Past Perfect: Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy

©artwork by Charles Bals / Another Slang

A no-frills silk dress with spaghetti straps, blond hair twisted into a bun, upon which a veil of transparent chiffon was nonchalantly placed: This is how Carolyn Bessette exited a small Baptist church on Cumberland Island as the newlywed Mrs. Kennedy at the side of John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1996. Her husband – also known as John John – the son of the legendary president of the United States of America, held her hand up for a kiss. She beamed at him. This photo shows an event that, in America, was equivalent to a royal  wedding. Even today it’s fetched from the archives by glossy magazines as one of the most important weddings of the last few decades.

At the same time, the image documents the birth hour of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy as a style icon. Her style: simple elegance, that came with an effortlessness that can only be learned from the cradle on by people from the Northeastern region of America. In fact, Carolyn’s biography reads as though she were solely and alone prepared to drink tea in the garden and play rounds of football with the Kennedys on Martha’s Vineyard. Carolyn grew up as the younger sister of twin sisters in Greenwich, one of most prestigious areas of Connecticut. She was eight years old when her mother divorced and married a doctor who resided there.

After graduating from a Catholic high school, Carolyn studied at Boston University. Her first job as a PR woman was at a nightclub followed by a position as a saleswoman in a Calvin Klein store in Boston. In 1989 she moved to New York for the label and later lead the PR department. A position that put her in contact with the most important editors in the fashion scene. Because of her position, Carolyn was in good company in New York. And the scene bowed in her presence.

Her image as a cool upper-class blonde fit perfectly with understated luxury, which was celebrated to excess by high society in the 1990s. Her choice of men, who she hung on her arm like accessories during her forays into New York’s nightlife, did justice to her reputation. She could be seen with Calvin Klein model Michael Bergin, professional hockey player John Cullen and heir apparent Alessandro Benetton. When John John appeared on the scene – allegedly the two were seen jogging in Central Park together –the press declared Carolyn to be their new princess. Finally, she was in a relationship with a man who consciously decided not to go into politics and as the editor in chief of George magazine, decided to live a more “middle class” life. He was revered by the nation as America’s prince.

Carolyn came across – according to the definition of an enlightened royal in America – as a appropriately modern princess at his side. Instead of brocade and a crown, she wore plain sweaters, shirts, pencil skirts and evening gowns in colors like beige, black and white. To drive her noble modesty to extremes, the labels remained as invisible as jewelry, which one rarely saw her in. Supposedly, Narciso Rodriguez, who tailored her Cerruti wedding dress to fit her body, complained about the fact that Carolyn wouldn’t allow him to embroider pearls on the dress.


Another anecdote recounts her buying a Prada ski suit and asking the sales woman if she would cut the label out. Naturally, the press drew parallels between Carolyn and her deceased mother-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Both shared not only a excellent sense of style, but were also very protective of their private lives. An important factor in order avoid becoming a game for the media. After their wedding there was only one topic, that which was mentioned at the beginning. Home stories, interviews or even press at the ceremony were deterred.

While Carolyn shielded their lives as much as possible from the public, her early death at the age of 33 was a media event. In 1999, John John, Carolyn and her two year older sister Lauren were in a private plane and crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard into the Atlantic. Kennedy himself was at the controls when the three died. The funeral service took place on July 24, 1999 at Saint Thomas Church in New York and was broadcast across America and the world. Celebrities like Muhammad Ali and the former President Bill Clinton paid their last respects to the couple, fans stood in droves outside the gates, despite the brutal heat, to mourn with the family. An entire nation said farewell to their Prince and Princess.

Author: Christine Korte
Translation: Alicia Reuter