The absurdly painful, fantastical life of this girl from the Catskills keeps blazing forward. ‘The Real Housewives Of New York City’ alum tells all.
By Richard Pérez-Feria
Photography by Natalie Chitwood for THE MOUNTAINS
The joys (and pitfalls) of surviving a genuinely interesting life—a life precisely like the one the woman I’ve been entranced by for the better part of three hours in our effortless, deeply satisfying Sunday afternoon conversation has led—is that you’ve set yourself up to perpetually reflect on what was, always forced to look back even as you’re moving forward.
The mesmerizing (and still flawless) Carole Radziwill has had three life-defining eras to reflect upon: her decidedly humble childhood running around her grandparents’ farm in Upstate New York’s Mount Marion, a tiny hamlet in the town of Saugerties near Kingston; her red-hot romance and subsequent marriage to Anthony Radziwill, a bonafide prince whose mother, Lee Radziwill, was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ sister, with all of what that life entailed including being best friends with Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, wife to John Kennedy, Jr., Anthony’s favorite cousin and de facto brother; and as a “Bravolebrity,” the term reserved for the most memorable of reality television stars appearing on Bravo, a cable network home to the most zeitgeist-y of shows, including The Real Housewives Of New York City, the high-octane, high-drama program Radziwill co-starred in for a surprising six seasons.
That’s a lot of living right there.
And, yet, as this simply delightful everywoman sitting in front of me continues to prattle on about any number of seemingly disconnected topics—American politics (a passion we share), meaningful relationships, great theater, exciting career projects and, yes, even “Scandoval,” the current millennial cheating kerfuffle heard around the (reality TV) world—Radziwill remains oblivious to her charm. For someone with so much emotional and psychological baggage emanating from her momentous past experiences, her aura, her very essence, is feather light. It’s as if Radziwill decided to put the weight of that past, that old story, away. “I’m not overly nostalgic about the past,” Radziwill tells me in her appealing, time-is-money speaking style. “I learned that from my mother-in-law, Lee.”
Of course this accomplished, confident woman regaling me with her witty asides and piercing intellect was indeed Carole Ann DiFalco from the Catskills; as well as Mrs. Radziwill in East Hampton and Hyannis Port; and a “real housewife” going toe-to-toe with unhinged, fame-hungry, grown ass women. She’s all of those people and none of them all at once. How does Radziwill reconcile the overwhelming bigness of her life experiences with the lighthearted, perpetually laughing woman she is today? She simply decided to be happy. And so she is.
“If I really think about my past, I wouldn’t get out of bed half the time,” she says. “Even if things aren’t going great for me, and this could be about any aspect of my life, it’s OK. I’ll always be OK.”
She was more than OK during her decade-and-a-half career at ABC News. Of all the labels Radziwill has worn over the years—lover, friend, author, “housewife”—it’s journalist that still fits her best. And why wouldn’t it be? Her work there, mostly with network giant Peter Jennings, is often glossed over for the more clickbait, gotcha! TMZ-style ridiculous headlines. But make no mistake, Radziwill is a first-rate newshound whose documentary work in Cambodia, India and Haiti have earned her no less than three Emmy Awards, the prestigious Peabody and a GLAAD Media Award (another thing we share). It was while at ABC News that she met Anthony Radziwill, her colleague and soon-to-be love of her life.
I ask her about the happiest memory she has of the decade she was with Anthony, her prince. “Oh, Richard…I mean, it’s been so long,” she says looking sad for a moment. “Let me be clear, I’d never want to go back to that time, but it was just this moment in time that was filled with so much success and joy and love and also heartbreak, obviously, and real tragedy. But now, today, it’s also kind of melded together into this one feeling of…well, I just feel fortunate and grateful to have experienced that life, to have been with my husband, to have had the friends that I had. I’m truly grateful.”
Grateful wasn’t what Radziwill was feeling for years after enduring the worst three weeks of her life. On July 16, 1999, her closest friend, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and her husband, John Kennedy, Jr., died in a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard, MA. The horrible shock and profound sorrow that permeated the country that terrible morning also engendered a disturbing déjà vu parallel to the still unbelievable death of Diana, Princess of Wales two summers earlier in Paris. Here we were yet again, facing the reality of young, privileged and, it must be said, impossibly beautiful beacons of possibility struck down before they ever truly took flight. It was senseless and disorienting. And unspeakably sad.
As if losing her closest friends in such an unimaginable (and public) manner wasn’t enough, Radziwill’s husband, her entire world, was at that precise time also at death’s door, stricken with a resurgence of the body’s most powerful, insidious enemy, cancer. Anthony Radziwill was just 40 years old when he passed on August 10, ten days short of his wife’s 36th birthday. I can’t imagine Carole Radziwill’s heartbreak and despair she was enduring during that time.
“Yes, I was in shock for probably a lot longer than I thought then,” Radziwill says. “It was really important for me to be the person who managed the man I loved dearly who was dying of cancer. To be so present and to be able to manage that whole intense situation, to manage his life, and then his death, in a way that I thought I handled with grace. I certainly didn’t give myself credit back then, but now I look back and think, ‘Damn, I did that.’ And, yeah, I’m proud of the way I handled myself then.”
But, how does one go on when your world is taken away in a flash? “You know, I started to resent people who said, ‘Carole’s great; Carole’s fine’ because Carole was not fine,” Radziwill tells me, speaking slightly faster now. “I certainly created the expectation that everything was OK, but my world had just blown up—literally. And I remember when 9/11 happened just two years later what I felt like at that moment because I had gone through my own personal 9/11 where my world blew up, and the three people in my life who I was really very close to all died. Now the world was kind of experiencing what I experienced back in the summer of 1999. And it was so horrific, all of it, for all of us.”
When Radziwill returned to ABC News she was assigned six weeks in Afghanistan covering the interminable war from Kandahar, she recounts a visit to the deserted Kabul Zoo that changed her perspective on suffering and survival.
“I remember one Sunday being at the zoo taking pictures of kids with my Polaroid camera, and mind you there were no animals in the zoo,” she says. “I mean, the lion had been killed. It was terrible. But I noticed that all of these families were in the zoo and everyone was just really nice, wearing their Sunday best and I started taking Polaroids of the kids. I gave them the prints and of course they’d never seen a Polaroid photo before, so this photograph developing in front of their eyes was like magic to them. Their excitement and the wonder you could see in their eyes was nothing short of extraordinary. And right then I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. If these families could feel such joy while literally being surrounded by rubble and destruction, that was a big moment for me. When I got back to New York City, I said, ‘OK, you’re allowed to feel joy.’ In the middle of all this rubble, I still had a life to live, fully.”
Her life now has taken Radziwill back to her childhood haunts by way of co-owning (with two girlfriends) a home in Catskill, NY. “When we purchased the house, we did a full gut renovation,” Radziwill says. “We furnished this home as if it’s my fulltime residence, even though we’re renting it out every now and again. But we’re not talking typical Catskills décor: Karl Springer dining room table, original Eames chair, a work by Damien Hirst. I made it ‘city girl meets country’ and I love it.”
Speaking of love…before I can get my question out, Radziwill tells me there’s many kinds of love, besides the romantic connections we’re hardwired to desire. “Look, I have a love of one’s surroundings,” she says. “As I get older, my space becomes much more important. Of course, yes, the love of a romantic partner, or the love of friends and family are always important, but I’ve learned that, for me, the love of my surroundings, the love of where I am physically, spiritually and emotionally has become most important of all. Do you wake up thinking, ‘I’m so happy to be in this space that I’m grateful and joyful?’ I do. So, in that regard, I’m in love, yeah.”
For someone who has had more than her fair share of eyebrow raising, Page Six-worthy romantic suitors—George Clooney and Ralph Fiennes, anyone?—it was her most recent serious relationship with Adam Kenworthy, a chef more than two decades her junior, who seemed to be her best fit. The relationship, which lasted for several years, was on full display in multiple seasons of The Real Housewives of New York City. And it seemed, in a word, sweet.
“Yes, Adam is much younger than me, but I never felt that when I was with him,” Radziwill says. “I like to say, ‘I grew up, but I never got old.’ So when I met Adam, our curiosity level was the same and I was open to learning new things as I always am. And being so much younger, he taught me things about different kinds of music, for example. I love that he used to come to my house on his bike or his skateboard and we’d skateboard around the city. To me, that was a blessing. And that relationship lasted a long time.”
But the relationship I still wonder about was the one Radziwill ultimately agreed to have with reality television. I mean, her ever-so-slightly shocking decision to join the RHONY cast was as unexpected as it was curious. Two different worlds coming together. I mean, those decidedly Upper East Side boozy mavens didn’t seem to have much in common with the downtown-living, award-winning war documentarian. Or did they?
“Oh my goodness, I’ve never been around women like that!” Radziwill tells me, laughing. “I wasn’t used to being competitive and all that, but I’d never been around women who would talk like they talked or drank like they drank. I just thought they were very funny. There was definite comedy to them and the fact that one of my castmates called herself “The Countess’…well, I thought this would be fun to do. But I’d never watched the show. And I also thought that after a couple years, I could leave. I made a mistake in thinking you could join something like this—that you can join the circus and that you could leave the circus at any time. But once you join the circus, and you become a circus performer, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
I’ve often wondered, once the all-star housewives leave the playing field, what would they’ve done differently given a second chance.
“My one little regret is I did make myself smaller to be on the show,” she says softly. “I never thought I was above anyone, for sure. I didn’t want to come across like I was above any of the women because everyone had their own different life experience, you know, and so I didn’t want to come across that way at all. And I didn’t feel that way and never did. But there were a lot of times during a lot of conversations where I could have said, ‘Well, you know, I was in Afghanistan during the war’…‘I was in the Gulf War’…‘I used to spend a lot of time in refugee camps in Cambodia.’ I’d been there, I’d seen that. But I never talked about any of that. So my only regret was making myself smaller to fit in with the women. I think I would’ve been considered much more formidable and maybe even more of a target in some ways. But, in the end, I didn’t want to show off.”
Would she ever consider returning to the scene of the crime in, say, as one of the housewives invited to go on the spinoff The Real Housewives: Ultimate Girls Trip on Peacock? Who would she want to go with? “Oh, dear…,” she says, a bit uneasy for the first time in our long conversation. “I’d go on a girls trip with the coolest, most fun chick from each city, but I don’t know who that is because I don’t watch Housewives.”
So, what now? What does the next act in this fascinating mosaic that has been Carole Radziwill’s life look like from here? “Interestingly enough, I’ve been talking to a London-based company about potentially turning my memoir, What Remains, into a one woman play. I’ve never written a play before…I’ve been working on a draft. It’s really very exciting.”
Speaking of What Remains: A Memoir Of Fate, Friendship & Love, that’s how I initially became aware of Radziwill. Reading her powerful yet surprisingly unsentimental account, I became enraptured by Radziwill’s clarity on those pages. I often still think about her conclusion encapsulating all the sadness, all the pain. Radziwill wrote: “Ultimately what remains is a story. In the end, it’s the only thing any of us really owns.” Even now, that passage packs a punch.
The first time I interviewed Radziwill was a decade ago just prior to the release of her latest tome, The Widow’s Guide To Sex And Dating: A Novel (yep, another must-read best-seller). When I ran into her (looking gorg, by the way) about a month later in Lower Manhattan at the launch party for the new season of The Real Housewives, Radziwill told me how much she loved the article I wrote about her, saying, “It was memorable—and that’s everything you should want it to be.” I was flattered and once again taken in by this easygoing mix of smarts and edge having a cocktail in front of me. In that precise moment, I definitely saw why so many bold-faced gentlemen were enraptured by one Carole Radziwill. And it was effortless on her part.
During the recent all-day shoot for this story—we captured the photogenic Radziwill in her chic Catskills home—I looked up at the absurdly perfect, cloudless sky and recalled my favorite passage from The Widow’s Guide. I asked Radziwill if she could guess what that quote she wrote more than a decade ago may be. “Blue skies can be misleading,” she said triumphantly, smiling to herself, clearly delighted to be right. At that exact moment, we both looked up at that impossibly blue sky and laughed. Blue skies be damned, there’s a joyous life yet to be lived. And I’m here for all of it. So, yes, what remains of Carole Radziwill today is a woman who’s indeed happy and ready for whatever comes next. And that, too, will surely be epic.
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