The first time Carolyn Bessette burst onto the front pages of the nation's newspapers, she was bare-toed and luminous in white, carrying a bridal bouquet. In a covert wedding to the most electric member of the nation's most prominent political dynasty, Bessette became another one of the Kennedy wives -- and bent her life to fit.

On her way to join the clan for another Kennedy wedding, Bessette never arrived. The plane piloted by her husband, John F. Kennedy Jr., apparently went into the sea off Martha's Vineyard. Also on board was Bessette's older sister, Lauren, a venture capitalist.

Immediately upon her marriage on Sept. 21, 1996, the expectations closed in on Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. The traditionalists demanded she have a child. The fashion industry from which she had emerged declared her an icon of tossed-together chic and thrilled to see her striding about Manhattan in strappy sandals and tight pants, a scarf and sunglasses wrapped around her head. "So very much like Jackie O!" the captions cooed, and the charity deities of New York hoped very much that the new Mrs. Kennedy would grow to be like her late mother-in-law -- stylish, dignified and committed.

In the face of all that, Bessette, 33, tried to keep a low profile. She showed up at fashion shows and shopped and made the scene with her husband, the publisher of George magazine, when that scene was not stuffily political. She went along to Kennedy family gatherings at Hyannis Port and had dinner with her husband's aunt, Lee Radziwill. Often, friends said, she sought counsel on being a Kennedy and a camera magnet from her sister-in-law, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.

And this worked. Nearly three years after her marriage, she had succeeded in shaking her media hounds. She became studiedly boring. While blond and as coolly alluring as ever, she popped up seldomly, spoke in public even less and always, when making an entrance, allowed her husband to grip her hand tightly.

But in the past several months, Bessette Kennedy seemed to relax and began to look less severe. In May, at the Vanity Fair party after the White House Correspondents Association dinner, she lounged about outside with her husband and a group that included actor Sean Penn. She giggled and perched herself on the lap of State Department spokesman James Rubin, whose wife, Christiane Amanpour, had gone to college with John Kennedy. She nuzzled with her handsome husband.

In May, Kennedy said his wife had gotten used to media scrutiny. She herself said the ceaseless gossip "has nothing to do with how I live my life. I have problems and issues just like anybody." She told People magazine she didn't read stories about herself and said "I'm a happy person and maybe a better person for not knowing."

Raised in a well-to-do family in Greenwich, Conn., Bessette grew up among a family of girls. Her mother, a schoolteacher, was divorced from Carolyn's father and remarried to a cardiologist, who also had daughters. Her twin sisters, Lisa and Lauren, about 18 months older than she, seemed the academic powerhouses. At the time of John and Carolyn's wedding, Lisa was working on a doctorate in Renaissance studies. Lauren, a vice president at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, recently had begun dating John's cousin, Robert Shriver.

A 1988 graduate of Boston University with a degree in elementary education, Bessette never worked in a classroom. Instead, she worked at becoming an It Girl, first by employing her head-turning beauty and willowy figure to market nightclubs. Later, she worked for Calvin Klein as a publicist until a few months before her wedding. Recently, she reportedly had considered returning to work.

Introduced by mutual friends, the couple conducted their courtship under intense media scrutiny. When they wed after a year of living together, they slipped off to a rural island off the coast of Georgia. There, inside a faded clapboard chapel adorned with flowers and candles, Kennedy relinquished his claim as the world's most desirable bachelor. Bessette wore a simple silk bias-cut slip of a wedding dress that immediately set a standard for thousands of brides.

"There is something mysterious and female in the world, and she has a good connection to it," said John Perry Barlow, a friend of John Kennedy's, at the time of the wedding. "It's deep and primordial and lovely."

In the past months, the gossip columns and tabloids grew half-hearted in their speculation about whether the union would last or if it would produce a child, instead contenting themselves with speculation about whether she fussed when her husband flew around in his new plane, his latest passion.

She didn't like it, they decreed. She refused to go up with him. In May, however, she was on board when Kennedy landed his plane in Washington to attend the correspondents' dinner.

"The only person I've been able to get to go up with me, who looks forward to it as much as I do, is my wife," Kennedy told USA Today last year. "The second it was legal she came up with me."

CAPTION: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy tried to keep a low profile, but often appeared with husband John F. Kennedy Jr. at events such as a 1997 gala dinner honoring actor Robert DeNiro.