In September 1999, Vanity Fair featured Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy on the cover of the magazine. Carolyn and her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr. had died only 2 months prior in a plane crash that shocked the world. Writer Evgenia Peretz captured the heart and soul, as well as style, in the article The Private Princess, which featured stunning black and white photographs taken by Bruce Weber.
On the 10th anniversary of her death, I am saddened by the loss of my style icon and wanted to print the article that was so touching after her passing. Bessette-Kennedy had everything that a girl could want: grace, poise, and a million watt smile that I loved seeing in the pages of society and fashion magazines. Even ten years after their deaths, her style epitomizes a timeless aesthetic.
She was only a few years older than me, both of us having long blond hair, living in NYC, obsessed with clothes. I saw so much of her in me and I’ve heard the same thing said by other friends who lived in NYC at the time. She was the girl we all envied – she did marry our dream boy JFK Jr. And let’s not forget the fashion. She always looked perfect, whether she was attending a black-tie event or walking her dog on a Tribeca street.
Her look was effortless and she made it look so easy. She carried the Hermes Birkin long before Victoria Beckham amassed a $3 million collection. She knew Narciso Rodriguez was talented by allowing the then unknown fashion to design her elegant wedding dress. She had truly timeless style: often dressed in black, as most New Yorkers do, she embraced fashion labels such as Yohji Yamamoto, Prada, Manolo Blahnik, Miu Miu and, of course, Calvin Klein. She was rarely seen without her strong, red lipstick and otherwise bare face, long blond hair either pulled back or worn pin straight. She had a distinct look: sophisticated, elegant, timeless, classic.
Carolyn Bessette was born in White Plains, New York on January 7, 1966. Voted “Ultimate Beautiful Person” of her high school class of 1983, Bessette grew up in a wealthy corner of Connecticut just outside of New York City with twin sisters, Lisa and Lauren, just one year older.
Bessette graduated from Boston University, where she was the cover girl for the “Girls of BU” 1988 calendar, and went on to work in PR at Calvin Klein. She first met and spoke with Kennedy when both were running in Central Park and impressed him with her beauty, intelligence, and sincerity. Their fairy-tale marriage on September 21, 1996 took place in a 100-year-old, flower strewn chapel on Cumberland Island, a secluded island off the Georgian coast.
After her marriage to “John-John” as her husband is often affectionately called, Bessette was the focus of much media attention. Declared a trendsetter by the national press, she was often compared to her late mother-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, because of her fierce protection of her own (and Kennedy’s) privacy, as well as her work for charitable causes.
Bessette and Kennedy, along with her sister Lauren, were killed when their small private plane, piloted by Kennedy, crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999. When rescuers found the wreckage a few days after the crash, the bodies of sisters Carolyn and Lauren were still holding hands.
With her dazzling blond head set firmly on her elegant shoulders, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy confronted a ravenous spotlight—and the inevitable comparisons to Jackie—from the moment she stepped out of that tiny Cumberland Island chapel at John Kennedy’s side. But to those around her, and to photographer Bruce Weber, she showed a face of laughter, a wealth of tenderness, and a profound commitment to her husband, friends, and family during her brief but spirited life.
Just as John F. Kennedy Jr. was inextricably bound to his father’s legacy, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, from the moment she wed John on Cumberland Island in 1996, was destined to be enshrined by the media as the next Jackie Onassis. And, really, who could blame them? There were, for one thing, the on-paper similarities: like Jackie, Carolyn was Catholic and her parents divorced. And then there was that look: that smart, minimalist sexiness that instantly made her a gold standard of modern beauty. With a public aloofness that was invariably termed “mystique,” Carolyn, as the new Mrs. Kennedy, had the fashion world clamoring for interviews and covers, scrutinizing her hemlines, and coining such phrases as “throwaway chic” and “effortful effortless.”
Perhaps the reason that Carolyn never quite achieved Jackie’s fashion-icon status was that she never really wanted to. For Carolyn, who was raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, by her schoolteacher mother and orthopedist stepfather, life was simply too much fun for that. And it always had been. After being called “the ultimate beautiful person” in her high-school yearbook, the ambitious young woman got down to business: as an education student at Boston University, Carolyn displayed a keen status radar early on, dating Italian clothing heir Alessandro Benetton and future N.H.L. star John Cullen. Her entrée into the fashion universe was equally smooth. After college, she worked briefly as a salesgirl in Boston’s Calvin Klein boutique. In 1989 it was on to New York, after she had been hired by Paul Wilmot to join Calvin Klein’s P.R. department. By day, she helped dress the likes of Blaine Trump, Nan Kempner, and Diane Sawyer. By night, she hit the downtown club scene. New York was her element, and Carolyn let her natural moxie shine.
As for how girl met boy, the fairy-tale version has them jogging into each other in Central Park. More likely, they met through their mutual friend Kelly Klein—and there was little fairy-tale about it. A proponent of postfeminist courtship, Carolyn was a Rules girl who would never have been caught reading the actual book. When John held back, Carolyn would remind him about underwear model (and future Baywatch star) Michael Bergin, who was still on her back burner. Carolyn could also give John hell. The indelible images of Carolyn and John, however, are of them holding hands, her sitting in his lap, and the two kissing, laughing, or just gazing at each other. For all of her sass, Carolyn was, at her core, deeply devoted to those she loved. A wonderful listener, she would happily indulge her friends, even in their most endless stories. She phoned John at George several times a day, and acted as the unofficial hostess at the magazine’s functions.
In October 1996, when John and Carolyn returned from their honeymoon to find a herd of reporters camped out in front of their Tribeca loft, John pleaded with the paparazzi to leave Carolyn alone. He understood that the “mystique” thing was nonsense—that Bessette was not an icon, but a wife, a worker, a daughter, and a friend, with an insatiable appetite for life.