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- August 09, 1999
- Vol. 52
- No. 5
Hour of Loss
Their Shock Turned to Grief, the Kennedys and Bessettes Strive to Bear the Unbearable–the Death of John, Carolyn and Lauren
The night before, Caroline, her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and their children—Rose, 11, Tatiana, 9, and Jack, 6—had settled into suite 231 with its view of the Sawtooth Mountains, then had dinner at the lodge's restaurant, decorated with stuffed deer and moose heads. Afterward, the grown-ups strolled over to the Mountain Village Saloon. Though her cousin Rory Kennedy was scheduled to marry writer Mark Bailey in Hyannisport, Mass., that weekend, Caroline had made other plans, deciding to celebrate Edwin's 54th birthday and the couple's 13th anniversary on July 19 by rafting through the 2.3 million-acre wilderness known as the River of No Return. But by 7 p.m. Saturday, the trip had been canceled. Following a series of phone calls—at least one from her uncle Sen. Ted Kennedy—Caroline and her family boarded a private plane and headed back to New York and the start of one of the saddest weeks of her life.
At about the same time, more than 2,000 miles to the east, the phone rang at 5 a.m. in the Greenwich, Conn., home of Ann Freeman and her husband, orthopedic surgeon Richard Freeman. It was a caller with the news that the single-engine Piper Saratoga plane carrying Ann's daughters Lauren Bessette and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and piloted by Carolyn's husband, John F. Kennedy Jr., was missing off Martha's Vineyard. "Ann was hopeful for a while," says a close friend who drove to the Freeman house three hours later after hearing the news on the radio. "And then common sense prevailed."
Farther up the Eastern seaboard phones were also ringing at the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport, where the night before 100 guests—"full of joy and happiness," says someone who attended—had celebrated at Rory Kennedy's wedding rehearsal dinner. "I was awakened at around 8:30 a.m. by Ethel's secretary, who was calling to say the wedding had been postponed," says one guest. "The first thing that went through my head was that Rory and Mark had had a fight. Then she sort of explained the situation. It wasn't being postponed for later in the weekend. It was being indefinitely postponed."
The crash that took the lives of John, Carolyn and Lauren was a tragedy whose aftershocks would be felt across America and beyond. At its epicenter, on July 22, was the image of a small knot of family mourners silhouetted against the bright morning haze on the stern of the Navy destroyer Briscoe for a burial at sea. It was a scene that reminded Hyannis shopkeeper Howard Perm of a day in November 36 years ago, when a call came to his Main Street clothing store from the Kennedy compound, asking that he send over every black dress in stock. Now, as then, says another local businessman, "you didn't see anyone crying. Everybody was trying to be strong in the way that we have seen time and time again."
And they remained strong through the following morning, when 315 friends and family members gathered in uptown Manhattan for a moving memorial to the couple at St. Thomas More Catholic church, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her children used to worship. Ted Kennedy and his sister Eunice had hoped the service would be held at the much larger St. Patrick's Cathedral. "But St. Patrick's reminded Caroline too much of Bobby Kennedy's funeral," says a friend. "The family totally respected that she wanted it in a small church." At the service, attended by such notables as President and Mrs. Clinton, their daughter Chelsea and boxing great Muhammad Ali, a hero of John Kennedy Jr.'s, Wyclef Jean, of the hip-hop group the Fugees, sang the Jimmy Cliff song "Many Rivers to Cross." Ted Kennedy, his voice breaking, eulogized his nephew with the words, "Like his father, he had every gift but length of years."
Absent from the throng were many of the youngest family members. "The older Kennedys have vivid, stirring memories of all the family funerals," says a friend. "Those were such terrible moments in their childhood, they just didn't want another generation to suffer through it again." But Caroline, described by one who attended as "cool and composed," walked stoically down the church's stone steps as her dark-haired daughter Rose, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Jackie Kennedy, stuck her tongue out at photographers.
The following evening, in Greenwich, the Freeman family left their home for the 1913 neo-Gothic Episcopal Christ Church for an invitation-only memorial for Lauren, the least publicly prominent of the three who had died. The decision to have the victims' remains cremated and buried at sea, made shortly after the bodies were found, "was a joint decision" between the two families, says a friend of the Free-mans'. "Both families were very comfortable with the outcome."
Yet Ann Freeman took it largely upon herself to oversee the details of Lauren's service. Though, according to a friend, "her state is so fragile it's almost as though you hope an arm doesn't break," she had arrived at the church three days beforehand and begun making decisions about flowers and music without her husband or her sole surviving child, Lauren's twin sister, Lisa, a doctoral student of art history at the University of Michigan. "Lisa wanted to stay out of [the planning]," says church organist Fiona Smith. "It was far too emotional for her." And, of course, the weight of sadness was palpable. Church secretary Mary Marks says that as she and Freeman "were walking toward Parish Hall, two other women were walking by us. One of them mentioned to the other that she had just given birth to twins. Ann turned to me and said, 'I used to have twins.' "
At the candlelit service, beneath the church's two Tiffany stained-glass windows and in front of an altar decked with hydrangeas, lilies and pink roses, an all-girl youth choir sang "Ave Maria." Friends recalled the talented Wharton graduate, fluent in Mandarin Chinese, who in 1991 hired on at the investment banking firm of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and had carved out an impressive career track as a senior executive in the company's investment banking division. Though he did not speak, among the mourners was William Bessette, Carolyn, Lauren and Lisa's biological father, who was divorced from their mother in the mid-1980s. According to at least one college acquaintance, "Carolyn never really talked about him. He traveled a lot, and she never had a lot of contact with him."
Also present were some two dozen Kennedys, including Ted and Caroline. Inevitably, the tragedy has thrust her squarely into the limelight she abhors. Friends say that earlier, while she awaited confirmation of her brother's fate, it was understandable for her to remain sequestered at her Sagaponack, N.Y., weekend retreat, not far from the homes of her aunts Jean Kennedy Smith and Pat Lawford. "When she heard about the crash, she wanted to go to Hyannis-port," says a friend. "But everyone said it was a [media] zoo and advised her to go to New York instead."
From their earliest years, Caroline and John were kept at a distance from the raucous younger Kennedys by their mother. Within the tight circle that John himself once referred to as "Mommy, Caroline and me," he was the outgoing and ebullient one, while Caroline was poised and controlled, like her mother. "Jackie worried more about John than she did about Caroline," says Hugh D. Auchincloss Jr., Jackie's stepbrother. "She used to say, 'John's a good boy, but he's always getting himself into a jam.' " As time went on, Caroline, now 41, "lived her life privately," says a friend, "while John got all the press." In 1992, Caroline agreed to an interview with author Laurence Learner for The Kennedy Women but then changed her mind. "She had these few precious memories of her father, and she wasn't about to share them," says Learner, "because that's all she had."
Though she did take on some public functions—honorary chairman of the American Ballet Theatre board, president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation—and was a coauthor of two books, including her most recent, 1995's The Right to Privacy, Caroline was all too aware of what being a public figure entailed. She preferred a quieter life, walking daughters Rose and Tatiana from the Schlossbergs' Park Avenue apartment to the Brearley School a few blocks away and on weekends riding at private stables near the Sagaponack house. "She's happy with her life," says Jackie's cousin and biographer John H. Davis. "She told my mother several years ago, 'I will be perfectly happy to spend all my days in my apartment writing, and playing with my children and looking after my husband.' "
Even for John, the public scrutiny was not always easy. While he was a student at Brown University, a friend, Charlie King, then a volunteer in Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign, once asked him to make a few informal remarks to a small group of volunteers. He agreed, but word leaked of his appearance, and when he walked into the auditorium, he found himself facing an audience of 800. John gamely spoke, and "he said it was no big deal," recalls King. "But the next day the local paper took him to task, saying his [public speaking] skills weren't as good as his father's. Ten years later, he told me it was the worst public experience of his life."
More recently, what angered Kennedy most was sniping in the press about Carolyn. "Anything written about him—that he was stupid, failed the bar, that his magazine was no good—he was un-fazed," says a friend. "But when people took out after Carolyn, it just set him off. He said, 'Look, she never called a press conference. She never gave a speech.' It's the only time I ever saw him really yelling and venting."
Mostly, friends and colleagues remember an affable, considerate Kennedy. As editor of George magazine he once bought his staff several dozen excellent seats for a 1996 Yankees play-off game after they'd met a difficult deadline. "He took the subway up with us and sat with us," recalls one who was there. Another night' he showed up dripping wet at the office after riding on his bike in the rain to get pizzas for staffers working late. Even after his 1996 wedding, in the midst of an impromptu cham-pagne-and-cake celebration back at work, "he lifted a glass and said, 'Congratulations on the birth of your son,' " recalls writer Tony Karon, who at the time was a George copy editor. "And then, jokingly, he asked, 'What is fatherhood like?' "
Sadly, John himself would never find out. At the moment, his and Carolyn's only dependents, Friday the dog and Ruby the cat, are residing with the caretaker of the secluded Martha's Vineyard home that Jackie left her two children. And no one close to the family has publicly suggested how John and Carolyn's estate, speculated in the press to be worth as much as $100 million, may ultimately be settled.
For now, though, those closest to the couple aren't thinking of such things. On the morning of Sun., July 25, in Bedford, N.Y., after attending mass with his wife and three children, Bobby Kennedy Jr. was asked by his pastor, Msgr. James Gorman, if he wanted a special mass said for his cousin John, who was godfather to Bobby's youngest son. "Let it go," said Bobby gently. "It's over."
That sense of finality may be a signal that, among the Kennedys at least, there are already the beginnings of acceptance. Caroline, says Learner, "truly believes that she's going to see her brother one day, not just in some metaphoric way." For her part, Ann Freeman "believes very strongly that 'my children, my two daughters, will live through the lives of the people who love them,' " says a close friend.
For others, like Clint Flagg, owner of Vintage Flowers in Osterville, Mass., who handled the floral preparations for the weekend wedding that wasn't to be, the loss was, of course, far less devastating, but the lingering sadness was nonetheless real. "We searched all over the world to find peonies because it was late in the season," he says. "We flew them in from England." Through the afternoon of July 17, his chief concern was keeping 7,000 blooms alive and fresh in the hope that the missing threesome would be found safe and that the ceremony would take place after all.
In the end, it did not, but the flowers may have found another use. At Ethel Kennedy's request, the petals from those flowers were placed in plastic bags and delivered to the I Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, where they, along with the ashes of the family's loved ones, Flagg was told, would be scattered over the sea.
Matt Birkbeck, Eve Heyn, Elizabeth McNeil, Ward Morehouse III and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Rochelle Reed in Stanley, Jennifer Longley in Hyannisport, Macon Morehouse and Jane Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Fannie Weinstein in Miami
- Matt Birkbeck,
- Eve Heyn,
- Elizabeth McNeil,
- Ward Morehouse III,
- Natasha Stoynoff,
- Rochelle Reed,
- Jennifer Longley,
- Macon Morehouse,
- Jane Podesta,
- Fannie Weinstein.
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