ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A sleepy, tree-lined street in the shadow of the University of Michigan features rows of well-appointed homes, scampering children and even a cultural arts center offering yoga classes several times a week.
Nestled in the suburban enclave of North Burns Park, it looks like any well-to-do boulevard in America.
But it’s here where one of the most tragic figures in our country’s modern history resides — Lisa Bessette, who lost her twin, Lauren, and sibling Carolyn on a doomed flight piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. 20 years ago, leaving her the lone surviving sister.
“I can imagine that this anniversary with everything happening is a really difficult time for her,” a Bessette acquaintance told The Post, recalling the awful events of July 16, 1999. “She was devastated.”
That fateful evening, the Kennedy scion plunged his Piper Saratoga II into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Investigators and experts later cited JFK Jr.’s inexperience and “spatial disorientation” as the cause of the crash.
The tragedy drove Lisa into a life off the grid. Even after settling in Ann Arbor, she kept her circle of friends and acquaintances small. She has no known social media accounts and even recent images of her are near impossible to find.
Today, she lives a quiet existence in the college town, occasionally working part-time at the University of Michigan Art Museum as a “contract editor.”
“She had a really hard time when they passed away and was strong for her mother and her family and has since decided that she doesn’t want to be in any way public,” said the acquaintance.
On the day of the tragedy, John Jr. and Carolyn were flying to the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy in Hyannis Port along with Lauren. (Lisa was studying abroad at the time, and Lauren was going to be dropped off at Martha’s Vineyard.)
Rush-hour traffic delayed their takeoff, forcing Kennedy to fly during more dangerous nighttime conditions, even though he was only authorized to pilot the plane using visual cues, not instruments. They went down in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard at 9:40 p.m. All three were killed instantly, although it took five days to find the bodies, still strapped into their seats.
The death symbolized the final end of Camelot; the toddler seen saluting his own father’s coffin now himself felled by tragedy.
He “seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family. The whole world knew his name before he did,” his uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy said during a memorial service for the couple at the Church of St. Thomas on the Upper East Side.
Some 350 mourners were there that day to pay their final respects, including President Bill Clinton, Muhammad Ali and John’s sister Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.
Though Lisa and her parents and stepfather all attended the service, the Kennedy-Bessette relationship descended into acrimony not long after.
“The family was never comfortable with the marriage. Their mom at the wedding the night before gave a toast where she essentially said she didn’t think this was the right marriage for her daughter,” Steven M. Gillon, a historian and author of “America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr,” a new biography, told The Post. “Then of course their worst fears were realized.”
Lisa’s surviving family reaped a bitter windfall in 2001 after settling a wrongful-death claim for a reported $15 million. While the exact details still remain a mystery, The Post reported at the time that the sum would be paid from Kennedy’s estate, which was left to his sister Caroline and a trust dedicated to other friends and family.
After that, the surviving family made a conscious decision to disappear.
“We never cooperate with the media, no interviews, no questions, and that is still our position,” Lisa’s stepfather, Richard Freeman, now 88, told The Post.
Lisa Ann Bessette was born on Nov. 5, 1964, in White Plains, NY, the daughter of Ann Messina Freeman, a teacher, and William Bessette, who worked at the kitchen design firm TNT distributors. William exited the picture amid a nasty divorce shortly after the girls were born. Lisa’s mother married Richard Freeman, a prominent orthopedic surgeon. The family relocated to Greenwich, Conn.
When her younger sister Carolyn got hitched to John Jr. during a small and secretive ceremony on Georgia’s Cumberland Island in 1996, Lisa was there too. She “was very close to both of her sisters,” said the acquaintance.
At the time of the crash in 1999, Lisa was in Munich working on a doctorate in “Renaissance studies” for the University of Michigan. She completed her academic work in 2005. Though she never married, she eventually began a relationship with Howard Lay, a popular professor in the art history department 11 years her senior.
The pair won’t be in Michigan for the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy crash on Tuesday, but instead in Paris, where Lay teaches a six-week summer course called “Paris by Site.”
Even abroad, however, Lisa is a spectral presence.
“She’s here in Paris with him,” said 20-year-old Michelle Ding, who is taking the course, adding that she’s never seen her. “She hasn’t come to my classes. But he speaks of her a lot.”
In her more than 500-page dissertation on “the visualization of the contents of the psalms in the early Middle Ages,” Lisa offered a debt of gratitude to friends and colleagues who helped her past her grief. There was also a cryptic note for the man who would become her life partner.
“A number of people, though they may not have contributed directly to the project, were essential to its completion, having seen me through six very difficult years,” she wrote in her thesis acknowledgments.
“Finally I would like to express my appreciation to Howard Lay for patiently accepting what he could not understand.”
Howard Lay did not respond to multiple e-mails from The Post. Reps for Lisa at the university declined to offer anything beyond confirming her occasional employment at the school art museum.
Lisa’s mother, Ann, 79, still married to Richard Freeman, declined to comment. Lisa’s father, William Bessette, 81, also did not respond to several calls.
Among her intimates, Lisa’s privacy is guarded with near religious zeal. Multiple staff and faculty members at the University of Michigan reacted with visible hostility to inquiries.
“Are you a journalist? I can’t talk to you. You’ll get the same answer from everyone in the department,” Professor Achim Timmermann told The Post. Another faculty member threatened to call campus police if questions to staffers about Lisa continued.
Her home with Howard, a five-bedroom ivy-adorned residence, is a picture of suburbia. A Volkswagen Golf and Mini Cooper were parked in the driveway. A bird-feeder sat empty. The shades were drawn. A cat perched on the windowsill. Shrubs and bushes were manicured.
Over the years Lisa has also gone to great lengths to keep her past hidden from newer friends and relations. Most neighbors interviewed by The Post were unaware of her family tragedy.
“I house-sit for them in the summer and she’s never breathed a word about it to me,” said a woman named Martha who answered the door to their home.
“They don’t socialize,” said neighbor Kira Birditt, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research.
“They’re a little quiet,” she added noting the couple was not married and didn’t appear to have children.
“They do a lot of nice gardening, especially Lisa,” Margaret Dewar, another neighbor, told The Post. “I’ve run into her in the farmer’s market buying plants.”
“She’s a good neighbor,” Dewar added. “They keep up that place. They don’t have loud parties. We have lots of students who are not like that. They don’t call and complain about things.”
There is still much of Lisa’s story that remains shrouded in mystery, and under Ann Arbor’s cone of silence, it may stay buried forever.
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