July 20, 2016 05:20 PM

Seventeen years after JFK Jr.’s death, his closest friends reveal never-before-told stories about his life and final weeks. Subscribe now for an inside look at the JFK Jr. you never knew, only in PEOPLE!

She married the most eligible bachelor in the world and became famous overnight, but seventeen years after her death, friends of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. tell PEOPLE that she was much more than the ethereal beauty who captured John’s heart.

“She was a whole other complex woman, says close friend Sasha Chermayeff. “The newness of the celebrity was much more shocking for her.”

In I Am JFK Jr., a new SPIKE TV documentary airing Aug. 1 (and now opening in select theaters), as well as in this week’s PEOPLE, several of John’s friends say he was focused on protecting her from the shock of sudden fame and constant attention that met her after their 1996 wedding.

“John loved Carolyn, he was enchanted with her – body and soul – from the first minute he met her,” says his friend Brian Steel, who was a fellow assistant DA in the New York County District Attorney’s office. “But I think the fact that she had trouble coping with his fame definitely caused stress later on.”

OLYMPIA/SIPA

Before their deaths in 1999, in addition to looking for a buyer for the magazine George and considering an entry into politics, JFK Jr. was struggling with questions about their marriage, often prompted by the intense scrutiny.

“He struggled with her inability to cope with the public nature of their life,” says Steel. “She needed to work through that, but he never wavered in his commitment to helping her. He definitely wanted children at some point in time. He loved kids. He loved his nieces and nephew. And they were very much life partners.”

While the relationship could be stormy, friends insist their bond was strong.

“They had an intense passion,” says Chris Oberbeck, John’s college housemate who remained a close friend. “That passion was manifested in loving each other and really having a great time together and it was also manifested in unbelievable fights. It was not a Leave It To Beaver type of relationship. To a certain degree, that’s intriguing and interesting, but it’s also difficult.”

Still, friends say, their attraction was electric.

“You have these forces – gravity and electricity, magnetic attractions and then you’ve got nuclear binding forces,” says Oberbeck. “They had this attraction that was so powerful.”

JFK Jr. on the cover of PEOPLE

While the speculation was intense, friends say they were trying their best to make it work.

“Emotionally there was some distance that hadn’t been there before, but that happens with couples,” says Chermayeff. “They were going through the first five or so years when you learn what you’re getting yourself into, when you’re no longer blinded by love and then it gets intense. It was difficult but they were deeply connected. What was going to happen, we’ll never know.”

According to John’s former assistant RoseMarie Terenzio, now a PR strategist who wrote about their relationship in her memoir Fairytale Interrupted, “John and Carolyn were very realistic about their marriage. They did not have the fairy tale expectation that was projected on them.

“They were aware that there would be tough times,” she added. “And I think they were committed to working through them.”

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