Weeks before her daughter Rory’s wedding, Ethel Kennedy received a surprise call from Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, wife of John F. Kennedy Jr., who had phoned to decline the invitation to the nuptials set for July 17, 1999, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. “John expected his aunt to say she had to be there, but Ethel surprised him by telling Carolyn that it wasn’t an obligation,” says Kennedy biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli.

Had Carolyn not changed her mind, the fatal plane crash that took her life, as well as that of John and her sister Lauren Bessette, might have been avoided. But after a period of discord, both Carolyn and John had been trying to find compromises to make their marriage healthier. “John promised her it would be the last time she had to go to the Kennedy compound, where she felt so uncomfortable,” says Taraborrelli, author of the new tome The Kennedy Heirs: John, Caroline, and the New Generation — A Legacy of Triumph and Tragedy. “And she went.”

John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette
Justin Ide

In the aftermath of their deaths, an avalanche of stories appeared about John and Carolyn — including claims that she had been having an extramarital romance. But Taraborrelli insists they were committed to making their relationship work. “I’ve read about this so-called affair, but I don’t believe it,” he says. “They were so devoted to each other.”

Still, the couple had come through a rough patch. Carolyn, a former publicist for Calvin Klein, aroused the jealousy of her husband with her close friendship with Michael Bergin, a male model. “One night they kissed and Carolyn felt compelled to confess to John,” says Taraborrelli. “He got so upset that he showed up at the guy’s door, punched him right in the face and told him, ‘Stay away from my wife.’”

That Kennedy family bravado bothered Carolyn, and her feelings of unease were exacerbated by John’s emotional withdrawal. He’d been so worried about his cousin and best friend Anthony Radziwill’s cancer battle that he’d grown distant. “It was taking up all of his energy and he was losing focus on his marriage,” says Taraborrelli.

John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette
Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

After John’s eruption over the model, he and Carolyn made a pact to work on their marriage. “They weren’t quitters,” explains Taraborrelli. “John realized he needed to be more understanding.” Although Carolyn may have tried to make John jealous “as a wake-up call,” she wanted their union to succeed. “Carolyn’s parents divorced when she was young, and she saw what her mom went through,” says the author. “She was determined she would never get divorced.”

John and Carolyn attended couples counseling together and it’s possible that her agreement to attend Rory’s wedding may have been an effort to compromise with her husband. “They were actively seeking to make things better,” says Taraborrelli. “That’s the tragic ending to their story.”

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