Andy Cohen, the Bravo executive and talk-show host, has a thing he says when people ask him what the women on The Real Housewives are really like: "They are exactly as they appear onscreen."
It's probably true, but it’s also a way to deflect, to not insult the ladies who butter his bread, while acknowledging that he and the folks at Bravo are in on the joke, the central irony that makes the franchise so addictive.
The housewives believe they are at the top of the A-list and they rarely ever are.
Which is what makes the addition of Carole Radziwill in the fifth season of The Real Housewives of New York City—it debuts tonight—both a coup and an anomaly for the network.
Married from 1994 to 1999 to Anthony Radziwill, the late son of Lee Radziwill (Jackie Onassis' sister), she was best friends with John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. After the two Kennedys died in1999 (just weeks before Anthony succumbed to cancer) Radziwill went into hibernation, then became a fixture on the party pages of Women's Wear Daily, a well-connected gal about town who actually got invited to Cinema Society screenings and parties at Diane von Furstenberg's.
In 2005 she published a memoir about the death of her husband called What Remains, and though everyone now does a memoir, hers got good reviews (it had no ghostwriter, for the record), became a bestseller and earned her a sit-down with Oprah. Among those thanked in the acknowledgements are the television journalist Christiane Amanpour, the film director Mike Nichols, the Hollywood agent Bryan Lourd, the HBO executive Richard Plepler, and the designer Narciso Rodriguez.
So how on earth did she wind up on reality television?
Well, as it turned out, Radziwill and Cohen are friends. In real life. And one night last summer at dinner, Cohen asked her to consider doing the show, which was serving divorce papers to several of its cast members.
"My first impulse was to say no,” Radziwill said over a series of interviews last week, meeting me first at The Daily Beast offices for an on-camera discussion about the show, and then moving to a restaurant nearby for lunch. “I thought, he's not serious. And then he sent an email the next day to follow up."
Some of her friends were horrified. “A lot of people were very surprised,” said Radziwill’s longtime friend, the film director Joel Schumacher, in a phone interview. “There was definitely a moment where her friends went over the pros and the cons. Especially the cons.”
But after the initial “are you crazy” thing of it all wore off, it began to seem like not such a bad idea, after all.
For one thing, Radziwill is a writer currently finishing up a roman à clef called The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating. And the platform provided by Bravo is a pretty good one. "George Plimpton once said he would sit in a department-store window if he thought it would sell a book," said Radziwill, who on Friday was wearing a pair of fitted jeans and a cream-colored cashmere cardigan that ended just before the midriff, showing off her seemingly perfect abs. "And I thought this is better than sitting in a window.”
For another, she’s hardly swimming in money—a fact that everyone continues to be amazed about vis-à-vis the extended Kennedys and the Bouviers/Radziwills, but that is nevertheless the reality. “There's this idea everyone's wealthy and living these grand lives. The rumors of Radziwill fortune have been vastly overstated. I read somewhere on the Internet that I have $50 million, and I think what they meant was 50 million pesos.”
Beyond that, Radziwill has never been particularly precious about her image.
Born Carole DiFalco in Rockland County, N.Y., in the early 1960s, she had a father who owned a restaurant called DiFalcos; her mother waitressed there at nights and on weekends. “Prices to fit the family purse was the slogan,” Radziwill said. “It was in Yonkers right near the racetrack and it didn't quite fit our family purse. We were always broke.”
After high school, the future Mrs. Anthony Radziwill matriculated at NYU, then switched to Hunter because it was cheaper.
In her 20s, she got an internship at ABC News, where she became a respected producer whose coverage of the war in Cambodia helped win the network an Emmy. While working on the Menendez brothers story in Los Angeles, she met Anthony, who was a prince by birth (his father, Stanislaw, was a member of the Polish nobility) and a TV executive by trade.
As she described it in What Remains, it wasn’t like fireworks went off at the beginning. “Our courtship starts and stutters. We meet on the murder story and four weeks later board separate planes to fly back to New York,” Radziwill wrote.
But they fell slowly in love and got married in 1994, in a star-studded ceremony in East Hampton, N.Y. John F. Kennedy Jr. served as best man.
Still, it was clear early on that things might not turn out well.
After a 10-year remission from testicular cancer, Radziwill found out he was ill again. “He was diagnosed right before we got married and he had cancer the entire time we were married, which was five years,” his widow recalls. “It was a long time to actually live with that particular kind of cancer. Most people die from it much earlier but Anthony was in such great shape. He would get up at 6 o’clock every morning and go to the gym to work out. He was just in really great physical shape almost until the end, the last year, when he had to start doing very aggressive treatments.”
Throughout the half decade they were married, Carole Radziwill was fanatically devoted to her husband, but her working-class background was something of an issue with various members of his family.
In What Remains, Radziwill recalled lunches in East Hampton that consisted of tomato salad, endive salad, and stilted conversation.
Today, she is diplomatic about all of them, but it’s clear they haven’t factored much into her decisions post-Anthony.
“I don’t consider myself part of the Kennedy family,” Radziwill said, between bites of a cheeseburger. “It’s almost like a little point of honor. I’m a DiFalco at the end of the day. An Italian-American from upstate New York. I never call myself a Kennedy cousin. In fact, when I signed my contract with Bravo, I made it very clear that they were not allowed in promos to refer to me as a Kennedy cousin. I'm not that person. I don’t feel it.”
Two weeks ago, she attended the funeral of Mary Kennedy, the estranged wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but “I went and sat in the back and said my prayers and left.”
She doesn’t believe Mary was a person who struggled with a lifelong depression and had lots of inner demons, though she stops short of tossing blame RFK Jr.’s way. “I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone,” she said.
If the relationship with her mother-in-law, Lee Radziwill, isn’t exactly close (“I don’t see her as much as I’d like,” Carole said), it is at least respectful. And Carole doesn’t think Lee would be seriously bothered by her star turn on The Real Housewives. “The thing about Lee is that not only is she an unbelievably beautiful woman, she's one of the most curious women I've ever met,” Carole said. “I don't think she would understand reality TV, but if you look at her life, she was always doing something interesting and different. She was a decorator, she was even an actress on stage for a while, she worked in fashion, she had so many different interests and lives and careers. So I think she would be bemused.”
As for the younger Radziwill’s close friends, they’ve had several months to get used to her new occupation. “It’s easy to sit around and sneer at reality television, but Carole is very smart,” said Hamilton South, a marketing consultant who has worked for designers like Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana, and a good friend of both Carole’s and Lee’s. “I can't tell you I fully understand why she did it [The Real Housewives], but my money's on the fact that she thought it through from just about every angle and somehow this suits what she's trying to accomplish.” Concurred Christiane Amanpour: "It’s nothing more than a vehicle for her as a working girl to pay her bills and sell her book. She's a single woman. She's got to work."
Already, Carole’s been asked to speak at a women’s group for $15,000—the kind of appearance fees reality stars get. “I was just like ‘Thank you, Andy Cohen,’” said Radziwill.
As for Joel Schumacher, he recently agreed to speak at a party for Carole celebrating the completion of her upcoming novel, The Widow’s Guide To Sex and Dating.
He didn’t know that the cameras were going to be rolling for The Real Housewives (and that four of the housewives would wind up getting into confrontations with each other), but he isn’t mad about it. “That’s what friends are for,” he said. “Way before your time, there was a trashy writer named Jacqueline Susann and one of the great quotes is, ‘Embarrassed is the only way to live.’ I’ll be embarrassed, but hardly for the first time.”
For sure, he’s come to believe the show may be good for Radziwill’s book career: “She’s not promoting Proust here. She’s trying to write something that's fun to read. And I think she’s probably right. It’s great exposure ... Kim Kardashian is bigger than a lot of movie stars you could mention and has made a lot of money. More than Dame Judi Dench will ever make. That's the irony of life.”