How a New Biography Makes Sense of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy's Short Life

How a New Biography Makes Sense of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy's Short Life
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The all-too-short life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy has been examined endlessly, both while she was alive and in the 25 years since she, her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and her sister, Lauren Bessette, died in a plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. But so much of what the public has been told hasn’t been quite right: tabloid stories, urban legends, and rumors have been repeated so often that they’ve become mistaken for facts. Enter Once Upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, a new biography by Elizabeth Beller that attempts to set the very messy record straight about the life of its iconic, enigmatic subject.

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Once Upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy

Beller’s book doesn’t shy away from those stories that made front-page news, but also offers a deep, thoughtful look at a woman who was more than just a fight with her husband or an unsmiling face for aggressive photographers. Speaking with friends and family members, Beller has developed a clear picture of a person who had a full life before she married into American royalty, and one who struggled with the demands of living in the spotlight. The absorbing biography isn’t without juicy moments, but also doesn’t rely on sensationalism to make the case for Bessette-Kennedy’s importance; it’s a nuanced, complicated book about a person who had similar qualities, and it’s a must read for anyone who wants to go beyond the surface of a story that’s captivated the world for more than two decades.

Here, Beller speaks with T&C about her subject, what went into writing the book, and what she wishes she had known when she started.

You write in the afterward of the book about being resistant at first to writing it at all. What made you want to do this and what were the hurdles you had to overcome?

Like everyone in 1999, I was not paying that much attention. I would see pictures of Carolyn and John on a tabloid cover in the supermarket, but I wasn't reading about them. On the 20th anniversary of the accident, though, news media was a different thing. I started clicking and reading, and what happened was that I noticed a huge discrepancy between the way the media and certain tabloids portrayed Carolyn and the way friends spoke about her. The more I noticed the discrepancy, the more I read, and the more like I felt a compulsion to write, to say, “Wait a minute, I think we've got this person wrong.” The biggest hurdle, I guess, was the resistance; this was someone who really wanted to remain private and a lot of people wanted to respect that—I even respected that in them. But after a while, it does become about legacy and the fact that there is such an incorrect narrative around her, and there are very few people who have had that much media scrutiny and have those wrong narratives surrounding them. I just felt compelled to change it.

When you start a project like this, who is your first phone call?

I happened to have friends who were adjacent. I was friends with [former Calvin Klein employee] Stormy Stokes who worked with Carolyn for a very short amount of time, but who connected me with other people. I also have a friend in New Orleans who knows Carole Radziwill; I spoke with Carole several times over the years, and she had incredible insight to share. It was long process, though, and it took a while for people to feel that they could trust me. I think it had to do with time and hearing the questions that I was asking. They began to understand that I was not looking for sensation, I was not looking for salacious stories, I was looking more for insight into her point of view.

How do you navigate these friends who want to protect Carolyn with being able to paint a picture of a real person?

The way I approached it was really through trying to be understanding of what her viewpoint was and what her background was. She was not a socialite, she always worked, and like all of us, she came with certain vulnerabilities. What I tried to do was understand those vulnerabilities—some of them had to do with growing up without her father, and things in her life that she probably would've wished she had done a little differently—and give them context.

carolyn bessette kennedy
Carolyn’s senior picture from the St. Mary High School yearbook in 1983.Courtesy Bessette Family

So much of her life has been explored over the years. What surprised you? I had never heard that she and John got matching tattoos!

I was surprised by that, but I also wasn’t because you don't know them despite all the pictures that we see all the time. I want to point out that in the book—because I go on about her being chased by paparazzi and how that made her so unhappy—I made a conscious choice to not use any paparazzi photos. But the biggest surprise, and I don't know why I was surprised, was how much fun she and John had together. She had this great sense of humor, which doesn't come across in the photographs, and John and Carolyn would laugh together all the time. She also did that with friends, and I mean the kind of laughing where you've just got tears running down your face. It was a nice thing to be able to put in the book that I didn't quite know that I was going to be able to get to.

You’re also able to put all these moments—good and bad—in a larger context, so something like a public quarrel between Carolyn and John feels less emblematic of their relationship and more like a normal part of life.

If you're married and you're never arguing, you're not living together, you're living separately. That is how life works. But tabloids want to sell newspapers, so a fight is what gets the most newsprint. I really wanted to change that idea about Carolyn, because there was so much more to her—and so much more fun.

john f kennedy jr and carolyn bessette kennedy
John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy at the annual John F. Kennedy Library Foundation dinner and Profiles in Courage awards in May 1999.Justin Ide/Boston Herald - Getty Images

You deal with her relationship with the paparazzi, which was certainly not fun. And that frustration with being chased like she was meant pictures of her looking angry or frightened, which fed into this persona….

The paparazzi waiting for her like they did really frightened her. It touched a nerve and a particular vulnerability with her that, interestingly, was difficult to grasp for friends and colleagues who saw her as fearless and a warrior. She was truly terrified. I do think she came to being a public figure with a different tool set obviously than John, who learned from the master, [his mother] Jackie. Sadly, what happened is that she withdrew, and the more she withdrew, the more isolated and frightened she felt, and then she withdrew more. It became a vicious cycle.

Do you think things would be different for a couple like them today?

I've thought about that a lot. In many ways, Carolyn was at this crucial juncture where a lot of people find themselves today: she was getting this attention, but she hadn't taken over her own narrative. At that point, the Kennedy motto was that you just don't respond to things like that. It's different now. So, if she was with us now, she would have a lot more control over her story.

Jackie had respect from people, and so did John. When John was walking down the street, it was like, “Hey John, how are you doing?” If it was Carolyn, they would call her names. It was a very different scenario for her. I think she would've gotten over that fear and I think she really would have gone on to do meaningful things, whether it would've been teaching again or making documentary films about underserved communities. That's part of why I wanted to write the book, because it seemed so obvious to me that this was what she was really interested in. She was not interested in fame. In fact, she almost didn't want to marry John because of the fame. She married him because she loved him, and she married him despite the fame.

carolyn bessette kennedy
Carolyn with her sister Lisa in 1982. Courtesy Bessette Family

Was there one that got away in terms of people you wanted to speak to?

Oh, plenty. But I understand and even respect it. These people lost people from their life, lovely and kind people. When I think about asking friends to talk, I always keep that in mind. That was one of the first things I say to anyone: “I'm really sorry for the loss of your friends.”

If you were able to ask Carolyn a question, what would it be?

What do you think you wanted to do next? What were you thinking you would do when John ran for political office? Because we know that that's what he was thinking about doing.

Knowing what you know now about this book and about these people, is there any advice you wish you’d been given at the beginning of this project?

Don't take it personally when people didn't want to talk or would say, “Why are you writing this now?” At first, I did. I was like, oh, my God, this is going to be impossible. And over time people did speak and then I realized that I could start to believe in the project more because I was getting across what I wanted to get across.

What was the furthest you had to go to try to get someone to talk?

I sent handwritten letters to both of Carolyn's parents. Interestingly, it wasn't her parents who reached out, but her maternal uncle and cousin, who I spoke with.

elizabeth beller
Elizabeth Beller, the author of Once Upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, out now.Jeff Bark

While you’ve been writing this book, there has been this resurgence in interest in Carolyn. What has it been like to see that happening?

It’s been kind of great because people are interested, and there's a reason I'm writing this now. But I do recall some of her friends saying what made them the saddest when she passed away is that she would be remembered as a style icon and not for the things that really matter about her: warmth, kindness, her sense of humor, and her sense of joy. But seeing this come up makes me wonder if one of the reasons that she's so attractive is her reticence and how it made people wonder about her. She didn’t live long enough to kind of show us, and she never decided to do an interview. I think there's a tendency to have these warm, what-could-have-happened feelings about anyone who dies young, but they were also really at the tail end of an era where you could be that quiet and not be reclusive.

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