DID ANYBODY REALLY KNOW JOHN F. KENNEDY JR. AND IF SO WHO?
John F. Kennedy Jr. grew up under the watchful and probing gaze of America and the world.
From the time he was a saluting 3-year-old at his famous father’s funeral, millions if not billions of eyes have been glued to him and his every move.
That image of him was the first of many indelibly etched into our minds, hearts and souls.
As he grew up without a father but with what appeared to be tremendous familial love and support, it became clear that he enjoyed the well-documented Kennedy free spirit and joie de vivre.
And he must have had plenty of sechel too.
(“Sechel” is both a Hebrew and a Yiddish word which can mean intelligence, smarts, brains, reason, common sense, cleverness or even wisdom).
Because I cannot remember ever seeing or hearing JFK Jr.’s name and the word, “trouble” in the same sentence until his untimely end of course and with his shambles of a marriage to Carolyn Bessette notwithstanding.
(More on that as necessary; could have been a selective “coverage” thing. Or not).
The same could not be said about his Uncle Teddy and many of his less renowned yet still newsworthy (tabloid fodder?) cousins.
John F. Kennedy Jr. was the first child ever born to a President-elect of the United States.
A distinction? A dubious distinction? Anything?
In 1960 that in and of itself was a bigger deal than it would be today. Since then, Lynda Bird & Luci Johnson; Tricia & Julie Nixon; Jack and Susan Ford; Amy Carter; Maureen & Ron Reagan & Patti Davis; George W. & Jeb Bush; Chelsea Clinton; Jenna & Barbara Bush; and Malia & Sasha Obama have been the most visible and thereby prominent offspring born to a Commander-in-Chief and First Lady to grace us with their media-inspired presence.
Why is it that these children somehow pale(d) by comparison to JFK Jr. (and Caroline too) and will forever live in his/her enormous shadow?
Have we become inured to this kind of thing with its attendant scrutiny — fair or unfair — over time?
But maybe it’s all about personality, charisma and that “it” factor.
Some have it. Some do not.
Certainly John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis were bursting with “it.”
And while “it” may have slowly seeped out of Caroline at times particularly during early childhood, her movie star-handsome brother was quite another story.
On the surface at least — and perhaps even beneath — his persona defined a compelling attractiveness and charm.
But what was he really like?
Was he self-effacing, the exhibitor of impeccable manners as we have been led to believe?
Or was he a narcissist who felt that celebrity translated into power?
Was he an unwitting or willing victim of entitlement?
And did he clamor for those sorts of things — celebrity, power, entitlement — for fear that to go without them and ultimately be ignored would create an unbearable, intolerable chasm of emptiness and loneliness?
After all, he had never ever been ignored.
Christina Haag in her “Come to the Edge: A Love Story,” a New York Times bestseller published in January of 2012, chronicles her five-year relationship with JFK Jr.
Nine years after a painful unraveling and break-up Haag attends one of the two memorial services held for John Jr. during which Christiane Amanpour — then a foreign correspondent for CNN and years before a friend sharing a house in Providence with Kennedy and Haag when the three were friends and students at Brown — spoke and shared that “he [JFK Jr.] was an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances…and he lived his life with grace.”
In her review of Haag’s work Jessica Gelt writing for the LA Times astutely notes that, “the quote reveals two of the book’s most poignant themes.
The first is destiny — how does a young man born into America’s royal family reconcile his sense of self with the enormous burden of expectation that is his birthright?
The second is grace.
In Kennedy’s world — informed by his mythic, sorrow-tinged mother — grace is transcendence. It’s the intangible quality that allows public figures to live among the rest of us while remaining distinctly separate and above.”
And Haag concedes that Kennedy was indeed conflicted.
He was both the free-spirited adventurer nonpareil along with one who readily and perhaps wistfully admitted at age 30 that he was not yet a man.
Gelt hypothesizes that “the specter of his father’s violent death — and that of his uncle’s — imbues the young Kennedy with a willfully reckless nature.”
Stark anecdotal evidence of this presents itself when Kennedy convinces Haag to make a frightening and dangerous kayak landing perilously close to a coral reef in Jamaica.
Somehow they survive capsizing and the unrelenting rage of a giant swell.
Understandably Haag is livid. JFK Jr.’s response? “Yeah, Chief, but what a way to go.”
It is clear that Haag knew Kennedy about as well as anyone outside his immediate family.
Certainly better than Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Sarah Jessica Parker and maybe even Daryl Hannah.
And better than wife Carolyn Bessette, I’m afraid.
Due to a myriad of factors not the least of which was Bessette’s glaring inability (unwillingness?) to adjust and adapt to the suffocating public scrutiny and lifestyle, a marriage seemingly made in heaven became the union from hell.
Squabbling, fighting, drug use bordering on abuse, infidelity and estrangement(s) muddied the waters irreparably.
Sporadic counseling forays were of little value; neither one of them could believe they were doing this and were accordingly and naturally spiritually bankrupt.
They were wrung-out. They were not open with one another.
There have been notable exceptions to those things “written in stone,” and in this context perhaps the dissolving marriage was not a fait accompli as it may have appeared to some.
But both people were terribly and undeniably unhappy.
So with the gentle and loving cajoling of Carolyn’s older sister Lauren, the three agreed that they would fly together from Fairfield, NJ. to Martha’s Vineyard where Lauren would be disembarking and then on to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port where Mr. & Mrs. JFK Jr. would be attending the wedding of one of John’s favorite cousins, Rory Kennedy.
Lauren was simply trying to do the right thing and she did.
And then it was over. Done, done way done…so done.
The Kennedy-“Camelot” association was out the window…yet again.
Cousins Anthony Radziwill and Timothy Shriver. Childhood pal Billy Noonan. Friend and lover Christina Haag. “Kissy” Amanpour.
They knew Kennedy best.
In fact Noonan who became friends with the Kennedys as a five-year-old child growing up on Cape Cod — his dad, Tom Noonan was a Brookline politician who helped out with JFK’s various campaigns and served as a regional director of the Small Business Administration during the Kennedy years — reminisced that JFK Jr. “was a great friend. He had a great sense of humor and he was a great ally…I miss his elan. I miss his friendship. I miss his absurd sense of humor. I miss the magic he created when we would go out and do things.”
Spoken like a real friend, a true friend.
The stated motivation for writing his book, “Forever Young: My Friendship With John F. Kennedy Jr.” (September, 2006) was to be honest and to debunk the widespread notions (or were they misconceptions?) that John was “the hunk who flunked” and not much more, and that “Carolyn was just a cokehead.”
(JFK Jr. failed the NY Bar Exam twice, before hitting paydirt as in the ‘third-time’s the charm).
Many other works have been penned about John Jr. more obviously for personal gain — see “JFK Jr., George, & Me: A Memoir” by Matt Berman along with “The Other Man: John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette, and Me” by Michael Bergin and “Fairy Tale Interrupted” by Rosemarie Terenzio — but Noonan’s book resonates with legitimate contemporary camaraderie, comradeship and bonding.
When you establish this kind of mutual understanding as a little kid and a strong relationship is formed it can last forever because it’s real.
The handful of people who really knew JFK Jr. outside the familial net were all in concert with respect to their acknowledgement that his mere being engendered an intergalactic sense of awe.
He was a superstar boy and a megastar man, born into royalty and mindfully nurturing it along the way.
He was also a human.
A Kennedy yes, but still human nonetheless.
He had his foibles, his eccentricities and his weaknesses like all of us.
The difference is that his — and he — had been on public display for all of his time on earth.
Those closest to him recognized this and behaved accordingly for the most part.
The rest of us could only watch.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in August 2016.]