The 'Epitome of American Chic,' Bessette Complemented Camelot


When Carolyn Bessette married John F. Kennedy Jr., the pronouncements came swiftly and surely. The woman who turned heads with her willowy beauty and minimalist couture would be the nation's new "style icon," the "epitome of American chic." Fashion mavens panted for the chance to splash her image across the covers of their magazines.

Once the world's most eligible bachelor slipped a ring on Bessette's finger, she was "elevated to the rank of top Cinderella," Oleg Cassini, the fashion designer whose clothes were often worn by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, said shortly after the secret 1996 nuptials on an island off the Georgia coast.

But, Cassini mused to Newsweek magazine, "she's really pre-icon right now. We don't know where she'll go and everybody is watching and waiting."

Now, it appears, just how well Bessette Kennedy would wear the crown of Princess of Camelot Jr. will never be known.

Searchers sweeping the waters off Martha's Vineyard, Mass., fear that Bessette Kennedy, 33, perished in a plane crash Friday night, along with Kennedy, 38, who was piloting the craft, and her sister Lauren, 34.

They were going to drop Lauren Bessette at Martha's Vineyard before continuing on to Hyannis Port for a Kennedy cousin's wedding when their Piper Saratoga disappeared en route from Fairfield, N.J., sometime after 9:30 p.m. The tides washed up pieces of plane debris and luggage Saturday, but no trace of the Kennedys or their passenger.

Like her famous husband and his famous mother, Bessette Kennedy heeded the family tradition of shying from the press. She shunned interviews, leaving friends and acquaintances the chore, if they so chose, of feeding an inquisitive public.

Those who talked offered sketchy, sometimes contradictory portraits. She is a great listener, a sympathetic soul; she has a temper, can really lay into underlings. She played hard to get; she wasn't manipulative, just careful in love.

Raised amid affluence in Greenwich, Conn., she is the daughter of a public school teacher and administrator who divorced her father when she was a child and remarried a prominent New York orthopedic surgeon.

She has two sisters--twins--just 18 months older than she: Lisa Anne, who earned a master's in history from the University of Michigan and later pursued a doctorate in Renaissance studies in Munich, Germany; and Lauren, an investment banker at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

Bessette Kennedy attended a Roman Catholic high school and apparently was interested in following her mother's footsteps, earning a degree in elementary education from Boston University.

But she never set foot in a classroom as a teacher. The girl voted "Ultimate Beautiful Person" in her 1983 high school yearbook became a salesclerk at the Calvin Klein boutique in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The leggy blond with a look described as calculated grunge, or "effortful effortlessness"--black leggings and white T-shirt, capped off with an expensive jacket--soon was noticed by Klein executives and posted to the designer's New York showroom, where she handled Klein's celebrity clients.

Only in her early 20s, Bessette Kennedy--almost 6 feet tall and a perfect size 6--seemed perfectly suited for the job. She wrote millions of dollars' worth of orders for such famous Klein devotees as Diane Sawyer, Faye Dunaway and socialite Blaine Trump.

"She looked the part, she knew the clothes, she had wonderful people skills and diplomacy," Paul Wilmot, a former Klein publicity manager, once told the Washington Post.

She rose rapidly, becoming Klein's publicist and later his show manager, producing Klein's fall and spring shows and casting models.

In New York, she became a denizen of Manhattan's trendiest nightspots. She may have met her future husband at one of them, although the official Kennedy version of their meeting places them on a jogging path in Central Park. The two began dating in 1994. Within a year they were living together in Kennedy's TriBeCa apartment. By September 1995, they were engaged.

The courtship weathered bouts of turbulence. And, this being a Kennedy romance, the spats were public domain. In February 1996, a shoving match in which she appeared to yell effusively in his face as he pulled a ring from her finger was captured on video and aired on tabloid television.

But the video missed what happened minutes later: They made up with a kiss. Soon after, she quit her job at Calvin Klein and immersed herself in plans for what surely would be the stealth wedding of the century.

It took place on a warm September night in 1996, in a small clapboard chapel originally built by freed slaves on Cumberland Island, a pristine 18-mile-long retreat with few residents, no telephones and no paved roads. Everyone involved in the wedding, from the lab technician who drew samples of the couple's blood for the marriage license to the caterers and florists, were required to sign confidentiality agreements.

The secret was so well kept that the New York Times could only write the next day that Kennedy "was reported yesterday to have been married."

Later, Letitia Baldrige, who was White House chief of staff for Kennedy's mother, praised the couple's feat, saying the secret "required the skill of a James Bond and the whole CIA. Jackie must be smiling in heaven."

There were only 40 guests, including family patriarch Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the groom's sister, was the matron of honor. Her daughters, Tatiana and Rose, were the flower girls; son Jack was the ring bearer.

After the ceremony, Bessette Kennedy posed for a picture in a gown that overnight set the new standard for au courant brides: a slinky, $40,000 pearl-white slip dress. In the picture, her bare feet peek out from beneath the hem.

In a wedding night toast, Kennedy was reported to have said, "I am the happiest man alive."

If Bessette Kennedy spoke, her words were not divulged.

In the nearly three years she was a Kennedy wife, she managed to maintain the mystique that served America's most famous political clan so well, despite an intense media glare--the tabloids turned a smidgen of fat on her lithe frame into speculation of a pregnancy. It was later reported that she consulted sister-in-law Caroline for advice about handling the insatiable press.

Recently, she told People magazine that she avoided reading articles about herself. "I'm a happy person and maybe a better person," she said, "for not knowing."

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