Being the voice of reason on a reality show such as Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City is destined to be a doomed position, as Carole Radziwill found out the hard way in this past season. When she first joined the show in Season 5, Radziwill — a writer and Emmy-winning former ABC News producer — served the necessary function of commenting, if not sometimes gawking, at the often crazy behavior of the rest of the cast. She was a stand-in for viewers.
It was not to last. Season 6, Radziwill’s second — which began airing in March — drew her immediately straight into its mad heart. What sucked her in were accusations from Aviva Drescher, a cast member who had also joined the show in Season 5, that she had heard “on the street” that Radziwill used a ghostwriter for What Remains, her 2005 memoir. Radziwill, who confronted (and strenuously denied) the question on camera in a heated fight with Drescher, was flabbergasted, and the scandal — #bookgate — hovered over and partly informed the trajectory of the season. What Remains is Radziwill’s recounting of her life with her late husband, Anthony Radziwill, his prolonged struggle with terminal cancer, and their close friendships with Anthony’s cousin, John F. Kennedy Jr., and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. Three out of those four people died in the summer of 1999, which is also what What Remains is about. To call its authorship into question was new and ugly emotional territory, even for Real Housewives.
The second of three reunion episodes aired Tuesday night, and #bookgate was addressed. The cast fell into its usual formation, with Radziwill, Heather Thomson, Kristen Taekman, and Luann de Lessepps on one side (literally), and Drescher, Sonja Morgan, and Ramona Singer on the other. Drescher still maintains she did not have a ghostwriter on her own memoir, Leggy Blonde, and in an effort to advance her theory that no writer writes a book alone, somehow also managed to smear Harper Lee. In other words, it was a mess, and nothing was resolved. Part 3 of the reunion will air next Tuesday.
I recently met Radziwill at a diner in West Hollywood, where we talked about the disaster with Drescher, how infuriating #bookgate was for her, her frustrations with some of the other cast members (Sonja Morgan!), and her work outside of the show, including her recent novel, The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating. Oh, and we talked about Drescher throwing her leg on the floor.
In your first season, you were able to rise above and not get drawn into drama. I felt like your experience this season, however, proved that it’s impossible on one of these shows to rise above in perpetuity.
Carole Radziwill: Last season, because I was new and because all the women, I think, genuinely liked me, as I them, there wasn’t anyone gunning for me. I did, if you recall, cry — they made me cry.
CR: It was an intense time in St. Barts. And there was a lot going on. Some of it not fun for me. But yeah, this season I scream. I cop to that. It wasn’t my finest moment. But I think I proved that I’m pretty easygoing about things, whether it’s gossip about my ex-boyfriend or silliness about who’s bossy and who’s not. Or who’s not invited to some party, or who is. But I think what really matters to me is my work. And when you not only question my integrity and my credibility — but also, it went deeper than that. I could have understood Aviva repeating gossip about my work, and saying people said I had a ghostwriter, although it seems implausible. But listen, there’s no industry that’s immune to gossip and professional jealously.
But when the attack was not only about my career, but impugns my late husband’s family, belittles my accomplishments, and kind of trashes my novel in a way that I knew to be untrue — and then she ridicules my age — it’s, like, Whoa! I feel like the audience wants you to defend yourself. You don’t mess with someone’s career, or work, or family.
When something like that happens, how aware of the cameras are you?
CR: Had I been more aware, I wouldn’t have reacted the way I did, I think. If someone said to me at a cocktail party, “Well, I hear gossip that Bill Whitworth, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, ghostwrites all your books,” I would have been, like, “OK, you’re crazy.” And walked away. But as she’s saying it, I’m like, What is she saying? And then I’m like, She’s saying this on national television? And the minute you start to defend yourself, which I did, you kind of look defensive.
She asked me at lunch if I used I ghostwriter. I said no. I asked her, she said no. It should have ended there. It didn’t. She went to everybody and repeated the gossip. And then confronted me in her home. I said no then, and then yeah, I got spitfire angry when she then continued to belittle my accomplishments and ridicule my age and talk about my late husband’s family — I couldn’t say I was so aware of the cameras at that moment. I was and I wasn’t. I was aware that she was saying this stuff on national television, but I wasn’t able to take that awareness and say, Let me at least behave in a way — I think I behaved in a way that anyone would have.
It happened so early in the season. It must have been jarring.
CR: You’re just coming back, you’re getting your sea legs, like, OK, I’ve got to gear up for this again! Had I known she wasn’t going to bring up her process of hiring a writer to work with, had I known she wasn’t going to bring that on camera, I never would have asked if she had hired the writer. At that moment when I said, “Have you hired the writer?” I fully thought she was going to do scenes with her. So when she said, “No, I did it alone,” in my stomach, I said, Oh, shit. I never thought she would go as far as she did.
Throughout the season, Aviva either said she wrote her book herself or “it takes a village.” But her book was ghostwritten by a woman named Valerie Frankel. Why is that a bad thing?
CR: It’s industry standard. She signed a deal, she had to turn that book around quickly. They peg it to the show. It’s what every other Housewife does. And it’s great. It’s great for publishing, it’s good for writers. It just never occurred to me that she wasn’t going to be honest about that.
I imagine that one of the frightening things about being on a reality show is that people can just say anything.
CR: I know, Kate. I know! And I don’t have skeletons in my closet, I don’t have things I can’t talk about. But I realized after that, Oh, you can just make it up. I remember after that scene going to the producers and saying, “Well, that was drama, but it’s not true. The publisher didn’t pass, and Bill Whitworth is an editor.” He was my copy editor, which is a phenomenal insult to him to even say that, because he’s one of the most respected editors. It’s just that he didn’t come on until the very end of What Remains. I remember saying to the producers, “That’s not true.” And they looked at me, like, We don’t care about the truth. It was this stupid “Aha!” moment.
When something like that does happen, which is upsetting and potentially damaging, what do you do? Do you call Andy Cohen?
CR: The ironic thing is that the next morning at 10 a.m., I was at a wedding with Andy; a mutual friend was getting married. I was in a rage! I’m really good with Andy, because we do travel in the same social circles, and I’ve never — it’s like a Chinese Wall. Because I can be very passionate about things, especially about work, and I do regard the show as work. I don’t like to get into conversations with him about it, because he is the executive in charge of Bravo, and there’s a professionalism that has to exist. Neither of us wants to talk about the show when we’re at weddings. But I broke my rule.
Tell me more.
CR: I think he had heard about it. And he knew I was upset about it. He was very smart, though. He said, “Rely on the intelligence of the audience, Carole.” I was, like, “I can’t do that! That’s slander! And this is insane!” And you know what? He was right.
CR: But there were calls to lawyers.
CR: There were people who were saying, “Why don’t you sue?” It’s not an easy answer. There were several reasons. One is we sign contracts, so we can’t sue each other. So you’d have to break the Bravo contract.
So all these Housewives who are always threatening to sue other Housewives, they can’t actually sue?
CR: They can if they break the contract. But at the end of the day, I’m a single, working girl. I’m not going to take on Bravo. And more than that, she implicated my publishing house. Her publishing house is my publishing house. I’m a freelance writer, I’m not going to take on Simon & Schuster. She also implicated colleagues of mine that I didn’t want to drag into a lawsuit. That was a big part of it. And you start filing lawsuits, you get all enmeshed. I wanted less to do with Aviva, not more. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole. I didn’t want to send a cease-and-desist letter. Because then it becomes part of the story.
CR: And now, a year later, I have much more compassion. And I can see how people will gossip. It was just the extent to which she went for it that was unfortunate. I felt like she left me no wiggle room to even have a reconciliation or some something. I only spoke to her one other time after that, on the beach. And again, she was incredibly condescending. When someone says to you when they’re holding up your galley, “Job well done!” Honey, unless you’re Ann Patchett or Mary Karr, or you’ve morphed yourself into Joyce Carol Oates, you can’t tell me, “Job well done.” It was incredibly condescending. There was no apology. And then that was it. I thought there would be another opportunity when we went away on the trips to have something, some interaction. But then after that, I never really saw her. She didn’t go on any of the three trips we took. So we didn’t have a natural, organic way to interact.
It does seem that being able to have perspective and compassion is great, but obviously it’s something that would bother a person. From Twitter and your blog, it has seemed like it’s been a constant irritation.
CR: We don’t get into it that much on Twitter. I think I tweeted at her directly after the first episode where she was saying things that weren’t true. There’s a dark side to her. Her language: We “verbally raped” her. She recently said I was “demonic.” She continues to be condescending and insulting about my friends and family on social media. Even a year later, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to say something either condescending or insulting or downright nasty about me. And I’m not gonna do that. I’m not going to stoop to that level.
The benefits of being on the show to me are obvious. You’re famous now, and as a means to an end, you sell more books. And then there is the show itself, which pays you. But are you ever, like, What have I gotten myself into?
CR: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t really traffic in gossip in my real life. I know it’s part of the show, and I’m not immune to it. But I notice on the show a lot of it is based in gossip, and it gets mean. The problem I have with people who are a little less in touch with reality is that I’m very grounded in reality. I’m a reporter by nature and training. I like facts. I like to have a conversation that’s not, like, “What are you talking about?” You saw at the reunion — Sonja.
What’s real is that Sonja seems delusional. That’s a real thing, right?
CR: Yes! That does seem like a real thing. And it definitely seemed like a real thing throughout the season. She’s a good person. She’s nice. But I’ve never had a conversation with her. Because I feel she’s not grounded in reality. You can’t talk to someone like that, because she might say something about what’s going on with the bespoke shirts in France, or the perfume deal with the Nigerian football team. You don’t even know what she’s going to say. In the reunion, she was talking about her yacht and her businesses. I don’t do well with someone like that. I know people love to hate Ramona, but she’s kind of really grounded in reality. So I can deal with that. When she’s rude, it’s real. It’s a tricky thing with the show, and you saw it with the reunion, because if you say, “Sonja is delusional,” you get labeled, like, a mean girl. It’s hard to keep saying, “You’re delusional.” When Josh said it, I thought he was right on, and funny. Like, Finally. She’s fucking bananas! And if you don’t want people to call you bananas, don’t act bananas.
The part that really made me laugh in the reunion was when Kristen said to Sonja, “There’s no one in this room who wouldn’t call you delusional to your face.”
CR: Amazing! I thought she was good all season. She’s bringing it real.
In the next breath, Sonja decided to take being compared to Grey Gardens as a compliment, which — I laughed, but I was crying inside.
CR: Yes. And remember, that was a story about mental illness.
CR: And Aviva’s asthma thing is just, like — it’s hard to take her asthma seriously because her husband at one point called the production team, the executive producer, and said, “I’ll get her to Montana in exchange for a guarantee that she’ll be on next season.” The executive producer told me, Ramona, and Sonja that in Montana. So it’s, like, we’re hearing that, behind-the-scenes, back-door deals. So it’s not like we’re horrible, insensitive women that are calling her a liar. It’s, like, No, this is actually what’s going on.
I imagine that was out of the question. And she didn’t go on the trip. Is there a lot of talking like that between the cast and production people?
CR: That’s the first time I ever heard a production person say something like that. It was a big deal, I guess, not going on a trip. So we can’t say that on the show because it refers to the show.
You can’t refer on the show to being on a show?
CR: Also, I couldn’t say, “You’re on a reality show, you got a book deal, you hired a writer.” People were saying, “Well, why do you think she had a ghostwriter?” Because I know the ghostwriter, I know the publisher, and that’s what happened. But I can’t say, “Because she’s on a reality show.” If she wasn’t on the show, she wouldn’t have gotten a book deal. It’s hard. So she was probably sick, she probably had something. But did it keep her from traveling to Montana? No.
The last moments of the finale — the leg-throwing — were also completely insane.
CR: I think she knew she had to do something explosive. You know what, I picked up that leg. And I did have a flash of empathy. Because this is someone I cared about a long, long time ago. And just — humanity. I see the leg on the floor, and that was real. When I went over and I gave it to her, I said, “It’s too much.” I wasn’t talking to the camera. I was saying, “It’s too much. You need real help. It’s not OK.” I wasn’t repulsed by the leg. I had a very sick husband for a long time. I did a piece in Cambodia about prosthetics. I know all about medical stuff. It’s not something that startled me, like I think some of the other women. No one would pick it up. It was instinct. And whether she wants to believe it or not, it’s the truth.
Let’s talk about your other career. What are you working on?
CR: I owe another book to Holt, so I’m getting my head around that now that the season is over.
What will it be?
CR: It’s a collection of essays. A lot of it is experiential, stuff that I did when I was at ABC that I’ve never really written about. My experience of going to Afghanistan, the war, I never wrote about. And also, relationships and men and being in love. Right now, it doesn’t have an overall narrative. Obviously, the voice will be the voice in all of them. Maybe I’ll write an essay on the reality of reality. If I’m allowed. And Widow’s Guide was optioned by Universal NBC and, god, Hollywood is difficult to navigate. I can’t say that much, but they’re just about to hire a screenwriter. And that’s exciting.
The takes on death and grief are completely different in What Remains and Widow’s Guide. Was Widow’s Guide a conscious effort to lighten things?
CR: I didn’t want to write a second book that was dark. Although this is dark comedy, I do think of it as comedy. The death of the husband — the fact that he’s killed by a Giacometti statue sets the tone right in the beginning. What Remains will always be my baby. That’s my life. Which is partly the reason I got so mad — that’s not just a book to me, that’s my life. I didn’t only write it, I lived it. That was in honor of my life with my husband. So for anyone to trash that in the way that Aviva did — that is why I said, “You have no soul.”
It was a book about the death of your husband and the deaths of your friends.
CR: Right. Right. So to dismiss it, and be so cavalier — that was painful. It’s still painful when I think about it. It still hurts when I see stuff in the press and on Twitter. It’s still, ouch. Like I said, moving on. It’s a hard show to do.
Where are you in terms of doing another season?
CR: We just finished. So who knows? I’m going to take the next month or so, work on my next book, really focus on Widow’s Guide the TV show, and see what happens. Talk to Heather. I never would have met Heather without the show, and she’s a great, great friend. And really a great person.
It’s the 15th anniversary of all of those losses in your life. Is it now a permanent theme in your work? Do you feel like you’ve dealt with it?
CR: For the most part I feel like I have, but you can’t discount your experience, right? And I go back, and even in What Remains, there’s a fascination and curiosity about death in a way that I think, I wasn’t like that before. But going back, I think I was. That story about seventh grade and the girl who got her head smashed in the dumbwaiter — that stuck with me, and I wrote about it 30 years later in a way that was still so visceral. So it’s something that resonated with me in a way I was never consciously aware of until I sat down and started putting pieces of my life together. Which is why I tried to take a lighter turn with Widow’s Guide. Will it come up in anything else that I write? Probably. Here and there, of course. I think if I ever wrote about the Housewives, it would be slapstick comedy. I think that experience kind of balances out the darkness that was my previous experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed.