Who Was Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Really?

ONCE UPON A TIME: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, by Elizabeth Beller

One of the many reasons to wish that Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy were alive and well is that, without too much urging, she might have formed a sorority with Meghan Markle. They could have talked about what it’s like to be a woman thrust into a brutal family dynasty and a Hobbesian press ecosystem. Maybe they would have exchanged tips for dodging paparazzi. Maybe, over enough drinks, they would have asked each other if their husbands were worth all the trouble.

Sadly, we can only come at Bessette-Kennedy now through intermediaries. And none of them could be more ardent in their mission than Elizabeth Beller, whose unironically titled biography, “Once Upon a Time,” aims to make John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wife the princess she was meant to be. Squeezing bright memories from dozens of Bessette-Kennedy’s friends, acquaintances and family members, Beller lays down a yellow-brick road from her subject’s middle-class White Plains childhood to her tony Greenwich adolescence to her convivial semesters at Boston University to her V.I.P. sales job at Calvin Klein in New York.

Beller is there, too, when America’s most famous bachelor wandered in for a fitting. Boy and girl, helpless in their beauty, gazed upon each other. Boy asked for girl’s number. There followed “a haze of sultry dinners, dancing and walks.” But John F. Kennedy Jr. was in no hurry to settle down. He was on-and-off-dating a temperamental Hollywood actress, and even when he and Bessette-Kennedy did become an item, he didn’t introduce her to his mother, who then died before he could.

Their Georgia wedding was lovely, but the marriage was troubled. John’s energies were drawn away by the launch of George, his doomed magazine. His gregarious wife was a prisoner in her own home, thanks to an unhinged tabloid press. “If I don’t leave the house before 8 a.m.,” she told a friend, “they’re waiting for me. Every morning. They chase me down the street.”

The couple grew distant. They got into arguments. They went to couples therapy. But “Once Upon a Time” wants us to know that, through it all, they were meant to be. “They would love hard and they would fight hard,” one friend said, “but they were very much a couple.”

“They were soul mates,” Beller quotes George Plimpton as saying.

And through it all, apparently, Bessette-Kennedy never stopped being a golden girl. We’re told over and again how gorgeous and elegant she was, how smart and funny and kind. She loved kids, dogs, cats, old people. She had “abundant gifts to share.” She was “wild and vivid in a cautious and pale world.” She was “a revelation.”

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