Kennedy plane crash’s forgotten victim worth remembering, too
Updated: Jun 17, 2019
Every so often, I’ll post a blog that has absolutely nothing to do with the Royal Family. I am calling this series “Right Turn Alert” because the topics covered in this series are a total right turn from anything else covered here. The “Right Turn Alert” series’ purpose is twofold: First, to let you see writing I do other than just about the Royals, and, second, to give me a place to put some writings I’m particularly proud of on the web somewhere that’s mine and not some other publication's. I hope you enjoy learning a little bit about Lauren Bessette, the oft-forgotten third plane crash victim from the JFK Jr. plane crash – the twentieth anniversary of the crash is next month. Can you believe it?
Kennedy plane crash’s forgotten victim worth remembering, too
By Rachel Burchfield
Her suitcase, a black garment bag, washed ashore first. A business card with her name – Lauren Bessette – was attached.
By now, the public knew that Lauren, her younger sister Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and Bessette-Kennedy’s husband John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane had been missing since the night before, July 16, 1999. The plane was due to land at Martha’s Vineyard around 10 p.m. to drop off Lauren, who was rumored to have a weekend planned with Kennedy cousin Bobby Shriver, whom she was supposedly dating. Then Carolyn and John would head on to Hyannis Port for the July 17 wedding of another Kennedy cousin, Rory Kennedy, the youngest of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, at the Kennedy compound there.
The last contact with the Piper Saratoga plane, piloted by John, was at 9:39 p.m. The Federal Aviation Administration reported the Kennedy plane last made contact as it approached the Vineyard, an island off of Cape Cod, the Coast Guard said. Then, nothing.
That was 20 years ago this summer. We all know what happened next.
But on July 17, as Erin McCarthy saw the black garment bag floating in the blue waters, there was nothing but uncertainty. Questions. Jennifer Maxwell, also on the scene that day, told CNN that the bag was retrieved from the water by a friend of hers.
“He was shaking like a leaf,” she said. “It was, and still is, very haunting.”
Though an item of Lauren’s was the first clue that this mystery was very soon to become a tragedy, she remains, 20 years later, unknown. A forgotten victim, overshadowed by her megawatt brother-in-law and her dazzling sister, a couple whom many predicted could one day be President of the United States and First Lady and who were already, in that summer of 1999, one of the most sought-after couples on the New York City social scene.
Yes, much uncertainty and many questions were unearthed and answered as the days and weeks after the plane crash that claimed all three lives went on. But one question largely remains unanswered to the American public – who was the third victim in that plane? Who was Lauren Bessette?
The last act of Lauren’s life – her final good deed before she got on the plane – was trying to save her sister’s marriage.
The Kennedys – married less than three years ago on September 21, 1996 – were in serious trouble as a couple. Divorce seemed imminent. John, 38, had told a friend just days before, according to Vanity Fair, that they were headed for divorce. He wanted kids. She didn’t, at least not right now. The glaring spotlight was too bright, the paparazzi attention too rampant, and Carolyn, 33, had a cocaine problem. A week before their deaths, Carolyn had abandoned the marital bed for the guest room in their TriBeCa loft. Then, in retaliation, John moved out and into the Stanhope Hotel. That’s where things were the evening of July 15, the night before the crash. Lauren, 34, convinced Carolyn and John to meet her at the Stanhope, where John was staying, for drinks.
The sisters Bessette sat in a corner table and waited on John to hobble to them. Six weeks earlier, he had broken his left ankle in a paragliding accident and was using crutches to get around; earlier that day, he had gone to see his orthopedic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital to have his cast taken off. The doctor told him to not fly for at least 10 days. John, being John, didn’t listen.
But back to the Stanhope.
It really bothered Lauren that Carolyn and John were living apart, and she agreed to act as a neutral third party, an intermediary, in this summit. It wasn’t going well. Carolyn and John sat in silence. Lauren, the night’s peacemaker, asked the couple to hold hands with her; they refused, then relented. As she squeezed Carolyn’s hand, she urged her brash, temperamental little sister to, for just one day, put aside her trepidations about flying with her husband in his private plane and fly with him to Hyannis Port for Rory’s wedding. Hell, she offered, I’ll go with you. She would have them drop her off at the Vineyard before they hopped over to Hyannis.
“Come on,” she told them. “It’ll be fun.”
John was in, he said. Then Carolyn agreed.
“Great,” Lauren said, according to Vanity Fair. “Then I’ll see you guys at the airport.”
Lauren Gail Bessette and her twin sister, Lisa Ann, were born on November 5, 1964 in White Plains, New York to comfortable means, means she would only build on as her career as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley rose and rose. Her father, William Bessette, an architectural engineer, and her mother, Ann Freeman, a teacher, split when the twins and Carolyn – 14 months their junior – were young; Lauren and Lisa were just eight years old. Ann remarried an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Richard Freeman, a few years later, and the three stunning Bessette sisters were raised in tony Greenwich, Connecticut. All three sisters were close, but, as it tends to be with twins, Lauren and Lisa were inseparable.
At Greenwich High School, Lauren was a good student, interested more in helping others than in rabble-rousing. She was a member of the Signettes, Greenwich High’s public service club, and she played bingo with the elderly once a week, sang in nursing homes at Christmas, tutored the mentally handicapped, and helped start Greenwich’s first recycling program, a high school classmate, Abby Crockett Tuttle, told the Associated Press. She graduated in 1982 and then went on to Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, New York, where she studied economics, political science, and philosophy; she was inducted into Omicron Delta Epsilon, the college’s economics honors society, before graduating in 1986.
“You would like to have a roomful of Laurens,” Professor Daniel McGowan told The Observer. McGowan taught Lauren in his Monetary Theory and Policy class – a class he believed piqued her interest in Wall Street – and gave her an A. “She was definitely honors material. But she was fun to have in class, because she was interested in the subject, wanting to learn, not afraid of entering something that had been sort of male-dominated.”
She was bright, articulate, and confident, Patrick McGuire, Lauren’s college faculty advisor, told the L.A. Times.
“She was exceptional,” he said. “She was a very good student and a very pleasant person to be around.”
Her generous spirit, her dry sense of humor, and her nearly photographic memory impressed classmates and, later, colleagues.
“She was a beautiful girl, incredibly smart, one of the smartest people I have ever met,” college friend Taylor Greene told the Associated Press as she choked back tears. “She taught me a lot. She was always helping people to improve and be better at what they do.”
After graduation it was on to the Big Apple, where she kickstarted her career at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter as a financial analyst in 1987. She left the firm two years later in 1989 to go back to school, this time at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. After she completed her MBA, she rejoined Morgan Stanley in 1991.
“She was very professional,” one former Morgan Stanley executive who worked with Lauren in the early 1990s told The Observer. “At that time, most of the women who really came across well were typical career women – meaning very, very much focused on the career, really trying to kick ass. She was much more balanced.”
In 1994 Lauren took a position at Morgan Stanley’s Hong Kong office, where she stayed for four years. She spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese, according to the L.A. Times, and was responsible for transactions in Hong Kong, India, China, and Singapore. She was credited with improving the company’s business and impressed so much abroad that, while in Hong Kong in 1996, she was promoted to vice president.
“Lauren was truly one of the most beloved and admired members of our investment banking group,” Jeanmarie McFadden, a former colleague of Lauren’s, told the L.A. Times. “She was a warm, dynamic, vivacious, and fun-loving person, full of spirit and life.”
Around this time, Carolyn began dating John; when Lauren flew home to Greenwich in 1994 to attend the wedding of a friend, all any of the guests wanted to talk about were the rumors. Lauren was tight-lipped.
“She was very protective of her sister,” high school classmate Stacy Wreckerling told the L.A. Times. “We were really taken aback.”
Her career as a venture capitalist putting deals together across Asia was booming, but her power move to Hong Kong wasn’t without sacrifice.
“It was hard on single women,” a Morgan Stanley source who knew Lauren in Hong Kong told The Observer. “It’s very family-oriented; most people who go out there are married. In a way, it’s a hardship, because it doesn’t make it any easier for them to find somebody to marry.”
Fergal Keane, a special correspondent for BBC News, met Lauren during her years in Asia. He described her, in an essay for The Independent, as one of the most vibrant women he’d ever met; less a human being than a force of nature.
“She always surged, rather than strolled,” he said. “She was always the figure in the room who demanded the closest attention.”
They met through a friend in Asia, who assured him that “Lauren will liven this place up” when she arrived; his first impression of her was intimidation, that she took no prisoners. Yet she “was always sincere, and she had the gift of a formidable intellect,” Keane said. “It was a pleasure to argue with her.”
Brilliant and driven though she was, there was something missing, he noticed.
“Lauren deserved everything she earned,” he said. “The woman worked so hard, travelled so far and long. I may be completely wrong, but I always sensed a loneliness in Lauren. The tough exterior, the power-woman who excelled in the witty verbal put-down, was covering up a much more vulnerable person. It never did cover up the decency or the sweetness, though.”
It was time for Lauren to come home.
She moved back to New York City in February 1998, to Morgan Stanley’s Manhattan offices. By the end of the year, she was promoted from vice president to principal, a job title just below managing director and a fierce climb up the company hierarchy. She moved into a $925,000 artist’s loft at 17 White Street in trendy TriBeCa, just a few blocks away from Carolyn and her new husband, John.
By day Lauren pitched investment ideas to Morgan Stanley’s major private equity clients. But, in her private life, she finally decided to make time for dating and was seeing film and television producer Bobby Shriver, 45, John’s cousin 11 years her senior.
“She was an unusually attractive woman,” a colleague at Morgan Stanley told The Observer. “She was really kind of a knockout. I thought she was beautiful, and I was just struck.”
As much of a force as she was in the male-dominated world of Wall Street mergers and acquisitions, she wasn’t afraid to be feminine, former colleague Chip Ardnt told CNN.
“She was stunningly beautiful and not afraid of being beautiful,” he said.
The night of July 16, the last night of her life, Lauren got caught in traffic en route to meet John. It was summer in New York City, and she, like everyone else, was clamoring to get out of the city; the commute from her office to John’s took forever. She, still wearing the beige dress she’d been in all day, climbed into John’s white Hyundai convertible and they cruised, albeit slowly, from midtown Manhattan to the Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey. They arrived a little after 8 p.m., as the sun was beginning to set, but there was still no Carolyn. She was running late, caught up getting a pedicure. The three finally departed around 8:30 that Friday night.
As they walked the tarmac to the plane, who knew that their feet would never touch the ground again, and that they would, within an hour and a half, be dead, their plane spiraling towards the water, their beautiful bodies hitting the waters of the Atlantic at a devastating speed, killing them all instantly?
One week after Lauren’s black garment bag washed ashore, she – raised Catholic – was memorialized at a service at Christ Church in Greenwich. More than 600 gathered to remember a woman her uncle, Jack Messina, called “rich, vibrant, and multifaceted” in his eulogy, The New York Times reported. He told the crowd assembled about that one time she played miniature golf in her backyard, dressed in pajamas and high heels. How she loved opera.
“If the events of these past eight days have taught us anything, it is to honor the moment,” he said. “Cherish those around you. Try to find a balance between work and family. Contribute something to your community, and above all, share the love you feel for each other each and every day.”
Sharing love was what got Lauren Bessette on the ill-fated single-engine plane that hot July night. She died trying to save one love story, while flying, at high speed, to her own burgeoning love story, a handsome Kennedy cousin waiting for her at the Vineyard. So much ahead. So, so much to look forward to. In true Kennedy fashion, a promising life cut down far too soon.
Two days prior, on July 22, the ashes of the trio, who just a week ago were huddled into a corner table at the Stanhope, were scattered at sea, forever united.
Lauren Bessette wasn’t famous. No, she wasn’t the child of a president who was being touted as a future contender for the same office; no, she wasn’t married to People’s Sexiest Man Alive or a statuesque former Calvin Klein employee who looked, with her icy blue eyes and long blonde hair, like she could model for the fashion house. She was a beautiful woman in an industry populated by often unwelcoming men; she was an intellect with a sweetness to her who never lost that, despite every reason to. She was the forgotten victim of the plane crash. But she was worth remembering.
One former Morgan Stanley colleague told The Observer, rightly, that in her own way, “She may have been more successful than they were.”
© Rachel Burchfield, 2019