, and I just thought, When I’m 80 and look back at my life, if this is the silliest thing I’ve ever done, I’m totally okay with that. The show balances that out. I don’t think I could do it if I didn’t have that foundation,” she says, noting that most Housewives aren’t above pretending to be someone they’re not. “I knew who I was. I wasn’t prepared to pretend to be anything I wasn’t. In fact, I downplayed a lot of my background and my career. At that time, I felt good about myself, and I thought, I’ll show that to the world a little bit and it’ll be fine.”
Since joining the show, Radziwill has been called boring and arrogant and operating above the drama, among other expletives and falsehoods. But she defends her position as a trained observer. “It’s hard on the show. I’m a very rational person — it’s the way my brain thinks, by nature and training. I’m a journalist. So, I approach things that way, whereas other women on the show approach things first emotionally, and then logic follows. It’s not to say I think I’m better than them, but it’s just a different way that I look at the world and approach conflict,” she says, in her fascinated, journalist’s demeanour RHONY viewers are familiar with. “There’s a lot of faux indignation on those shows, like women are morbidly wounded for not being invited to a brunch. I don’t play into it.”
In its 10th season, the show has finally revealed Radziwill’s more combative side. Where viewers once felt she wasn’t Housewife-y enough, it could be said that now, after an earlier feud with “Countess” LuAnn de Lesseps and a current one with veteran castmate Bethenny Frankel, Radziwill is succumbing to what the show has turned most of its biggest stars into: an instrument for ratings and viral chatter. Recently, viewers witnessed Frankel tell Radziwill she needed to fire her stylist. At the thought of any of the Housewives fancying themselves particular experts of style, she laughs. “Let’s get one thing clear: I don’t take fashion advice from any of the Housewives.”
In her post-show blogs, too, Radziwill’s writing has turned from melancholic, serene, and detached, to pointed and defensive. When asked about why she lets it get to her, she chalks it up to her Italian roots: “If you’re going to come for me, don’t miss.”
But maybe this is what’s meant to happen. She’s a journalist, after all, prone to chasing the story. That she makes her own rules isn’t a fault – but it is intimidating to anyone who hasn’t survived even half of her life experiences. It’s clear that for the foreseeable future — like the other Lost Years of her life — Radziwill’s biopic won’t be predictable. At all.
Whether she’s voted fan-favourite or not.