Their storybook wedding on Cumberland Island on Sept. 21, 1996 made many believe in their fairytale romance — but the true story about John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette‘s marriage was always much more complicated.
Now a new book, The Kennedy Heirs by J. Randy Taraborrelli, examines the complexities of their marriage and how they struggled to make it work, as part of an exploration into the family’s third generation, the grandchildren of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy.
“John and Carolyn loved each other,” says Taraborrelli, “but their struggles were much more real than people realize.”
When John first met the beautiful Calvin Klein fashion publicist in the mid-nineties, he confided to a close friend, “You know how you hear about meeting a girl and knowing instantly she’s the one? Well, it happened to me.”
Their relationship was intense from the beginning. “John wanted her to know him as other than the son of the president,” says Taraborrelli. But she struggled to fit in with his powerful family.
During her first visit to the Hyannis Port family compound, Ethel Kennedy quizzed her about current events at the dinner table, Taraborrelli writes: “So, do you think a federal assault weapons ban will impact crime in our country, dear?” asked Ethel. “Carolyn looked stunned. ‘I…um…I…uh…I think it will?” she answered.
“I’m sure you do, dear,” Ethel responded. “You may want to read up on it. It’s quite important.”
Still, John did not fully realize how hard it was for his wife to adjust to the spotlight. He was used to it, having often been surrounded by photographers since he was a young boy. But she often felt hunted by the paparazzi.
Quoting an unnamed friend of John’s, Taraborrelli describes a scene one night at their apartment at the end of one stressful week dealing with the press. “He [the friend] walked in just in time to see Carolyn doing a line of coke from the coffee table,” Taraborrelli writes. “‘It’s been a bad week,’ John told [the friend] as he sat down and did a line.”
Then, the friend said, John put his head in Carolyn’s lap and she tenderly stroked his hair. “They looked peaceful together,” said the friend.
Taraborrelli also spoke to John’s friend John Perry Barlow, the Grateful Dead lyricist who died last year. Barlow told him that John was a recreational user. “He and his friend John Perry Barlow had been doing acid and Ecstasy together for years,” Taraborrelli writes.
According to Taraborrelli, Barlow said, “[John] thought of them as a way to experience life differently.”
Adds Taraborrelli: “This was the nineties when young people, like John and Carolyn, sometimes partied. They had experiences the way people often do. I found no evidence of any addiction or problems for either of them.”
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Their stress grew as they dealt with the impending death of John’s cousin, Anthony Radziwill (the son of Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill), who had cancer. “You can’t overestimate the impact Anthony’s illness had on John and their marriage, and his feelings of despair about what was happening to his cousin,” says Taraborrelli. “John and Anthony had a relationship no one could get in the middle of. And Carolyn was having a hard time accessing him.”
By 1998, Carolyn reconnected with an old friend, someone to confide in. According to Taraborrelli, one night she went to his apartment for a conversation that ended with a kiss. Then, he writes, Carolyn “pulled away and said, ‘No, what am I doing? I can’t be here right now,’ and quickly left.”
Carolyn told John what happened. Two days later, the friend woke up at 2 in the morning when his buzzer rang, with a voice identifying himself as a police officer. “He opened the door to find John Kennedy, his face twisted in anger,” Taraborrelli writes. “John swung a punch. ‘Stay away from my goddamn wife.'”
By that April, the two were in couples counseling, Taraborrelli explains: “Both wanted to improve their marriage. John didn’t want to be one of those Kennedy men who didn’t care how his wife feels.”
When they were invited to the wedding of John’s cousin, Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, in July 1999, Carolyn told John she did not want to go. But several days later, she changed her mind, knowing how much it meant to John. She invited her sister, Lauren, to come along on the flight.
On July 16, 1999, the plane, piloted by John, crashed into the waters off of Martha’s Vineyard, tragically killing all three.
In the 20 years since, there’s been endless speculation about John and Carolyn’s marriage. “They were working on their relationship at the time they died,” says Taraborrelli. “They thought they had all the time in the world to figure this out.”
“Together they had the most thrilling highs and the most crushing blows,” he says. “They really did love each other, but the question I ask in the book and the question they asked themselves was, ‘Is that enough?’ Their love for each other was undeniable, but was it enough considering everything that was working against them?”
For more about JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.