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Libet in Love

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From left: With Frédéric Fekkai in 2001; with Michael Nouri in 1998; with ex-husband Chris Kennan in 1990.   

“Cambodia has become her life’s work,” says Lucinda Ziesing, Libet’s childhood friend. “It’s given her meaning, direction.” Suddenly, Libet spouted lofty, un-Libet-like goals. “I see these children having the potential to really create social change, to start companies, to run for government, to change the whole future of the country,” she said.

In the beginning, Libet and Lionel loved each other passionately—they made love almost every time they were together. Still, they argued and broke up regularly. “Every other month,” wrote Libet. During those periods, the e-mails would ricochet back and forth. “I think our love affair has played itself out in e-mails and phone calls,” Libet wrote. Then they would try to reconcile, with Lionel, stiffer and more assured, offering pearls of wisdom. “Love transcends all,” he explained to her at one point. “We have grown apart not because of lack of love. But because of lack of communication,” he wrote another time.

In Libet’s e-mails, she seems to work things out as she writes. The form can’t quite contain her feelings—she uses lots of capital letters. She knows she’s not perfect, she told Lionel. After five divorces, who could think otherwise? She was drinking too much, too, which didn’t help. (Eventually, her worried children staged an intervention and shipped her off to rehab.) “I have some growing up to do,” she confessed. “I have a terrible problem with retreating, so please don’t give up on me. i really love you.” (“Maybe a little ayahuasca is all I need,” she added at one point.)

Lionel loved her, too, though her wealth, and its impositions, stirred resentment. “When no one was around, you could be like yourself,” says Lionel. “But when we were with her friends, from her caliber of life, her social strata, it was a different ball game. Everything was very pristine, very precise. You have to be really uptight, straight, what fork do you eat with.”

Lionel told her, “I’m not one of your Fifth Avenue friends. Don’t expect me to behave like that.”

Statements like that angered Libet. She didn’t see herself as snobby just because she understood the requirements of social life.

If someone sat quietly at a dinner party, she instructed Lionel to go speak to the person. It was her tone that infuriated him. “It wasn’t like, ‘Why don’t you go over?’ It’s an order,” says Lionel.

Libet couldn’t fathom Lionel’s complaints. Why did Lionel feel so … disenfranchised was the word that came to her mind. She wasn’t trying to demean him. Why did he feel that way?

“You were like supporting cast,” Lionel says. “Every guy around her was essentially subservient to her. It was almost insulting to me. I couldn’t be a yes-man when everyone is around. Your manhood, you don’t check it at the door.”

One day, Libet wrote Lionel, “I know you love me, but you don’t like much about me.”

Lionel had started to feel something similar. “You used to laugh at my stupid humor and then you became critical,” he wrote. “I felt you wanted me to be something I am not. Initially you accepted me as I am and then your attitudes toward me started to slowly change. ”

With all their travels—Libet visited Cambodia every other month, and most weeks Lionel flew to one office or another—they weren’t spending much time together. When they were both in town, Lionel often stayed at Libet’s place; Lionel says they lived together, Libet has a different view. Either way, by the summer of 2004, the romantic relationship was all but over—it had lasted just about eighteen months.

Still, Libet assured Lionel that she wanted to be “best friends with you forever.” After all, they had William to think about.

William’s welcome into the Johnson family had, at first, been slightly cool. Before he’d come into their lives, Libet told her children that she wanted to adopt, that there’d come a day when she’d face a big decision, yes or no, in or out. In her heart she’d know the right thing to do. William felt right, at least for Libet. Her kids weren’t so sure. “Part of you feels, Is he taking my place because I’m getting older?” says Annabel. “I’m losing out. There is that fear. You can’t help it.” Soon, though, William won them over.

Lionel’s family took to William, too. His mother, a nurse’s aide from Trinidad who reentered Lionel’s life when he was 13, relished the idea of a grandson. “When someone have a baby, we make a big party,” she says.

William lived a prince’s life. In Vail, he learned to ski. In New York, he has two nannies and attends private school. Though he was not an heir to the Johnson fortune, Libet gave him “some financial security”: a trust fund of $100,000.


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