JFK Jr. Married Carolyn Bessette in Secret 25 Years Ago: Remembering All the Wedding Details
The couple exchanged vows on Sept. 21, 1996, during a small, private ceremony inside the First African Baptist Church on Cumberland Island, a mile off the coast of Georgia.
The isolated location and humble venue — the church, built by former slaves in 1893, had just eight wooden pews and no air conditioning — was a key part of a plan to keep the nuptials under wraps from the persistent press, which had been captivated by the couple's glamorous life and love story from the time they met in 1994 until the 1999 plane crash that killed them both as well as Lauren Bessette, Carolyn's sister.
"It was an incredibly magical moment," Reggie said of his memory of taking a photograph that soon landed on the cover of PEOPLE. "I saw it as it was unfolding, almost in silhouette. It was virtually dark outside. John reached for the hand of Carolyn; she was caught off guard. I'm walking backwards in the light rain at dusk, and John does this amazing gesture, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips."
"I was really moved by it and Carolyn's surprise," Reggie added to Vanity Fair. "I adored her expression — it says it all. The way she flowed in her beautiful dress, moving at full pace, coming down the steps. It was happening in real time, and not in any way posed or arranged."
"It was indicative of the way the wedding was — natural and of the moment, not trying to be any more than it was in its simplicity," he said. "It had such an incredible elegance and romance; the authenticity of it all, its simplicity gives it real power. It was a really special photograph."
For many, Reggie's image crystallized the romance, glamor and intimacy of the event, which took six months of planning that "required the skill of a James Bond and the whole CIA," Letitia Baldrige, the former White House chief of staff to the groom's mother, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, told PEOPLE at the time.
Bessette's wedding gown was designed by Narciso Rodriguez, a friend from her days as a Calvin Klein publicist. A year after she wore his creations — a timeless, pearl-colored silk crepe floor-length gown, a hand-rolled tulle silk veil and long silk gloves — the designer launched his own label.
"It was a great moment in my career but also a beautiful moment in my personal life," Rodriguez said in a 2018 Vogue story. "Someone I loved very much asked me to make the most important dress of her life."
The simplicity and elegance of the design made a lasting impression on the fashion world. The dress was "revolutionary," former Harper's Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Kate Betts, who worked at Vogue at the time of the wedding, told Vanity Fair this week.
"Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera were simplifying their designs, but not as simple as a slip dress," Betts said. "It crystallized that trend [minimalism] in fashion. That was her aesthetic, and her wedding dress was a very, very bold expression of that minimalism."
"What struck me about the dress is it was so bare—no ornamentation, no rhinestones or sequins or even embroidery," style expert and former What Not to Wear co-host Stacy London added. "She was just one of those women who understood how to make fashion work for her, not the other way around."
Among the 40 guests who crowded into the church that September day were Sen. Ted Kennedy (John's uncle) and his wife, Vicki; Onassis' sister Lee Radziwill Ross and her son Anthony Radziwill, who was best man; Onassis' longtime companion, financier Maurice Tempelsman; John's sister, Caroline, and her husband, architect-planner Edwin Schlossberg, and their daughters Rose and Tatiana, who were flower girls, and their son Jack Schlossberg, who was the ring bearer; and Bessette's mother, Ann Marie, sister Lisa and brother-in-law Michael Roman.
Rev. Charles J. O'Byrne of Manhattan's Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where John's mother's funeral mass was held in 1994, led the brief Catholic service, reading by flashlight in the dim, candlelit church.
The former first lady's presence was certainly felt by the bride and groom as well as their wedding. Her friend Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, who designed the White House Rose Garden, selected the flowers for the bridal party. Her longtime butler, Efigenio Pinhiero, arranged the greenery in the church's altar area.
The Greyfield Inn, a nine-bedroom mansion, was the location of the both the rehearsal dinner — where the groom toasted the woman who made him the "happiest man alive" — and the reception. Highlights of the post-wedding celebration included a three-tier white wedding cake, covered with vanilla butter-cream frosting and flower decorations; the couple's first dance to "Forever in My Life" by Prince; and Sen. Kennedy's toast, which brought everyone to tears, his spokeswoman Melody Miller told PEOPLE at the time.
That one of the country's most prominent couples wanted to keep their wedding secret wasn't surprising given Bessette's uneasiness with the blinding spotlight that surrounded her new husband.
That they were successful is another story. The planning was a big part of it — but so was the remote location, where more wild horses than people roam.
"They couldn't have chosen a more obscure place," Chris McLean, a builder living in nearby Fernandina Beach, Florida, told PEOPLE.
As the wedding date approached, some of the locals began to catch on as guests arrived by plane and ferry, caterers and waiters were called up and other arrangements came together. But the secret was well kept, thanks in part to a confidentiality agreement signed by workers and guests and, as PEOPLE reported at the time, a sense among those who lived on and near the island that the son of a beloved president and his bride deserved to celebrate privately.