John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr.:
“It’s hard for me to talk about a legacy or a mystique. It’s my family. The fact that there have been difficulties and hardships, or obstacles, makes us closer.”
He didn’t use the “F.” or “Jr.” for his name; he simply went by John Kennedy. He was wealthy, charming, athletic, commanding and very handsome. He was also as close to a prince as this country could ever have.
There are so many iconic photographs of him, including the one where he is playing under his father’s desk in the Oval Office, but none more heartbreaking than the one where he is wearing that tiny blue coat, saluting his father’s passing coffin.
He made the newspapers on the first day his of life, and the last. Every milestone of his life was covered by the press: his baptism; his first Christmas; his first teeth, his first steps, his first haircut, his graduation from high school and college, who he was dating, including his classmate at Brown, Brooke Shields, plus Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daryl Hannah; and the press cheered as he emerged with his gorgeous bride after their secret wedding in 1996.
John Kennedy was the charmed star of late-20th-Century America, yet, as it had been for so many members of his family, his ending was swift, public and way before its time.
Kennedy had both the Kennedy charisma and its curse. He sought privacy even after giving up a career in law or government. He failed the New York bar exam twice, before passing on his third try, and it was all covered by the media.
But like many sons of famous fathers, Kennedy seemed to always be searching for his place in the public life. The expectations for him had to have been overwhelming. He must have been conscious of the burden of being an ultimate American Icon.
There was that short while where it seemed he might try to make it as an actor. It was one of his passions. He had appeared in many plays while attending Brown University. But, his mother strongly disapproved, saying it was an unsuitable profession. In 1985, Kennedy made his New York City acting debut in front of an invitation-only audience at the Irish Theater. Nye Heron, the director of the Irish Arts Center said that Kennedy was: “One of the best young actors I’ve seen in years”. Kennedy’s first professional acting gig was playing a fictionalized version of himself in a season-eight episode of the sitcom Murphy Brown. In this episode, Kennedy visits Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) at her office, to promote a magazine he is publishing.
It was publishing that he chose in real life, even after spending all those years in front of the press. He was the founder and editor of George, a glossy magazine about politics.
While he helped the Democratic Party raise money, he never did run for office. He made his political debut at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where he introduced his uncle Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Invoking his father’s inaugural speech, which called a generation to public service, he received a three-minute standing ovation.
Although he repeatedly played down expectations that he would one day run for public office, we all dreamed it was possible. Alfonse M. D’Amato, the former Republican Senator from New York who was a contributor to George, said Kennedy would make a strong candidate for New York City Mayor, a suggestion that Kennedy laughed off. Kennedy:
“A public career is… it’s a lot to bite off. And you better be ready for it, and you better have your life set up for it and you better be prepared to do it for the long haul.”
A real jock, he was often photographed shirtless. In 1988, People Magazine named him ”The Sexiest Man Alive”. They got it right that time. A picture from that issue was on my fridge until it yellowed and fell off. He was a 6-foot-1, 190-pound hunk who liked to ride bicycles, rollerblade, dance, and throw footballs.
He was born on Thanksgiving Day, just three weeks after his father was elected POTUS. He was the first infant to live in the White House since 1893.
President Kennedy’s funeral was held on his son’s third birthday. Before that iconic photo was snapped, his mother had leaned down and whispered to him in advance to salute, a gesture that he had seen many times as military escorts greeted his father.
After his father’s murder, his mother moved the family to an apartment on the Upper East Side of NYC. Security was always a major preoccupation. When he turned 6 years old, his mother commented on his maturity, telling the press:
“Sometimes it almost seems that he is trying to protect me instead of just the other way around.”
He attended a Catholic elementary school and he was so boisterous that the Secret Service agents gave him the code name Lark. Still, his mother worried about her children’s safety, especially after Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in 1968. Jacqueline Kennedy:
“If they’re killing Kennedys, then my children are targets. I want to get out of this country.”
In 1968, she married Aristotle Socrates Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who was 29-years older, in part because of he was able to provide her family with security.
His mother was the world’s most famous woman, but she sought desperately to give her kids a normal life. When John was mugged in Central Park when he was 13, she said it was a valuable experience for him for life as an adult. Kennedy always made a point of taking public transportation in NYC.
Breaking with family tradition, he went to Brown University instead of Harvard, graduating in 1983. He majored in American History. He enrolled in law school at NYU, mostly to please his mother.
After finally passing the bar exam on the third try, he took a job as a prosecutor in the office of the Manhattan District Attorney. The tabloids labeled him the “Hunk Who Flunked”. Kennedy:
“I’m clearly not a major legal genius.”
After four years as an Assistant D.A., and with a perfect 6-0 conviction record, he announced that the law bored him. As he left the District Attorney’s office, he told the press:
“I don’t want to be just another passenger on a liner.”
When he turned 34 years old, he started George in a joint venture with Hachette-Filipacchi, a media conglomerate. For the next in line of America’s most illustrious political dynasty, the magazine was a way to both connect him to his family’s past and let him find his own place in the world.
In a 1998 interview, he stated:
“I think everyone needs to feel they’ve created something that was their own, on their own terms.”
For George, he was the publisher, but also an interviewer and essayist. In a controversial essay in August 1997, he described his first cousins Joseph and Michael Kennedy as “poster boys for bad behavior”.
He seemed to enjoy being provocative, posing almost naked in George and inviting Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt to be his guest at the 1998 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He also visited boxer Mike Tyson in prison, calling him “a friend who is much different from his public image”.
Kennedy served on the boards of family foundations and several nonprofit organizations. He was the head of Reaching Up, which provides educational opportunities for low-income workers and helps people with disabilities. He worked at a soup kitchen and read to kids at a Bronx grade school.
On July 16, 1999, Kennedy left this world at just 38 years old, even younger than his father had been. The small plane he was flying crashed into the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, his wife of just 1000 days, and her sister Lauren Bessette, also perished.
Before the terrible airplane crash, Kennedy and his wife were reported to have been living apart. She was said to be hotheaded and volatile. He wanted children; she did not. He like being in the spotlight; she hated it.
George was in trouble too, with reviewers calling it slight and already losing money. It folded for good in 2001.
The Kennedys were on their way to a family wedding. They took off at dusk, in erratic weather and limited visibility. Kennedy was a relatively new pilot and he had been warned by his doctors not to fly because of a recent broken ankle.
In a 1962 speech, Kennedy’s father prophetically said:
“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came.”
It felt like a kick in the stomach when I heard the news. I cried for the country, his family, and because I finally understood that he would not be marrying me.