Friends Remember Lauren Bessette, Who Was Thriving at Morgan Stanley

The departure of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s single-engine turbo plane on July 16 from a small New Jersey airport marked the end of a long day for Lauren Bessette. An investment banker in the corporate finance division of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company, Ms. Bessette had gotten caught in traffic en route from her office at 1585 Broadway. She was still wearing a beige work dress as she walked the tarmac to Mr. Kennedy’s Piper Saratoga 32.

Lauren Bessette, an older sister of Mr. Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn, started as an analyst at Morgan Stanley in 1987, a year after her graduation from Hobart and William Smith College. In 1989, she left Morgan Stanley to attend the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving her M.B.A. in 1991, it was back to Morgan Stanley.

“She was very professional,” said one former Morgan Stanley executive who worked with Ms. Bessette in the early 90’s. “At that time, most of the women who really came across well were typical career women–meaning, very, very much focused on the career, really trying to kick ass. She was much more balanced.”

“She was an unusually attractive woman,” said another colleague. “She was really kind of a knockout. I thought she was beautiful, and I was just struck.”

Ms. Bessette graduated from Greenwich High School in 1982. At Hobart and William Smith College in rural Geneva, N.Y., she majored in economics. Her teachers said she was assiduous.

“You would like to have a roomful of Laurens,” said Prof. Daniel McGowan, who gave her an A for her work in Monetary Theory and Policy, a course he believes piqued her interest in Wall Street. “She was definitely honors material. But she was fun to have in class, because she was interested in the subject, wanting to learn, not afraid of entering something that had been sort of male-dominated.”

Ms. Bessette, who died at 34, grew up with sisters Carolyn, one year her junior, and Lisa Ann, her identical twin, in Greenwich, Conn. Her father, William Bessette, is an architectural engineer, and her mother, Ann, is a teacher and administrator. When the Bessette girls were young, their parents divorced. Afterward, Ann married Richard Freeman, an orthopedic surgeon. The Freemans now live in Old Greenwich, Conn. Mr. Bessette lives in White Plains, N.Y. The family has requested minimal coverage of the tragic deaths of their daughters.

In 1994, Lauren Bessette opted for a four-year stint in Morgan Stanley’s Hong Kong office. There, she helped execute capital-markets transactions. During her time there, in 1996, Morgan Stanley promoted her to vice president.

“It was hard on single women,” said another firm source, who knew her in Hong Kong. “It’s very family-oriented; most people who go out there are married. In a way, it’s a hardship, because it doesn’t make it any easier for them to find somebody to marry.”

Her twin sister, Lisa Ann Bessette, has taken a somewhat different course: After graduating from the University of Michigan, she is reported to have been pursuing a doctorate in Renaissance studies in Munich.

In February 1998, Lauren Bessette returned to Morgan Stanley’s Manhattan offices and in December was promoted from vice president to principal, a job title one level below managing director in the company hierarchy. She spent her days pitching investment ideas to the firm’s major private equity clients. Soon after her promotion, she agreed to buy a $925,000 artist’s loft at 17 White Street, a few blocks from the converted warehouse on N. Moore Street where sister Carolyn had lived since her marriage to Mr. Kennedy in 1996.

Ms. Bessette was reportedly seeing film and television producer Bobby Shriver, 45, the son of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, aunt and uncle of John F. Kennedy Jr. Sources close to the family say Bessette was on her way to visit Mr. Shriver on Martha’s Vineyard the night of July 16. The couple would have stayed the weekend at the Kennedy-Onassis retreat near the town of Gay Head.

Carolyn Bessette and John Kennedy lived surrounded by the media; their deaths have been much noted. To those who knew Lauren Bessette, there seems to be something incongruous about that; she wasn’t famous, but she was an accomplished woman, toughing it out and enjoying herself in a male-dominated field. One former colleague, freshly familiar with the tragic news, said: “She may have been more successful than they were.”

The 24-Hour Comic

Aubrey Mike, 30, used to work at Morgan Stanley in the printing services department. Then, last summer, he got a hernia from lifting heavy stacks of paper. He got worker’s compensation–$400 a week, he said, every Friday–and the money went to cocaine. He had been doing cocaine since 1992, but now it was getting worse. It was a $1,500-a-night habit at one point, he said. To pay for it, he sold “everything” in his apartment. At his lowest, he tried, in vain, to sell a toilet-cleaning brush for $1.

On Oct. 13, he quit the cocaine, with the help of Narcotics Anonymous and his mother. Now he’s an electrician. He lives in an apartment on West 163rd Street with his mother and eight cats. Mr. Mike is also a comedian. And that brings us to the Washington-Jefferson hotel on West 51st Street, where he is now appearing. Not in a lounge or anything like that–but in one of the hotel rooms. Room 114, to be exact. Just walk into the hotel, find the door marked 114, open it, and there he is, doing comedy. He got the gig after losing a bet (Mr. Mike took the Knicks over the Spurs) with Bob Lindenbaum, the hotel’s manager.

Mr. Lindenbaum has set aside Room 114 as a kind of “art room.” The first project was a cheese exhibit by SoHo artist Cosimo Cavallaro. It wasn’t an exhibit, exactly–the artist just covered Room 114, floor to ceiling, in 1,000 pounds of Gruyère and Swiss. It was quite a stunt, in a New York Times City section kind of way.

Now it’s Mr. Mike’s turn. He’s the first act to go on after the cheese. The smell was lingering and there were still bits of cheese stuck to the ceiling. Mr. Mike is living in the room until the middle of August. If he’s sleeping and someone knocks on the door, he has to wake up and do a bit.

“The cheese room!” Mr. Mike yelled around 11 P.M. on the night of July 14, his first night in the hotel. “It stank so bad after they cleaned it up. I’m gonna get some African incense up in here! We’re gonna get Afrocentric, got some soul food coming, too.”

He was moving around the room in a floppy, black-and-white Dr. Seuss hat, a blue bathrobe and bare feet.

Four kids–all brothers–pushed open the door. They were wearing Spalding basketball outfits.

“Do you think I’m funny?” Mr. Mike said. “One, two, three–am I funny?”

“Yesssss,” said Miguel, Chris, Brian and Mark Anthony Andujar.

“Thank you very much,” Mr. Mike said. “This is my audience for the night.” The boys were a little chubby and Mr. Mike went into Don Rickles mode: “That’s my peoples! Lay off the Coke, baby. Sprite–no more for you! No more Sprite! You, you just lay off the chips, you gettin’ big, you gettin’ big, baby! You stay off the damn chips.”

Soon, Mr. Mike dimmed the lights and ducked into the closet. Inside, he put on a “Scream” mask under the Dr. Seuss hat and stuffed three pillows into his bathrobe. Then he jumped out of the closet and began dancing herky-jerky style and jumping on the bed. The Andujar brothers laughed hard. Then he kicked them out.

“You see how demanding this is going to be?” he said, sitting on the bed, lighting a smoke, and beginning his story. Left home in Danville, Va., at 15. After the Old Dominion Job Corps Center and Norfolk State University, he moved to New York in 1992. He has had hard luck along the way. He’s been fired “a lot,” spent six days in jail for hitting a friend with a baseball bat (broke his knees, arms and ribs), his apartment caught on fire, he fell off a scaffolding (got worker’s comp for that one, too), he’s begged on the subway. Once, he said, he lived for two days on nothing but sunflower seeds. Another time, he ate Chinese from a garbage can.

The next night, July 15, we were in the room, sharing a Rolling Rock and Camel Lights. “It was comic hell today,” he said. He was wearing pajama bottoms and a T-shirt that read “I’m Not Smiling, I’m Passing Gas.” He said he’d had three hours’ sleep and a breakfast of two burgers, fries and Mountain Dew. After that, he just walked around the hotel with the pillows under his bathrobe, yelling: “What are you looking at? Never seen a fat man in a bathrobe?” A total of five people came to see him.

“This old lady, she knocks on the door, she says, ‘I heard you were a comic, I heard this is the comedy room. Make me laugh!’ I was like, ‘It doesn’t work like that.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I was like, ‘You don’t know that comedy secret? You don’t know that you don’t ask a comic to make you laugh?’ ‘Why not?’ I was like, ‘You gotta pay me!’ She was like, ‘No!’ I was like, ‘How much you think I’m worth?’ She’s like, ‘One penny.’ I was like, ‘O.K.!’ Then she started laughing.”

Soon, Mr. Mike was telling me about his Morgan Stanley days: “One day, we had a big meeting when Dean Witter was merging with Morgan Stanley. Everybody in the board room, big meeting. It was for milk. Somebody stole somebody’s milk out of the refrigerator.” He slipped into a bland white-guy voice: “All right, everybody sit down. This is very serious, very serious. Now–who took Jimmy’s milk?” Suddenly, Mr. Mike switched to homeboy dialect: “‘Who took Jimmy milk!’ So after that happened, it was time for me to move on.”

Nightline was winding down. We finished the tall boy.

So why was he there?

“They said that nobody has ever done this. They said that this couldn’t be done, that it’s going to fail. Good or bad, I’m here. So if it does fail, at least I could say I stuck it out. I did my time. Most comics, they do time on stage. I do my time right here.”

–George Gurley