The Tragic Life Of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy

Trigger warning: This article mentions domestic violence and substance use.

One cannot think about Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy without also immediately thinking about her husband, John F. Kennedy Jr., former United States President John F. Kennedy's son. Bessette mostly lived an ordinary life before she became one of the most famous women on the planet after she started dating Kennedy.

Bessette dreamed of working as a model — she had the looks and the impeccable style needed for the job — but in the end, she caught famous designer Calvin Klein's eye, who was reportedly inspired by her unique and sophisticated style. He's not the only designer she dazzled; Ralph Lauren turned out to be a big fan too, dubbing her a style icon. Despite having a degree in elementary education, Bessette managed to land a job as a publicist and personal shopper for Klein's Manhattan store. She was on her way to becoming incredibly successful when she started dating Kennedy, not knowing that her life was about to take a very dramatic turn.

Naturally, everyone became interested in Bessette's comings and goings, and after she married Kennedy in 1996, he kindly asked the media to back off a bit, but they couldn't care less about his request. One might argue that the tragic turn Bessette's life took after she became involved with Kennedy is further proof that the Kennedy Curse is more than just a figment of people's imagination. The family had famously suffered various unfortunate events across generations, and tragically, Bessette's story didn't end any differently.

Her parents divorced when she was very young

Eight years after Ann Messina, a public school administrator, and William J. Bessette, an engineer, welcomed their daughter Carolyn into the world on January 7, 1966, they decided to file for divorce. While this was likely upsetting for Bessette at such a young age, she had twin sisters, Lisa and Lauren, who were only 14 months older than her, to help her navigate all the changes their family was experiencing. 

Their parents' crumbling marriage meant that their childhood probably wasn't always as carefree and happy as it could've been, but the story had a happy ending. Her mother moved Bessette and her sisters to Greenwich, Connecticut, when she got remarried to Richard Freeman, an orthopedic surgeon. Fortunately, Freeman became almost like a second father to Bessette.

Bessette attended a Catholic high school and was pretty popular among her classmates, who crowned her the "ultimate beautiful person" in 1983. Even though she had to navigate the heartbreak of her parent's divorce so early in her life, it's clear that Bessette still managed to shine, and her light only grew brighter as she got older.

The press hounded her

Despite requesting privacy after she married John F. Kennedy Jr., the press couldn't get enough of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and the more she shut them out, the more aggressive they got. She never once spoke out publicly; she refused to be interviewed and politely declined requests to appear on glossy magazine covers. The press was left with scraps — Bessette had lived a very private life up until that point, and there was practically nothing to dig up. Journalist Richard Fink, a friend of Bessette's, told The Guardian that, while she had expected the media attention, she found the press onslaught challenging, and she thought that staying out of the spotlight would eventually make them lose interest. Instead, the opposite happened.

The press started to retaliate, publishing derogatory stories about Bessette and hounding her in public whenever they got the chance. At times, they were downright rude. "Whenever she went out — to get coffee, walk the dog, or meet a friend — they were there, pushing in close and shouting things like 'whore' and 'b*tch,'" RoseMarie Terenzio, who worked as Kennedy's assistant, wrote in her book "Fairy Tale Interrupted." "The meaner the stories in the press, the more Carolyn retreated into herself," she added. The media criticized how Bessette chose to spend her money and questioned her relationship with Kennedy, making a big fuss whenever the two appeared to be at odds. Questions were raised about the couple's lack of children, but despite all the vitriol, Bessette remained silent.

She got into a massive public fight with JFK Jr.

Couples fight, and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. did just that in New York's Washington Square Park one fateful day. The very public spat went down in history, so to speak, and afterward, Bessette was painted as overly emotional and accused of making her future husband incredibly unhappy.

In his book "America's Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr.," Steven M. Gillon, who was close to Kennedy, revealed that the fight started because Carolyn was chastising John for allowing people to "walk all over him." Footage of the incident showed Carolyn and John shouting at each other. Apparently, Carolyn tried to prevent John from taking off her engagement ring at one point, which is when the fight became physical. Footage of the incident appeared to show Carolyn eventually taking off the ring and furiously flinging it in Kennedy's direction.

Naturally, this set tongues wagging. The press had a field day, with the New York Daily News managing to squeeze eight pages of coverage from the incident. While this very public disagreement did not look good for either of them (most of us would die of embarrassment if our disagreements were photographed and splattered across tabloid pages for all to see), the fight actually ended with a fervent kiss, something most outlets decided to omit from their coverage of the incident.

Her wedding nearly ended in disaster

In his book "The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years," Edward Klein reveals that Carolyn Bessette Kennedy selected Narciso Rodriguez, an up-and-coming designer at the time, to design her wedding dress after plenty of deliberation. Thanks to her newfound fame, she had the power to give some of her fashion industry friends a great deal of publicity, and making a choice was probably very hard for the soon-to-be bride. Unsurprisingly, Rodriguez created a breathtaking dress. But things went a little awry on the big day, and Bessette might have forfeited the walk down the aisle had it not been for her designer friend Gordon Henderson's fast thinking.

When the time came for Carolyn to get dressed, she found it challenging to maneuver her wedding gown past her head. This, of course, is any bride's worst nightmare, and Bessette became increasingly agitated as the dress refused to budge. "It was cut on the bias without a zipper, and like many such dresses, it was difficult to put on. Try as hard as she might, she could not squeeze herself into it," Klein wrote. Henderson's fast thinking saved the day: He swiftly covered her head with a scarf, which allowed enough give for the dress to slip on. Bessette finally made it to the church, where Kennedy had been waiting for over two hours.

Rumors of marriage troubles were swirling soon after the wedding

Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. were hit hard with the reality of their new life as a married couple when, still high on honeymoon bliss, they came home to a crowd of paparazzi on their doorstep. Edward Klein revealed in his book, "The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years," that the media frenzy set Bessette on edge, but this was a small taste of what was to come.

No marriage is perfect, but in addition to adjusting to being a new wife, Bessette also had to navigate the constant chatter about her marriage in the papers. Naturally, this put some strain on the couple's relationship, and it wasn't long before rumors started swirling that the Kennedys were dealing with marital issues. Klein explains that, in many ways, Kennedy and Bessette wanted different things in life. Bessette wanted to live a peaceful life out of the spotlight; Kennedy, who was used to public attention and even enjoyed it, did not share her desire to live under the radar. Their differences eventually led to them living apart, fueling rumors of an imminent breakup.

There was also the issue of children: Kennedy wanted them, but Bessette was adamant that she didn't want to bring a child into what she referred to as a fishbowl life. Kennedy did not understand her reluctance, and per Klein's book, it was a major factor in their crumbling marriage.

She was accused of cheating on her husband

As if all the rumors about their crumbling marriage were not enough, the media soon started speculating that Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was cheating on her husband with ex-boyfriend Michael Bergin, a former Calvin Klein model. There were rumors that John F. Kennedy Jr. was being unfaithful to his wife as well, but it's not clear whether these allegations had any truth to them. In Bergin's book, "The Other Man: A Love Story: John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette, & Me," he mentions that Bessette once confided in him that she suspected Kennedy of having an affair. She didn't provide him with any details and just said that she had a gut feeling. Bessette was still staying out of the public eye as much as possible, but that didn't keep the tabloids from making assumptions.

In his book, Bergin alleges that he and Bessette did indeed have an affair barely a year into her marriage with Kennedy. As he recalls, the two of them fell back into their old rhythms easily, and he reminisces about one time when Bessette stayed at his place for more than a week. "It seemed like there was no one else in my life, which there wasn't. And there was no one else in her life. It just seemed like it was old times. Like we were together again. It was very surreal," he wrote.

Her relationship with JFK Jr. reportedly turned violent

While many of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr.'s arguments can be traced back to the media pressure and the fact that Bessette simply couldn't find a way to deal with it, Kennedy's former assistant, RoseMarie Terenzio revealed in her book "Fairy Tale Interrupted" that Bessette was often upset because she didn't get to spend quality time with her husband. "I'm not a priority," Bessette confided to Terenzio on one occasion, admitting that she yearned for time with her husband. Even when she went out of her way to make this happen, Kennedy didn't seem to realize it. "John's insensitivity was the biggest catalyst of their arguments," Terenzio wrote, adding that Bessette would often wait for him at home in vain.

All these little annoyances accumulated, and eventually, an outburst would follow. Per Edward Klein's book, the couple's disagreements sometimes got very heated and ended in physical altercations. "[T]hey threw things at each other, they slapped each other ... they weren't simply verbal arguments," he told NBC in an interview. One of these violent arguments reportedly resulted in nerve damage to Kennedy's wrist, which was so severe that it warranted a trip to the ER, according to some of Klein's sources. "John told friends that he felt trapped in an abusive relationship," Klein writes in his book. At the same time, it appears Kennedy never told friends outright that Bessette physically harmed him, so all they had were their suspicions.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Carolyn distanced herself from the public completely

Carolyn Bessette Kennedy got a taste of life under the spotlight when she started dating John F. Kennedy Jr. Kennedy was the country's most eligible bachelor, and people wanted to know everything about the woman who managed to steal his heart. The press followed the couple everywhere, and by the time Bessette was spotted moving in with Kennedy, reporters were eager to feed the frenzy, with no regard for her privacy.

"It offended her that her privacy was being intruded on that level," journalist Mitchell Fink, who used to be a friend of Bessette's, told The Guardian. So unbearable did she find the intrusion that Bessette decided to quit her job. With no commute to work necessary, the media saw even less of her, which only made them more curious.

Bessette, on the other hand, started overthinking every public move she made. She knew that something as simple as enjoying chocolates at a film premiere could blow up into pregnancy rumors, and she didn't want to spend time with Kennedy's family in Hyannis Port because the paparazzi once managed to photograph her while she was there. She couldn't even get her hair done without making headlines, and the pressure just kept increasing, with the media dubbing Bessette the "new Jackie Kennedy" after she got married. Unable to handle all the attention, she became a recluse, much to her husband's dismay.

She misused drugs

The media circus and her marital troubles started to take a toll on Carolyn Bessette Kennedy as the years wore on. Edward Klein's book, "The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years," reveals that Bessette's tendency to isolate herself from the outside world had her friends worried, and they suspected that she suffered from depression. Bessette eventually turned to drugs as a means of escape.

Speaking to NBC, Klein tiptoed around the drug use allegations in his book, saying that Bessette likely only used cocaine on occasion. He claimed that John F. Kennedy Jr. was aware of rumors that his wife was using drugs, yet he wasn't prepared when he caught her in the act. "He came home one night, found her sprawled on the floor in front of the sofa conked out with cocaine, and according to somebody who was there, he lost it and yelled at her, 'You're a cokehead,'" Klein told the outlet.

Other sources claim Kennedy occasionally used the drug alongside his wife. In his book "The Kennedy Heirs," J. Randy Taraborrelli claims that Kennedy was no stranger to drug use. "He and his friend John Perry Barlow had been doing acid and Ecstasy together for years," Taraborrelli wrote, adding that Barlow confirmed this. Another unnamed source told Taraborrelli that they once walked in on Bessette and Kennedy both doing cocaine in their living room while winding down after a tough week.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

She died in a plane crash

No one could have foreseen the tragedy that befell Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. on July 16, 1999. Kennedy, still a rookie pilot, misjudged the bad weather, and the flight ended in tragedy. The couple was set to fly to Martha's Vineyard to drop off Bessette's sister, Lauren Bessette, after which they would make their way to Port Hyannis, where Kennedy's cousin Rory Kennedy was set to get married.

At first, Bessette didn't want to attend the wedding, but Kennedy's assistant, RoseMarie Terenzio, managed to change her mind after a disgruntled Kennedy confided in her about the situation. In her book, "Fairy Tale Interrupted," Terenzio recalls the conversation she had with Bessette "[N]ow's not the time to take a stand," she told her. "His whole family's going to be at this wedding, and you need to go with him." So Bessette said she would, but on the condition that her sister came with.

The three of them were traveling in Kennedy's light aircraft, which, according to reports, he was flying without a co-pilot for the first time since breaking his ankle some weeks earlier. Bad weather is widely believed to have been the cause of the crash. According to reports, many pilots postponed their flights that evening due to the weather, but Kennedy didn't follow their lead, confident that he could handle the treacherous conditions. He likely overestimated his abilities and lost control of the aircraft, after which it went down over the Atlantic Ocean.

The media blamed Carolyn for the crash

After news of the tragic crash reached the public, there was an outpouring of tributes. At the same time, the media was looking for someone to blame. While many outlets criticized John F. Kennedy Jr. for flying in such bad weather conditions, others, like author Edward Klein, blamed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy for the tragedy.

Klein learned that Bessette got a last-minute pedicure before the flight. She reportedly asked the pedicurist to redo her nails three times before she was happy with the result. This made her and the rest of her party late for their flight. When asked by NBC's John Hockenberry whether he thinks Bessette is to blame for the plane crash, Klein replied, "I think I suggest that it may have contributed to their deaths." He conceded that Kennedy's decision to fly was a reckless one, but kept circling back to Bessette and the part he believes she played in the tragedy. "Well, John was responsible for it, of course, but he was certainly made later than he otherwise would have been by his wife," Klein said.

Others blamed Kennedy for the tragedy. Former Air Force mechanic Craig Henne told the media that Kennedy had been utterly careless, adding that the should've taken into account the spatial disorientation that can occur while flying over the ocean in the dark. No amount of blame could bring the couple back, however, and the tragic end to their story continues to haunt those left behind.