Pop Culture
Oct 30, 2023, 06:27AM

It’s Said She Wore It Well

Who was Carolyn Bessette Kennedy? Once again, bring back the sailor suit. What year is it (#446)?

Screenshot 2023 10 30 at 12.08.29 am.png?ixlib=rails 2.1

Following haute couture isn’t in my arsenal, and never was, but I do recognize a New York Times writer scraping the bottom of the barrel in an attempt to fulfill her quota of published articles. Last week, Vanessa Friedman, the “fashion director and chief fashion critic” for the daily since 2014, wrote an article—“reading time: eight minutes”—that anticipates the 25th anniversary of the plane crash death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and does her best (one assumes) to posit that the tragedy means something to people today.

Like many people, perhaps especially New Yorkers, I have mostly fond memories of the 1990s; in retrospect, a period of relative tranquility in America, when the money spigot didn’t go dry and Bill Clinton’s administration provided a “reality show” of entertainment. It’s too early to predict how Clinton will be rated by historians who tote up his wins and losses: balanced budget; the Hillary-led healthcare disaster; humming economy (although his policies helped mess up the first decade of the 21st century); no visit to New York after the first World Trade Center bombing, a rare example of tone-deaf politics by The Man From Hope; cutting off ’96 competitor Bob Dole at the knees with an anti-welfare bill; a measured eulogy for Richard Nixon in 1994; and the cigar.

But Friedman comes up short on the nostalgia beat. She writes about John-John and his bride (who lived a block from my family in Tribeca, and he was a scummy guy when I ran into him every other day at the bodega on Hudson St.): “He founded George magazine; she had been a publicist at Calvin Klein. Together they embodied not only the next golden generation of a sprawling, mythic family, but also the apotheosis of the collision between fashion, pop culture, magazines and politics that defined New York in the 1990s.”

Did Kennedy Jr. run for office in the 1990s? Missed that. I know he gave a perfunctory speech at the Democratic Convention in 1988 introducing Uncle Teddy in support of Michael Dukakis (who?), but otherwise kept his politics, such as they were, confined to the awful, suck-up magazine George (1995-2001) that was on its last legs at the time of his demise. As for Carolyn, this bit is rich: “Like Diana, Princess of Wales, whose royal status, beauty and untimely death made her into a legend, Ms. Bessette Kennedy exists less as a person than an idea.”

I never understood the allure of Diana, perhaps because I’m an American, but it was overwhelming, as she cut as stylish image with a couple of cute kids, a scoundrel husband, and a typically nosy media following her every move. In contrast, Bessette Kennedy, even for those who remember her, was little more than a footnote, although Friedman insists, “Our memories of her are essentially preserved in amber,” because she was so private.

Is this too harsh? I don’t think so; in truth it barely registers on the “harsh” doomsday clock. More absurd Friedman: “Little wonder that as fascination with that era [the 1990s] reaches a new pitch, Ms. Bessette Kennedy has emerged as the ghost influencer of the [fashion] season—one who has particular resonance as stealth wealth evolves into an embrace of more functional minimalism in the face of global chaos; disillusionment grows with the cesspool that the digital world has become; and the question of what exactly it means to be ‘American’ takes center stage.”

As I wrote several months ago, the more pressing question—if you care to indulge in Americana, what’s happened to the sailor suit on young boys? In the linked article there’s a picture of my Uncle Joe from 1922 in common garb, and above is one of me (way before the Village People’s “In the Navy” was a hit) dressed the same way, perhaps for a block party or “costume day” at school. Maybe my mom was simply feeling patriotic that day. It’s “preserved in amber.”

Take a look at the clues to figure out what year it is: Joanne Woodward receives the first star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; Adolph Coors III is kidnapped and then found murdered; A.J. Liebling says, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”; The Fantasticks (that awful musical I was forced to see on a school field trip) opens at New York’s Sullivan Street Playhouse and runs for 42 years; Erin Brockovich is born and Johnny Horton dies; Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is published; The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance For Me” is #26 on Billboard’s year-end chart; and the first episode of Coronation Street is aired in the U.K.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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