Once Upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy by Elizabeth Beller

At the end of Camelot, Arthur has lost the war, his queen, and his knights. At the end of The Once and Future King, it is even worse: Arthur knows he will lose his life. And yet in every iteration of the Arthurian legend, he wins. His voice is the one that lasts: “Don’t let it be forgot / that once there was a spot / for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Camelot is a happy story not because the hero triumphs, but because his story endures. It is a story about the power of the stories we tell ourselves over and over until they crystallize into legend.

To many of us, Camelot brings to mind not dragons but President John F. Kennedy, whose story was linked to that of the young king by his widow, Jacqueline, in the wake of his assassination—a link that extends down the generations. Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, the late wife of the late John F. Kennedy Jr., was a real person, but any truth about her was eclipsed by the mythmaking that continues to obscure the family into which she married.

The couple were trailed practically everywhere by paparazzi.

And in the story of Bessette-Kennedy, told with empathy and detail in Elizabeth Beller’s new biography, Once upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, truth is not the point. The point was her image, consumed by a public who veered wildly from adoration to enmity, and created by a media that almost always opted for the latter. Beller approaches her inscrutable subject primarily through the reflections of Bessette-Kennedy’s close friends and associates, the throughlines of which coalesce around a question: What happens, to borrow an image from another fairy tale, when the glass slipper fits?

Like Princess Diana, Bessette-Kennedy was in, but not of, a highly scrutinized dynastic line. Raised in Connecticut by her mother and stepfather (her biological father left when she was young), the Bessette-Kennedy of Once upon a Time was bohemian, cool, witty, and ambitious. Her sense of style landed her a coveted job with Calvin Klein, a designer whose aesthetic defined the 1990s among certain circles, and whose palette ran the gamut from cream to beige. One day, John junior came in for a fitting.

The axiom that it is hard to be simple defined Bessette-Kennedy. As she rose in the fashion world, her look clarified into a kind of armor. Once she became Mrs. Kennedy, the tabloid media descended and refused to let go. Bessette-Kennedy never softened her image the way Princess Diana did, with her much-photographed humanitarian work. In the years America thought it knew her, according to Beller, Bessette-Kennedy was simply trying to get by, navigating a life in which control was increasingly out of reach. “What the tabloids often described as Carolyn’s cold demeanor can now more accurately be understood as fear,” Beller writes.

Joan Didion’s widely quoted line that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” continues: “The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea.... We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely … by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria—which is our actual experience.”

Kennedy and Bessette-Kennedy in 1994.

Bessette-Kennedy was caged not in a consulate but in a Tribeca loft, hunted by paparazzi. She lived and died—too soon, and too tragically, at 33 in a plane crash with her husband in the pilot’s seat—in an era where public figures lacked agency when it came to their “story.” Why do we need her story? And why has our need to know the story of this family persisted? They were never our monarchs. We do not own them, and they do not owe us. Yet even Robert F. Kennedy Jr. seems keen to trade on the power of the name’s legend, as evidenced in his campaign’s recent Super Bowl ad, which inserts the third-party candidate into a 1960 spot produced for his uncle.

Beller, writing into a world, and an America, at war with itself, is wiser than to lean on legend. She leans instead on grace, and forgiveness, for a woman who lived inside “the imposition of a narrative line on disparate images.” Once upon a Time is ultimately less about its subject’s style or her famous husband, less about the simple white dress worn for her private wedding ceremony, on the chapel steps at dusk on Cumberland Island, than it is about something more fundamental and pernicious: the human instinct to tailor other people’s stories to our own ends.

Lea Carpenter is the author of Eleven Days and Red, White, Blue. Her third novel, Ilium, is out now