When I first made my date to have lunch with Carole Radziwill some time ago, I was looking forward to talking to her about her first novel, The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating (Henry Holt) as well as her astonishing best-selling memoir, What Remains, in which she chronicled the aftermath of her husband’s death in a deep, affecting and intricately personal way. It was fascinating to me to see that she had approached the earth-shattering event of losing her husband, Anthony Radziwill, from two diametrically different perspectives and chosen to write about young widowhood twice. While her memoir came first, published six years ago, Carole told me the novel was ten years in the making. “It started percolating around that time, but I wasn’t in that state of mind. The novel was written in a much more whimsical state of mind.” But she made headlines in the tabloids this morning for another reason — a fellow castmate of The Real Housewives of New York City, Aviva Drescher, wrongly accused her of hiring a ghostwriter for What Remains, detonating the requisite explosion (this one dubbed “Bookgate”) that fuels the Bravo squawkfest, which Andy Cohen clearly lives for.
Here’s a primer on “Bookgate.” If you’re not a regular viewer, try to follow along: When Carole joined the show last season, Aviva could not have been more fawning, going so far as to tell her that What Remains inspired her to look at her own life differently. Fast forward a few episodes and this season, Aviva and Carole have become full-fledged enemies (the women didn’t know each other before the show), mainly because Carole deals in what is actually going on, while Aviva seems to be hell-bent in doing whatever it takes to stay relevant on Housewives. In this case, Aviva first asked Carole to vet a ghostwriter she was going to use on her book (and now denies she even used one) and then somehow turned the whole thing around by telling the other women on the show that “word on the street” was that Carole used a ghostwriter for What Remains. Said Carole: “There’s always one housewife on every show that’s completely contrived and that’s her. Everything she does, she does for the show.” And then of the subsequent blow-up: “If I’ve helped Aviva sell books, I’m sure my thank you note is in the mail. This is supposed to be a reality show, so I’m interjecting some reality here. I’m honest about my life.” Got it?
Honestly, it was a bit hard to reconcile the woman sitting across from me from the one who is throwing down on Bravo and even braving the dating pool on camera. Carole is funny, smart and, dare I say, low-key. How the heck did she wind up on Real Housewives? “I’d just finished Widow’s Guide and Andy asked me,” she told me. Carole, it turns out, is the only cast member who had a real friendship with the Bravo executive prior to the show. “It was completely out of my comfort zone and I thought it might raise my platform and maybe help me sell a few books.”
And indeed it has. Last season, Carole’s publisher had to go back and rush to print 50,000 more copies of What Remains when her appearance on Housewives show sent fans to the Internet looking for the book that was originally published six years ago. Its reappearance on The New York Times‘ best seller list was a very pleasant surprise. “I’d like to say it was planned, but it just happened,” said Carole. Widow’s Guide came out last month and according to Henry Holt senior publicist Leslie Brandon, there’s been a steady increase in the number of books sold over the past few weeks. Due in part, no doubt, to the exposure Bravo offers. This year’s season will run a record 22 episodes and is being touted internally, said Carole, as the best of the entire franchise. A win-win for all concerned, no?
Carole’s main focus these days is promoting Widow’s Guide, which will surely have many readers playing a guessing game over what real-life city swell may have inspired the characters in the book. The novel’s heroine, Claire Byrne, is fictional, said Carole (“She’s a little more neurotic than me”) and she’s a composite of real and imagined characteristics of friends and acquaintances. As for her philandering sexologist husband, Charlie, who dies when he is struck by a Giacometti statue while walking on a city sidewalk, Carole laughed when she said, “Every guy I’ve had dinner with probably thinks it’s him — but he’s none of those guys. I made him up!” Though Claire’s love interest, Ben, is based on a real person — Ben Schwartz, former literary editor at The Atlantic (who Carole had never met). “I thought it would be fun to base it on a book critic. We met for coffee in Los Angeles recently and he told me he loved it.”
But you can’t fault people for speculating who’s who. Carole’s life reads like a novel itself. Growing up in a Suffern, New York, Carole “dreamed of coming to the big city” to work as a journalist. She did a lot more than that landing at ABC News, winning a few Emmys and marrying into one of America’s most famous families. Her husband was the nephew of John F. Kennedy; his mother is Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill. Carole told me she is very close to Lee. “We have a great relationship. She loves me. She is one of the most interesting women I’ve ever known and is still energetic and engaged at 81. We don’t talk about Housewives. She understands.” Carole recently went to the Dominican Republic with Lee, where she hosted a private reading of Widow’s Guide for a small circle of her friends. “It was lovely.”
Don’t expect any Kennedy expose any time soon. “I hate gossip. I’ve spent my entire adult life in a family that is gossiped about. I don’t believe anything I hear and only half of what I see,” she said. She is, however, planning another book that will be a compilation of humorous essays “a cross between Nora Ephron and Mindy Kaling.” Next week, the self-described “experience junkie” who thinks of herself “first and foremost as a journalist” is off to NASCAR school in North Carolina for three days, where she’ll write about her adventures in car racing for Departures. But for now, she’s got a book to promote. After we said our good-byes, Carole was off to Long Island for a book signing at Book Revue in Huntington tonight. You can also catch her in Ridgewood, New Jersey, tomorrow night at Book Ends. Or tune in again next week for more unreal reality on Housewives.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Town & Country‘s daper editor Jay Fielden with Louis Vuitton’s Nancy Murray and some gents we didn’t recognize
2. Carole Radziwill, Leslie Brandon and yours truly
3. Former colleagues John Sykes and ex-MTV head Judy McGrath
4. TV Guide‘s Jack Kliger and Will Manuel
5. Attorney Bob Barnett
6. The New York Post‘s Richard Johnson with Nikki Haskell. Richard and I recently sat down to dish about our favorite power lunches over the years for a piece in the upcoming May/June issue of Gotham.
7. Proprietor Michael McCarty (yes, he does occasionally make time to eat) with his daughter filmmaker and women’s rights advocate Clancy McCarty. Father and daughter were having a grand time celebrating the completion of Clancy’s latest documentary. Congrats!
8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and Judy Price
9. Sharon Bush rocking a very young-ish ensemble. More power to you…
11. Andrew Stein, who was joined by a woman with blonde wavy hair that we couldn’t quite place. Anyone?
12. PR maven Susan Blond
14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew
15. Attorney Richard Descherer
16. “Free agent” Paul Caine with Spencer Brown. We have to say Paul looked pretty darn happy. Anything you’d like to tell us?
17. Playbill‘s Bruce Hallett
18. PR princess Lisa Linden with Vijay Dandapani, president of Apple Core Hotels
20. Journo Bettina Zilkha and Alexandra Lebenthal, who celebrated a birthday last week. Cheers!
22. Charles Matttson
23. Dane Verklin
25. Jim Ahern
27. Scalamandre’s president Steven Stolman with interior designer Mark Huffman and his client (and my Greenwich neighbor) Danielle Clark. A little birdie told me this trio of tastemakers are working on a project together decorating a chic country abode in Vermont, which will be home to squadron of Scalamandre’s signature zebras. “They’ll need to learn to ski,” quipped Steven.
29. The Wall Street Journal’s David Sanford and Lewis Stein.
Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.