In the five years after her husband, Anthony, was diagnosed with a rare, deadly form of sarcoma, Carole Radziwill had watched him endure a litany of major surgeries and countless rounds of chemotherapy. But she had never once seen him shed tears. Not until the predawn hours of July 17, 1999, when they learned that a private plane carrying Anthony's cousin John Kennedy Jr., her closest friend Carolyn Bessette and Carolyn's sister Lauren was lost over the sea near Martha's Vineyard. Anthony, then in the terminal stage of his disease, "sat at the kitchen table and folded his arms to support his head, and then dropped it down and cried," Radziwill, 42, writes in her new book. "It was the first time I'd seen him like that, and I knew we were beyond doing anything for each other."

Three weeks later at New York Hospital, Anthony Radziwill, 40, died in Carole's arms. "I listen to [his] heartbeat until it is so faint I can barely hear it," she writes, "and then it's gone." Even after being widowed at 36, after having endured an almost unimaginable cluster of tragedies, she has in fact done more than just survive. The proof lies in What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship & Love, a remarkably candid and moving account of her private journey as Radziwill's wife—and as an intimate of one of the most memorable couples of a generation. "It was never my dream to write a memoir. I don't even keep a diary," says the Emmy-winning former producer for ABC News. Yet in the years following the deaths of the three people closest to her, "I was beginning to forget details about them, things we used to do and say," she says. "I felt like I was losing them again." Now, after beginning the process on a remote island off the Canadian coast and spending nearly two years writing, "I feel such relief," she says. As she puts it in the book, "Ultimately what remains is a story. In the end, it's the only thing any of us really owns."

The daughter of a restaurant cook, the former Carole DiFalco grew up in a boisterous family in the New York City suburb of Suffern, N.Y., eventually making her way to Manhattan, where she rose from unpaid intern to producer at ABC. She had already worked on an award-winning documentary on Cambodia's killing fields by the time she was introduced, at 26, to an ABC associate producer, Anthony Radziwill. "He was handsome and serious, bent over scripts in a hotel room," she writes. "And then he stood and reached for my hand."

Their slow, private courtship proceeded for two years before she met his mother, Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Onassis. Carole learned to fit in, make dinner-table conversation with movie moguls and art-gallery owners and to enjoy the perks of Radziwill's privileged circle. In 1992 the two took a summer rental house in the Hamptons, along with Anthony's cousin. There, one morning, in his underwear, JFK Jr. walked into the kitchen, extending a hand to Carole. "Hi, I'm John Kennedy, Anthony's better half." "I never heard him introduce himself as 'John F. Kennedy Jr.' in the 10 years that I knew him," says Radziwill. "He was just 'John Kennedy.'"

Radziwill was just as disarmed when a willowy blonde young woman "10 stories tall, with quarter-size blue eyes" emerged from John's bedroom one morning in a white cotton eyelet nightgown. "She was very friendly," says Radziwill. "She came right over to me as though she knew me and put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I had an extra toothbrush." Like Radziwill, Bessette was a girl from New York state who'd reinvented herself as a Manhattan sophisticate (she was a publicist for Calvin Klein), and the two quickly bonded. The next weekend, Kennedy dumped Bessette for an old girlfriend; the hiatus would last nearly two years.

The next summer, on a Long Island beach, Anthony noticed a lump on his right side. He was eventually diagnosed with fibrosarcoma, a potentially fatal form of bone cancer. Four months later, on a beach, he presented Carole with a small box containing a diamond engagement ring. "I think it was important for him to get married after [his diagnosis]," she says. "You start thinking about the future, and marriage added an element of stability in his life." The year of Radziwill's lavish East Hampton wedding, Kennedy and Bessette reconnected, and in July 1995 Bessette called Carole over to the downtown Manhattan apartment she shared with John and showed her the diamond and sapphire engagement ring John had given her. "Don't tell anyone," she said.

Over the next five years, Carole and Anthony continued to work as his health deteriorated. Then, on the evening of July 16, 1999, at John and Carolyn's house on Martha's Vineyard—where Carole and Anthony were staying for the summer—a cell phone call came from Carolyn, aboard a private plane piloted by John, flying up from New Jersey with her sister Lauren to attend a wedding the next day. Afterward, Carolyn said, they'd make the 10-minute flight to the Vineyard, arriving before dinner. "It was a short conversation," says Radziwill. "She said, 'I love you.' For some reason I didn't say it back. I didn't know it was going to be our last conversation."

Six days later Radziwill found herself with Kennedy family and friends on the deck of the Navy destroyer USS Briscoe as John, Carolyn and Lauren's ashes were scattered to the sea. Three weeks later, in a similar gathering, the same kind of ceremony was performed as her husband's ashes were scattered in the ocean off East Hampton.

Today, after six rough years, Radziwill is "a totally different person," says her friend Holly Peterson. "Writing the book was like an exorcism—her face is so much lighter." And, as difficult as the writing process was, "I'm incredibly proud of the book," Radziwill says, certain that her husband and friends would be too. "No matter what happens in my life now, I'll always have them. Thirty years from now, I'll look back and say, 'We did the best we could, we loved each other. And it was real.'"

Susan Schindehette. Liza Hamm in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Liza Hamm.