THE RE­LUC­TANT MUSE

Her se­cret wed­ding to JOHN F. KENNEDY JR — and the slip dress that started a thou­sand Pin­ter­est boards — put CAROLYN BES­SETTE KENNEDY on the style map. Twenty years on, DANA THOMAS ex­am­ines her en­dur­ing legacy as an Amer­i­can icon

Harper’s Bazaar (Australia) - - Contents - By DANA THOMAS

Style icon Carolyn Bes­sette Kennedy’s en­dur­ing legacy.

20 YEARS AGO,

young women ev­ery­where let out a de­pressed sigh: the world’s most el­i­gi­ble bach­e­lor, John F. Kennedy Jr, had mar­ried a rav­ish­ing, lithe 30-year-old blue-eyed blonde from Green­wich, Con­necti­cut, named Carolyn Bes­sette, in a low-key, top-se­cret cer­e­mony on Cum­ber­land Is­land, Ge­or­gia.

Upon re­turn­ing from their hon­ey­moon in Turkey, Kennedy came out on the front doorstep of their Tribeca apart­ment build­ing and, in Kennedy fash­ion, held an im­promptu press con­fer­ence with the horde of jour­nal­ists who had camped out there.after field­ing a few ques­tions about his wed­ding and hon­ey­moon, he told them, “Get­ting mar­ried is a big ad­just­ment for us, and for a pri­vate cit­i­zen like Carolyn even more so. I ask you to give her all the pri­vacy and room you can.”

In­stead, the pa­parazzi hounded Bes­sette Kennedy, snap­ping now iconic im­ages of her strolling with her hus­band, or walk­ing the dog, or go­ing about her every­day New York life — just as they had her moth­erin-law, Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis, decades ear­lier. The tabloids seized upon her — re­mem­ber, this was be­fore the death of Princess Diana, when the tabloids were far freer and more ag­gres­sive, and celebri­ties far less pro­tected — and in a mat­ter of days we learnt she was the daugh­ter of an orthopaedic sur­geon and his wife, a public school teacher; she was named the “Ul­ti­mate Beau­ti­ful Per­son” in her St. Mary’s High School year­book; she had stud­ied at Bos­ton Univer­sity and thought about be­com­ing a teacher; she had been work­ing in the public re­la­tions depart­ment at Calvin Klein, back when its name­sake de­signer was still in charge. Klein’s then wife, Kelly, claimed to have in­tro­duced Bes­sette to Kennedy at a char­ity gala in Newyork.“they had in­stant eye-lock,” re­mem­bered Paul Wil­mot, a fash­ion public re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tive and Bes­sette’s boss at Calvin Klein.“the minute they saw each other, they were mad for one another.”

The me­dia fell hard for her, too. Glossy mag­a­zines cel­e­brated and an­a­lysed ev­ery­thing about Bes­sette Kennedy’s style, from her long, molten-blonde hair and ra­zor-sharp eye­brows — a look still de rigueur for so­ci­ety It girls to­day — to her fash­ion sense, which was sen­sual, mod­ern and de­mure all at the same time. Rarely a day went by that Bes­sette Kennedy didn’t earn a men­tion in the peo­ple col­umns.“there was a huge fas­ci­na­tion with John Kennedy, so whomever he was go­ing to marry was go­ing to cap­ti­vate us, too,” says Newyork Post gos­sip colum­nist Richard John­son, who was then ed­i­tor of the pa­per’s famed Page Six. “And Carolyn Bes­sette was more in­ter­est­ing be­cause she had an aver­sion to hav­ing her photo taken and giv­ing in­ter­views. I think she learnt this from John’s mother, who main­tained a dis­tance with the press, was care­ful with her words and didn’t give any in­ter­views any­where. Carolyn was the op­po­site of the Kardashians. Her dis­tance made her more fas­ci­nat­ing to peo­ple. If she was out and we knew about it, it would prob­a­bly be­come an item. She was the clos­est thing we had to Princess Di.”

And a funny thing hap­pened along the way. Bes­sette Kennedy be­came an en­dur­ing cul­tural and style icon. Seven­teen years after she, her hus­band and her sis­ter died when the small prop plane Kennedy was pi­lot­ing crashed into the Atlantic near Martha’s Vine­yard — words I still find dif­fi­cult to write — Carolyn Bes­sette Kennedy is a ma­jor force in fash­ion. Mag­a­zines and web­sites reg­u­larly run “How to Dress Like Carolyn Bes­sette” sto­ries. there are scores of Pin­ter­est pages ded­i­cated to her style. Her bias-cut wed­ding dress, a liq­uid satin slip cre­ated by then un­known de­signer Nar­ciso Ro­driguez, re­mains one of the most in-de­mand looks by brides. Mod­els on the run­way with slick plat­inum pony­tails and true red lip­stick? That’s Carolyn. De­sign­ers of­ten cite her as a muse: her spare day­time sil­hou­ette of tight sweaters with pen­cil skirts and pointy-toed heels; or her cool ca­sual look of T-shirts and jeans with strappy low san­dals; or her evening look of long, black fit­ted gowns, usu­ally bar­ing her shoul­ders, all get reg­u­larly re­cy­cled on the Paris, New York, Mi­lan and Lon­don run­ways.

“I think Carolyn Bes­sette re­ally em­bod­ied that pure, quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can style,” says Paris-based Aus­tralian de­signer Martin Grant, who counts John Kennedy’s aunt Lee Radzi­will among his clients. “The skinny cropped pant and a lit­tle sweater: she didn’t in­vent that, but she made it fresh again. And boyfriend cloth­ing — she was into that and made it main­stream. She was a nat­u­ral beauty, with nat­u­ral makeup and red lips, and re­spected the Kennedy im­age with­out look­ing like Jackie Kennedy. Qui­etly beau­ti­ful, and sim­ple. What sticks in my mind is the wed­ding dress, which at the time was quite un­usual and the ab­so­lute an­tithe­sis of what Princess Diana wore for her wed­ding. It was al­most like a T-shirt dress but the evening ver­sion.at the time, I ref­er­enced that dress, as did many de­sign­ers, and once it gets in the ver­nac­u­lar — which much of her look did — it stays.”

In­deed it does, and so does she.the ac­tor Rosamund Pike used Bes­sette Kennedy as in­spi­ra­tion to pre­pare for the role of “Amaz­ing Amy” Dunne in David Fincher’s thriller Gone Girl.the lead char­ac­ter in US sit­com 2 Broke Girls, Caro­line Chan­ning, is based on Bes­sette Kennedy. “Classy yet stylish, young [and] fresh, with her own slight twist on things,” the show’s Trayce Field de­scribed the char­ac­ter. “ev­ery­thing she touches has the feel­ing of be­ing rich.” When Ge­orge Clooney’s stylish 38-year-old wife, Amal, trav­elled to Man­hat­tan last year to teach at Columbia Law School, US Elle asked “Is Amal Clooney New York’s New Carolyn Bes­sette?”

“Mag­a­zines cel­e­brated and an­a­lysed ev­ery­thing about Bes­sette Kennedy’s style, from her long, molten-blonde hair and ra­zor-sharp eye­brows — a look still de rigueur for so­ci­ety It girls to­day — to her fash­ion sense, which was sen­sual, mod­ern and de­mure all at the same time.”

Be­fore she mar­ried Kennedy, Carolyn Bes­sette was a fun, vi­brant young woman.as a re­porter for Newsweek back then, I was put on the case the day after their mar­riage was an­nounced to find out more about her. Here’s what I learnt: She smoked. Par­lia­ments. Be­fore she knew Kennedy, she was a swing­ing sin­gle, “suck­ing face” with dates in trendy bars, and stay­ing out un­til the wee hours in down­town night­clubs such as Tun­nel.

She was sexy as all get-out. A model friend of mine once went on a cast­ing at Calvin Klein and met Bes­sette. “what a pres­ence!” my friend told me. “Spike heels, a miniskirt up to her crotch.”

She loved to shop, and was reg­u­larly spot­ted at Prada and Bar­neys.

“She’s very nice, very smart, pretty tough — she def­i­nitely doesn’t back down,” one of Kennedy’s friends from Brown Univer­sity told me then. “she’ll speak her mind and stick up for what she be­lieves.”

“She is very open-minded to­wards any­thing cul­tural, whether it be art or en­ter­tain­ment, and she is quite will­ing to de­bate,” a for­mer boyfriend said at the time. “That’s why New York is a good place for her. She’s ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“She’s very in­de­pen­dent,” Nar­ciso Ro­driguez told me. “and so re­laxed about the way she dresses.the beauty, charm, poise, in­tel­li­gence and style — it’s rare to find those in­gre­di­ents in one per­son.”

Most im­por­tantly, she had al­ways lived anony­mously. No­body cared who Carolyn Bes­sette was or what she did. Once she was Carolyn Bes­sette Kennedy, it was a dif­fer­ent ball game. “I think nei­ther one of them wholly un­der­stands the level of scru­tiny they will get be­cause of who he is, and how her life will change dra­mat­i­cally en­ter­ing this part­ner­ship,” the ex-boyfriend said. Kennedy knew how to live in the lime­light; he’d been do­ing it his whole life. But Bes­sette Kennedy was new to this and she didn’t like it one bit. Hav­ing quit her job at Calvin Klein, she did a bit of char­ity work, in­clud­ing with Par­sons Dance Com­pany, which was sup­ported by Lee Radzi­will, and the Mu­nic­i­pal Art So­ci­ety, one of Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis’s pet causes. with her hus­band, she at­tended black-tie events, such as the Whit­ney Mu­seum gala, the White House Correspondents’ Din­ner and the White House State Din­ner for Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair, and be­came the unof­fi­cial am­bas­sador for Kennedy’s po­lit­i­cal mag­a­zine, Ge­orge. “I’m Ge­orgie’s Girl,” she used to say.

She al­ways looked like a mil­lion bucks, of­ten wear­ing chic, tai­lored en­sem­bles by Yo­hji Ya­mamoto, whose work she in­spired. “She is the walk­ing cre­ation,” ya­mamoto told Women’s Wear Daily back then. “She is the woman of taste and dig­nity.” Kennedy was thrilled by her public suc­cess, and adored her. Dur­ing a fash­ion in­dus­try din­ner in Mi­lan, he told guests, “let me use the same phrase my fa­ther did when he went to Paris with my mother 35 years ago. My name is John Kennedy, and I am the man who is ac­com­pa­ny­ing Carolyn Bes­sette to Mi­lan. I am hon­oured to tell you she is my wife.”

But soon it be­came clear that Bes­sette Kennedy was with­er­ing in celebrity’s glare. when the pho­tog­ra­phers cov­er­ing a Cartier event in Geneva ap­proached the pair for the tra­di­tional party pic­ture, she dove un­der the ta­ble and stayed there un­til they left. Back in New York, she grew in­creas­ingly re­mote. Her cloth­ing choices be­came more like full-body ar­mour. when pho­tographed, she of­ten gazed down­wards, like Princess Diana, and rarely smiled. She grew alarm­ingly thin. She never gave one in­ter­view. She never posed for pho­tos for a mag­a­zine. She with­drew, Gar­boesque, from the public view. There were re­ports of co­caine ad­dic­tion and of mar­i­tal strife, that she was ab­so­lutely mis­er­able and Kennedy was at a loss as to what to do.

And then, as quickly as Bes­sette Kennedy ar­rived on the public stage, she was gone, at the age of 33, barely 1000 days into her mar­riage — sadly as brief as her fa­ther-in-law’s pres­i­dency. “you know, John to­day would be the age to run for pres­i­dent,” John­son points out. “and he prob­a­bly would have run for some­thing by now — he loved be­ing in the public eye and knew how to han­dle it.”

As for Carolyn at 50? We can only imag­ine.

“When pho­tog­ra­phers cov­er­ing a Cartier event in Geneva ap­proached the pair for a party pic­ture, Bes­sette Kennedy dove un­der the ta­ble and stayed there un­til they left.”

1998 Carolyn Bes­sette Kennedy and hus­band John F. Kennedy Jr at a Mu­nic­i­pal Art So­ci­ety gala in New York.

1999 At a John F. Kennedy Li­brary Foun­da­tion din­ner in May. 1997 At a Whit­ney Mu­seum gala. Left: in New York in a much-copied look.

The Oc­to­ber 7, 1996 Peo­ple Weekly mag­a­zine cover cel­e­brat­ing the cou­ple’s mar­riage.

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