By Patrick Rogers
Updated July 21, 2003 12:00 PM
Courtesy Virgin Gotels Group Ltd; Inset: Dan Steinberg/AP

Perched on the edge of a bed in a Manhattan hotel room, John F. Kennedy Jr. poured his heart out to a friend over the phone: “I want to have kids, but whenever I raise the subject with Carolyn, she turns away and refuses to have sex with me.” It was July 14, 1999, and America’s once-most-eligible bachelor had moved out of the loft apartment he shared with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, in Manhattan’s trendy TriBeCa neighborhood and into the Stanhope hotel, overlooking Central Park. “It’s not just about sex,” he continued. “It’s impossible to talk to Carolyn about anything. We’ve become like total strangers. I’ve had it with her! It’s got to stop. Otherwise we’re headed for divorce.”

Two days later, Kennedy, 38, Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34, died when the small plane he was piloting plunged into the sea off Martha’s Vineyard. By then, according to an explosive new book by journalist Edward Klein—a Kennedy biographer and longtime friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s—the marriage was coming apart at the seams. Along with the tale of Kennedy’s hotel room phone call, Klein’s book—The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America’s First Family for 150 Years—lays out a startling collection of insider anecdotes that portray Carolyn as a cocaine-using depressive and sometimes violent woman, and John as her loving but exasperated spouse. (See excerpt page 96.)

On one occasion, Klein writes, John came home to find Carolyn “sprawled on the floor in front of a sofa, disheveled and hollow-eyed, snorting cocaine with a gaggle of gay fashionistas” and screamed, “You’re a cokehead!” before retreating to his room. On another, Klein implies, Carolyn cut John’s wrist in a violent argument, sending him to the emergency room. Friends insist he cut himself accidentally on broken glass in a sink.

As the fourth anniversary of the pair’s death approaches, the latest airing of dirty laundry has outraged John and Carolyn’s longtime friends, who condemn Klein’s book as, at best, embellished and, at worst, fabricated. “I simply do not recognize my friends in the wildly exaggerated caricatures the author conjures up,” says CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, 45, a friend of John’s for 20 years, who spent the last weekend of the couple’s lives as their guest on Martha’s Vineyard. Adds TV producer Naomi Collins, 37, one of Carolyn’s roommates from Boston University: “The way Klein is describing her is vicious. Carolyn was not coldhearted. She was fun-loving, caring and adventurous.”

Even some of Klein’s own sources are now questioning the author’s accuracy. Provoking the fiercest reaction is an allegation Klein made in a Vanity Fair article that, late at the end of the day of her death, Carolyn kept John and her sister Lauren waiting at a New Jersey airport while she had her toenails painted—not once, but three times—at a Manhattan salon. She had wanted the color to match a swatch of lavender material for the wedding of John’s cousin Rory Kennedy in Hyannis Port, Mass., the following day. By the time she arrived at the airport for takeoff after 8 p.m., Klein writes, the light was fading. “Did Carolyn’s vanity with this pedicure contribute to the tragedy? I don’t think that is a half truth. That is a sad, sad fact,” Klein told PEOPLE. Still, he adds, “the ultimate responsibility lies with John.”

There is at least one problem with the story: According to Manhattan hair colorist Colin Lively, who sat next to Carolyn at the pedicurist and was Klein’s source for the anecdote, Carolyn left the salon no later than 5 p.m. “Klein makes it sound like her pedicure held up the plane, and that’s why it crashed,” says Lively. “But if the plane took off after 8, Carolyn was somewhere else, doing something else, for a good three hours.” And Carolyn was not the only one to get to the airport late—if she did. Even Klein points out that John and Lauren also arrived at the airport after 8. As one of John Kennedy’s outraged friends, technology scholar John Perry Barlow, puts it, “This is character assassination of the dead, without any substance.”

Klein, 66, is standing his ground. A former editor at Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine (which won a Pulitzer under his direction), he has written two previous books about the Kennedys and says he befriended Jackie Onassis in 1981 when she was working as a book editor. “I think the reporting speaks for itself,” says Klein, who spent four years researching The Kennedy Curse. “If you write critically about the Kennedys, you expect the acolytes and the people who cluster around them to be up in arms. The Kennedys are not gods on Mount Olympus. They are ordinary people who are fatally flawed.”

Even their friends will concede they were far from perfect. Although John Perry Barlow says he never witnessed any cocaine use, he admits “both of them occasionally smoked a little pot.” And several friends agreed that Carolyn could lose her temper—though never to the point of violence—particularly with the press who hounded her relentlessly from the moment she and John returned from their honeymoon in the fall of 1996. “She’d get angry,” says William McDonald, a longtime friend and caretaker of the couple’s house in Hyannis Port. “John knew how to handle it, but it was thrust upon Carolyn and she couldn’t handle it as well. It really irritated her.” And the press lapped that up. “John was iconic, beloved. No one wanted to hear bad things about him,” says one of John’s former business associates. “So what happens? The burden fell to Carolyn. And she played into that. Carolyn wasn’t always that friendly.”

With reason, say her friends. The shift from working as an independent, high-powered publicist for Calvin Klein to a new full-time career as the wife of an American prince was “a really tough adjustment,” says a former coworker. Still, beyond the media’s glare, Carolyn remained as warm as she had been during her single years, says this friend. Once, when the friend couldn’t find a dress to wear to a wedding, the new Mrs. JFK Jr. threw open the doors of her own closet. “She told me to take my time and pick out something to wear,” she says. “She was generous and thoughtful.”

So did she and John fight? You bet. “When it was good, it was better than anything I’ve seen,” Barlow says of the relationship. “And when it was bad, it was rugged.” Christiane Amanpour’s husband, James Rubin, agrees. “They had arguments,” he says. But they also “couldn’t take their hands off each other.” If there was one source of steady friction between the pair, it was, by all accounts, their differing views about starting a family. “They both wanted kids very much,” says Barlow. “But Carolyn was spooked about having kids until they’d figured out how to handle the press. She had been through such a media nightmare, and she didn’t want to expose a child to that.” Says Kathleen Noonan, a friend of the couple’s: “It was a source of frustration for John. Every marriage has its challenges, and that was it for them.”

Whatever their problems, friends say, the Kennedys were actively looking for a way to address them. Klein maintains that the pair had visited a marriage counselor—although he writes that Carolyn stormed out when the subject of her alleged drug use came up. During the summer of 1999 they were reportedly spending as many weekends as possible on Martha’s Vineyard, where John’s best friend, his cousin Anthony Radziwill, who was gravely ill with cancer, had accepted John’s invitation to end his days with his wife, Carole, at the sprawling vacation home built on the island by Jackie. (Radziwill, 40, died less than a month after the Kennedy plane crash.)

On the weekend before the crash, Amanpour and Rubin say the couple seemed as happy as ever. Between bar-hopping around the Vineyard in John’s 1967 GTO convertible and basking on the beach, the pair spoke of their future together and playfully argued over trifles like who was the best driver. “They were like a normal couple in love, having fun at the beach,” Rubin, 43, says. Indeed, just a short hop away by private plane on mainland Cape Cod, the Kennedys were overseeing the renovation of a house bought by JFK in Hyannis Port in the ’50s that might have provided the answer to their problem of where to raise children. “Carolyn and John were going to move there to start a family,” says Kathleen Noonan’s husband, John’s childhood friend William Noonan.

In the end, of course, the couple would have no chance to live out their dreams. Back in New York, the financial health of George, Kennedy’s political personality magazine, which had reportedly never turned a profit, had taken a turn for the worse, forcing Kennedy to seek new backers. In his 2002 book American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., former George executive editor Richard Blow reported hearing his boss thundering on the phone through an office wall, “Well, goddamnit, Carolyn. You’re the reason I was up at 3 o’clock last night!” By mid-July John had moved to the Stanhope. Some pals say he had merely sought a place to work in peace; others admit he was retreating from another fight with Carolyn. “She was not the kind of woman,” says one observer, “you’d make up with in a few hours.”

As Klein concludes this tale, it was Carolyn’s sister Lauren, a Morgan Stanley investment banker, who persuaded the pair during an emotional get-together to drop her off in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lauren was to attend a party, and then fly to Hyannis Port for the Kennedy family wedding there. “Come on,” Lauren reportedly said, “it’ll be fun.” Whether her attempt at reconciling the distant lovers was a success, no one will ever know.

Patrick Rogers

K.C. Baker, Caroline Howard and Lisa Marsh in New York City, Robin Reid and Colleen O’Connor in Washington, D.C., and Jennifer Longley in Hyannis Port