To the public, John F. Kennedy Jr. was part of American mythology, the son of a fallen president and one of the biggest celebrities the country has ever known. To RoseMarie Terenzio, his former chief of staff, Kennedy was a close friend she remembers as both generous and disarming and more comfortable with fame than people think. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was far warmer than the stereotype created of her in the news media.
“He was just a great guy,” she told Heavy in an interview. “When he walked in a room, everyone knew who he was, but he still introduced himself, ‘Hi, I’m John, what’s your name?'” People would say, “Yeah we know you’re John,” but, says Terenzio, JFK Jr. had a “disarming quality about him; he went out of his way to make people feel comfortable…he was not in this big bubble of a famous person…he had a generous way.” He would spot people who looked out of place or who weren’t talking to anyone and make them feel comfortable, she said. Terenzio added that JFK Jr.’s wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, was nothing like the media stereotype that has persisted of her since the couple’s untimely death in a plane crash.
Terenzio spoke to Heavy about her memories of JFK Jr. in advance of “Biography: JFK Jr—The Final Year,” which will run on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 at 9 p.m. ET on A&E Network. “July 16, 2019 marks the 20-year anniversary of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death. This two-hour documentary special, airing on the anniversary, reframes the last year of his life in an entirely new way,” A&E wrote in a statement.
“Inspired by Steven M. Gillon’s upcoming book, America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr., this captivating special is the most substantive documentary to date and includes convincing new evidence regarding his political aspirations before his untimely death. This compelling documentary shines an unexpectedly poignant light on 1999, his last year, as he coped with the fatal illness of his closest friend and cousin, Anthony Radziwill, struggled to save his marriage and tried to rescue his political magazine, George.” Among those interviewed: Kennedy’s former chief of staff and close friend RoseMarie Terenzio.
A New York City public relations executive, Terenzio wrote a book about Kennedy’s life, death, and marriage to Carolyn Bessette. You can read more about her background here.
Here are more of Terenzio’s observations of JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy:
What she wants people to remember about him
“I just think there was this person who had this incredible power…he could pick up the phone and call the White House, his uncle was a senator, and he just never abused it; he never used it for any personal gain. He conducted himself with dignity and grace and always had the intention of lifting people up. He understood that not everyone had the privilege and platform.”
She attributed this ability to Kennedy’s mother, Jackie Kennedy Onassis because “she raised him, but it was also just him being very aware of power and influence” and the need “to use it wisely.” He realized that such power should be doled out “when it’s for a purpose.”
On advising Carolyn Bessette Kennedy to get on the doomed plane
Terenzio spoke with Carolyn on that fatal night and suggested she go with John to his cousin’s wedding on what ended up being the doomed flight.
“My last conversation with her, she said, ‘I don’t want to go. I’m exhausted. I just want to stay in the city. I need a break. Let him go by himself.” She was thinking of going up later, but not to the wedding.
“I told her I thought if she didn’t go it would be a spectacle of some sort, with rumors swirling that something was wrong with the marriage,” Terenzio recalls.
Her last conversation with John was less dramatic. “We were basically just talking about work. I was leaving early that day…our last conversation was about a debit card,” she said.
On whether Kennedy ever talked about death
According to Terenzio, death was not something John talked about. “John lived in the moment,” she said.
She added that he didn’t talk about his father’s assassination. “He talked about his father, his presidency, his life…he said it was tough ‘because there are so many images and I don’t remember what I actually remember or what I’ve seen over and over again.'”
On why he picked Carolyn Bessette Kennedy for a wife
“It was combination. It was timing. He was ready to settle down. John was a serial monogamist much to the chagrin of people who think he was a playboy.” She said that Carolyn was “a real soulmate; they were friends. They had a camaraderie together that was different than he had with anyone else. He found an equal.”
On what it was like working for JFK Jr.
“I grew up in a Republican family. They weren’t Kennedy obsessed, so initially it was not something I thought a lot about.” But she came to appreciate that “John F. Kennedy Jr. was a phenomenon when we went outside the office. This is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I think it was challenging. It was scary.”
At times, she wasn’t sure what to do. One time, for example, she was making travel arrangements for Kennedy. “I had to ask him which airport he wanted to fly out of.” She wasn’t sure what to call it: JFK, Kennedy, “your father’s airport.” So she said instead, “Did you want to fly out of LaGuardia? He said, ‘I’ll fly out of Kennedy.'” And that answered that question.
On her fondest memory of JFK Jr.
Kennedy surprised Terenzio for her birthday with Knicks/Bulls tickets. He went along and “it was so fun. We had such a great time.”
On realizing Kennedy’s plane had crashed
“I was staying at his apartment that night he and Carolyn were going away because I had no air conditioning. They said why not stay. So I did. I went out with friends after work. It was a Friday night.” She was on the phone with George Magazine’s creative director planning a cover with Rob Lowe.
“The other phone started ringing. Only 5-6 people had that number so at first I thought it was him calling.” It was Carole Radziwill, who was married to Kennedy’s cancer stricken cousin, Anthony Radziwill. She “said they hadn’t landed; they were not in Hyannis Port…she was panicked. I thought they must have gone somewhere else and didn’t tell anyone where. I thought they were spending the night in Nantucket.” Terenzio said it took her “two days to come to grips” that Kennedy was gone. “It’s really still so sad.” What was lost, she said, was “more about hope” and what he could have done with the lost years.
On what she thinks Bessette Kennedy would have done had she lived
“Carolyn – her future was a little more uncertain for many reasons. They were talking about having children and were looking for a home outside New York City in addition to their home in New York City. She expressed that having a child would be difficult initially in New York City; she wanted a place with more privacy. She had an interest in documentary film making.”
On what would surprise people about the real John Kennedy Jr.
“I think there was this perception that John had this life constantly being dogged by the media and hated it and had no privacy, but I don’t think that was the case at all. John understood who he was. He understood there was a fascination with his family, especially with his father and mother, and that this was a part of his life. He didn’t see it as a burden. His life was different than most people’s lives; he saw opportunities and advantages with it.”
She added: “You see celebrities now who are all over the media and find it so intrusive and terrible, but I don’t think John felt that way; he said, this is part of my life, worse things happen to you than people being interested in what you’re doing. I think it got worse because he was married. He thought it would get better, but it got worse when he got married and that was shocking to him (that the media scrutiny increased).”
On what Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was really like
“Carolyn – she was extremely warm, down to earth, really funny, hysterically funny. She would stay up for hours on the phone with you and listen to you cry about your latest boyfriend and job issues. She would shop with you…she did that for people at George.” If someone wasn’t feeling well or had a family member who wasn’t, she would say, “Let me find you a doctor. She was generous with her friends, extremely warm. She would hug you and hold your hand. She was really smart and really intuitive.”
Terenzio added: “Aside from the fame, she was John’s equal in a way. She had the same generosity to people. She realized she had a lot of privilege.”
Terenzio believes Carolyn is misunderstood because “she never spoke; people said she never smiles. You wouldn’t either… people were screaming obscenities at her to get her picture, people said horrible things… that compared to him she was trash, so she kept her guard up, she had her guard up… she deliberately never spoke if ever to a camera.”
She said Carolyn felt if she did give interviews “whatever I say is going to be blown up in a way and taken out of context, so she was guarded and aware of that.” As a result, people have a misperception that Carolyn was a “cold, unemotional, unhappy person. She never gave an interview.”
Terenzio added: “The public and the media have judged this girl on three years of her life; who knows what would have happened.”
On whether the marriage was in trouble
“No, I don’t think their marriage was in trouble. They had ups and downs. His cousin, best friend was dying of cancer. He was looking for additional backers (for George)…” Their marriage was like any with “a lot going on…it took a toll on them personally. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. A lot of things were happening.”
On what JFK Jr. might have been doing if he had lived
“I would like to think he would have gone on to make George a success; to turn it into something digitally by this point.” She thinks he would have entered politics eventually. “I think the first step would have been to run for governor of New York.”
On how George Magazine was ahead of its time
“It was ahead of its time for two reasons. You see now the intersection between politics and pop culture, a president who is a reality show star and also the fact that it was kind of the first iteration of what is now the Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Politico, Axios…I think back then there were very few outlets for politics…I think there’s a perception that the media whether left or right is slanted… with George, while it was criticized initially for not having a point of view, the whole point of view was to have both sides.”
John, she said, “he realized that George magazine was him; he was this intersection between pop culture, celebrity and this political dynasty.”