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
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.