Long before he met Carolyn Bessette, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Junior was the beloved scion of the closest thing America had to royalty.
The prince of Camelot, John-John, as he was named by the press, had won the nation’s heart as a young child, pictured tucked under his father’s Oval Office desk, which he referred to as his house, peering out from the panel he called ‘the secret door’, as his father sat above him reviewing his papers.
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Only months later, John would appear in one of the most iconic pictures of all time; standing tall and straight at his father’s funeral procession, bravely saluting the coffin. Then only three, he became in a way the son of the nation.
As the first child to be born to a sitting president in almost 80 years, John grew up in a blinding spotlight that never dimmed, something his wife, Carolyn, would later struggle with.
Born on November 25, 1960, John-John had one older sibling, a sister Caroline who would later serve as the United States’s Ambassador to Japan. It is believed that the children’s nanny, Maud Shaw, broke the news of their father’s death in November 1963, in their private quarters in the White House. Just three months previously, she had been the one to tell the two small Kennedy children that their brother Patrick, born prematurely, had died.
In William Manchester’s book The Death of a President, Shaw is depicted as telling the children that their father had gone to look after Patrick, with John, too young to understand, wondering if his father had taken his big plane, and when he would return.
His father was 46 when he died, JFK Junior would be only 38 when he died on July 16 1999, when the aeroplane he was flying crashed, killing him, his wife and her sister.
After JFK’s death, his wife Jackie and her children moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
John was a keen actor in college (Brown University), and even considered taking it up as a career, apparently to his mother’s horror. Under her influence it is said, John attended law school, failing his exams twice, which led to the press nicknaming him ‘the hunk who flunked’. On eventually passing, he worked for a time in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, before launching a magazine, George, in 1995, a political/lifestyle title.
By the time John and Carolyn met, he was a massive celebrity, named by People magazine in 1988 ‘the sexiest man alive’. He had been linked to Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Daryl Hannah and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Carolyn was a fashion pr, by all accounts thoroughly uninterested in fame. According to Vanity Fair, it was her aloofness that made her stand out to the Kennedy heir. “From the moment John laid eyes on Carolyn, he was besotted with her,” the magazine recounts, quoting a friend saying John “lived and breathed Carolyn… He could not keep his hands off her”.
Rather than being agog at the attentions of a man then deemed one of the most eligible bachelors in the world, Carolyn “accepted John’s worshipful attention as though it was her due – as though he was lucky to have her, rather than the other way around”. Born in 1966, Carolyn was eight when her parents divorced, and she and her older twin sisters had moved to Connecticut, where their mother remarried.
When she met her future husband, she was working for Calvin Klein, in charge of the company’s high-profile clients.
“Carolyn was absolutely charming, she was completely outgoing [and she] wouldn’t feel intimidated working with these kinds of people,” her boss at the time later told The New York Times of Carolyn’s work with the brand’s famous customers. Friends described her as funny, clever, with the ability to create an instant sense of intimacy.
Reports on how the pair met vary. Out jogging, at an event, or at a private viewing of Klein’s menswear collection, several years before they began dating. RoseMarie Terenzio, JFK Jr’s personal assistant, commented of the couple: “Carolyn wasn’t John’s shadow; she was his equal.”
News broke of the relationship in 1994, and Carolyn instantly became the target of intense public interest. To John, who had experienced this all his life, and would probably have been lost without a background clamour of public attention and, in his case, approbation, for his every move, this was normal. But to Carolyn it was abhorrent. She refused all interview requests; one of John’s oldest friends described her, intending sympathy, at this time as “like a caged animal”.
Carolyn’s upbringing had been far from the exclusive world of her husband’s childhood. Her mother was a school teacher, her stepfather an orthopedist, and Carolyn, whose high school yearbook termed her the “ultimate beautiful person”, had always worked part-time jobs throughout college to support herself.
Known to friends as bubbly and lively, and a good listener, she kept these qualities hidden from the public. Unlike her famous mother-in-law, Carolyn never took to the public role her relationship foisted upon her, instead always remaining an enigma.
She chose not to speak by refusing interviews, looked mostly ill-at-ease in photographs, most of which had been taken by ambush, as she walked the streets of New York, increasingly fearful at the swarms of photographers her marriage had drawn upon her.
The Carolyn Bessette friends speak of, and who her husband fell in love with, became increasingly withdrawn as the relationship progressed. Despite her dread of the public interest, she moved in to his Tribeca loft apartment the following year.
He proposed later that year, with a ring that had previously belonged to his mother. Carolyn was thought to have never met his mother, who died shortly before they began dating, but similarities between the two women, who shared a classic sense of style, are often drawn. However Carolyn would not demonstrate her mother-in-law’s at-all-times iron will composure, and dedication to the greater Kennedy cause, a fact that would lose her public favour later in the couple’s marriage.
Early in 1996, the pair, unbeknown to them, were pictured in Central Park, having a blazing row, in the course of which Carolyn took off her ring and handed it to her fiance. The couple then seemed to make up; the ring was returned, there was a hug, they walked home together. But the pictures went all over the world, with images of the two apparently screaming at each other, before John collapses in a curled ball, sobbing, upon which Carolyn seems to bend down to comfort him, cradling his head. It began a media portrayal that would last until her death, of Carolyn as a troublesome woman, making difficult the life of America’s best loved son. It is treatment to which Meghan Markle could probably relate.
The upshot was that Carolyn became even more determined to keep their approaching nuptials a secret, a plan in which she succeeded. The pair were married in September of that year, on Cumberland Island, off Georgia, a destination apparently chosen partly because it was inaccessible by road or phone.
Famously, Carolyn was two hours late to the ceremony, as she was at first unable to get into her custom made dress. Designed by Narciso Rodriguez, who Carolyn knew as a former Calvin Klein staffer, it was a silk, floor-length bias cut gown with no zipper. Distraught, she allowed her best friend Gordon Henderson, to take her into the bathroom, put a scarf over her head, and eventually slide the dress on.
Two weeks later the newly-weds returned from honeymoon to find their apartment mobbed by journalists. Carolyn was apparently terrified, a fear translated by the press as cold hostility. On the steps of their Manhattan apartment, John implored the media to give his wife some space as she became used to being a Kennedy. She stayed silent throughout his statement, leading to descriptions of her in the papers as an “ice queen”.
Like Jackie, Carolyn’s fashion sense, which is currently enjoying a renaissance, was much lauded, furthering the attention lavished on her. Ralph Lauren tried, and failed, to hire her as a muse.
Rumours of strife between the couple soon began to circulate – rumours that Carolyn was cheating on her husband with her ex boyfriend, Michael Bergin, a Calvin Klein underwear model. Another story claimed that John had caught his wife in their apartment taking cocaine with her fashion friends, and a huge row had ensued.
His job as editor-in-chief at his glossy magazine required long hours, with Carolyn reportedly once faxing the office ‘please come home, I need you’.
John apparently began reverting to his bachelor lifestyle, working out late at night in the gym, taking boys’ kayaking trips, the kind of athletic adventures he had always favoured. Although John was a social animal, his wife had increasingly begun to shun invitations from their friends.
The couple were said to be rowing over his desire to have children – Carolyn was thought to be reluctant to bring a child into this media storm of attention. “I just want some normal married time. I’m exhausted,” Carolyn is reported to have confided to an assistant at the time.
Early in 1999, Carolyn quit her job, with some descriptions of her at this time suggesting she was suffering from depression. She engaged in some charity work, but it seems that she became increasingly hermit-like, with reports suggesting weeks would go by without her leaving the apartment.
In his book The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America’s First Family for 150 Years, Edward Klein claims John persuaded his wife to see a therapist, and the couple attended marriage counselling. According to Klein, whose book describes Caroline as deeply insecure, none of this worked; she walked out of the joint counselling after the topic of her drug use came up.
It was after this that she apparently began to sleep in a spare room. By this time, John’s magazine was failing, and he was looking for alternative financing.
With the arrival of summer, John, who had broken his ankle in a paragliding accident, had moved out, and was living in a hotel on Fifth Avenue. “We’ve become like total strangers,” Klein describes John telling a good friend a few days before his death.
John’s assistant, RoseMarie Terenzio, in her account of the couple’s final days, Fairy Tale Interrupted, disagrees with this portrayal of a couple divided, saying merely that Carolyn was exhausted from the constant media attention. And John’s close friend, Robert T Littell, who would serve as a pallbearer at John’s funeral, in his book The Men We Became, gave a picture of Carolyn as a caring woman, uninterested in fame, boxed in by the media attention.
Their flight, on July 16, 1999, was to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, for a family wedding. John’s cast had apparently been removed just the day before, and he had been advised not to fly for 10 days. Carolyn was reportedly not keen on attending, acceding only when her older sister, Lauren, an executive director with Morgan Stanley, agreed to go with them.
Their plane crashed into the Atlantic en route. An investigation found John had lost control of the aircraft, a turn of events blamed on reduced visibility due to the late hour, and not helped by his broken ankle. Subsequent reports have suggested that John’s flight time experience was too low for him to undertake such a flight.
Somehow though, blame for the tragedy landed on Carolyn. Reports suggested the trio were late in taking off as she had held them up, insisting on getting exactly the right shade of lavender in a pedicure.
Private female citizen marries into dynasty by wedding beloved, probably spoilt, possibly attention-loving male heir, and by doing so unknowingly shoulders blame for whatever comes next.
It’s a familiar story, parts of which we might recognise being repeated with Meghan Markle.
Twenty years after the death of John and Carolyn, it is time to rethink this narrative.
Carolyn cannot be reduced to the cold, manipulative icy beauty, just as her husband should not be reduced to being the spoilt heir of an entitled dynasty.
If their marriage was imploding, they were at the eye of a storm that destroyed it.
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