July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

When John and Carolyn returned from their honeymoon in the fall of 1996, they found a swarm of journalists camped outside their front door at 20 North Moore Street in the heart of Manhattan’s chic TriBeCa district. The rowdy media mob terrified Carolyn, and in a gallant effort to protect his wife, John pleaded with the reporters and cameramen to back off and give her a chance to adjust to her new role as a celebrity.

His pleas fell on deaf ears. Reporters foraged through the newlyweds’ garbage, searching for clues to their sex life. Paparazzi pursued John and Carolyn wherever they went, pounding on the sides of their automobile to make them turn toward the cameras, then blinding them with flashbulbs.

John was accustomed to this kind of treatment. But Carolyn was a different story. As the months wore on, she could not handle the relentless personal scrutiny. Carolyn sought refuge in the West Village apartment of [close friend] Gordon Henderson. “She didn’t feel at home in the North Moore Street apartment,” said a friend. “She hated it. She didn’t like where it was located. And John had decorated it—badly. It was very cold, like a young man’s first loft.”

It was clear to friends that Carolyn was cracking under the pressure. She displayed the classic signs of clinical depression. A few months after the marriage, she began spending more and more time locked inside her apartment, convulsed by crying jags.

“John’s life was huge—with dozens of friendships and involvements—but Carolyn couldn’t handle that,” one of her closest friends told me. “She would ditch John’s friends, not show up for dinner, refuse to go to people’s houses or events. She burned a lot of bridges.”

As a child of divorce who had long been estranged from her father, Carolyn was sensitive to any sign of male desertion. In her view, John had forsaken her to work on George, his political lifestyle magazine. One time she faxed him at his office: “Please come home now, I need you.” In addition, she resented that John had reverted to his old bachelor ways—pumping iron at the gym late into the night, going off on kayak trips with the boys, and (Carolyn suspected) playing around behind her back with the girls.

Meanwhile, writes Klein, Carolyn had become a “heavy user of street drugs,” a habit of which her fashion industry friends were well aware.

“She and I went to dinner one night when John was sick at home with the flu,” recalled a close acquaintance who worked at George magazine. “She made at least a half dozen trips to the bathroom, and came back to the table with white rings around her nostrils. We went from bar to bar, and she wanted to come over to my apartment, but I said no because I knew it would be an all-nighter. I finally dropped her off at three A.M. The next morning, John came into the office and asked, ‘Why did you keep my wife out so late?’ And I said, ‘A better question, John, is why your wife didn’t want to go home.’ ”

Yet John remained devoted to Carolyn, who friends say reminded him of his strong-willed mother.

From the moment John laid eyes on Carolyn, he became obsessed with her. “He lived and breathed Carolyn,” one of his friends told me, echoing the sentiments of many. “He could not keep his hands off her.”

Carolyn accepted John’s worshipful attention as though it was her due—as though he was lucky to have her, rather than the other way around. Carolyn’s aloof attitude set her apart from other women John had dated in the past—Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sharon Stone, Daryl Hannah. Many of those women had thrown themselves at John, which made him suspicious of their motives. Carolyn, on the other hand, appeared to be unimpressed by his fame, and in the end it was probably her posture of cool indifference, as much as her beauty, that captivated him and held him spellbound.

But eventually the spell wore off. John told close friends he was worried that his wife was cheating on him.

Though he did not know it at the time, John’s suspicions were not farfetched. Carolyn had rekindled a relationship with her old boyfriend Michael Bergin, a former underwear model she had met—and fallen in love with—when they were both working for Calvin Klein.

“Michael lived in a second-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village, and I was in his apartment one day when he was buzzed on the intercom,” one of Bergin’s friends told me. “Michael asked me to leave, and when I went out, I found Carolyn Bessette Kennedy hiding under the staircase.

“I said, ‘Hi, Carolyn, what are you doing?’ ” the friend continued. “And she said, ‘Oh, hi, I’m just going upstairs to Michael’s.’

“When I got home, Michael called me and said in a kind of panic, ‘You saw Carolyn! Why did you talk to her?’ He really loved Carolyn, and wanted to protect her.

“Michael decided to stop seeing her. He was respectful of marriage vows. He didn’t feel comfortable continuing a relationship with a married woman. But Carolyn was obsessed with him. And one day she went up the fire escape to his apartment and broke the window to get in.”

Such unstable behavior was typical of Carolyn, according to Bergin:

“There was one time [before her marriage] when Carolyn saw me at a bar lighting a cigarette for an ex-girlfriend. Carolyn came over, pushed the girl out of the way, and screamed and yelled at me, and even drew a little blood from my face.

“I went home, and two minutes later Carolyn was at my door. I had to let her in or she would have knocked the whole building down. I had these tall, heavy religious candles, and she threw one through the window and another at the mirror above the fireplace mantel, which shattered. Then she knocked my television set and VCR onto the floor and jumped on my VCR and squashed it.

“I ran out of the apartment. I’m very athletic and fast, but she caught up with me and started yelling at me, and taunting me, calling me a baby. And my adrenaline was flowing, and I turned around and pushed her away from me, and she went flying in the air and landed on the stoop of a building. That put an end to that, and we went back to my apartment.”

In the summer of 1999 John’s uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy approached him about running for governor of New York.

There was only one hitch. John informed his uncle that his marriage to Carolyn was on the rocks and that he was thinking of divorce, even though he knew such a step would cloud his political prospects. In an effort to keep his nephew’s marriage intact, Teddy turned to a prominent Catholic prelate—New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor—for help.

“Cardinal O’Connor loved being in the limelight and dealing with important people,” said an associate. “At the Kennedy family’s request, he got involved and tried to save John’s marriage. The Cardinal was acting as a marital mediator at the time of John and Carolyn’s death.”

Despite such intervention, relations between John and Carolyn worsened, and he moved into the Stanhope hotel on July 14, 1999. Three days later his plane was reported missing.

The news spread like wildfire. Soon Carolyn’s friends were heading downtown to her loft in TriBeCa. They let themselves in with the keys Carolyn had given them and gathered around her TV set in a grim, silent vigil.

With each passing hour, the chances of rescue grew dimmer and dimmer. At a certain point, one of the group—a woman’s fashion designer—slipped away and went into the kitchen. There, he opened the door to the freezer compartment of the refrigerator and removed Carolyn’s stash of cocaine.

“I didn’t want some nosy cop finding Carolyn’s drugs and leaking the story to the papers,” he explained.

On Monday, July 19, the fragments of John’s plane were spotted.

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