He Was America's Prince
An icon of both magic and grief who flew his own course to the lost horizon
By NANCY GIBBS
John Kennedy Jr. loved to fly. After he got his pilot's license last year he would ask people if they wanted to come along, could he give them a lift somewhere. But most of us don't need to go where he did--to a place where he could get away, off camera, out of the bubble, on his own. Most often he headed up to the house his mother had left him on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., a place so special, so private, the houses far back from the road, the beaches so peaceful. Until last Saturday afternoon, when the luggage, a woman's compact, a headrest, began washing up on that shore, turning a wedding day into a wake.
This family, the subject of a thousand books and untold memories, has soaked our imaginations for a half-century. We have attended their inaugurations and weddings and football games and too many of their funerals. We knew they were not like us, but we watched them all the more. We saw them in black and white, blessed and cursed, the image of the merry young father climbing off the helicopter, wrapping his arms around the tiny boy who ran across the lawn to him, cuddling his son in the rowboat, walking on the beach, tumbling in the grass. The pictures of President Kennedy and his son brought home to us one life ended too soon, the hollowing out of a country's soul when it lost its President, but most cruelly they reminded us of the boy who lost his dad before he got to know him. All he could do was salute.
We saw those pictures again all weekend, but now the dark shadow has lengthened with the passing of 35 years to claim the son as well. A boy born on Thanksgiving Day to a man just elected President lost his father three days before his third birthday. John Jr. and his sister Caroline grew up in our hearts instead, protected by a mother who feared that death still stalked the family. After Bobby was killed, Jackie said, "If they're killing Kennedys, then my children are targets."
As it turned out, fate and folly took over where the assassins left off. There were Robert Kennedy's sons David, dead of an overdose, and Michael, who skied into the trees playing football down the slopes of Aspen. If Robert and Ethel's children seemed scarred by misfortune, Jackie Kennedy seemed to have achieved her great goal of raising, in tragedy's backyard, two healthy, decent kids who were aware of both the gifts and the duties that were their birthright.
In the pain of last Saturday it was possible to be grateful that Jackie had died first, this woman who had taught the country how to mourn in grace. We could not have borne to watch her bury her son.
John Kennedy Jr. was swaddled in headlines, the first baby ever born to a President-elect. It was news when he came out of the incubator, when he first went on formula, when he got a haircut or lost a tooth. The family never called him John-John; a reporter heard his father chasing after the fleeing toddler, shouting "John, John," and thought it was a pet name. And so it became our name for him, not theirs, which was fitting, since like the rest of the family, he has always been partly a myth of our own making, a mirror, a mirage.
If you believe his friends, the most famous son in the world wanted nothing more than to be a normal guy, to put people at ease. Born to a father who understood politics as a performance art, he hoped at one time to become an actor, but wound up as an editor of a magazine that promised to treat politics as entertainment, which could be seen as a strange gesture toward the arena in which his father and uncle had died.
In their shadow he lived life in full; he kayaked and parasailed and Rollerbladed through Central Park, traveled to India to study health care and dated Madonna and Daryl Hannah, flunked the bar exam twice and couldn't go for pizza without the tabs coming along. If he was less reckless than his cousins, it was not saying much; there were friends who turned down the invitation to take to the skies with him. Pilot Kyle Bailey watched the plane take off Friday night. "I didn't lose any sleep over it," he says. "I figured he must know what he was doing." But Bailey didn't like the weather. He decided to wait and fly in the morning.
Saturday was supposed to be Rory's day. Ethel's youngest daughter had earned the perfect weather, a bright breeze and feathery clouds and sunshine splashed across the water. Ethel Kennedy was pregnant with Rory when her husband was murdered in 1968; Rory's uncle Ted attended her delivery and played surrogate father to her and her brothers and sisters. It was Rory who cradled her brother Michael as he lay dying on a mountain after skiing into a fir tree, his three children praying at his side. Rory, a documentary filmmaker, had seen suffering in her family, and she had shared in their successes, and so last weekend they were gathering to share in hers as she prepared to marry New York City writer Mark Bailey.
Friday night was the bridal dinner, for family and members of the wedding party. Rory and her mom had gone sailing the day before; the weather was lovely, the dinner was perfect.
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July 26, 1999
Special Report: John F. Kennedy Jr. 1960-1999
He was the prince of American exuberance, the apparent proof that the burden of tragedy could not rein in charisma, drive and gumption. Now, suddenly, with the vanishing of a plane, his name is among those touched by a dynastic curse
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