John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy
08/09/2014 AT 04:55 PM EDT
They met in 1994 at the Calvin Klein showroom in New York City.
He was the world's most eligible bachelor, the only son of a revered President coming into his own as the founding editor of George Magazine.
She was the stunning fashion publicist in charge of celebrity relations on hand to show him the new collection.
"He was instantly attracted to her," recalls his friend and assistant RoseMarie Terenzio.
Though she turned him down when he first asked her out, he eventually won her over. In her, his friends say, he met his match.
"John and Carolyn were magic together," says his close friend Gustavo Paredes.
"She had an earthiness and a gentle fierceness. The same attributes as John. Together they were whole."
Married on Sept. 21, 1996, the pair weathered rumors of discord: but both their troubles and the notion they were America royalty were exaggerated friends say.
"The world saw them as this prince and princess," says Matt Berman, the creative director of George and author of a new memoir, JFK Jr., George & Me, "but they were the most real and engaging people I've ever known."
On July 16, 1999, the plane John was piloting en route to Martha's Vineyard crashed into the Atlantic, killing him, 33-year-old Carolyn and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34.
Fifteen yeas later, their closest friends open up about the golden couple they adored in this week's PEOPLE.