The Story of the Georgia Island That Helped John F. Kennedy Jr. Get Married

A tiny island was thrust into the spotlight after it pulled off a top-secret wedding.

Carolyn Bessette and John F. Kennedy Jr.
Photo: Arnaldo Magnani/Liaison/Getty Images

Back in September of 1996, Cumberland Island had a secret. They were playing host to a top-secret wedding and no one was going to be caught spilling the beans.

A week later, the story finally broke—John F. Kennedy Jr. had married Carolyn Bessette in a private ceremony in the island's tiny First African Baptist Church, filling the church's eight pews with family and friends and no media. They held the reception at the historic Greyfield Inn, the lone hotel on the secluded island, seven miles off the coast of Georgia. Despite the fact that the Bessette-Kennedy wedding was the hottest news of its time, the paparazzi never found out about the ceremony until after the fact, thanks in part to the zipped lips of the island's residents and the inn's workers.

Kennedy and Bessette went to great lengths to ensure that their wedding was free from the media. They hadn't even told the press that they were engaged until two days after they were married, according to People. Despite that stealth, the glamorous couple were still worried that someone would tip off the press, so they didn't even invite their guests until five days before the wedding. (Can you imagine the schedule re-arranging and frantic dress shopping that went on during those five days?)

Cumberland Island, Georgia
Wynn Myers

The islanders did their part to keep things quiet, too. According to the New York Times, one of the operators of the Greyfield Inn, which as a former home to the Carnegie family knew a thing or two about VIP guests, helped arrange a very private marriage license. A Camden County judge sent a county clerk to a parked private plane where the bride-to-be was staying hidden. The clerk only found out who was getting hitched when the bride told her that her new surname would be Bessette-Kennedy.

While Southerners can keep a secret to their graves, Kennedy and Bessette opted to have caterers, waiters, and other reception staff sign confidentiality agreements, too, according to People. Apparently, they took those agreements seriously, because even after the fact, when the media descended on Cumberland Island, they couldn't get the islanders to talk. (Although the Times did get one of the islands 35 residents to admit she had taken a bowl of popcorn, a beer, and a milk crate to watch the celebrities milling around outside her front door.)

The planning of such a covert wedding "required the skill of a James Bond and the whole CIA. Jackie must be smiling in heaven," the former first lady's social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, told People. We like to think it also took a little Southern charm and ingenuity to pull it off.

WATCH: 5 Things You'll Find At Southern Weddings

"John and Carolyn were incredibly unique. They were a warm and loving couple who handled their fame with humility and grace," wrote RoseMarie Terenzio in her 2012 memoir Fairy Tale Interrupted, which chronicled her friendship with the couple. Sadly, their lives were tragically cut short, on July 16, 1999, John, 38, Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren, 34, died in a plane crash off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles