John F. Kennedy Jr. sneaks to an island off Georgia to wed longtime love Carolyn Bessette

By Tom Gliatto
October 07, 1996 12:00 PM

ON THE EVENING OF THURSDAY, Sept. 19, Shirley Wise and Alice Hughes headed for the airport in St. Marys, a town of 20,000 people on the south Georgia coast. Their task, as explained to them by Camden County Probate Judge Martin O. Gillette somewhat mysteriously a week before, was to help a young couple complete some prewedding work—drawing up a marriage certificate and taking blood samples. As Wise, a court clerk, and Hughes, a medical technician, understood the scenario, the couple were en route to virtually unpopulated Cumberland Island, one mile offshore and an ideal spot for a wedding, thanks to its unspoiled beach and forest, and the presence of only one, highly picturesque inn, the Greyfield.

However, this couple’s thoughts were on speed, not travelogue dreams. They very much wanted to complete everything quickly and quietly. “We don’t go out of the courthouse to issue marriage licenses,” says Wise. “This was the most unusual marriage license I’ve ever done.”

When they arrived at the airport, Hughes and Wise, who had been told only that these would be important people, were escorted onto a single-engine plane. Inside they met a young woman who, says Wise, was “the picture of an excited, anxious bride.” As the fiancée filled out the license, she was asked what her married name would be. “Carolyn Bessette Kennedy,” she answered. Wise and Hughes finally realized just who the bride—and the groom, who had not yet arrived—were. Then Bessette (as she still was named) asked Hughes and Wise to stand on either side of her while a friend photographed her holding the license. Two hours later another plane touched down, and out stepped John F. Kennedy Jr., who took his turn doing paperwork and giving blood. “He was very apologetic that he kept us waiting,” says Wise.

With that, the clerk and the medical technician became players in one of the year’s more successful covert operations. Six months in the planning, it was a brilliant campaign of secrets and subterfuge that kept gossips perplexed and the media in the dark. It ended Saturday, Sept. 21, with what Kennedy, 35, and Bessette, 30, the former Calvin Klein publicist he’d been dating steadily for two years, wanted and worked hard to achieve: a warm, emotional, intimate wedding.

The planning—which depended on the discretion of the couple’s devoted friends, who for months knew what was up—”required the skill of a James Bond and the whole CIA. Jackie must be smiling in heaven,” says Letitia Baldrige, who from 1961 to 1963 was White House chief of staff for Kennedy’s mother, Jacqueline.

The festivities began Friday evening at the comfortably old-fashioned but pricey Greyfield Inn, a nine-bedroom, white-clapboard mansion—and one of the last reminders that the 18-mile-long, 3-mile-wide island, now nearly entirely under the protection of the National Park Service, once belonged to Andrew Carnegie’s brother Thomas. At the rehearsal dinner that night, an ebullient Kennedy toasted his intended for having made him “the happiest man alive.”

The ceremony the following evening took place in the tiny, wood-frame First African Baptist Church, built in 1893 by former slaves. Crowding into the chapel’s eight wooden pews were the select group of about 40 guests, who had trickled in by plane and ferry. They included Sen. Ted Kennedy and his wife, Vicki; Jackie’s sister Lee Radziwill Ross and her son Anthony Radziwill, who was best man; Jackie’s longtime companion, financier Maurice Tempelsman; John’s sister Caroline and her husband, architect-planner Edwin Schlossberg; and Bessette’s mother, Ann Marie, sister Lisa and brother-in-law Michael Roman.

Music was provided, a cappella, by David R. Davis, a Yulee, Fla., elementary-education student and gospel singer. He had been recommended by Janet “Gogo” Ferguson, the inn’s former manager and a longtime friend of the groom, who has vacationed on the island since 1986. Davis, 40, says he was stunned to discover, after his arrival, who the couple were, and stunned again by his welcome. “They treated me like I was the celebrity,” says Davis, who huddled with Carolyn and John to discuss musical selections for the ceremony (they picked two hymns, “Amazing Grace” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”). Prior to the service, Ted told Davis, who hardly ever sings solo, “We know you’re a leader, and we wanted a leader in the things of God.”

In its meticulously arranged details, the ceremony was one of such elegant understatement that it would surely have met even Jackie’s high standards. The flowers for the bridal party had been chosen by her friend Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who designed the White House Rose Garden, and the altar area was adorned with greenery arranged by Efigenio Pinhiero, Jackie’s longtime butler. The chapel, which has no electricity, was lit with candles and kerosene lamps. “There was a soft illumination up at the front of the church,” says Carol Ruckdeschel, a Cumberland naturalist who lives next door and who had gathered with a dozen other people in the churchyard to peek at the event. “At the back it was dark. It made it so much more cozy and attractive.”

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s daughters Rose, 8, and Tatiana, 6, dressed in tea-length white linen dresses, preceded the bride into the church, strewing rose petals. Caroline, wearing a high-waisted, navy-blue crepe silk gown designed by Bessette’s friend Narciso Rodriguez for Nino Cerruti, served as matron of honor, and her youngest child, Jack Schlossberg, 3½, was ring-bearer. When Bessette appeared—in a pearl-colored silk crepe floor-length gown, hand-rolled tulle silk veil and long silk gloves, all by Rodriguez—Jack gazed up at her and asked loudly, “Why is Carolyn all dressed up?” Kennedy wore a single-breasted, midnight-blue wool suit with a white piqué vest, both by Gordon Henderson, another friend of Bessette’s. He was also wearing his father’s watch. Groom, best man Radziwill and little Jack all sported boutonnieres of cornflowers, President Kennedy’s favorite flower.

The brief Catholic service was conducted by Rev. Charles J. O’Byrne of Manhattan’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where Jackie’s funeral mass was held in 1994. The lighting in the chapel was so dim that O’Byrne read the service by flashlight.

After the ceremony, as guests streamed from the church, the couple lingered briefly inside. Outside they were met with a sprinkling of rain, but no rice. As Carolyn held her bouquet of lilies of the valley, one of Cumberland’s wild horses—some 200, most of them tame, roam the island—wandered over and took a tentative nibble.

With that, the guests piled into waiting pickups and a van provided by the inn and returned to Greyfield for the reception, which included a traditional, three-tier white wedding cake, covered with vanilla butter-cream frosting and flower decorations. Before the couple took to the floor for the first dance—to Prince’s “Forever in My Life”—Ted Kennedy toasted them. “It was such a poignant toast,” touching on the overarching Kennedy theme of family, says his spokeswoman Melody Miller. “Everyone was brought to tears.”

Kennedy’s chief ally in orchestrating the weekend was, by all accounts, not his bride but his friend Gogo Ferguson, 45, a Carnegie descendant who also designs jewelry, including the newlyweds’ wedding bands. “If it weren’t for Gogo,” says one St. Marys resident, “John wouldn’t have been able to pull this off.” Working with her husband, former charter pilot David Sayre, and her brother Mitty Ferguson, she kept track of the flow of guests and supplies and arranged for the chapel and the blood tests.

Cumberland itself was a major asset. “They couldn’t have chosen a more obscure place,” says Chris McLean, a builder who lives in nearby Fernandina Beach, Fla. And Kennedy, who often stays in a house on the island’s east coast, clearly likes that obscurity. The island’s National Seashore designation is an obstacle to development. The permanent population is fewer than 50. The only phone service is cellular. The horses don’t gossip.

During the week before the wedding, more and more locals—caterers, waiters, airport workers who noticed Ted and Caroline deplaning, the ferryboat captain who delivered guests—began to realize what was going on. Yet the secret was well-kept. Part of the reason was that workers involved with the wedding were asked to sign confidentiality agreements. “Anyone who had anything to do with the wedding signed,” says Bob McElhenney, manager of the Beech Street Grill in nearby Fernandina Beach, who provided six waiters. “I agree with it fully.” Perhaps even more important was a strong feeling among locals that the son of the 35th president of the United States and his fiancée had a right to celebrate this, of all events, in private.

His triumph was proof positive that Kennedy, most recently the cofounder, editor and unflagging promoter of the political magazine George, has inherited his mother’s genius for being both a media magnet and teasingly remote. Two days after the wedding, Ted Kennedy’s office revealed—for the first time, officially—that the couple had been engaged for more than a year. During that time, Kennedy watchers had been tirelessly charting the twists and turns of his life with Bessette, whom he reportedly met in 1992 while both were jogging in Central Park. Last February, for instance, they had a furious public tiff in which he even pulled a ring off her right hand. Soon after that they were seen all over Manhattan, partying, kissing and sharing cozy dinners near the downtown loft they have shared since last year. In March they made a lovely power couple at an Oscar-night party thrown for George by Washington socialites Conrad and Peggy Cafritz. There they spent as much time apart in other guests’ company as they spent together. “It’s a mature relationship,” observes Peggy Cafritz. “They don’t need to be constantly displaying affection.” Then suddenly, in June, Bessette seemed to disappear, launching rumors of a breakup.

Despite the scrutiny, relatively little information has emerged about Bessette herself. “She has her own sense of mystery, doesn’t she?” muses Baldrige. Some oddments: Bessette is reportedly 6′ tall (to Kennedy’s 6’1″), loved the movie Babe (she rooted for it at the Oscar party) and has been linked romantically, at one time or another, with Calvin Klein model Michael Bergin, hockey star John Cullen (a Boston University schoolmate now with the Tampa Bay Lightning) and Alessandro Benetton of the Italian fashion company.

Born in White Plains, N.Y., she grew up, comfortably, in Greenwich and New Canaan, Conn., with her mother, Anne Marie, a public school administrator, her older twin sisters Lisa and Lauren, 31, and her stepfather Richard Freeman, an orthopedist. (Her father, William, now sells cabinets in New Rochelle, N.Y.) After graduating from St. Mary’s, a Catholic high school in Greenwich, in 1983, she studied elementary education at Boston University. Her professional life since getting her degree in 1988 has been in public relations, starting with a Boston company, the Lyons Group (where she handled bookings for two nightclubs), then with Calvin Klein in Manhattan, where she became a friend, and some say protege, of Klein’s wife, Kelly.

Then she entered JFK Jr.’s orbit, which brought blessings but entailed compromises. Says Peggy Cafritz, sympathetically: “Most women would want to have weddings that all of their friends and family would see and remember, but I’m sure [Carolyn] understood the impossibility of doing that.”

That same clearheadedness, suggests a friend who attended the wedding, and Bessette’s ability to make Kennedy confident that she loves him for who he is—rather than what he symbolizes—made him feel secure enough to finally give up his freewheeling bachelorhood and propose.

News of the wedding began to leak Saturday afternoon. By Sunday morning the press was descending on Cumberland in chartered boats and at least one helicopter. But by then, newlyweds John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy had left the island, ferried off in a tiny plane flown by Gogo’s cousin. At press time their destination remained a secret. Given their track record and the help of friends, they may be able to keep it that way through the honeymoon.


CINDY DAMPIER, MEG GRANT, DEREK L. KINNER and LAURA LEWIS in Fernandina Beach, LIZ MCNEIL in New York City, JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, JENNIFER LONGLEY in Salisbury, Conn., PETER MIKELBANK in Paris and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles