Friday, July 18, 2014

John F. Kennedy Jr., 1960-1999

    This is the obituary of John F. Kennedy Jr., that I couldn't find yesterday. I thought it merits a second read. It originally ran in the Sun-Times exactly 15 years ago today, on July 18, 1999:

     He entered the world already famous, the only child ever born to a president-elect. His every action warranted a news story. When he first stood up. When he first went to church. When he walked.
     Later, and for years to come in the public mind, he was John-John, the little boy in a short coat, heartbreakingly solemn, saluting his father's casket as it passed by on a day that was both a moment of profound national grief and his third birthday.
     Eventually he was John F. Kennedy Jr., People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive," the admired and ridiculed inheritor of his famous father's name and charm, trying to find a place for himself in the world and its large expectations of him, first as a lawyer, then as a magazine publisher.
     Frequently dismissed as a dilettante, he nevertheless escaped the kind of notoriety that afflicted other members of his extended clan.
     Yet John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., 38, could not escape, apparently, the tragic ill fortune that stalked his family, his small plane crashing Friday on its way to Martha's Vineyard. His glamorous wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister also were on the plane.
     His 1960 birth was a dramatic event. His father, who had been elected president 18 days earlier, had spent Thanksgiving Day with his pregnant wife at their Georgetown home, then got on a plane for Palm Beach, where he was to vacation.
     Two hours after her husband's departure, Jacqueline Kennedy was rushed to the hospital; word reached the president-elect as his plane landed in Florida, and as soon as a new plane could be refueled, he turned around and went back to Washington. But he wasn't in time for the birth of his first son, at 12:22 a.m. Nov. 25, about a month before the due date. The baby weighed 6 pounds, 3 ounces.
     For the nation, the arrival of JFK Jr. was welcomed as a break from the worries of the day. "No bit of news could have stirred such bipartisan excitement," the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized. "We bid him welcome, and wish him a long and good life."
     No detail of that life, early on, was too minor to be reported, from his formula (one tablespoon of powdered milk to two ounces of water every three hours) to his baptismal outfit (the white christening dress his father had worn 43 years earlier) to his first steps ("Kennedy Son Takes Steps to See Dad Off," one story was headlined).
     Three staffers worked full time opening and cataloging the thousands of baby gifts from people all over the world — hundreds of women knitted booties, sent, typically, with brief notes explaining they had done the knitting during the presidential debates, or while watching election returns. In later years, the presidential couple would implore Americans not to send the children presents. There were too many.
     Reports on his progress were part of the Camelot mystique, the joy of having a vibrant, glamorous couple and their young children in the White House. Early public glimpses of John-John came as he peered through the rails of the upper balcony at ceremonial events going on below, near where a sandbox was set up for him.
     The nation saw the little boy and his sister, Caroline, dance in the Oval Office while their beaming father clapped. They saw John-John playing under his dad's desk. President Kennedy would tease him by calling him "Sam." "I am not Sam. I'm John, Daddy, I'm John," he would protest. (It was his older sister who forbade him from being called "Jack.")
     He loved 21-gun salutes. He loved the helicopters and airplanes that the family often traveled on. He loved returning the Marine guard's salute with one of his own. The president called his children "my rascals," and they would come running whenever he called for them.
     John Jr. celebrated his first two birthdays in the White House. For his 2nd, the president of Ireland sent a pony.
     By his third birthday, his father was dead. The evening of the assassination, he and his sister were hurried from the White House by their nurse, Maud Shaw. John-John was told that his father had been killed by "a bad man," but he didn't really understand what had happened. "I don't have anyone to play with," he complained the next day at a private home, missing his father and the staff at the White House.
     Lyndon B. Johnson's first act as president after he returned to the White House from Dallas was to write a letter of condolence to the boy, beginning, "It will be many years before you can read this note. . . ."       

      Kennedy's salute of his father's casket, as it was leaving St. Matthew's Cathedral for Arlington National Cemetery, was one of the many searing images from the days following the assassination. He had been standing next to his mother and, at her prompting, stepped forward and saluted. The date was Nov. 25, 1963: his third birthday. The Sun-Times ran the photo over an entire page.
     After the assassination, the family moved to New York, living first in the Carlyle Hotel. Kennedy began his schooling at the prestigious St. David's School, transferring for third grade to the 330-year-old Collegiate School —  reportedly because St. David's wanted him to repeat the second grade.
     While Jacqueline Kennedy was strenuous in protecting her children's privacy, he remained frequently in the public eye: for skinning his knee, for punching a playmate, for breaking his wrist falling from a pony.
     Not only did the public note his actions, it imitated them. "John F. Kennedy Jr. has let his sideburns grow and the repercussions have been felt all over Manhattan's Upper East Side. Next month, Des Moines," a half-page article in the New York Times began. Kennedy was 6 years old.
     By then, he was correcting people that his name was not John-John, it was "John." His mother had begun calling him "Johnny" when he turned 4, to show he was growing up.
     After Jacqueline Kennedy married shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis in 1968, her children's time was divided between New York and Greece.
     Like his mother, he was plagued by paparazzi, filing an affidavit in his mother's lawsuit against photographer Ronald Galella, accusing the photographer of almost causing an accident while Kennedy was operating a speedboat off the Greek island of Scorpios.
    "Unexpectedly a fishing boat ran directly across my path," said Kennedy, then 11. "I had to swerve and almost capsize in order to avoid a collision."
     He received Secret Service protection, as mandated by law, until he was 16 years old. But that didn't spare him from being mugged in Central Park when he was 13, when a drug addict robbed him of his bicycle. In 1972, a plot by a dozen international terrorists to kidnap him for ransom was foiled before it could be carried out.
     He went to high school at exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and bucked family tradition and attended Brown University instead of Harvard.
     While at Brown, he was in many ways a typical late-1970s collegian: to pledge Phi Psi fraternity, Kennedy—nude and covered with fish entrails and dog food—streaked across campus.
     He reportedly wanted to attend Yale Drama School, but his mother threatened to disinherit him unless he went to law school. He bowed to her will, enrolling in New York University Law School in 1986.
     After graduating in 1989, he joined the New York district attorney's office as an assistant district attorney at $30,000 a year. "A down in the trenches kind of job" he later said. Kennedy took the subway to work, where on his first day he had to run a gantlet of 40 reporters, photographers and TV crew members.
     To keep his job, Kennedy needed to pass his New York state bar exam. He failed on his first two attempts, to cruel hoots of media ridicule ("THE HUNK FLUNKS . . . AGAIN" screamed the front page headline on the New York Daily News). But Kennedy was nonplussed.
     "I am clearly not a legal genius," he said after the second failure.
     He passed on his third try, in 1990.    

     Kennedy made his political debut introducing his Uncle Ted at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. That was the year People magazine named him "Sexiest Man Alive." His public appearances often had a tinge of rock-concert hysteria to them, as women shrilly shouted their approval.
     Kennedy did not speak publicly about his father until 1992, when he appeared on ABC's "Prime Time Live" with his sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. He doubted that "given the tenor of the times" his father, if still alive, would have gone into politics at all. He said that while he wasn't going to see Oliver Stone's movie "JFK," then just being released, that the assassination and the theories surrounding it were not particularly important to him.
     "That act, that day does not have much to do with my life," he said. "My father's life has to do with my life."
He said he did not waste time wondering about the event itself.
     "There are people, historians, filmmakers, etc., who are going to take time and money studying (the assassination). Whatever they decide is not going to change the one fundamental fact in my life, which is that it won't bring him back," he said.
     In 1995, he launched a magazine devoted to politics and celebrity. Kennedy named it George, after the first U.S. president, despite the advice of consultants who called the name bland. He worked vigorously promoting it—even appearing on the "Murphy Brown" sitcom delivering an issue. Circulation swelled to an impressive 800,000 issues, though it fell once the novelty wore off, and its future was viewed as uncertain in recent months.
     The public scrutiny continued. In February 1996, Kennedy and his girlfriend, Carolyn Bessette, were videotaped quarreling in a New York park, with talking, fighting, pouting and crying before they made up. The 20-minute spat showed up on television—and caused controversy in Chicago, where WBBM-TV Channel 2 used it to lead the news, distressing viewers who felt that it was inappropriate and intrusive.
     Kennedy's love life, like the rest of his life, received extensive public scrutiny, and he was tied romantically to several women, from Sharon Stone to Daryl Hannah, whom he dated for years and nearly married, to Madonna (who described her tryst with Kennedy as being "like going to bed with an innocent").
     In September 1996 he married Bessette, a former Calvin Klein publicist, in a private ceremony on Cumberland Island, along the Georgia coast. The couple had lived together for about a year.
     He was given kudos for pulling off the wedding in secret, without the frenzy of media hype and helicopters that usually would attend such an event.
     Kennedy provided the most glittering party of the year in Chicago in 1996 when he feted his magazine at a summer gala at the Art Institute. Celebrities from Norman Mailer to Kevin Costner to Aretha Franklin attended.
     Kennedy avoided the sort of deeply embarrassing public scandal that afflicted his cousins and his Uncle Ted. In 1997, he felt comfortable enough to chastise a pair of errant relatives, calling his cousins Michael Kennedy — accused of having sex with his family's teenage baby-sitter — and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, who was contemplating a run for the Massachusetts governor, the "poster boys for bad behavior." Joseph Kennedy, embarrassed by his ex-wife's book revealing his efforts to force her to agree to an annulment, abandoned his bid for the governor's post, though he was thought to have been a shoo-in.
     Kennedy said he had few memories of his father, but that his being the only son of the president was something he enjoyed, not regretted.
     Asked a few years ago by CNN interviewer Larry King if it's "good to be the son of a legend," Kennedy replied: "It's complicated, (but) it makes for a rich life. Great opportunities and some challenges. But all in all, I feel very fortunate."


  1. First I was thinking how Cleveland's daughter was born to a President but I see you were speaking of a sitting Pres. , not Pres. elect.

  2. That People magazine cover certainly got it right.

  3. My older brother went to Brown and NYU law school roughly the same years he did. My brother has been clean and sober for way over 30 years. But I remember him bragging about going to a kegger John Jr. threw after a bar exam. Or maybe a law school final. Cool story either way, back then.


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