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  • The Bessettes' Double Disaster

    St.Michael's Church, AP
    Friends of the Bessette family kneel at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Conn., on Sunday. (AP)
    By Ann Gerhart and Robin Givhan
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, July 19, 1999; Page C1

    Fragments of a life washed ashore over the weekend, grim omens of the sad news that seems destined to come. Two sisters gone. One family must now face the loss of two daughters in a single, unbelievable moment. And friends are left stunned by the fragility of life.

    As all the world now knows, the Piper Saratoga II HP piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., 38, that carried his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her older sister Lauren Bessette, was reported missing early Saturday. While the Coast Guard continues to search, the tragic reality is becoming clear.

    But hope and faith in miracles linger on. The mind needs time to prepare and to mount its defenses. "The only thing I can say is that I'm still hoping and praying that they will be found alive," said Calvin Klein. Bessette Kennedy, 33, worked for the designer just prior to her marriage.

    The suitcase washed ashore first. It was a black garment bag. It belonged to Lauren Bessette, 34. Then came the bottle of prescription medicine. Bessette Kennedy's name was typed across the label.

    There has been much talk about how the Kennedy family, so blessed with wealth, power and glamour, also is haunted by the tragedy of young lives cut short. Now another family has been caught in the awful net. Two sisters gone. And for one of them, a life that had been seen as a national fairy tale has been transformed into "the American tragedy."

    "We just cry all the time, all my friends. We just cry. I'm 52 years old; I'm not supposed to be crying, but this is just unbelievable," says Paul Wilmot, a New York public relations executive who worked with Bessette Kennedy.

    The story of Bessette Kennedy is not told in words as much as with scenes from a life and a romance set in an age of glossy images and the valuable currency of celebrity. She dated some high-profile men an heir to the Benetton fortune, the captain of the Boston University hockey team who later turned pro, and Michael Bergin, a Calvin Klein model. She was dubbed the "Ultimate Beautiful Person" by her high school graduating class at St. Mary's High School in Connecticut. That moniker foreshadowed the life that she would soon come to lead.

    While she dabbled in modeling and nightclub marketing, it was her time in the fashion industry that put her on the path toward becoming part of the Kennedy clan, rising to the level of celebrity and style icon. She had been working at the Calvin Klein boutique just outside Boston in Chestnut Hill some 10 years ago. She had the sort of look and style that fuel the fashion industry. She was tall, blond, reed-thin and nonchalantly elegant.

    Executives in the company noticed her immediately.

    "She wanted to move to New York. She came in and I interviewed her. I took one look and in 30 seconds I thought, 'I gotta get her,'" says Wilmot, who at the time was senior vice president of public relations for the Calvin Klein Co.

    "She was 24 or something like that and instantly she became a part of the culture," Wilmot says. "She was one of the campus characters you get in fashion funny, irreverent."

    Initially, she worked with "friends of the house," the stars, socialites Blaine Trump, Nan Kempner and fashion editors who came to the showrooms to purchase clothes. "None of whom had 'easy' written next to their name," Wilmot says. Soon she was working the fashion shows and broader publicity projects.

    "No matter what was going on in fashion, she had that long blond hair. When everyone was cultivating the [no makeup] look, Carolyn kept that red lipstick. No adornment except for those red lips," says Jade Hobson Charnin, who was creative director of Mirabella during part of Bessette Kennedy's time at Calvin Klein.

    Bessette Kennedy "got" fashion. "She got the nuances and the style that goes with the whole business," Wilmot says. "It was in her DNA." She understood the mix of power and ego and image. And in many ways, she carried that knowledge into her marriage. Her choice of a wedding gown spoke succinctly of her recognition that a single photograph could define one's public persona. The dress, a silk crepe bias gown designed by her friend Narciso Rodriguez, quickly identified her as elegant, sexy and even a bit devilish.

    "She's such a beautiful girl, and I don't mean just physically beautiful, she's I sound like a gushing fan, don't I? she's just amazing. I'll never see anything more beautiful than that," he said just after her wedding in 1996.

    Rodriguez declined to comment for this story.

    According to Wilmot, it was Kelly Klein, ex-wife of designer Calvin Klein, who introduced Bessette Kennedy to her husband-to-be at a party. Kelly Klein declined to discuss her relationship with Bessette Kennedy, noting only that "I'll be happy to talk ... when we know more. Now, I think it's better to wait."

    Bessette Kennedy believed in discretion, practiced it at work and encouraged it among her friends. Perhaps it was something instilled in her by her parents, who maintain a low profile in Greenwich, Conn. Her mother is a public school teacher and administrator. Her stepfather is an orthopedic surgeon. Maybe it was something learned in the fashion industry, dealing with the whims of paranoid movie stars and privacy-loving socialites. Or perhaps she developed it as a survival technique when she entered the public world of the Kennedys.

    The public attention is usually okay, Bessette Kennedy once remarked to Fern Mallis, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. But when you leave the loft and you're walking the dog and picking up the poop and there are the photographers, that's when you really want to lose it.

    While Bessette Kennedy became a symbol of fairy tale romance, her sister achieved in the world of high finance. The most telling piece of Lauren Bessette's life that washed up was the business card on her suitcase, identifying her as a vice president for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. She had returned to Wall Street after several years of living in Hong Kong, where she worked as a venture capitalist putting together deals in Asia. In the spring of 1998, she bought a co-op in TriBeCa, just a few blocks away from the loft her sister shared with Kennedy.

    A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School of Business, Bessette had made her own ripple in the New York gossip columns, which had reported in recent months that she was dating Robert Shriver, a son of Sargent and Eunice Shriver.

    The devastated family has remained secluded in the modest Cape Cod-style Greenwich house that her mother, Ann Freeman, and stepfather, Richard Freeman, moved to recently from nearby New Canaan, Conn. A woman who answered the phone at the Freeman family home yesterday hung up on a reporter. A phone call to the home of Lisa Bessette, Lauren's twin sister, went unanswered, as did a call to William Bessette, their father.

    A stream of visitors to the Freeman home came and went, and police stationed cruisers in front of the house and at the end of a private road that led to it. At St. Michael's Catholic Church in Greenwich, friends of the sisters gathered for Sunday Mass and heard pastor Michael Moynihan try to explain to children gathered at the altar what had happened. "We pray in a very special way today for three people who were in a plane accident," he said. "Some of your parents here went to high school with those people."

    The cursed destiny that grips America's grandest political dynasty now has engulfed an ordinary family with its own bright and promising children.

    "For the Kennedys, it's more than any family should have to bear," said Olive Curran as she knelt in a pew at St. Michael's. "And for the Bessettes, I feel so sorry for this family who are waiting for two daughters to come home."

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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