It’s now been 20 years since the shocking news of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death made headlines across the world. But one woman felt the loss even more acutely than the public who adored John Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. You see, Carole Radziwill knew the Kennedys personally. And after two decades, the reality TV star has revealed new details about the fatal plane crash – as well as confessing just how much it devastated her.
As many know, the tragedy occurred on July 16, 1999, after John Jr. had first radioed into Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Then a short while later, at 8:38 p.m., he and his passengers – Carolyn and her sister Lauren – set off from Essex County Airport in New Jersey. But while the trio’s journey to Martha’s Vineyard should have taken around 90 minutes or so, tragically they wouldn’t get to their intended destination.
Yes, by 2:15 a.m., John Jr. – the son of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy – still hadn’t arrived at the small airport, and the worrying scenario in turn led the Kennedy family to call the authorities. Then, from 4:00 a.m., the Coast Guard started to look for John Jr. and his passengers in the Atlantic Ocean. And, sadly, the searchers soon discovered signs that the worst had happened, as fragments of the Kennedy aircraft were seen floating in the water.
Naturally, Carole keenly felt the loss of John Jr. and her friend Carolyn. And if her name sounds familiar, it may be because of her part in Bravo’s reality series The Real Housewives of New York City. It’s worth noting, though, that Carole landed on the show only after a long career as a journalist and writer. In fact, that same path had once brought her together with her husband, Anthony Radziwill, towards the end of the 1980s.
At that time, Carole was employed by ABC as a reporter, while Anthony served as a network executive. And after the pair met, they started dating; they even decided to tie the knot in the early 1990s. But, unfortunately, Carole and Anthony received some tough news before they were able to say “I do.”
It turned out that Anthony had cancer – a diagnosis he received in 1994. And the prognosis was particularly grim, according to an essay that his wife penned for the Daily Mail in 2019. “When I married my husband in 1994, he had a death sentence,” Carole wrote.
“[Anthony] was determined to overturn it, but I’d done the research and knew his chances were slim,” Carole went on. Fortunately for the newlyweds, though, there was a great support system around them. This network included Anthony’s mother, Lee Radziwill, as well as his cousin John F. Kennedy Jr.
In fact, Anthony had grown up alongside John Jr. as their mothers were sisters; John Jr.’s mom was, of course, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. And according to Good Housekeeping, Carole has described the men as being “as close as brothers.” She explained the relationship further in A&E’s 2019 documentary Biography: JFK Jr. – The Final Year.
“[Anthony and John Jr.] trusted each other, they confided in each other, they teased each other, but they loved each other. [It was] the kind of love that doesn’t have to express itself all the time – you just knew it,” Carole said. Soon, she became part of the group, as did John Jr.’s wife, Carolyn.
Indeed, the foursome bonded because Anthony and John Jr. insisted on it. And the quartet went on so many double dates that Carole and Carolyn reportedly became best friends, too. Carole has since described the moment that she started to grow closer to the other woman; at that time, Carolyn, who worked as a publicist for Calvin Klein, had sent her an amusing message.
In fact, Carole recalled the note on her first episode of The Real Housewives of New York City. According to her, Carolyn had written, “Carole, you must seriously get rid of those Gap sneakers. Our friendship cannot proceed in a growth-oriented way until you realize how important this issue is to me.”
And from there, Carole and Carolyn’s friendship appeared to flourish. “We would just be on the phone endlessly into the wee hours of the night talking about, ‘Can you believe this happened, and then this happened?’” Carole remembered on the show. And the two women supposedly spent plenty of time together, too.
Apparently, Carole and Carolyn would often go for weekend visits to Massachusetts with their respective husbands in tow. And it seems as if John Jr. was a driving force behind these trips. During an interview for JFK Jr. – The Final Year, Carole said, “It was almost like John was frantically trying to create memories.” After all, Anthony’s cancer wasn’t going away; notably, the former president’s son had also lost his mother to the disease in 1994.
And Carole went on to explain how John Jr. had handled Anthony’s diagnosis in a “complicated” way. She also implied that she thought this coping mechanism was related to the series of tragedies that he had already experienced during his life. “Based on his upbringing [and] what he went through, John is very stoic. So, when it came to Anthony’s illness, he had blinders on,” she suggested.
“And for a long time, [John Jr.] would not really acknowledge that Anthony was going to die from the cancer. He blocked it out for a long time, you know, [because] John wasn’t, like, a sad person… he was, you know, ‘Buck up,’” Carole went on. Fortunately for the foursome, they had Carolyn to even him out.
As Carole wrote for the Daily Mail, “Carolyn was the glue who kept people together – specifically, [during] that summer [of 1999], [when] the four of us [were] in a difficult time. Carolyn made every day of those five years about living, not dying. She made what might have otherwise been a hopelessly grim existence fun.”
Indeed, Carole added that Carolyn had “had hope even as Anthony was losing his fight with cancer.” And John Jr.’s wife even continued planning things for them all to do – including a 40th birthday party for Anthony, who was to reach the milestone on August 4, 1999. Before that, though, the quartet planned a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard from July 16 to July 18.
And Carole chatted on the phone with Carolyn ahead of the trip. “We [talked] about what we might have for dinner Sunday. It was a quick call. John was preparing to take off from a small private airport,” the journalist later wrote of the conversation. The former president’s son would be flying himself, Carolyn and her sister Lauren from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard for the weekend.
So, on July 16, 1999, John Jr. contacted Martha’s Vineyard Airport before taking off at 8:38 p.m. Yet at 10:05 p.m. that evening – a time when the journey should have been completed – his plane still hadn’t arrived at its destination. So, an intern at Martha’s Vineyard Airport called the Federal Aviation Administration to see what was going on, although the individual in question would receive no further information.
Meanwhile, the Kennedy family continued to await the arrival of John Jr., Carolyn and Lauren. And at 2:15 a.m., they knew something had gone awry, leading them to contact their local Coast Guard station to inform them that the trio had never touched down. A rescue mission would ensue less than two hours later.
Yet according to C. David Heymann’s book American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy, Anthony held out hope that his cousin was still alive. He stated to the press, “If he’s out there somewhere, hanging on to a sinking plane, he’ll find a way to get out. He possesses the will to survive – enough will for all three of them.”
Despite Anthony’s optimism, though, the Coast Guard found signs that the worst had likely happened. Aircraft debris had been discovered just off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard; Lauren’s suitcase was in the vicinity, too. And at the time, Coast Guard Lieutenant Gary Jones was circumspect when he told The Washington Post, “There is always hope, but unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of evidence, you have to be prepared for anything.”
Sadly, Jones was right to be wary. On July 19 – three days after John Jr.’s plane took off from New Jersey – sonar uncovered pieces of the aircraft. Then, the following day, a salvage ship pinpointed the fuselage. Navy divers subsequently went down to the seabed, where they found elements of the plane about 120 feet beneath the water’s surface.
And on July 21 the divers brought the bodies of John Jr., Carolyn and Lauren to the surface. The women had been discovered close to the plane’s fuselage, while the president’s son had remained belted into his pilot’s seat. That same day, the county medical examiner deemed that each of the three had been killed at the point of impact.
Officials later determined that the plane had likely gone down just after 9:40 p.m., crashing into the Atlantic Ocean almost directly with its nose. And while many theories exist as to why the accident had occurred, the main two concern the weather and John Jr.’s experience as a flyer – or lack thereof.
For one, many pilots reported haze and poor visibility on the night of the crash. Some reportedly even said that they couldn’t see a visual horizon over the Atlantic because of the fog. On top of that, John Jr. was a relatively inexperienced pilot – especially at nighttime. Although he had logged around 310 hours of flight time before the crash, only 36 of those had been in the plane that he had been helming that fateful evening.
Regardless of the cause of the crash, though, the news understandably devastated Carole and her husband. And 20 years later, Carole revisited the loss of John Jr., Carolyn and Lauren in an essay for the Daily Mail. “They were all close to me. At the time, [they were] my lifeline… I lost everything that night, [and] I wasn’t the only one,” she wrote.
And things got even harder for Carole when, less than a month later, Anthony finally succumbed to his cancer. She tried to describe the tragedy of losing her entire circle much too soon, writing, “All four of them [were] gone when they were just beginning to form lives – at an age when people lock in careers or start families, find their faith, their purpose [and] their bliss.”
Instead, Carole’s friends and her husband had left her just before the new millennium. “They are trapped in 1999 like a fossil under hardened amber,” she wrote. “It’s difficult to know what life would be like today if they were here. I only know the plans we made that didn’t happen.”
“When someone dies young, you mourn what was, and you mourn what could have been,” Carole continued. At the time, she recalled, John Jr. had drifted into publishing through his politically charged magazine George. Meanwhile, Carolyn had become a style icon – thanks in part to the paparazzi who had so often trailed her and her husband.
“These were family, my friends, the people closest to me, but they also meant something to the country and the world. John balanced the weight and hopes of a new century’s dreams,” Carole suggested in her piece. Carolyn, on the other hand, was “the most sought-out photograph in the world. She was beautiful, yes.”
“But I’ve yet to hear a description of a truly beautiful woman that wasn’t, intentionally or not, a characterization of her inner good and the way it shined onto others,” Carole concluded. That was seemingly evident, of course, in Carolyn’s continued belief that Anthony may recover from his cancer. And it could also be seen in all of the plans that they’d made to enjoy life while they could.
In fact, Carole went on to share one of the visions for the future that she and Carolyn had shared. In her Daily Mail article, the journalist explained, “[There had been] a road trip we planned to take in a vintage gold 1964 Mustang we saw for sale – and fell in love with – that summer on Martha’s Vineyard. There was so much life still to come.”
Plus, Carole revealed that she, Anthony, John Jr. and Carolyn had a vacation in the works for the wintertime. “The four of us had planned a trip to Skorpios that winter – a nostalgic romp through the memory lanes of Anthony and John’s youth. We had hope,” she wrote.
And Carole said that the foursome thought their personal troubles would subside, too. She went on, “There was hope that George magazine would turn around, hope that being together at the beach after a family wedding in Hyannis would correct a few errant curveballs. We’d all breathe, find strength enough in one day to be able to handle the next.”
But that all changed on July 16, 1999, Carole wrote. “The day had all the earmarks of innocence. A blue sky, a warm breeze, the sounds of lawnmowers humming through open windows. It was a Friday, a day for plans. How could you possibly be prepared for a plane to fall from the sky on a bright blue summer day like that?” she pondered.
Upon reflection, the day that John Jr., Carolyn and Lauren died reminded Carole of another occasion that had taken place three years earlier. In spite of the paparazzi who followed them everywhere, John Jr. and Carolyn had managed to sneak away to Georgia’s Cumberland Island for their wedding, which was reportedly attended by only 32 of their most trusted friends and family members.
Just before the ceremony, Carole remembered, John Jr. couldn’t locate the shirt he wanted to wear – and he blamed his cousin and lifelong prank partner Anthony for hiding the garment. The funny memory, the journalist said, represented the two men’s “unshakeable bond.” Heartbreakingly, she concluded, “They couldn’t live without each other, and they didn’t.”
The loss of the three closest people to Carole left her, she wrote, with a pain that was “once so acute it was unbearable.” In time, though, she added, “Their deaths became a thing I am able to live with. They inhabit my memory as their forever 30-something selves, while I turned 40 and then 50 and now 55.”
But even after the passing of two decades, the words Carole used to describe the deaths of John Jr., Carolyn and Anthony hint at the agony she felt. The losses were “abrupt and unfair,” she wrote. And that, she opined, had to do with the fact that they all had the rest of their lives to live. Heartrendingly, Carole ended her Daily Mail piece, “We just weren’t done.”