July 24, 2000 12:00 PM

A year later, the tangible traces of the life John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, shared are gone. Their beloved dog Friday, who used to accompany the pair on kayaking expeditions on Martha’s Vineyard, is resettled in Portugal with Jackie Onassis’s longtime butler, Efigenio Pinheiro. The other member of their household, a black cat named Ruby, now lives with friends of the couple’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As for the $2 million-plus loft that John and Carolyn shared in New York City’s Tribeca, the 2,400-sq.-ft. penthouse at 20 North Moore St. was sold to actor Ed Burns, 32, who neighbors say has moved in.

Then, on July 6, the release of the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report laid another piece of their lives to rest: their last moments together. In language as cool and clinical as a medical examiner’s autopsy, the detailed 400-page account cited “spatial disorientation” as the cause of the 2,600-foot “graveyard spiral” that sent Kennedy’s Piper Saratoga into the waters off Martha’s Vineyard last July 16, killing John, 38, Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34. As in all NTSB air-crash reports, the term “pilot error” was not used. “When the public thinks of pilot error, they think of doing something stupid,” says Peter Katz, the publisher of NTSB Reporter and Aviation Monthly. “Spatial disorientation is a physical effect.”

Though it had been widely anticipated that the report would lay responsibility for the fatal crash firmly on JFK Jr., other aspects were surprising, coming after a year of mounting speculation that Kennedy, who got his pilot’s license in 1998, had been ill-prepared when he set course early in the evening from Essex County airport in Fairfield, N.J. “One impression that I get after looking at the complete file is that Kennedy was a very serious pilot,” says Katz, one of the few people to see the entire document. Contrary to reports that Kennedy had never flown this route alone, his pilot logbook indicated that he had made several solo flights to the Cape, including four in adverse weather, all without incident. Moreover, the report makes clear that Kennedy asked all the right questions during his preflight weather briefings and was given no hint of the heavy haze he would encounter. “It looks like it was a very routine flight,” says Katz. “I don’t see anything irresponsible.”

While the NTSB report may finally silence nagging crash rumors, there seems no end to the gossipy juggernaut Kennedy’s and Bessette’s deaths unleashed. With those nearest to them reluctant to rebut the charges—”John’s way would have been to let it go, not to deal with it,” explains one of his closest friends—the tabloid press has had an unobstructed field day, characterizing the couple’s three-year marriage as headed for divorce court, unhinged by cocaine use (hers), depression (hers) and infidelity (mostly his, occasionally hers). Even the newly released The Day John Died, by celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen, which maintains that the marriage was back on track after a rocky period, fuels the fire with reports of Carolyn’s taking antidepressants, her fear of flying with John and the suggestion that the couple had been to a marriage counselor.

Now, on the first anniversary of their deaths, friends who have been silent are speaking out to set straight what they regard as a wildly distorted picture of the Kennedy-Bessette union. They describe the couple’s bond as strong and impassioned, one with all the ups and downs any marriage might anticipate—and then some—but one un-threatened by either drugs or divorce. “It was a tumultuous marriage, and they loved each other very much,” says John Perry Barlow, 52, a cyberguru who was a pal of Kennedy’s for more than 20 years. “John loved her desperately. He really worshipped the ground she walked on. She was a creature with a lot of ‘weather,’ and you had to be ready to ride the storm. John liked it that way.”

That passion, say their friends, flowed two ways. “She was totally crazy about John,” says Joe McKenna, a fashion stylist who met Bessette in 1993 when she was working as a PR director for Calvin Klein. “The fact that she was not a public person and made herself public for John says a lot about how she felt about him.” Adds Lynn Tesoro, 39, who grew close to Bessette during their days together at Calvin Klein, where Tesoro was VP of public relations: “I saw her the Wednesday before [she died], and I thought she never looked better or sounded more in love.”

Certainly, among intimates the pair were not reluctant to display their affection. They called each other Mouse. Seth Price, co-owner of Bubby’s, one of the couple’s favorite Tribeca eateries, says, “They’d cuddle and play footsies under the table.” Adds Tesoro: “John and Carolyn were very playful with one another. If we were at a group dinner, even across the table they would be making faces at each other. Sometimes she would just lean over to me and say, ‘Isn’t he gorgeous?’ ”

In public, though, it was a different story. “The press made her absolutely miserable,” says Barlow. “She was under such continuous assault that sometimes getting through the day was all she could do.” Another friend recalls that “the paparazzi were obsessive with Carolyn. She’d have to leave for appointments hours earlier, sometimes at 7 in the morning, or they’d swarm the house. They were much more behaved if John was around.” And if she was alone? “They would chase her into traffic,” the friend says. “If they got her, they’d follow her around all day.”

Or worse. One Saturday morning as the couple headed out of town, says McKenna, “they were chased side by side by a car of photographers. They were on a highway. It was dangerous.” Recalling the 1996 paparazzi shots of Kennedy and Bessette having a heated argument in Central Park, the publication of which was particularly tough on Carolyn, another friend says, “She was terribly upset about it.” While such rights “happen every day to couples,” says the friend, “it became their defining moment.”

“People expected so much of her,” says Tesoro. “Marriage is a difficult transition; to attach to it celebrity and scrutiny makes it even more so.” It affected Kennedy as well. “John didn’t hate photographers,” says a business associate. “But his attitude changed fundamentally after he married Carolyn. He was very protective of her.”

The unwanted attention even compelled the couple to postpone starting a family, though both wanted children. “[John] wanted to wait until things died down,” says Barlow. “He felt it was tough enough to be newly married under the circumstances, without the national klieg lights they would have had as soon as they had a child.” Price heard the same desire for a family from Bessette. “She would always talk about wanting to have kids,” he says, “more so in the last few months before the accident.”

One sad irony is that Bessette was beginning to master her aversion to the press. “Over the next few years it would have been so much easier for them,” says Paul Wilmot, a former Calvin Klein executive. As it was, she never shrank from her public role as Kennedy’s wife. “Being married to John seemed like a full-time job,” says Tesoro. “She’d visit him at George, and she had obligations with dinners for the magazine and traveling with John.”

Friends say she enjoyed her wifely routine, which included cooking and decorating. She also loved spending time with both families, his and hers. “There was a special closeness between Carolyn and her sisters, and they were very close to their mom,” says Tesoro. “When Lauren moved [to Manhattan], Carolyn introduced her to the neighborhood and friends.”

Still, two close friends attest, Bessette missed having her own career, having quit the fashion world prior to her September 1996 wedding. Says her pal McKenna: “She thought a lot about going back to work. It was hard for her, because she felt the press was always watching.” One option she was exploring, he says, was film school.

Contrary to the ice-queen image that dogged her throughout her short marriage, friends paint Bessette as a warm person with a wicked sense of humor. “She could make fun of herself,” says Tesoro. “Once when a magazine put her on the cover and called her a ‘Style Icon,’ Carolyn called me and joked, ‘Six months ago I was a nobody, and now I’m a style icon!’ ” The style icon sometimes liked to hang out in sweatpants and baggy cashmere sweaters. And her favorite midtown restaurant was a hamburger joint. “She knew every waitress by name,” says McKenna.

Tesoro also recalls Bessette’s quiet generosity. One day while shopping at Ralph Lauren, she saw a customer berating a saleswoman. “She took [the saleswoman] aside afterwards and comforted her,” says Tesoro. “When she got home, she sent her a big bouquet of flowers and said, ‘Just let it go. You’re great.’ ”

She lavished the same care on John. During a November 1997 trip to Argos, Ind., to try out a powered parachute that John would eventually buy, he lost a black knit cap that he had been wearing. “After a few minutes,” recalls Ralph Howard, who sold him the two-seat craft, “he was getting visibly upset. Carolyn was telling him not to worry, that they’d find it.” Then Carolyn turned to Howard and explained, “The reason [John] is so upset is that his mom gave him that hat just before she died.” While she was consoling John, Carolyn recalled that he had been wearing the hat in Howard’s truck. “John opened the door and there it was, on the seat,” says Howard.

Like John, Carolyn was devoted to Anthony Radziwill, 40, a Kennedy cousin (his mother, Lee Radziwill Ross, is Jackie Onassis’s sister) who had served as best man at the Kennedy-Bessette wedding and fought a prolonged battle against cancer before his death last August. Friends say she visited Anthony daily during his many hospitalizations, hand-delivering the miso soup and Italian food that he craved, and doted on his wife, Carole, 36. “Whenever there were down times,” says McKenna, “you could rely on Carolyn.”

Several friends also mention Bessette’s ready way with kids, including Caroline Kennedy and Ed Schlossberg’s children Rose, 12; Tatiana, 10; and John, 7. She seemed to understand their needs instinctively. “After I had my third baby, Carolyn realized that he was getting all the attention,” says Tesoro. Carolyn’s antidote was to go play with the oldest, Sammy, then 4, in his room. “I went in there and all the toys were pulled out of the closet and they were playing on the floor,” says Tesoro with a laugh. “I remember asking her, ‘Who’s going to clean this up?’ ”

In all, it is a picture that contrasts starkly with the troubled marriage depicted in the tabs and elsewhere. In The Day John Died, for example, Andersen writes, “John was telling friends that for months Carolyn, unhappy despite a steady diet of prescription antidepressants, had simply refused to sleep with him.” Friends dismiss these rumors, as well as those alleging infidelity and cocaine abuse, as simply not true. “Even when I talked to people who knew her well when she was doing PR for clubs in Boston, they said she stayed away from drugs,” Andersen himself concurs.

About other rumors, friends offer debunking tidbits. There is a much-ballyhooed report, for instance, that the couple slept apart on their last night, Kennedy having checked into the Stanhope Hotel on upper Fifth Avenue and breakfasting the next morning with his old friend Julie Baker, a former model. While a friend confirms that Kennedy did indeed stay at the hotel that night, it was, she insists, because he had been working late on refinancing plans for George and had misplaced his house keys, a familiar failing for Kennedy, who took to attaching them to his pants, janitor style, with a key chain. And a hotel staffer says that John was unaccompanied that night.

Close friends dispute any talk of divorce—as does Raoul Felder, the high-profile divorce lawyer, who flatly denies a newspaper report that he was approached by Carolyn. Similarly, few close to her believe that Carolyn was wary of flying with Kennedy. “She wouldn’t have invited her friends [to join them] if she didn’t think it was safe,” says a friend. As for reports of marriage counseling, two intimates say it never happened.

It remains to be seen whether the memory of the Kennedy-Bessette marriage will be further riled by litigation. In filing court papers to administer the estates of her two daughters, Carolyn’s mother, Ann Freeman, also left open the possibility of pursuing personal-injury and wrongful-death claims. “This was a perfect liability case the minute it happened,” says attorney James Kreindler, a specialist in aviation accident litigation. Constantine Ralli, the Freemans’ lawyer, dismisses rumors that they have already settled with the Kennedys, saying only, “The parties are dealing with the situation in a cooperative and reasonable manner.”

In the meantime, says the Reverend Jeffrey Walker, the Freemans are “doing as well as can be expected.” Walker is rector of the church in Greenwich, Conn., at which Ann and her husband, Richard, an orthopedist, held a candlelight service for Lauren last July. Hobart and William Smith Colleges has established a financial prize and scholarship in Lauren’s name; an alumna of the school, she was a high-level executive at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

Surviving daughter Lisa Bessette, 35, Lauren’s twin, remains enrolled in a doctoral program in art history/ Renaissance studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Ann, in memory of her youngest daughter, has established the Carolyn Fund at Kids in Crisis in Cos Cob, Conn., an emergency shelter and outreach program for runaways and troubled youths where Ann has volunteered for years. Some 1,400 donations have netted the fund about $75,000.

As for marking John, Carolyn and Lauren’s passing in some formal way on July 16, most Kennedys, who prefer to commemorate birthdays and not deaths, plan to attend mass. “Not a day goes by that we don’t think of John and Carolyn and Lauren and all they meant to us,” says Sen. Ted Kennedy, who for several months after John’s death attended mass almost every noon at St. Joseph’s Church, near his Capitol office. A handful of intimate friends intend to have a quiet, private memorial. For the most part, each person will deal with his or her grief alone, no doubt recalling what John and Carolyn meant to them. “For some reason, there’s this desire to constantly demean them,” says a friend. “I don’t know why. Theirs was such a beautiful love affair.”

Jill Smolowe

Elizabeth McNeil, KC Baker and Matt Birkbeck in New York City, Jennifer Longley in Hyannisport, Eric Francis in Providence, Ellen Piligian in Ann Arbor and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.

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