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Janet Lee Bouvier Auchincloss, forty-four, came sweeping down the hall wearing a waistcoat jacket with a mink collar over a white silk blouse and matching cotton skirt. Her spike heels made staccato clicking sounds as she approached an office at the end of a long hallway. Peeking inside the small room, she found a young woman working behind a typewriter. “Excuse me. I wonder if you can help me?” she asked. “I’m looking for my Lee.” At the mention of the name, from around a corner came a familiar voice: “Mummy, is that you?” Lee suddenly appeared, also looking elegant in a smartly tailored black pantsuit with a wide leather belt. (In black-and-white photographs taken on the day, the belt appears to be gray but Lee would later call it “shocking pink.”) “Lee,” exclaimed Janet as she sized her up. “For goodness sake! Why are you wearing pants?” For a moment, Lee’s glowing smile disappeared; her shoulders drooped dejectedly. She recovered quickly, though, as Janet pulled her into an embrace.
It could be said that Janet Auchincloss’s life up until this point had unfolded pretty much the way she’d expected. She always knew, for instance, that she would marry “up,” as she had ten years earlier with her second husband, the well-heeled Hugh Dudley Auchincloss Jr., affectionately known as “Hughdie.” “Hughdie’s not perfect and neither am I,” she would tell intimates, “but we suit each other.” On the whole, she was content, even though, as a young woman of thirty-four, she had made certain sacrifices in marrying Hugh—not the least of which had been forfeiting the kind of passion she’d once shared with her first husband, Jack Bouvier. However, she was a pragmatic woman who, once she made a choice in life, made an effort to never look back. While the marriage to Bouvier had produced two daughters, Jackie, now twenty-three, and Lee, nineteen, with Hugh she had Janet, seven, and Jamie, five.
Janet had not been happy with some of Lee’s decisions of late, but her daughter seemed to have landed in a good place. For the last month, she’d been working at a new job as assistant to fashion icon Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar. It was going well for her. Because Janet had a full itinerary of business meetings with Hugh in New York, where Lee was now living, the opportunity for a mother-daughter visit at the new job presented itself. As she looked around at the Harper’s workplace, Janet took in the chaos of busy writers and photographers popping in and out of each other’s offices, all with so much to do. The creative energy in this place captivated her just as much as it had Lee when she first applied for the job.
Deena Atkins-Manzel worked at Harper’s at the same time as Lee, as a designer in the art department. “Lee and I started the exact same week, she a few days before me,” she recalled. “She was model thin, had a great complexion, a beautiful smile, a way about her that was elegant and smart. She had long dark hair and big, inquisitive brown eyes that sometimes looked hazel. She was eager, loved fashion and design. We spent hours talking about the latest styles and trends. I thought she was marvelous.
“I well remember the day Lee’s mother first came to visit,” she added. “Mrs. Auchincloss was a small-framed woman with a large personality. Much to Lee’s dismay, she invited herself into each office to ask the employees, ‘So what is it you do here?’ Lee would say, ‘Mummy, you can’t just barge into people’s offices.’ Mrs. Auchincloss said, ‘But I think it must be nice for these poor people to get a break from their humdrum jobs.’ She was a real character and I could tell that Lee was embarrassed by her, the way daughters sometimes are of their moms.”
Landing the job as Diana Vreeland’s assistant had been a real coup for Lee, and she didn’t have many victories in her life up until this time. She also never felt the warmth of her mother’s approval. Five months earlier in June, at the end of her sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence, Lee had gone to Rome with Janet for a holiday. While there, she decided to take vocal lessons. Janet couldn’t believe it when Lee told her about this sudden new desire to be a singer. In her mind, it was just another in a long list of impulsive decisions that made no sense; Lee was always coming up with new plans and schemes. When Janet discovered that Lee’s “Italian” vocal coach actually hailed from Mississippi, that was all she needed to hear to know that singing was just another one of Lee’s pipe dreams. It didn’t matter, though, because after a couple of weeks, Lee was finished with it. She then said she was going to take textile design courses because “I love to draw and paint.” “Fine, Lee,” her exasperated mother said, “draw and paint, then.”
Meanwhile, mother and daughter were scheduled to return to America at the beginning of July after a week in London. Lee wanted to stay on in Europe, however, and continue on to Paris. When she was abroad, she was just happier, the distance between her and her mother somehow influencing her mood in a positive way. Therefore, the two parted company after London with Lee promising she would be back to the States in time for the beginning of the new school year in September. However, when she finally returned, she found that she wouldn’t be able to continue at the tony Sarah Lawrence College where she’d left off in her studies. Instead, she would have to repeat some of her sophomore courses. “So, I dropped out and just never went back,” Lee would remember. Again, Janet was maddened. “Quite a lot was expected of one,” Lee would recall many years later to Charlotte Ford for McCall’s. “We [she and Jackie] were expected to do what we did well and to be decent. But we were never decent enough. We never did well enough. Always, we weren’t working hard enough for Mummy’s taste.”
Making her life all the more complex for her, Lee always felt she was in her elder sister Jackie’s shadow. As they got older, it had become a template of their lives that Jackie was the sister living a happy and carefree existence, always able to not only adapt to every new situation but find good in it and make the best of it. Lee was the one who found herself out of sorts, unable to cope, always in search of contentment. “As a young woman, Jackie had a definite look of destiny, as if she was inevitably going to be someone unique,” said her half brother, Jamie Auchincloss. “Lee was an attractive girl who seemed like she was struggling to keep up. Whereas Jackie was always sure life would unfold for her with good fortune, Lee had a more pessimistic attitude. Despite this stark difference in their personalities, they truly did love one another. They were constantly whispering to one another conspiratorially as if it was them against the world.”
When she returned to the States, Lee still didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, but she was smart enough to realize that she should make contacts in as many fields as possible. “After a job opened up on Vreeland’s staff at Harper’s, Lee had no trouble snagging it,” recalled Anna DeWitt, a friend of hers from those early Manhattan days. “Suddenly, Lee was all about fashion,” said DeWitt. “Now this was her latest passion, but this time she really committed herself to it. It was actually a good fit. She had style, she understood design, she was current with all the trends, and she had a critical eye.”
Laura Pyzel Clark, one of Diana Vreeland’s fashion editors at that time, said, “Lee was a little bit, not fey, but a fantasy girl. Her fantasy life wasn’t evident in anything she said, though. It was just her air, the way she moved, the way she dressed. She had a little extra something from the other girls, what the French call cachet, all kinds of lovely ideas about life and how it should be. Quality was important to her. Lee loved quality things—handmade shoes, beautiful fabrics. If she could only have one chair in her home, that chair would have to be the best and have the best fabric on it.”
Of course, since Harper’s was at the very heart of the fashion world, working for Diana Vreeland was a dream-come-true job for Lee. “Anyone who had any contact with Diana caught something special,” added Laura Pyzel Clark. “In the morning she would sweep off the elevator and the whole floor would change. Diana gave off an electric charge. There was a mood you would catch, She would sweep into the office looking absolutely fantastic. She smelled wonderful—the scent that she wore trailed after her—and then she would go and sit in this marvelous office of hers with its wonderful photographs of, say, some socialite or model wearing a fabulous necklace, and she would start calling us in one at a time. We all got such a charge out of this.”
“Diana Vreeland was a mad, fashion genius,” Lee would later recall. “I idolized her. I loved her style, the way she walked and talked. In some ways, I patterned myself after her. She was finished, if you know what I mean. And, of course, she was creative and daring. I wanted to walk into a room and feel just the way I imagined she felt, with all eyes on her.”
Like her daughter, Janet also admired Diana. Therefore, after Lee had introduced Janet to everyone else in the office, she excitedly took her to meet her boss. Unfortunately, Vreeland was brusque and unfriendly; maybe she was having a bad day. While she complimented Janet on her rearing of Lee, allowing that she was “charming,” she seemed patronizing and definitely had no time to chat. “Walk with me,” she commanded. As Lee, Janet, and Deena kept a steady pace with her, Diana barked instructions while her two employees took rapid notes on legal pads. “No time for lollygagging,” she concluded as she dashed off without so much as even shaking Janet’s hand. “Get to work, ladies!” A red-faced Lee covered for her boss by reminding Janet that she was a busy woman. As far as Janet was concerned, though, a tight schedule was no excuse for bad manners; she instantly changed her opinion of Diana Vreeland.
After Janet, Lee, and Deena left the Manhattan high-rise that housed Harper’s, they caught a cab to the Oyster Bar, which is on the lower level of Grand Central Station. Already seated in a corner in the back of the restaurant at a table covered with red checkered linen was Jacqueline Bouvier. She jumped up to greet them: “Mummy! Lee!” Again according to a photograph taken that day, she was wearing what appeared to be a chartreuse wool day suit with a long skirt that flared from the calf, along with a matching tailored jacket over a white silk blouse; she was model thin and gorgeous. Her glossy chestnut-colored hair was cut quite short with bangs. She had met Deena Atkins-Manzel earlier while visiting Lee at Harper’s. After the two shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, everyone sat down.
Jackie was immediately full of questions for Lee: Was she enjoying her job? Was Diana Vreeland “still just awful”? Had she put aside any interesting fashion magazines for her? “Their closeness was immediately obvious,” recalled Deena. “They would even finish each other’s sentences! For I would say fifteen minutes, it was as if there was nobody else in the room. Their eyes were filled with such admiration for each other. Mrs. Auchincloss just sat quietly studying her menu as the two sisters went on and on and on.”
“So, have you made a decision about Michael?” Jackie wanted to know.
Janet perked up. “Michael?”
The sisters shared a secret look.
“Mummy, you know Michael,” Lee said. “Michael Canfield.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Michael Temple Canfield was a six-foot-three, brown-haired Harvard graduate. He’d served in the Marine Corps in World War II and had been wounded at Iwo Jima. With his chiseled features and elegant comportment, he could easily have passed for a model. He also had all of the appropriate social graces necessary to squire Lee about town. The author George Plimpton once described him as “a paragon of good taste. His clothes were different from ours, the consistency of the material. He was probably the most elegant figure I’ve ever seen.” Moreover, he was a sincere person, empathetic and a good friend; few could find a reason to be critical of him. “He spoke le mot juste, a phrase that he fancied,” said his stepbrother, Blair Fuller. “He wrote very good letters and was always seeking the exact word for things, and it gave his speech, which was sometimes complicated by a stammer, a great deal of distinction. Michael didn’t sound like anyone else.”
Jackie, who had met Michael on several occasions, thought he was, as she put it, “stunning and smart, yet somehow quite sad.” She and Lee had apparently already discussed Lee’s interest in him.
Further distinguishing Michael, who now lived in Manhattan, was the fact that he had an intriguing, albeit bizarre, backstory about possibly being of a royal bloodline. Even though Janet had met him in the past as an acquaintance of Lee’s when they were younger, she couldn’t really remember him and certainly didn’t know the details of his storied family history. As lunch was being served, Lee attempted to explain as much of it as she could remember. She said that, as a baby, Michael was adopted by the famous publisher Cass Canfield and his wife, Katsy, when the couple lived in England. In recent years, Michael had come to believe that his biological father was really Prince George, the Duke of Kent (younger brother of the Prince of Wales), and that his mother was an American woman named Kiki Preston, the niece of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Kiki was an outrageous lady with a terrible drug habit who’d previously had a passionate romance with Rudolph Valentino, after which she seduced Prince George. As it supposedly happened, after Kiki became pregnant by Prince George, she went off to Switzerland to have the baby in secret. By coincidence, Kiki’s brother, the writer Erskine Dwynne, was a friend of Cass Canfield’s and he asked him to adopt the baby. That’s how Michael ended up being raised by the Canfields.
“Oh, my,” Janet said. “Now, that’s quite the story, isn’t it?”
“But I also heard,” Lee continued with an excited glance at Jackie, “that, maybe, Michael is the son of the Lord of Acton … and his maid.” Now Janet looked skeptical. She asked which was the case: was he the son of Prince George or the son of the Lord of Acton? Lee said she didn’t know and, apparently, neither did Michael. What difference did it make, though? Either way, Lee noted, he was British nobility. “Or he’s just an American with a vivid imagination,” Janet concluded with a smirk.
“Mrs. Auchincloss said she couldn’t remember him,” Deena Atkins-Manzel recalled. “Jackie then told her that they—the sisters and Janet—once ran into him in London. She reminded her that Michael was an editor at Harper & Brothers [later to become Harper & Row]. ‘Wait. Is that the man we ran into at the theater?’ Janet asked, turning to Lee. Lee said yes, that was him. ‘But Lee, he’s a homosexual,’ Janet exclaimed. When Lee said that it wasn’t true, Janet held up a silencing hand. ‘Oh my goodness, Lee, of course it’s true,’ she said. ‘He’s a fairy, Lee,’ she concluded. ‘My God! You can’t see that?’
“The discussion quickly escalated into an argument over whether or not this man—Michael Canfield—was homosexual,” Deena Atkins-Manzel recalled. “I just sat there and watched the three of them go at it, my head turning from one to the other to the other. ‘I know Michael quite well,’ Lee said as she nervously twisted her hands together, ‘and he is not light in the loafers, Mummy.’ Janet said, ‘Fine. It doesn’t matter to me, anyway.’
“Lee said she felt it was unkind of Janet to come to any conclusions about Michael without knowing him,” continued Deena Atkins-Manzel. “She dreamily added that wherever they were in the world, their stars kept crossing and she felt there had to be some reason for it. She also said she believed Michael was going to ask for her hand in marriage and, if so, she planned to say yes. At this, Jackie was surprised. ‘Really?’ she asked. Lee nodded. However, she seemed a little unsure; I thought maybe she was just trying to get under Janet’s skin.”
Perhaps with the same goal in mind for Lee, Janet then concluded that she knew what was really going on. She noted that Jackie had recently been dating a senator named Jack Kennedy. Obviously, at least as Janet now saw it, Lee was just trying to top her. “Jackie has a senator,” Janet observed, turning to Lee. “So now you have to have a prince? It’s so transparent, Lee! You know very well that I do not approve of this kind of competition!”
“For the rest of the meal, Lee was quiet and withdrawn,” recalled Deena Atkins-Manzel. “Her eyes darted about nervously any time she spoke. The rapport she had with Jackie had all but disappeared. She just went into a shell. Jackie and Janet continued with an animated conversation about something else and brought me in from time to time, but Lee was left on the outside of it.”
Finally, Lee spoke. “If I were trying to compete with her,” she said, gesturing toward her sister but not even glancing at her, “I should have started at about the age of five.”
“I thought you had,” Janet deadpanned.
Copyright © 2018 by J. Randy Taraborrelli