They met in 1994 at the Calvin Klein showroom in New York City. He was the world’s most eligible bachelor—the only son of a revered President, coming into his own as the founding editor of George magazine. She was the stunning fashion publicist in charge of celebrity relations, on hand to show him the new collection. “He was instantly attracted to her,” recalls his friend and longtime assistant RoseMarie Terenzio. Though he didn’t yet know it, he had met his match. “John and Carolyn were magic together,” says his friend Gustavo Paredes. “She had an earthiness and a gentle fierceness. Together, they were whole.”
Married on Sept. 21, 1996, the pair weathered rumors of discord: The fiercely private Carolyn was labeled an ice queen, while John struggled to ease her into the spotlight with which he had grown up. But both the troubles and the notion of their being American royalty were exaggerated, say those who knew them: John was a regular guy with a goofball side, while Carolyn was a warm confidante with a mischievous sense of humor. “The world saw them as this prince and princess,” says Matt Berman, the creative director of George and author of a new memoir, JFK Jr., George & Me (see box). “But they were the most real and engaging people I’ve ever known.” On July 16, 1999, the plane 38-year-old John was piloting en route to his cousin Rory’s wedding crashed off Martha’s Vineyard, killing him, 33-year-old Carolyn and her sister Lauren, 34. Fifteen years later close friends open up about the golden couple they loved.
Carolyn turned him down a few times in the beginning. Given who he was, she didn’t think he was serious. He was flummoxed—challenged. He couldn’t believe she turned him down. He kept figuring out ways to come back to Calvin Klein for business meetings and additional fittings. There was a side of John that was kind of awkward. When he was dealing with women, he had to figure out how to manage his words. He was always a little shy.
—Gustavo Paredes, son of Jackie Kennedy’s longtime assistant Provi Paredes
She didn’t fawn over him in the JFK Jr. way. She saw John for who he was, and she loved him for it.
—RoseMarie Terenzio, author of the memoir Fairy Tale Interrupted
They were very affectionate. Sometimes almost too much, where you got a little embarrassed. He’d come in and give her a kiss, and you’d think, “I gotta go now.” They didn’t care who was looking.
John and Carolyn were fiery. They would love hard and they would fight hard. When people said they were having issues, it wasn’t that. She was a little bit more dramatic. Even when they fought, they’d always make up. One time we were gabbing in the living room in Hyannis Port, and John walked by to go upstairs for the night; she knew it was time to end our conversation. “This is one of those things you’ll learn when you get married and get older,” she said. “Sometimes you gotta do what they want you to do.” She was trying to teach me about relationships.
—Ariel Paredes, Gustavo’s daughter
Did they argue? Yes. Did they have fights or disagreements? Absolutely. Carolyn was very protective. A lot of their disagreements came from her feeling he was being taken advantage of and him feeling she was too protective.
They kind of gave it to each other in a funny way. They were playful. She’d tease him about his pants—they were always too short. So she found him a tailor. He would go at her all the time about being on the phone: “How many hours a day can you possibly be on the phone? Who are you talking to?” She’d tease him about blondes being his type. One Valentine’s Day she sent 10 different bouquets to the office, from all the famous blondes she could think of, and signed them, “Love, Pamela Anderson; Love, Claudia Schiffer.” He thought it was hysterical.
There were ups and downs. A young couple going through stuff. But I think things would’ve worked out. I really do. They did love each other.
MARRIED TO A KENNEDY
John was ready to get married, excited. Carolyn was excited but nervous. “How is my life going to change?” They both thought once they were married there would be less attention. He said, “I thought no one would care anymore. I’m not a bachelor.” But it intensified.
I once asked John, “Does the staring bother you?” He said, “I don’t know what it’s like to walk into a room and not have everybody staring. That’s how it’s always been for me.” Carolyn didn’t love the spotlight. It was something she knew she’d have to get used to, but it was not easy, especially when she couldn’t leave her apartment with the paparazzi camped outside. A lot of people said she got the prize, but honestly, I think John did. Carolyn was so extraordinary. Funny, beautiful. No photograph ever did justice to how beautiful she was in person.
—Daniel Pfeffer, a friend of Carolyn’s
At [John’s] mother’s house Carolyn liked to stay in bed with the dogs, all warm and cozy. John would want her in the boat. A cold boat. He had that nervous energy where he always had to do something. He wasn’t a hanging-out, laying-around kind of guy.
We used to have Thanksgivings together at Hyannis Port. I’d cook for them. Carolyn didn’t know how to cook too much, but she wanted to learn. John would ask me to tell Carolyn about his mother. I told her how she liked to spoil John a little but she’d get angry with him when he was a teenager and would take her car without permission to Martha’s Vineyard. We talked about how his mother liked clothes, how she didn’t go shopping when we traveled—the designers came to her. Carolyn loved those stories.
—Provi Paredes, Jackie’s personal assistant
Once Carolyn and I were flipping through his family photo album and there were pictures you would only see on the History Channel. She’d say, “Who is this, honey?” and he’d be, “Oh, that’s my father’s Secretary of State.” [BUT] he was just so normal. You never felt like you were in the presence of somebody with his fame.
In addition to their place in New York City, they were thinking of moving to the suburbs, a place to have privacy, a backyard. I think Carolyn always felt if they had children, it would be tough in the city. Their firstborn would be such a huge deal.
One day in Hyannis Port we were all talking in the kitchen and John said he wanted to have children. Both he and Carolyn wanted to. They both liked children—a lot. But there wasn’t enough time.
A FUTURE IN POLITICS
Someone once asked me if John were alive, what would he think of Obama being elected president, and I responded if John were alive, Barack Obama would not be the President. John would have gone into politics by now. He was approached to run for the Senate before Hillary Clinton joined the race. He was hesitant to go into politics until George was a success. He felt he needed more than just running on his name. Carolyn knew it was an eventuality. She was nervous about it—”That’s gonna be crazy”—but she understood it would be in her future. She believed in him.
THE FINAL WEEKS
A lot of John’s stress at that time was because his cousin and best friend Anthony Radziwill was dying of cancer. He was devastated. John would go almost every night after work. Carolyn was there, bringing food. She didn’t want to go to Rory’s wedding on the Cape that last weekend. She’d just come from spending a week in the hospital with Anthony. I think she would have liked to stay home, but she knew it was important to go for John.
I once asked him about “the Kennedy curse.” He said, “Well, there is no curse.” He said the way the Kennedys were raised was that they could do anything. The only thing bigger than them was nature. They didn’t consider it reckless. They didn’t think they were an unlucky family, but they believed they took more risks than the average person, whether it’s flying planes or skiing on the black diamonds of downhill. They certainly never thought they were above anything. They were just taught that they could do anything and were willing to try it.
Flying gave him freedom—maybe if you’re the most sought-after person on the planet, you can find peace by yourself flying an airplane. None of us probably thought about it as much as we should have. He has the best plane, he has an instructor, what could go wrong?
In the early morning hours of July 17, I woke up to the phone ringing. It was Rose. Their plane didn’t land. I kind of knew they were gone but was hoping for a miracle. When I look back now, I see how lucky I was to know them. They set examples for me for kindness, generosity, for what a person should be like. I remember them now by how they lived.
So many memories. When I think of John, I think of how wonderful he was and how he adored Carolyn. And how much everybody loved them both.