IN HIS novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the American writer Thornton Wilder reflects on the lives of a group of people who are hurled to their deaths when the bridge they are crossing collapses. The deaths are so sudden, violent, arbitrary. What sense can one make of such a swift and pitiless end? In two beautiful sentences, Wilder offers a consoling vision: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead; and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." The bridge is love.
I was thinking of Wilder's words last weekend as the coastguards and navy were searching the waters off Martha's Vineyard for John F Kennedy Junior, his wife Carolyn and her sister Lauren Bessette. I heard the news that the plane was missing as I was lying in bed fighting a summer flu. I could not get up to watch the news, and so in a darkened room I listened to the radio broadcasts as they became more and more ominous. And then came the confirmation: the three were dead. Young and beautiful and dead.
The news reports focused on yet another dead Kennedy. That was to be expected. The lost son of the lost leader. The cursed First Family. All truths are no less true for being cliches. I listened to it all with a sense of dread. Waiting for the name of the Bessette sister who had disappeared with John and Carolyn.
I could not grieve for John Kennedy. Certainly I felt sorry for the loss of a young life, and for his family. But I did not know him and I have always regarded grief expended on distant figures as somewhat counterfeit. When a Diana dies is it not ourselves, our private losses and agonies that we weep for, rather than the ostensible object of our grief? But somebody I knew and liked, one of the most vibrant women I've ever met, died on that plane with John Kennedy. And it is the life of Lauren Bessette that I want to remember this Saturday morning.
You will not have learnt much about her from the newspapers or television. She was the least-known of the dead, a high-flying financier who was said to be romantically involved with another one of the Kennedy clan, Bobby Shriver. That was how her life was edited down for public consumption. But Lauren was bigger than that, by a long shot. She reminded me of the lines in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities where he is describing the bodyguard employed by a wily lawyer in Manhattan. Wolfe describes his man as being "less a human being, than a force of nature".
Lauren certainly didn't look like a bodyguard - more a catwalk model - but she never met you with anything less than the full force of her personality. And that was very powerful indeed. Her physical appearance was striking. Tall and statuesque, with long brown hair, she always surged rather than strolled; she was always the figure in the room who demanded the closest attention. I first met her through my friend Thea Guest, who is in New York helping to console Lauren's family in their days of darkness.
Thea was the BBC producer in Asia when I arrived there from Africa in 1994. One of our first trips together was a fruitless month spent waiting for the death of Deng Xiaoping in Peking.
It was February and bitterly cold, with biting, sand-gritted winds blowing down on to the city from the Gobi Desert. As the days yawned into weeks, our boredom deepened. After a fortnight I was champing at the bit to go home. The Paramount Leader looked nowhere near death. But London insisted that we stay. And then one day Thea announced that a friend of hers was coming up for the weekend. "Lauren will liven this place up," she announced.
The following Friday morning I knocked on Thea's bedroom door, to be greeted by a tall figure in a white bathrobe, combing the water out of her newly washed hair. She bore an expression of exaggerated nonchalance.
"I guess you're Fergal. Thea says you're all right. Come on in," said the figure. I think she made a point of not introducing herself, just to test my reaction. I just smiled and said, "You must be Lauren."
The first few hours with Lauren were pretty stilted; we were each trying to get a sense of the other. I have to admit, I was pretty intimidated by her. This woman takes no prisoners, I thought. Our relationship might have remained in that formal no man's land, had Thea not managed to slip down the stairs of a restaurant that night. By morning her ankle had ballooned and, armed with Lauren's fluent Mandarin Chinese, we set off for for the foreigners' wing of a local hospital. Grim, foreboding, bureaucratic, the hospital promised a grim experience.
But I had reckoned without Lauren Bessette. Boy, this lady could make things happen. Within minutes of our arrival she had dragooned what seemed like the entire medical team to examine Thea's ankle. Not long after that we were ushered respectfully into the plastering-room, where a large cast was moulded around the ankle. Lauren kept chatting to the doctors in Chinese, respectful and grateful now. Outside in the corridor, Thea took one look at her plastered ankle and collapsed. Lauren and I took an arm each and, laughing like children, hauled her down to the waiting taxi. That was Peking, early spring 1995.
I went to the antiques market with her and admired her bargaining skills. She was tough but never patronising in her dealings with the Chinese furniture-sellers. After Peking, I met Lauren several times in Thea's company. We all lived in Hong Kong in the age of money. This was before the Asian financial crash and Lauren and her colleagues in the banking sector were riding high. In truth, Lauren deserved everything she earned. The woman worked so hard, travelled so far and long. She was very driven. 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.
Lauren and I had many battles about the attitude of Asian governments to human rights. She was a pragmatist, and believed that human rights would come with economic prosperity. I didn't believe they were things people should be forced to wait for. But Lauren was always sincere, and she had the gift of a formidable intellect. It was a pleasure to argue with her.
Once, I brought her round to my way of thinking. It was Thea's farewell to Hong Kong party, and we all ended up in a bar. At two in the morning, after another human rights argument, I ended up telling Lauren about the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, who died in Siberia after being banished to the camps by Stalin. I quoted some lines from his wife Nadia's last letter to him in which she asks, with terrible, simple urgency: "Where are you?"
Lauren borrowed the book from which I had quoted. For two years she held on to it, and then sent it back via Thea. We were all living different lives by then. Thea and I were back in London, and Lauren had moved to New York - where one day last week she headed for an airport in New Jersey, to take a fateful flight with her sister and brother-in-law.
The bridge, as Thornton Wilder said, is love. The only survival, the only meaning.
The writer is a BBC special correspondent
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