Today, July 16, marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, in a tragic plane crash. The couple died in a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999 along with Carolyn’s sister, Lauren Bessette.
High up in the sky, JFK Jr. discovered a peace that often escaped him on the ground due to his famous family. “The sunset is so beautiful,” he radioed his flight instructor on his first solo flight in 1996. “Can I go around one more time?” Permission was granted. And for the next three years, Kennedy escaped the burden of being the son of a beloved slain President, the burden of being a sex symbol hounded by paparazzi, by soaring above it all. But tragedy is the Kennedy family curse. In retrospect, it no longer shocks or surprises that the thing that gave Kennedy so much joy would be his downfall.
When Kennedy’s single-engine Piper Saratoga vanished on a summer night 10 years ago, it was shocking. We sat glued to our TVs for hours as searchers combed the waters off Martha’s Vineyard for the plane. When the bodies of Kennedy, his young wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister, Lauren, were finally found, grief struck the nation as the man we had considered the Prince of Camelot was now gone.
“From the first day of his life, John seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family,” his uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy said in his eulogy. JFK Jr. was a long-time NYC resident and had a love affair with the city, which we happily reciprocated. At the time of his death, John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy were living in an apartment in TriBeCa, at 20-26 North Moore Street, Apartment 9E. I often walked past the apartment hoping to catch a glimpse of my favorite couple: he so handsome, America’s prince; she so effortlessly glamorous and chic, I wanted to be just like her. The apartment became a shrine for devastated New Yorkers. Shortly after the couple died, actor Ed Burns moved into the apartment.
John F. Kennedy, Jr. was just 38 when he died, but for the generation that mourned his father he would always be the 3-year-old boy in shorts saluting the casket bearing the body of his dad, President John F. Kennedy. Known as John-John, a nickname Kennedy detested, the brave boy captured a nation’s sorrow. John wanted to make his own mark in the world saying: “It was important for me to go outside the arena for a number of reasons,” he said after launching his magazine, George. “I think everyone needs to feel that they’ve created something that was their own, on their own terms.”
After JFK’s assassination, his mother, Jackie Kennedy, decided Washington was no place to raise her son and daughter, Caroline. She decamped for New York and home became a 15-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. Kennedy grew up a city kid: riding the subway, biking in Central Park, he even got mugged for his bike at 13. “I always grew up just living a fairly normal life,” he said. “I thank my mother for doing that.”
In addition to good looks, Kennedy inherited from his father a love of sports and he was often photographed shirtless in Central Park to the delight of female fans. People magazine named him the “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1988, an honor which he humbly accepted. Being the sexiest man alive had it perks and John was linked to Daryl Hannah, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sharon Stone, Madonna, and even Princess Diana.
Kennedy graduated from New York University Law School in 1989, and under the media glare failed the bar exam twice, earning him the headline: “The Hunk Flunks.” Kennedy persevered and eventually passed and as a young prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, he won all six of his cases – and the respect of his peers.
The standing ovation Kennedy received at the 1988 Democratic National Convention fueled speculation he might follow his father’s footsteps into politics. But he had other ideas. After his mother died in 1994, Kennedy said goodbye to law and launched George, a hip-yet-relevant magazine that covered politics with an irreverent style. “Not Just Politics as Usual” was its motto. Cindy Crawford, dressed as George Washington with a powdered wig and bare midriff, graced the debut cover.
In a successful coup outsmarting the paparazzi, Kennedy was able to have an extremely private wedding ceremony with his new bride, Carolyn Bessette, at the First African Baptist Church on the remote Cumberland Island in Georgia. John and Carolyn were married on September 21, 1996. The simple one-room church built in 1937 is maintained by the National Park Service as a historical building. The island is only accessible via ferry or private boat.
A former publicist for Calvin Klein, Carolyn Bessette was a stunning blond who grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and who was as chic as they came. Being such a private person, she struggled under the strain of the public attention that her husband appeared to endure with ease, but Carolyn, 33, had no fear of flying – with her husband.
On the foggy night of July 16, 1999, she and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34, boarded Kennedy’s plane at the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, N.J. They were en route to the wedding of Kennedy’s cousin, Rory, in Hyannis, Mass., but were to drop off Lauren Bessette on Martha’s Vineyard along the way. “Five three November to two two, thanks,” the young pilot told the tower. Those were Kennedy’s last recorded words. At 8:38 p.m., he took off from the tarmac and flew into history.
The National Transportation Safety Board later ruled the crash had most likely been caused by “the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation.” Weather conditions in the area at the time were clear below 12,000 feet with visibility at ten miles. Kennedy had only been flying for 15 months.