Since her marriage last weekend to John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette has been breathlessly described as the beautiful and brainy new Queen of Camelot. Interviews with friends and former colleagues reveal a more recognizable young woman: a child of affluent suburbia, with less interest in academics than in downtown clubs, whose extraordinary looks, sophistication and ambition propelled her rapidly upward through the fashion industry in New York.
Armchair Freudians have also noted the many similarities between Ms. Bessette-Kennedy, as she has chosen to be called, and Kennedy's famous mother, the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Like Onassis, Bessette-Kennedy is Roman Catholic and the product of divorced parents, with a French name if not heritage. Like Onassis, Bessette-Kennedy is athletic, with an almost mysterious allure in public and, former colleagues say, a short temper in private. And like the image-conscious Onassis, who directed her designer, Oleg Cassini, to create the look of pillbox hats and boxy suits that became her trademark as first lady, Bessette-Kennedy, 30, worked closely for months with her designer to create the $40,000 (at least) wedding dress she wore in the tumbledown church on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia last weekend.
"It's a very sensuous dress," said her friend and designer, Narciso Rodriguez of the Design House of Nino Cerutti, who made his pearl-colored silk crepe creation a gift to the bride. "That's what we both wanted from the beginning."
The Kennedys, spotted last week honeymooning in Istanbul (where she was photographed in a Jackie-ish head scarf and sunglasses), have not announced a date for their return to New York. But their marriage -- a nexis of youngish fashion, media, politics and celebrity -- has already set off speculation about which Manhattan social circles, if any, they will choose for themselves. Kennedy, 35, the editor in chief of the political monthly George, grew up on Fifth Avenue but in his adult life has largely ignored his mother's Upper East Side milieu.
Bessette-Kennedy, a former public relations executive at Calvin Klein, who made her mark at the design house in her early 20s by selling privately and well to Klein's celebrity friends, has spent long hours in Manhattan nightclubs.
Will the two keep their lives largely quiet and downtown, and continue to live in Kennedy's TriBeCa loft? Will Bessette-Kennedy have a promotional hand in George, a magazine thick with ads but thin, critics say, in content? Will they have children, and will Bessette-Kennedy go back to a job? Will the president's son ever run for public office?
Fashion editors are already eager to anoint Bessette-Kennedy as a new icon of fashion. "We'd love to have her on the cover," said Liz Tilberis, the editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar and a Calvin Klein devotee. "She's going to be an amazing symbol of American style."
Carolyn Bessette grew up in a large house on Lake Avenue in Greenwich, Conn. Her mother, Ann Freeman, worked as a teacher and an administrator in the Chappaqua public school system, and her stepfather, Dr. Richard Freeman, was the chief of orthopedic surgery at White Plains Hospital. Her father, William Bessette, is an architectural engineer in White Plains, N.Y.
Bessette-Kennedy graduated from St. Mary's High School in Greenwich in 1983 and went on to Boston University's School of Education.
She dated a campus hockey star, John Cullen, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and appeared on the cover of a calendar called "The Girls of BU." After four and a half years of college, she graduated in January 1988 with a degree in elementary education and soon had a job as a saleswoman at the Calvin Klein boutique in Boston's Chestnut Hill Mall.
In no time, her beauty and style were brought to the attention of a Calvin Klein executive in New York, Susan Sokol, who was looking for a woman to handle Klein's celebrity clients.
"Carolyn fit the bill perfectly," said Sokol, who was then a president at Calvin Klein. "She was absolutely charming, she was completely refreshing, she was completely outgoing." Here was a young woman, Sokol said, "who wouldn't feel intimidated working with these kinds of people."
Sokol's instincts were right. A former colleague at Calvin Klein said Bessette-Kennedy quickly established herself as savvy beyond her years, the perfect saleswoman for important clients like television correspondent Diane Sawyer, socialite Blaine Trump and actress Annette Bening, who all ordered privately from Klein's showroom.
Bessette-Kennedy was herself the best advertisement for Klein's clothes, and her all-American beauty the perfect public face for a design house, where image is crucial. Former associates say she was one of the designer's muses, close to both Klein and Kelly Klein, his now-estranged wife.
"She was 'The Look,' " said a former Calvin Klein employee, who remembers how Zach Carr, a designer for Klein, would often say, "I wonder how Carolyn would put this together.' "
In her seven years at Calvin Klein, Bessette-Kennedy moved up from celebrity sales to a director of public relations to director of show production, a job that gave her responsibility, among other things, for Klein's fall and spring shows in Bryant Park.
Bessette-Kennedy quit her job at Calvin Klein in the spring. Good friends speculate that she was tired of the work after seven years, was not happy with changes in the Calvin Klein management and wanted time to plan her wedding. Not such good friends say it was Klein who was tired of all the publicity Bessette-Kennedy was getting as Kennedy's girlfriend.
Pub Date: 9/30/96