On any given summer weekend in the late 1950s, it’s a good bet that John and Laurel Bessesen could be found on Lake Minnetonka, cruising around the bays in their 30-foot Chris-Craft cruiser.
On the back deck, John would pour gin and tonics and entertain guests with stories and the occasional song.
Driving the boat? Well, that would be Laurel — a buoyant Twin Cities socialite and businesswoman who didn’t let much stand in her way throughout her 93 years.
“She was way ahead of her time,” Cookie Sweatt, 67, said of her mother, who died Sept. 20. “She was a lot of fun to be around.”
Bessesen — who grew up in Anoka and raised three children, John (71), Cookie and Bill (65) — embraced life with verve, her children say. She also lived a life that seemed made for the movies.
The daughter of Nellie Thurston, who zipped around on her own motorcycle in the 1920s, Bessesen helped run her husband’s marketing businesses, wrote and published a cookbook and later was named president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Minnesota.
In 1939, Bessesen became one of the nation’s first flight attendants. Five years later, an Air Force lieutenant strapped into a parachute and armed with a .45-caliber pistol stepped on board the Mid-Continent Airlines plane where Bessesen was working.
“He took one look at my mom and that was it,” Bill said of his father, John. “He got off the plane, got her address, starting courting her and they were married soon after.”
They made a home in Edina, and often found themselves the subject of stories in the local newspapers throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s because of their involvement in the community and in local charities, and also because both Laurel and John came from notable families.
Her father, Harold Thurston, owned several local businesses. John’s father, William Aaron Bessesen, was a surgeon for the Mayo brothers, and his mother, Beatrice, was an opera singer.
John, who acted briefly in Hollywood before returning to his home state, started a series of marketing businesses with Laurel’s constant aid.
“She was his right-hand person,” Bill said. “I think she really was the brains of the group, to be honest.”
According to their children, Laurel and John worked together at their office each day, then came home and, still enraptured with each other’s company, would laugh and talk over a drink.
“They were best friends,” Cookie said.
John died in 1996 after a long battle with prostate cancer.
Laurel Bessesen will be remembered by those who knew her best for her charity work, her vibrant personality and her many hobbies, including figure skating, horseback riding, hosting house parties and traveling.
Like her mother, she also liked buzzing around town in a sports car.
“She liked to drive Corvettes because people didn’t ride with her then,” Cookie said with a laugh. “She’d say, ‘All these old ladies want to ride with me.’ I’d say, ‘Mother, you’re the old lady!’ ”
For a long time, her children say, time evaded their mom, who was always quick-witted and game for an adventure.
In her last days, Bessesen, who developed dementia, lived at Augustana Chapel View Health Care Center in Hopkins.
The days of cruising around in the Chris-Craft with a deck full of guests were over. But Laurel was still the life of the party, cracking jokes and quickly becoming a favorite of the nurses.
“She just had that clever personality,” Bill said. “And she was funny right up to the end.”
Besides her three children, survivors include one granddaughter. Services have been held.