The Other Mrs. Kennedy


I was fascinated to read recently that Rosamund Pike modeled her performance as the mysterious Amy in Gone Girl on the “unknowable” Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, the wife of JFK Jr. “You never heard her speak,” Pike explained. “You just see those pictures of her hiding her face.” In the end, though, aren’t we all “unknowable”? Carolyn’s big mistake was trying to hang on to her privacy in a world where celebrities no longer have the right to a private life. Pike also described Carolyn as the “dream girl” whom “you can’t get out of your head because she’s perfect.” But Carolyn was not “perfect.” She was herself: a beautiful, talented woman and loving wife. She didn’t play the game with the paparazzi and the press—she never gave an interview during her three-year marriage—and they never forgave her. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy didn’t have a chance.

Carolyn, born 49 years ago today, never met her husband’s legendary mother. When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died, in 1994, it seemed likely her son would marry his longtime girlfriend, Daryl Hannah. Often called America’s most eligible bachelor, John Kennedy Jr. had also been linked with Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and various models, so it came as a surprise when he and Carolyn, a publicist for Calvin Klein, married in secret on September 21, 1996. For such a famous couple, much of their history is ambiguous. One story has Kennedy and Bessette meeting cute while jogging in New York’s Central Park. Another says they met at Calvin Klein. Even their engagement story varies. According to Fairy Tale Interrupted by RoseMarie Terenzio, Carolyn claimed, “He asked me to marry him out on the water.… He told me, ‘Fishing is so much better with a partner,’” but Terenzio’s version leaves out Carolyn’s widely reported reply: “I’ll think about it.”

The couple’s engagement included a public fight, the so-called Brawl in the Park, which had been videotaped and aired repeatedly. But on the night of the wedding rehearsal dinner, a beaming JFK Jr., once voted People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, reportedly gushed, “I am the luckiest man alive.” Only 40 guests attended the private ceremony, held in a tiny chapel on Georgia’s Cumberland Island. No helicopters flew overhead, trying to catch a glimpse. Etiquette maven Letitia Baldrige, Jackie Kennedy’s White House social secretary, quipped that the secret wedding “required the skill of a James Bond and the whole CIA. Jackie must be smiling in heaven.” (Carolyn had told a friend, “This is one thing I’m in control of, not John.”) The newlyweds released one photo to the press, and Carolyn’s $40,000 Narcisco Rodriguez wedding gown instantly caused a fashion sensation and made a star of the designer. Women’s Wear Daily dubbed the new Mrs. Kennedy “an American princess.”

But Carolyn’s honeymoon with the press didn’t last. In Newsweek she was called a “vaguely soulless mannequin.” Even New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd took out the knives, writing, “Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, the very tall, very blond former Calvin Klein publicist, personal shopper for celebrities, dream date of Saudi princes, hockey players and Calvin Klein underwear models, is the new icon for our celebrity-addicted age.” Christopher Andersen’s Kennedy biography, The Good Son, notes that photographers would taunt Carolyn with such epithets as bitch and whore, and when she once fell down the stairs outside the couple’s Tribeca loft, “photographers swung into action, but no one came to Carolyn’s aid.” She told a friend she felt like a “hunted animal.” Why? What did she do other than marry one of the world’s most famous men?

John knew Carolyn would pay a price for marrying him. Of her new place in the media fishbowl, he said, “It’s like you go from having a life you’ve built on your own terms, and all of a sudden it’s being snatched away from you.” The morning after the newlywed couple returned from their honeymoon to find dozens of reporters and photographers waiting for them at home, John, with his new wife standing silently by his side, begged the press to “give Carolyn all the privacy and room you can.” His plea was ignored.

On July 16, 1999, a plane carrying John, Carolyn and Carolyn’s sister Lauren crashed into the Atlantic. They were flying to the wedding of John’s cousin Rory Kennedy. John was the pilot. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was only 33 years old.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Wisniewski/Rex Features/Everett