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'They Would Love Hard, and They Would Fight Hard': Inside the Passionate Marriage of JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy

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When JFK Jr. asked Carolyn Bessette to marry him, her response was not quite the one he had been expecting.

While the Calvin Klein fashion publicist was eager to accept, she didn’t want to make any specific plans. “She held the proposal off for about three weeks, which I think just made him all the more intent on marrying her,” a close friend of John’s tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story.

The glamorous pair would ultimately pull off a top-secret wedding in 1996, but the marriage was to be tragically short-lived: On July 16, 1999, John, 38, Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren, 34, died in a plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Now, 18 years later, friends are sharing intimate memories of the Carolyn they knew.

“It’s good to remember Carolyn,” says her close friend RoseMarie Terenzio, who worked as John’s executive assistant during his years running George magazine. “She would not want to be forgotten. Both she and John made a difference in their friends’ lives.”

Mike Segar/Reuters

Passionate and fiery, “they would love hard, and they would fight hard,” says Ariel Paredes, the granddaughter of Providencia Paredes, who had been an assistant to John’s mom Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “But they were very much in love.”

Although John, the son of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline, had lived his entire life in the spotlight, Bessette struggled.

“If someone was going to steal our prince, the press and the public wanted her to be some kind of unblemished princess,” says John’s friend, John Perry Barlow. But Carolyn was not one to be easily defined. “She was quirky and imaginative,” says Barlow. “She was her own self. The woman everyone has read about it not at all as she was in real life.”

Ron Galella/WireImage

In the last few weeks of their lives, both Carolyn and John were under intense pressure. George was under financial strain and John was looking for a buyer. At the same time, Carolyn, “felt cornered,” as Barlow recalls, by the constant presence of photographers outside their downtown apartment.

But all of that paled in comparison to the couple’s pain and sadness as they cared for John’s cousin Anthony Radziwill, who was then dying of cancer. As John was in the process of writing his eulogy for the man whom he considered a brother, Carolyn would go to the hospital every night to bring Anthony his favorite soup from Il Cantinori and comfort his wife, Carole.

“To say their marriage was on the rocks is just inaccurate,” says Carole, who told the story of John and Anthony’s close bond in her heartbreaking memoir What Remains. “Anthony’s impending death was a strain on their marriage, no doubt. But it was a difficult time for all of us. If it weren’t, we would be inhuman.”

For more on Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday. 

Friends say the fact John and Carolyn were flying together to the wedding of John’s cousin Rory Kennedy that weekend was a promising sign.  “Carolyn decided to be with his family that weekend in the Cape—to be together,” says a John confidante. “And she would be with him in a safe and private place. That’s what family means. And that meant something.”

And yet that final chapter was left unfinished when John suffered disorientation in the dark haze  while piloting the fateful flight. “Had he not crashed the plane, it would have been a  meaningless few weeks of tension,” says the close friend of John’s, “but it took on a life of its own because it was the last chapter of their life. One week they could have been at war, and the the next week they could be right back in love—we’ll never know.”

Adds Terenzio, whose 2012 memoir FairyTale Interrupted chronicled her friendship with the couple: “John and Carolyn were incredibly unique. They were a warm and loving couple who handled their fame with humility and grace.”

Rory Kennedy, who spoke with PEOPLE on June 25 at the Nantucket Film Festival, where she premiered her new film on surfer Laird Hamilton Take Every Wave, says the couple’s absence is still felt nearly two decades later.

“I loved Carolyn,” says Rory, whose wedding was postponed following the crash. “John was so love in with her and she played a significant role in our family. She was really loved by everybody. She continues to be sorely missed by all of us.”