Friday, September 4, 2009

Lilian Baels & Jacqueline Kennedy

In her 1995 Panorama Interview, Diana, Princess of Wales, recalled Queen Astrid by declaring: "I'd like to be a Queen of People's Hearts." This had been Astrid's title and many have compared the two young, beautiful, fashionable and tragically deceased royal women. What is, perhaps, less well known is the way Jacqueline Kennedy imitated Princess Lilian of Belgium. In a letter to her couturier, Oleg Cassini, she asked for designs reminiscent of Lilian's: "très Princesse de Réthy, mais jeune." (1)

The elegant commoner who became the second wife of King Leopold III was a good model. Reviled and hated Lilian might have been, but nobody denied her consummate sense of style. Furthermore, like Jackie, she was a dark, sultry beauty, who had to strike a queenly figure without actually being a Queen...

Were there deeper similarities between these two iconic women? Both were courageous, intelligent, cultured, sparkling with vivacity, wit and charm. Each imparted her innate elegance and taste to her surroundings. Both were loyal wives and mothers. With remarkable fortitude and dignity, each faced terrible ordeals. Lilian endured war, captivity, political turmoil, and decades of calumny and insult; Jacqueline saw her husband murdered before her eyes.

Not surprisingly, Lilian and Jackie knew each other. In her book, Léopold III, mon père, Lilian's daughter Esmeralda recalls her parents' visit to the American presidential couple. During her youth, Lilian (educated partly in England, where the President's father spent time as American ambassador) had, incidentally, also been a friend of John F. Kennedy's sister, Kathleen, and the visit was the occasion for the revival of old memories.

Certainly, in one respect at least, Lilian and Jacqueline were very different. Elegance, grace and charm might win Jackie widespread admiration, but these same qualities did nothing for Lilian's popularity...

Please leave a comment to say why you think Lilian and Jacqueline were (dis)similar. Whom do you prefer?

(1) "very Princess of Réthy (Lilian's other title), but youthful." (Lilian was 13 years Jacqueline's senior). Quoted in Grace and Power, 2005, by Sally Bedell Smith, p. 24


MadMonarchist said...

I really never imagined the two would be linked. I can't think of anything they had in common other than being stylish. Jackie was celebrated from day one, not treated at all like poor Lilian. Jackie however had to deal with a husband who was a serial adulterer. I don't think anyone ever published nude photos of Lilian nor did she have the succession of male "friends" that Jackie had only to end up marrying for money. I really cannot see them as being in anyway alike in any substantial way. I do have more regard and sympathy for Jackie than for her husband, but it seemed she spent a great deal of her time carrying out a charade whereas Lilian seems to have been far more genuine.

May said...

Yes, good points. I would say there were some similarities in looks, temperament, and talents but I think Lilian was a much finer person, as well as being (in my opinion) much more beautiful- even physically speaking. It seems similar to the Diana/Astrid comparison- more superficial.

It was interesting though that Jackie imitated Lilian's fashions because sometimes one gets the impression that Jackie's style was all her own.

Viola said...

That was a very interesting post, Matterhorn. I haven't read much about Lilian. Judging by your description, she seems to have been a pretty good person. Why was she hated?

May said...

I'm glad you liked it, Viola. Thanks for stopping by. The reasons for Lilian's unpopularity are rather complex and tied up with the politics of the time. I've written about it before on this blog, you can do an on-site search on Lilian. Also here in particular I discussed some of the criticisms of the King's second marriage:

Viola, do you read French? If so, there's a great book on Lilian and Leopold entitled "Le Mythe d'Argenteuil" by Michel Verwilghen. He discusses her character in considerable depth, and also the attacks on her. She was not perfect and could be imperious and difficult at times but it seems she was often (and continues to be) unjustly maligned, partly in an effort to discredit Leopold and the monarchy by association.

On Leopold, there's a good book by one Roger Keyes, entitled "Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians." The author was the son of Admiral Keyes, a British war hero and liaison officer who defended Leopold from charges of treason in World War II. The book is well-researched and documented and continues the defense of Leopold from charges of Nazi sympathies and collaboration.