John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette at the White House for a dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted by President Clinton on Feb. 5, 1998. (Photo: NESHAN H. NALTCHAYAN/Associated Press)
As America’s legions of Kennedy fans and foes are no doubt aware, next Tuesday is the 20th anniversary of the shocking deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, when the light plane he was flying crashed into the Atlantic in fog off Martha’s Vineyard. He was 38, his wife was 33, her sister was 34.
American TV is well aware of the anniversary, so get ready for “specials” devoted to the tragedy, just as TV reacted in 1999 when this latest horror struck John’s sprawling Kennedy family. (The couple were headed to his cousin Rory Kennedy’s wedding at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, an occasion transformed by grief and later postponed.)
TLC’s two-hour special, “JFK Jr and Carolyn’s Wedding: The Lost Tapes,”, which aired Saturday, focused on the couple’s wedding three years before on September 21, 1996, in a tiny, candle-lit wooden chapel on a remote Georgia island with more feral horses and armadillos than islanders.
The tapes weren’t exactly “lost,” but they are previously unseen by the public. They are from camcorder video shot at Kennedy’s request by one of his wedding guests, longtime pal Billy Noonan. (TLC licensed the footage for the special, spokeswoman Danielle Matlin told USA TODAY.)
Using these tapes, the special shows how Kennedy managed to organize an intimate, secret wedding outside the gaze of the media constantly on alert for details about his private life.
He was used to the scrutiny, Carolyn was not. She was so unnerved, she hesitated when he proposed, so he promised her a wedding just for them and their closest friends and family, about 50 people in total. The lengths to which he went to achieve it are both touching and farcical, but it worked.
The tapes are practically antique, not professional: The lighting and audio are terrible, and it’s difficult at times to see what’s going on or who is on camera, except for the best known of the guests, such as family patriarch, then-Sen. Ted Kennedy. (He died 10 years later of a brain tumor.)
But the tapes convey an overall impression of a joyous celebration that transcended some bumps along the way. They bring tears to the eyes of the people interviewed for the special – including hard-nosed tabloid reporters who covered John and Carolyn.
Here are some highlights:
The First African Baptist Church on Cumberland Island, Georgia National Seashore, where John F. Kennedy Jr. wed Carolyn Bessette in 1996. It's now the most popular visitor destination on the island, according to National Park Service resource manager John Fry. (Photo: CHRIS VIOLA/ ASSOCIATED PRESS)
A Kennedy Wedding? What wedding?
To keep the lid on about the nuptials, John gave guests only a few days notice there was to be a wedding and instructions on getting airline tickets. Noonan, one of two friends interviewed for the special who was actually there (the other is John’s high school buddy Sasha Chermayeff), was on the jet John hired to fly the couple and some of the guests to an airport in Jacksonville, Florida.
“We knew we were going to a wedding but we didn’t know where,” Noonan says, noting that John and Carolyn were giggling during the flight. The destination on the manifest said Florida “but John said, ‘We’re not really going to Florida,’ so we had no idea where we were (ultimately) headed.”
Jodee Sadowsky, the chef hired to cater the wedding, didn’t have a clue who was getting married until he arrived. He was stunned when he found out. “I got goosebumps,” he says. (Also interviewed: David R. Davis, the gospel singer who sang “Amazing Grace” at the wedding, who said he didn’t do weddings but got talked into this one.)
Getting on the island
From Jacksonville, the guests and the couple drove a few miles to the Florida-Georgia line where they caught a former fishing boat that ferried them to Cumberland Island, a barrier island about 20 miles from the coast of southeast Georgia.
John had vacationed there before with another girlfriend and knew it was wild, with only a few dirt roads and covered by a thick canopy of trees – perfect for hiding from paparazzi in helicopters if it came to that, which it did.
Who was invited to JFK Jr. and Carolyn’s wedding?
Not every Kennedy. For one thing, there’s way too many of them for an intimate wedding. So John chose at least one member of every family on the extended family tree, those who were closest to him.
Anthony Radziwill, his first cousin on his mother’s side and a best friend since childhood, was his best man, as John was at his wedding two years earlier. (The TV news producer was to die of cancer just a few weeks after John’s death, in yet another family tragedy.)
Plenty of room at the old inn
John and Carolyn had hired out the only hotel on the island for three days , ensuring maximum privacy. The Greyfield Inn, built as a family home in 1900 by members of the Carnegie family and later turned into a luxury hotel, had plenty of antique southern charm but no air conditioning and only bathtubs in the rooms. The only shower was outdoors. But the beaches were grand.
The covered front porch is where they held the candlelit rehearsal dinner, as seen in the video, when Uncle Ted and cousin Tim Shriver gave the usual jokey-but-loving toasts, and later the reception, which had better lighting.
After the rehearsal dinner, the guests gathered around a bonfire on the beach where they consumed gallons of Cognac and Armagnac until the wee hours. The next morning, with bleary-eyed Noonan still recovering, John grabbed the camcorder in his friend’s room and started filming him.
Far from the usual overblown attempts to depict John and Carolyn as “American royalty,” these video tapes show that their wedding featured the hijinks typical of any wedding. As Noonan says, they both sought normality, to have lives “like everybody else.”
“What I liked about John and Carolyn is that there were like everybody else in general,” Noonan says.
The Greyfield Inn, where most of the Kennedy/Bessette wedding attendees stayed, on Cumberland Island, Ga. (Photo: M. JACK LUEDKE/ Associated Press)
Getting to the church on time
The First African Baptist church (more like a chapel) where the ceremony was held was even older than the inn, built in 1893 by the descendants of former slaves and unused for decades.
Located about seven miles away from the inn in the middle of a muddy field, guests were transported in the back of jeeps and pickup trucks down rutted dirt roads. Noonan says some of the pickups also ferried antique chairs from the inn to the church.
But the one-room church was still unready. As the guests arrived, the video shows a workman carrying away a ladder, another sweeping and white paint blocking the windows of the long-closed structure. This was a problem because there was no electricity and the sun was setting fast. Thus, the candles.
“It was so John (to say) we will ‘light candles instead of cursing the darkness,’ ” Noonan recalls.
The groom was late. The bride was later.
When the guests arrived, the video shows, John wasn’t there and neither was the bride. He was habitually late for everything but when he finally turned up he had tubs of ice-cold beer for the parched guests.
Meanwhile, Carolyn had a dress emergency that delayed her for two hours. Her famous silk crepe slip dress (by her pal, designer Narciso Rodriguez) wouldn’t slip easily over her head; adjustments had to be made to her hair and makeup.
On the video, you can barely see her standing with John inside the darkened church interior but the candles light up her face draped in a veil. They recite their vows and then she pats John’s shoulder for reassurance when he fumbled with the ring. And is that John’s sister Caroline standing behind her? It’s not clear and she is little seen in this video footage.
John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, leave their New York apartment Oct. 6, 1996, the day after returning from their honeymoon in Turkey. (Photo: LARRY LEVINE/ Associated Press)
Miracle on the island
There was one moment when the couple and their guests feared the media had found them. A helicopter appeared and circled as guests were departing for the church. Was it the paparazzi?
“They just ruin everything!” Noonan exclaims on the video. But, he tells TLC, he knew it was the “biggest story in America,” one that every journalist and photographer wanted to get. The guests headed for the trees as the chopper circled and eventually flew away.
“And all of a sudden they weren’t there anymore,” Chermayeff said. “It was a miracle.”
In fact, America didn’t learn about the wedding until it was over and a picture of the bride and groom emerging from the chapel – he was kissing her hand, she was smiling happily – flashed around the world.
Noonan makes a poignant point: “No one ever expected that three years later we’d be in another church for another reason.”
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