The art of being JFK Jr.
Under the burden of fame, he led a life of decency and purpose
By Eric Pooley
July 19, 1999
Web posted at: 11:04 a.m. EDT (1504 GMT)
The four friends had been doing some strenuous paddling under
the Baja sun, and as soon as they pulled their ocean kayaks up
onto the deserted beach, John Kennedy plunged into the Pacific.
It was a glorious day in the mid-1980s. Kennedy; his girlfriend
at the time, actress Christina Haag; and their old friends Lynn
Weinstein and Billy Straus were vacationing together, communing
with the extraordinary gray whales in Magdalena Bay. Now the
others were relaxing on the beach, not paying much attention as
Kennedy swam farther and farther out into the open sea, well
beyond the big lines of breakers rolling toward shore--until the
friends suddenly realized they couldn't see him at all. They
stood onshore, panicking and scanning the horizon, wondering
whether and where and how to go after him. Finally, after a few
gut-wrenching minutes, says Straus, "all of a sudden he just
reappeared." Emerging from the heavy surf--dripping,
exhilarated, wondering what all the fuss was about. "I've been
with him in a few difficult situations, and he's always come out
the other side."
Which is why, on Saturday morning, when Straus and other close
friends of Kennedy saw the first nonstop coverage of Kennedy's
missing plane, they were more than skeptical. The media were
going crazy about John again--nothing new there--and though it
surely looked dire, he just had to be all right. He was the
"Master of Disaster," always getting into scrapes but escaping.
Perhaps he and Carolyn and her sister Lauren had ditched the
plane and hitchhiked out of there, or maybe they were holed up
on the beach of a tiny uninhabited island Kennedy knew, waiting
to be discovered and sharing a little joke at the world.
All this seemed possible because John F. Kennedy Jr. had such a
complex relationship with his own fame--sometimes amused, often
appalled, always highly ironic toward the weirdness in which he
lived. He had to get away from it sometimes--to Baja, to Alaska,
up in the Piper Saratoga--because his celebrity had never not
been there. He couldn't tell you where the media images of his
childhood ended and his own memories began, and learning to live
with its effects hadn't been easy. People were always
approaching him, always wanting something from him, but he stood
in the fray and treated them graciously. "He assumed the best
about people and never became cynical about their motives," his
close friend Dave Eikenberry told TIME, "and that's amazing,
given the sycophants and leg humpers he had to deal with every
day. It took enormous fortitude for him to stay well grounded in
the face of his bizarre celebrity, but he did it. Besides which,
he was just the best guy to do stuff with I've ever known. I'm
going to miss him for the rest of my life."
Everyone has to work through hard questions of identity and
self-image; Kennedy had to work through his while trapped inside
a brightly lit media fun house with distorted mirrors all
around. And so he took advantage of an elaborate system that
allowed him to cope: a family that had been through hell in
public and knew how to guard its privacy--and to make life as
normal as it could be. On his own, he developed a band of
fiercely loyal and discreet friends who helped create a secure
zone around him, who were always glad to say "No comment,"
escape with him into the wilderness for another adventure, or
indulge his unquenchable love of the outdoors--parasailing,
running, skiing, biking, losing himself in individual effort.
Within the zone, Kennedy was free to conduct his real life's
work: not the magazine he launched, or the charities he
volunteered for, or the law, but the cultivation of a basic,
good-humored decency--an ordinariness that was his last defense
against the extraordinary role life had handed him. He took the
subway or rode a bike to work, hanging out mostly with friends
who weren't at all famous, using his unparalleled celebrity
mostly on behalf of good causes. At the same time, he went out
of his way to joke with the tabloid reporters who watched his
every move, was invariably polite to those who approached him on
the street, and showed elaborate courtesy to the frantic,
swooning women who mobbed him. He sent a hilarious note to New
York magazine writer Michael Gross, who had profiled him against
his will, saying he was glad the issue with his face on the
cover was off the newsstands, so "I can stop glaring at myself
glaring back at me."
And ultimately, he coped with the media carnival--the rumored
affair with Madonna, the PEOPLE cover proclaiming him "The
Sexiest Man Alive"--by opening up a place of his own on the
midway: George magazine, which from time to time he used to send
up the national obsession with all things Kennedy. He put Drew
Barrymore on the cover, for instance, in a parody of Marilyn
Monroe in the sewed-on gown singing Happy Birthday, Mr.
President. When an uproar ensued, Kennedy pretended he didn't
understand what the fuss was about. Or maybe he really didn't
understand--it was just another image from the family album.
A few years ago, at a party in Washington, he was chatting with
a friend about how poised and normal Chelsea Clinton seemed,
even though she was growing up in the White House. "It's really
a tribute to the Clintons," the friend said. Kennedy smiled.
"Why is it," he asked, "that nobody ever gives the kids any
He had a point. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis received much
deserved praise for the way she raised her children. But John
and Caroline deserve credit, as well, for the character they
displayed growing up in America's battered, beloved, hated, much
chronicled almost-royal family.
Born 17 days after his father was elected, Kennedy had no
memories of his own about his father or his father's funeral; he
remembered the image of himself saluting, not the salute itself.
After the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy escaped with her
children into the anonymity of Manhattan, moving into a
five-bedroom apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park.
The children traveled frequently with their mother, but 1040
Fifth would always be home. Kennedy attended a nearby school,
St. David's, but he could be rowdy and difficult; in 1968, the
year his uncle was assassinated, the third-grader was
transferred to Collegiate, a private school for boys on
Manhattan's West Side, where he developed friendships that would
last the rest of his life. "I don't remember a time when he
wasn't my friend," says record producer Billy Straus, who met
Kennedy in third grade.
Kennedy was a distinctly average student, restless in class,
jiggling his leg nervously, rarely speaking. His mother told him
not to worry about his poor spelling; his father's had been
atrocious as well. As he grew up, however, the Kennedy wit began
to assert itself. In seventh grade his class was assigned to
write a short play, classmate Peter Blauner remembers, and
Kennedy wrote a play about being unable to write a play. "He was
riffing about the various characters he'd tried to create," says
Blauner, "from a ballet dancer to a deranged pretzel vendor in
Central Park. It was really funny."
As he got older, Kennedy began taking the 79th Street crosstown
bus to school, just like any kid might; he made sure to exit
through the bus's front door, while the Secret Service agents
who followed him everywhere used the rear one. And the agents
were there when Kennedy, Straus and another friend went to their
very first rock concert, Bob Dylan and the Band at Madison
In eighth grade, when the school held a father-son night, John's
companion was Roosevelt Grier, the former football star who in
1968 had tackled Robert F. Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan.
But John would not talk about his dead father and uncle;
classmates recall only one history class in his Collegiate
career when John mentioned the President. If you didn't know who
he was, you'd take him for a typical '70s teenager, face
obscured by a helmet of longish brown hair, heading to Central
Park with his friends to throw a Frisbee or play with a pack of
bandanna-wearing dogs. Sometimes he would lose his Secret
Service detail, so he could head for the park and hang out
freely with his friends; once after doing so, he was mugged.
Eventually, his mother decided to send him to boarding school at
Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
By then, he was already learning valuable lessons from his
mother. By example, she taught him how to find and exploit zones
of privacy, how to build an invisible barrier around himself
when in public. It was a technique he might apply at the Xenon
disco, where he hung out in the late '70s: first, use personal
radar to sense the approach of a stranger, then move subtly
until your back is turned to the person--a way of saying
"Please, leave me alone, please." But if someone breached the
barrier anyway, John would then be unfailingly polite, using the
Kennedy charm until he could break free. Just like Jackie.
Still not shining at academics, Kennedy had to repeat a grade at
Andover, but when he graduated in 1979 he could attend any
school he pleased. Instead of Harvard, he chose Brown
University, in Providence, R.I., which was enjoying a popularity
boom in part because it had no core-curriculum requirements.
Kennedy was beginning to look more like his father and--the
tabloid language is irresistible--much more like a hunk. He
scarcely seemed to notice the attention he attracted from
curious students, and eventually he became a no-big-deal part of
the scene. Stripped to the waist and gleaming after a long run,
squiring one of his girlfriends around the quiet campus or
ducking into a party thrown by some son or daughter of the
international elite, he was clearly beginning to get the hang of
the strange but pleasurable life opening up before him. There
were difficult moments: the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the
Devil would start playing in a room where Kennedy was hanging
out, and he'd exit before Mick Jagger sang, "I shouted out, 'Who
killed the Kennedys?'"
When it came time to think about what to do with his life, "he
was torn between his desire for public service and his desire
for a career in theater or the arts," says Ted Van Dyk, a family
friend. Van Dyk ran the Center for Democratic Policy, a liberal
think tank in Washington, where Kennedy served an internship
during the summer between his sophomore and junior years at
Brown. "He had never really been to Washington," says Van Dyk.
"He didn't even know where the White House was." Jackie had made
a conscious decision to shield him from the capital, and now
that he was there, she would call every day to see how he was
doing. He followed Van Dyk on fund-raising trips to California,
and that's where he discovered something new: all the Hollywood
types fawned over him. "I think that was first time he learned
he was a celebrity," says Van Dyk.
Graduating in 1983, Kennedy did some traveling in India and
moved back to Manhattan, getting involved in charitable work,
doing the club and party scene, dating. He was frequently
photographed by the tabloids, and he didn't seem to mind. There
was even a touch of exhibitionism in the way he made his body
available to the paparazzi. "He seemed to want the attention a
bit," says Van Dyk. Kennedy dabbled in acting, but Jackie
thought it an unserious, and thus unsuitable, career choice.
When he and Christina Haag did a show together in 1985, he made
sure to tell reporters, "It's just a hobby."
In 1986, in part to please Jackie, he enrolled in New York
University's law school, completing his study in three years
and--infamously--requiring three cracks at the bar exam before
he passed. But book smarts aren't the only kind; Kennedy had a
highly developed emotional intelligence, an intuitive feel for
people. It was on display in his work as an assistant district
attorney in the office of Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau,
where he showed great concern for the damaged people who came
through the system. He confessed a few times to sympathizing
with the defendants he was supposed to be putting away.
Celebrity chased him at Morgenthau's office as well. "The first
few days he was in the office we had people approaching us
saying that a picture of him at his desk would be worth
$10,000," says Michael Cherkasky, then the chief of the
investigative-units division. "You would be in the elevator with
John and have police officers ask him for his autograph." John
worked on small cases at first--embezzlement, low-level
corruption--before moving on: organized crime and racketeering,
and eventually the street-crime trial division. He was an
assiduous worker. "He was different, obviously--he lived in a
different world that we didn't understand," Cherkasky says. "But
his ability to be upbeat and prompt, to never ask for anything
special or expect it, was a commentary on who he was and how he
was raised." He argued six trials, and won convictions in all
His political strengths started showing up at the 1988
Democratic National Convention, where he introduced his uncle
Ted and invoked his father's name. "So many of you came into
public service because of him," he said in prime time. "In a
very real sense, because of you, he is still with us." The boy
who mentioned his dad exactly once in elementary school had come
a long way.
But back home, Kennedy's heart wasn't in the D.A.'s office, and
he was getting tired of faking it. In 1993, he left and began
thinking about doing something big--another kind of public
service, but one that would take a form he had grown all too
familiar with: magazine journalism. He and a friend, public
relations man Michael Berman, talked about creating a political
magazine that would be glossy and entertaining but also
empowering--one that would inspire alienated people to get
involved in politics, and help give them the tools to do so. The
magazine would also treat politics as spectacle and cultural
Kennedy and Berman worked their way through the New York media
circuit, exploiting the desire of media heavies to meet J.F.K.
Jr., picking the brains of people who knew magazines. One of
their sessions took place in the offices of Ed Kosner, then
editor of Esquire. "It was very vague," Kosner says. "He asked a
lot of questions. I couldn't tell from that conversation what
the magazine was going to be about. He just came over to
schmooze, and he was great at it."
As Kennedy and Berman honed their idea for the magazine, the
French media company Hachette Filipacchi became keen to sign up
Kennedy. But executives there had a different idea about what
the magazine would be--none of that altruistic grass-roots
empowerment stuff, no hard edges at all, and lots of Kennedy.
George, as the magazine was called, owed its early success to
Hachette's great job of marketing its editor.
Kennedy was a natural at the road shows, the care and feeding of
advertisers, but as editor he learned on the job, and that
wasn't easy on anybody. He and Berman, the magazine's president,
had lurid battles about its direction; and Kennedy's violent
temper would break loose; sometimes he would chase Berman down
the hall screaming. One time they locked themselves in Kennedy's
office. Staff members heard banging sounds. When Berman emerged,
one of his shirt sleeves was missing.
Kennedy could be affable and accessible, then capricious and
enraged--all before lunch. "He was a little insensitive," says a
former staff member. "It was his signature project, so he
reserved the right to change anything around at the last
minute." Bent on proving himself a serious person, he failed to
take advice from more seasoned magazine people. "Sometimes he
wouldn't see things that had the potential to make a very bad
article." The product suffered, turnover was high, and
ultimately the magazine ran into financial trouble.
But staff members there will never forget his flair as a
manager. Kennedy often wore shorts and a baseball cap to work
and brought his dog Friday to the office. He furnished his
corner office, which was on the same floor as the rest of the
magazine, modestly. "It felt like a college newspaper," says the
former staffer. "We were once on deadline, feverishly trying to
get the magazine out, and he walked in and said, 'Let's go to
the park and play touch football.' People were appalled, but
they appreciated a gesture he made in the fall of 1996, when the
staff was again putting an issue to bed. Kennedy decided they
needed to unwind: he called the Yankees front office and
procured 41 skybox passes to a World Series game. No one
complained that time."
While Kennedy was making something of George, his personal life
was undergoing enormous upheavals. In 1994, his mother had
succumbed to cancer, robbing him of the single most important
person in his life. He issued a note-perfect statement to the
press, grieved deeply and permanently, but got through it. It
helped that he had fallen in love with Carolyn Bessette, an
exquisitely sophisticated Calvin Klein public relations
executive. As the relationship deepened and moved toward
marriage, they realized that some serious press management was
required. They leaked word that they were breaking up--and
quietly made preparations for a secret wedding, with their 40
closest friends and family, on Cumberland Island, just off the
Georgia coast. The tabloids rented boats and choppers and
mounted invasions through a mangrove swamp, but they arrived too
late to wreck the wedding. Jackie would have approved.
By then, Kennedy's dealings with the media had become deeply
ritualized. "He was very nice to our reporters, extremely nice,"
says National Enquirer editor Steve Coz. "He always had a witty
remark. We put in an offer that we'd love to do an at-home with
him and Carolyn. His assistant called us back and said he told
her to tell us he couldn't do the at-home that night because he
and Carolyn were off to the fights."
Sometimes Kennedy would get on the phone himself to explain why
he was turning down a request. Writer Michael Gross, who had
reported on Kennedy for New York and Esquire magazines, talked
with him about a book project in the fall of 1998. By way of
declining, Kennedy brought up the impending 35th anniversary of
his father's assassination. "There are tons of books coming
out," he said, "some with the family's involvement, but it's
just not me." He talked about George. "I find the magazine
excruciating at times, when I have to participate in a personal
way, but it's part of what I signed up for." And he said he
understood why people were interested in him--he was getting
pretty interested too. "Probably the present is more compelling
than the past," he told Gross. "The beginning of life is just
preparation." The preparation, he implied, was finally over.
John Kennedy was all ready for the main act to begin.
reporting by John Cloud and Romesh Ratnesar/New York and James
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Cover Date: July 26, 1999