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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

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)

TIME magazine

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 credit?"

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 Square Garden.

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 six.

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 barometer.

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.

--With reporting by John Cloud and Romesh Ratnesar/New York and James Carney/Washington


Cover Date: July 26, 1999

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