I have been noticing it for a few years now: because of the vicissitudes of social media, particularly Instagram, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette are more alive — and more popular — than ever.
Hoisted by the glamor of an American dynasty and given pulse by an ongoing fascination with their doomed love story — they perished in a plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard some 23 years ago — the ultimate ’90s power couple are often toyed over by members of a generation barely alive during their heyday. That’s largely thanks to their style, captured in a trove of photos of the couple living and loving in the streets of New York City.
I mean, these two practically createdwhat we now know as “athleisure,” their artfully effortless casual wear, although they did clean up nicely too in more formal garb. Bessette, in particular, remains the patron saint of minimalism and anti-Kardashianism, as IG feeds such as Carolyn Iconic, CBK’s Closet and All for Carolyn now demonstrate. “A one-woman fashion cult and enigma” is what Town & Country recently called the woman whose mystique has grown because she never once gave an interview and lives only through the still image.
Part of a broader ’90s revival, John-John and Carolyn are seared into pop culture, be it the wave of articles and books that have come out over the years, various documentaries such as the 2019 A&E film “JFK Jr. The Final Year ,” and the easy parallels that emerged with the Harry/Meghan courtship — I wrote about it myself. Frozen in the zeitgeist, too, via still-snacky TV shows from that era, the babelicious JFK Jr. getting call-outs on “Sex and the City,” “Seinfeld” and “Murphy Brown,” on which he even cameoed.
Heck, producer extraordinaire Ryan Murphy is currently working on a scripted series about the starry duo. On a considerably more lurid note, JFK Jr. has become a talking point in the darkest recesses of the internet because of an ongoing QAnon conspiracy theory that he is still alive and returning to run on a 2024 ticket with that guy, Trump (yes, really).
The latest, more earnest, addition to the nostalgia heap? A new memory stick of a novel called “Meant to Be” by the international bestselling author Emily Giffin, best known for her novel “Something Borrowed,” which was also made into a movie. Taking the clay of history, but adding extra bacon to it, “Meant to Be” is about a reckless golden boy named Joseph S. Kingsley Jr., who feels the weight of a legacy, and the out-of-left-field fashion -plate Cate Cooper, for whom he falls. Coming out next week, it is and isn’t about John and Carolyn. I read it. I ate it up.
Like many a so-called roman à clef, the mischief of course comes with deciphering what is real and what has only the ring of truth. Written in alternating chapters in the voices of the two main characters, some of the parallels are evident, especially for those Kennedy-philes among us.
Like JFK Jr., Joe goes to law school but fails the bar — twice — a major scandals in real life, resulting in the immortal Newsday headline “THE HUNK FLUNKS!”
Like Bessette, Cate is hunted by the paparazzi and overnight becomes a blond hair icon, her halo being emulated as women start “ditching their layered Rachel dos for long straight hair” and her own colourist suddenly becoming notorious.
Like those two, their alter-egos frequent downtown haunts like Bubby’s and Odeon, ’90s-era New York establishments that are synonymous with the lovebirds, and they have one epic fight in public in a park, a fight that was recorded by a tabloid and played ad nauseam back then, and which Giffin here has reimagined.
The differences stack up too, though, some of the most notable being that the Kingsleys weekend in the Hamptons, not the Kennedy compound of Hyannis Port, and that, unlike the version we are handed in “Meant to Be,” Jacqueline Kennedy, John’s mother, never actually met Carolyn. Jackie died in 1994, before the couple were a couple. In this telling, Dottie, her alter ego, is very much alive.
Giffin, with whom I once had a really fun coffee and who specializes in matters of the heart, is not pussyfooting around the inspiration for her latest. She lays it bare in an author’s note. Ever since she was a little girl, she writes, she’s been fascinated by the Kennedy family, an interest borrowed from her mother who had saved a copy of Life magazine from 1953 with John Sr. and Jackie staring out from the front. She also vividly remembers her mother telling her how CBS News interrupted her soap opera, “As the World Turns,” so Walter Cronkite could inform the nation that President Kennedy had been shot.
As Giffin grew older, her fascination with the family burgeoned, even while keeping two ideas running at once in her head: “I admired their spirit of service and sense of idealism, but I also knew of the scandals and tragedies that plagued them. I came to understand the layers of hypocrisy and self-destruction that so often seem to accompany unchecked privilege and ambition.” Like many Americans (and beyond), she also hoped JFK Jr. would be able to escape those things, to fly above any “curse.”
Living in New York City after she graduated from law school in 1997, Giffin was there at the peak of the John-John/Carolyn combustion, unable to resist. Two years later, when tragedy struck and they were killed, she watched the coverage all day in a state of disbelief; a moment that has had her contemplating the two ever since. “I wondered what it would be like to be John,” the pressure he must have felt to carry his father’s torch. And of Bessette, “how difficult it must have been to marry into that famed family.”
The what-ifs built up over the decades and culminated finally in this novel. What if John hadn’t flown his plane that night? What if he had been able to land safely? What would they have done with their lives? Though she uses two alter-egos to explore these things in “Meant to Be,” beyond that framework, “Joe and Cate are purely fictional characters with unique interior lives and back stories,” she emphasized. “We will never really know, ie, but we can muse.”
And muse we do. While at certain points I must admit I found Giffin’s retelling almost too earnest — her style is her style — I was left wondering what a pricklier retelling of this couple might have unearthed. Carolyn, who as Camille Paglia once famously described, “became more and more contracted and wizened … a socialite who bloomed only at chic parties,” or the pretty boy John, whose “physical perfection came from entrapment in a youthful persona.”
But that’s another story, I guess. This is Joe and Cate. And I definitely got my fix.
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