In September 1999, Vanity Fair featured Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy on the cover of the magazine. Carolyn and her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr. had died only 2 months prior in a plane crash that shocked the world. Writer David Michaelis wrote a poignant piece about John John, America’s Prince Charming, titled Great Expectations. Longtime friends, Michaelis reminisced about all the things we loved about JFK Jr.: charm, humor, dynamic personality, stunning good looks.
John F. Kennedy Jr. had been in the spotlight almost since birth. He was born just 17 days after his father won the White House and was still an infant when his father and namesake became president. The nation was captivated by the Kennedys and their small children. But the glare intensified following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. The image of a 3-year-old JFK Jr. saluting his father’s casket on his young birthday was ingrained in the nation’s cultural collective memory. From that point forward, the boy nicknamed John John would always generate a large amount of publicity.
John lived a very public life in New York City. I remember from a very young age my mother always talking about him: how handsome he was and how normal he seemed. She would always chuckle at the photos of him riding his bike to work as he was dressed in a nicely tailored suit with his pant legs stuffed into his socks so they wouldn’t get caught or dirty. When I moved to NYC as an adult there were always JFK Jr. sightings: on the subway, at the NYC marathon, walking in Tribeca, in the elevator at Calvin Klein (when he started dating Carolyn).
I heard a great story right after his passing. The night before he died he attended a Yankees home game. As all New Yorkers, John took the subway up to the game. Anyway who has ever taken the subway to a Yanks game knows its standing room only and the car is packed to the brim with Yankees fans pushing in until the car hits capacity and you can no longer move (or breathe). John had recently suffered a leg injury and got on the subway in a cast. He stuffed himself into the car and stood just like all the other Yankees fans on their way to the game. A few minutes later, someone noticed his cast and crutches and offered him their seat. He refused at first, finally accepting the gracious offer. He proceeded to announce, “Who ever said that New Yorkers aren’t the nicest people in the world,” to the amusement of the entire train car who howled and clapped. Nobody bothered him because he was JFK Jr., because on that crowded subway, on that hot steamy night, he was a New Yorker just like the rest of us.
Somehow, even as John Kennedy accepted that he belonged to America, he also managed to belong to himself. The author, a longtime family friend, learned firsthand just how hard that must have been—and how amazing the grace with which Kennedy took his place in history.
A long, long time ago, when he was John—just John—I knew him a little. I was a friend of his sister Caroline’s from school. Her brother was a skinny 13-year-old with a big flop of hair. He was thoughtful, undemanding. He remembered your name. He had a watchful eye, a quietness that did not seem to mark him as a Kennedy male, and a mischievous streak that did. As a younger brother he could be protective and loving but also loose, goofy—goofy in a way that kept him from having to control the world too much.
As he grew older, authority came to him, and he wore it naturally. If, as a boy, he had been embarrassed by his skinniness, he seemed surprised as a man to have become beautiful—no other word for it. He moved with Olympian grace, back rippling, stomach quilted with muscle. If he was vain about his body, he seemed unconcerned with his handsomeness, and careless with his hair and clothes.
He could poke fun at his own myth brilliantly, and knew how to be honest with a wry smile and wrenching laughter. To a remarkable degree he remained unself-conscious. His sense of obligation to his family showed itself in one physical quality that I remember: He had trouble sitting still. He could not seem to help himself; he was always moving restlessly in and out of rooms.
When he entered or left a room he did something overpowering to that room and the people in it, something that no one else, except perhaps his parents, his sister, or Princess Diana, could do. Fame is a gross distortion of a human being, but he made it look as if you or I could do it. I once spent a quarter of an hour being John F. Kennedy Jr., which gave me an idea of who he was and what it might have cost him had he not managed to find a coherent sense of self.
The setting was a room in a senior-citizen center somewhere in Rhode Island late in the spring of 1980, when his uncle Senator Edward M. Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Working on the campaign, I happened to enter that room of seniors with one of the senator’s nieces, Kerry Kennedy. The crowd was expecting her. They knew that Kerry went to Brown University in nearby Providence. And because it was also known that John F. Kennedy Jr. was enrolled at Brown, and because I was close enough in age and height to John, and because Kennedys are known to travel in multiples, the seniors simply assumed that I was the only surviving son of the late President Kennedy. It took nothing more than showing my face in that room: I was the boy who had saluted his father’s flag-draped coffin. I was “John-John,” or, as they pronounced it, in a kind of love chant, “Jawn-Jawn.”
Over and over: Jawn-Jawn, Jawn-Jawn. It felt like undertow. The wildly grasping hands, the gaping mouths, the talonlike fingernails—all suddenly in my face, on my body, deeply in my flesh. I no longer belonged to myself, I was theirs. I remember telling row after row of wheelchair-bound seniors that I wasn’t John. No one listened. Everyone was bewitched. John-John, I was, Jawn-Jawn I would be.
For me it was only for a matter of minutes. He had a lifetime of it. By some act of will, or strand of DNA, he would not be conquered by the assault—not by the cameras, not by the beating of muffled drums or flags at half-mast or the film clips that again and again swept his smiling, unhurt parents from Love Field to their doom, and him to his salute outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral. He had been history and he would be history. Though he was part of everyone’s past, he somehow understood that he must always remain in the present. If he had a chance to live outside the myth, it was by mastering the here and now.
I saw him leaving a room a couple of years ago, at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., which he was attending as the founding editor in chief of George magazine. At the end of the evening, in one of the wide, carpeted hallways of the Hilton, my wife, Clara, and I were pulled into an expanding swirl of people, eddying urgently around a fixed center. My first thought was that here was the scene of a medical emergency. Someone must be on the floor, having a heart attack, because of the way people near the center of the pack were shouting in alarmed, incoherent bursts. Others respectfully kept their distance from the center yet also refused in the crisis to budge from their places. More and more people packed in behind us, until we were all pressed together and holding our breath in suspense, witnesses to the emergency of John Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s leaving the Hilton.
He seemed interested in fulfillment. In recent years, he had settled down, made commitments. But still you never knew with him how hard it was to live with his feelings—or, for that matter, with expectations, memorabilia, houses, dubious privacy, plentiful money, grief more dreadful than it seems possible to endure.
In the dining room of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue, a little after 10:15 p.m. on May 19, 1994, John told family and friends that she was dead. Minutes later, a desperate keening could be heard from a back hallway. It sounded as if it might have been one of the old Greek maids from the days of Onassis. It turned out to be a woman no one knew, silver-haired, odd-looking, who suddenly appeared in the front hallway and embraced John. He at first took her to be one of his Bouvier cousins. But when he gallantly apologized for not knowing her, the woman told him first one, then another obviously fake name, and he realized that she had come in off the street, from the crowds that had been logjammed behind blue sawhorses for days on the sidewalk below.
That scene in the hallway could have played out in so many ways, ugly or angry, weird or graceful. Good manners can help at a time like that; so can kindness, patience, and experience with the chaos that was always at the edge of his family’s life. By the time his mother died, he had learned simplicity too, which was her greatness. But to know how to handle an intruder at your mother’s deathbed, you need above all to be true to yourself. He gently told the woman, “Madam, you don’t belong here.”