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American Love Story: The real story of JFK Jr and Carolyn Bessette’s relationship

26/08/2021

Ryan Murphy is expanding his American Crime Story universe to include singular stories of love that captivated the world, featuring his take on JFK Jr and Carolyn Bessette’s tragically short-lived marriage.

Murphy’s acclaimed anthology series (The People vs OJ SimpsonThe Assassination of Gianni Versace and soon, Impeachment) have explored seminal cultural moments in modern history and the icons they have belonged to, looking beyond the headlines and media coverage to distinguish fact from tabloid myth, to humanise his subjects. Though the exterior and aesthetic of his shows are often soapy, extravagant and glossy, his characters are anything but flimsy or superficial.

His series dedicated to John Kennedy Jr and the enigmatic Carolyn Bessette, whose courtship, relationship and marriage were shrouded in secrecy, will examine the tabloid’s treatment of the famous couple they frivolously dubbed “the hunk and his honey”.

“What started out as a beautiful union for the young couple, widely regarded as American royalty, began to fray under the stress of the relentless microscope and navel gaze of tabloid media,” a press statement for the show read. “The pressures of their careers and rumoured family discord ended with their tragic deaths when his private plane crashed into the ocean on a hazy summer night off the coast of Massachusetts…”

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Who was Carolyn Bessette?

Born in 1966 in New York’s White Plains, Carolyn was the daughter of engineer William J. Bessette, and Ann Messina, an administrator in the New York City public school system. She had two older sisters, twins Lauren and Lisa. Following her parents’ divorce, she was brought up by her mother and stepfather, an orthopaedic surgeon named Richard Freeman.

After receiving a degree in elementary education, Carolyn attempted a modelling career before working as a saleswoman for Calvin Klein and ascending the career ladder to become the director of publicity for the company’s flagship store in Manhattan.

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Known for her timeless elegance and understated style, which is as current today as it was more than two decades ago, Carolyn also served as a personal shopper for Klein’s high-profile clients, and became a style muse for Calvin Klein himself. She was also credited with cementing Kate Moss’ career, pushing Moss to star in Calvin Klein’s iconic 1992 campaign opposite Mark Wahlberg.

Overall, Carolyn was described by friends, colleagues, family members and admirers as captivating, smart and funny. Ralph Lauren was so taken with her that he told his team, “every time you design something think of Carolyn Bessette”.

Their romance

Carolyn met John Kennedy Jr, the son of 35th President John F. Kennedy and former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, in 1992 while she was still working for Calvin Klein, and he was dating actress Daryl Hannah. They got together a few years later in 1994; at the time she had given up her job and he was preparing to launch his career as editor-chief of George magazine, a lifestyle publication that inextricably linked celebrities and politicians. Not long after, they became engaged, which they initially kept secret, to keep the press at bay.

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Soon the media descended on the golden couple, even filming a raging argument they had which played out in Washington Square Park and continued near their apartment.

“Carolyn, more than anyone who John had been with, would stand up to him, and confront him, and I think that John to an extent needed that,” historian Steven M. Gillon, a classmate of John’s at Brown University who was later a contributing editor at George, told InStyle in 2019.

But so averse to public and press attention was she, that little exists of Carolyn in her own words; there are no recordings, she never spoke publicly, she didn’t do a single interview. There are only images of her captured at events, or by the paparazzi who stalked her relentlessly. The tabloid coverage was so intense that Carolyn was once splashed across the front page of a newspaper scooping up dog waste (the couple had a dog named Friday).

Upon Carolyn’s request, the couple married in a clandestine ceremony on a tiny island off the coast of Georgia in September 1996, with only their closest friends and family members attending. Carolyn wore a crepe silk slip dress created by former Calvin Klein designer Narciso Rodriguez.

Shortly after their wedding, they made their debut as husband and wife on the steps of their apartment in Tribeca, with JFK Jr pleading with the press to give them privacy – Carolyn was a private citizen after all, and wanted to remain that way. But the media scrutiny only intensified, with paparazzi camping outside their home, causing Carolyn to retreat from public life.

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Her absence only spurred speculation about the state of her relationship with Kennedy Jr, with the tabloids alleging that he was cheating, she was cheating, she was using drugs, she didn’t want to start a family, that their marriage was in crisis. They fabricated her into a humourless ice queen, a sullen, miserable wife – all the sexist, stereotypical tropes too often attributed to women in the public eye.

It was then claimed that Carolyn sought emotional support from former boyfriend and Calvin Klein model Michael Bergin, who in 2004 wrote The Other Man: A Love Story, in which he alleged that they had an affair after she was married to JFK Jr.

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It was also reported that Carolyn felt like an outsider among the oppressive presence of the Kennedy family, and didn’t want to spend time with them. She finally agreed to attend the wedding of JFK Jr’s cousin – Rory Kennedy – in Port Hyannis, if her sister Lauren, a successful banker at Morgan Stanley, could come with them. The plan was for Kennedy Jr to fly them and drop Lauren at Martha’s Vineyard where she was joining friends for the weekend.

On the day of their flight on July 16 in 1999, Kennedy Jr was still recovering from a broken ankle, and was going to fly without his instructor – most likely his first time making the trip alone in his new plane. There was limited visibility that night, and other pilots had decided not to fly.

The National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident stated the probable cause of the crash was “the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was the result of spatial disorientation”. It also highlighted his lack of experience without an instructor and that he wasn’t “instrument rated,” which could have helped him navigate in the overcast conditions.

 

From Harper’s Bazaar UK

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