Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy: The Woman Behind the Boldface and Headlines

A new biography of Bessette-Kennedy recenters her life as her own, not just as an adjunct of Camelot Junior.

| 10 Jun 2024 | 03:26

“I wanted to recount Carolyn’s story in a way that situated her at the center of her narrative. When she appears in the volumes of Kennedy literature, it is often as a sidebar without empathy, compassion, or desire to understand who she really was. It’s time she got her due.”

So says Elizabeth Beller, author of Once Upon a Time, The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy.

Beller is an established writer and journalist specializing in culture, art, and travel. Her book contains never-before-seen photos and in-depth, exclusive interviews with family, friends, teachers, roommates, and colleagues of the late CBK.

Unlike the tabloids of a quarter century ago that relentlessly depicted Carolyn as an icy, vapid druggie, those who actually knew her shared stories of the human being behind the tabloid construct. Award-winning journalist and former RHONY cast member Carole Radziwill described her as “Radiant and stubbornly original; one of those people who adds energy to the room.”

George editor Richard Bradley pointed out that Carolyn was instrumental to her husband’s magazine as she was “fluent in the vernacular of style and design.” John Kennedy Jr.’s business partner Michael Berman observed: “She had dimension.” The narrative is filled with compliments about her compassion, generosity, and good humor.

This biography, however, is more than a positive spin on what’s been reported over the years about the girl from Connecticut who moved to Manhattan, rose through the ranks at Calvin Klein, and entered into a relationship that catapulted her into dizzying fame with a side order of stalkerazzi.

According to the author, the 90s IT girl re-examined through the gaze of 2024’s mental health sensitivity offers, “lessons about a dysfunctional culture and how women struggle to build a life within a patriarchal society.”

People hate happy women.

In the recently released movie, The Idea of You, based on the 2017 novel by Robinne Lee, Solène (Anne Hathaway) muses “I didn’t know my being happy would piss so many people off.”

Carolyn knew, and long before she met America’s prince. Not only was she willowy, beautiful, and popular in college but she didn’t have to send out hundreds of resumes only to get ghosted or rejected when searching for her first post-grad job. She merely got out of a cab.

That unremarkable act caught the eye of the CK store manager, and Carolyn was hired on the spot. A visit to the Boston shop from a corporate VP got her transferred to Manhattan. She got in with not only Calvin Klein himself but his wife Kelly and from her position as a high-profile customer sales liaison she met her future husband.

Although I always saw her as a role model for those who want to come to Manhattan and make it, few others wanted to high-five her for taking the world’s most eligible bachelor off the market.

Beller confirmed: “It’s painful to think that someone who was able to care for friends the way Carolyn did, was on the receiving end of so much jealousy that manifested in blind denigration.”

Soulmates v. Lifemates

There’s a lot of talk in the book about Carolyn and John’s passion; how they loved hard, fought hard, and had a great time together. Quite frankly, it sounds more like the makings of a love affair than a marriage.

I’ve been with my husband for 42 years. I know going the distance is more than looking dreamily into each other’s eyes; it’s about looking in the same direction. These two were not.

Despite the pro-Carolyn slant of the book, even her champions had to admit that she was unhappy, reclusive, and tired of being JFK Jr.’s plus-one. Said the couple’s friend Sasha Chermayeff, “The question was whether she was going to get beyond this obsession with the paparazzi.”

According to the book, her supporters believe Carolyn would’ve eventually rallied and been by her husband’s side as he embarked on his inevitable political career, just as she had during his magazine venture. Since no one can say what would’ve happened, I’ll let them have that.

Thanks to Once Upon a Time, the woman known for marrying too well and having an enviable capsule wardrobe can finally also be remembered as Radziwill eulogized her: “A pure and brave American girl, one who comes along once every hundred years, if we’re lucky.”

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of three novels, most recently THE LAST SINGLE WOMAN IN NEW YORK CITY.