Read an Excerpt
“DON’T BE JOHN KENNEDY”
I met John F. Kennedy Jr. in the spring of 1981, when I was a twenty-five- year-old graduate student. He was a twenty-one-year-old sophomore history major at Brown University, and I was the teaching assistant in a class on twentieth-century American political history. Our friendship got off to an inauspicious start. Before the semester began, the professor, renowned historian James T. Patterson, told me that he wanted his assistants to deliver a lecture as preparation for a teaching career. I had applied to the PhD program in American civilization to study early American history, so I was not as familiar with the recent past. I had, however, always been fascinated with the 1960s, and the Kennedy presidency in particular. So I decided to give a critical lecture on JFK and civil rights.
I had been vaguely aware that John was on campus and had seen him several times, usually surrounded by a gaggle of giddy girls. It never occurred to me that he would take a class that would deal with his father’s presidency. On the first day, I stood in the back of the room handing out syllabi to students pouring into the Manning Chapel classroom. Looking over the line of students, I spied a large mane of unruly brown hair slowly approaching me. “Please, no,” I thought to myself. “Don’t be John Kennedy.” It was bad enough that I would be speaking in public for the first time and doing so in front of the professor I wanted as my advisor. Now I faced the prospect of criticizing a president while his son looked on. A few seconds later, John approached, reached for the syllabus, thanked me, and then sat down in the back of the room.
I would have tried switching my topic had I thought Patterson would allow it. But I would need a better excuse than “I am afraid to give a lecture about President Kennedy while John is in the class.” That statement would surely have marked the end of my graduate career, and rightly so.
My talk was scheduled for March, so for the next few months, I labored to write and rehearse the lecture. It took about five weeks to write the talk, and then I spent another four weeks practicing it. Every day, I would recite the entire fifty-minute lecture before breakfast, after dinner, and again before I went to sleep. I had a lot on the line. Not only would I be giving a public lecture for the first time—and doing so in front of more than a hun- dred bright Brown undergraduates—but also I was auditioning for a spot as one of Patterson’s PhD students. Oh, and then there was John, although I must confess, Patterson scared me more than John.
At 10:55 a.m. on the day of my lecture, I marched into the hall and took my position behind the podium, hands tucked safely in my pockets so students would not see them shaking. Professor Patterson took a seat in the middle of the room. Looking around, I took some comfort in seeing that John was absent, a not-uncommon occurrence. But just as I was about to start, the back door swung open and in he walked. Students have a natural tendency to sit as far away from the professor as possible, so the back rows were full. John kept moving forward until he plopped down in the seat directly in front of me.
John and I sat only a few feet apart that day, but we came from vastly different worlds. I grew up in a working-class family outside Philadelphia. I had been a mediocre student for most of my life but finally turned things around in college, earning good enough grades to get accepted at Brown. Education has often been the pathway to the American Dream, and that was certainly true in my case.
Getting into Brown was my big break. There was no way I was going to screw up this opportunity.
The first line of my lecture, which I can still recall almost four decades later, read: “President Kennedy was a pragmatist who did not impose moral solutions on problems.” Simple enough. Yet somehow my well-rehearsed words escaped me the moment I needed them most. I stood in front of the room paralyzed by fear—fear of the one hundred students in the class, fear of my intimidating professor, and, perhaps, fear of giving a lecture about a man while his son sat a few feet away. My first public lecture thus began with a succession of “Ahs” and “Ums.” My mind had gone blank. I thought, “Just look down and read the words on the page in front of you.”
During times of crisis, some people are able to reach deep down inside themselves and find a vast reservoir of strength. I am not one of those people. I hyperventilate. I sweat. I grow more and more anxious. I finally looked down at my notes, but by this point everything had grown fuzzy. What in the world was I going to do? Either I said something soon, or I would be forced to run out of the room humiliated and resign myself to a short life doing manual labor.
I kept repeating to myself, Say something. Anything. So I did. “President Kennedy,” I began, “President Kennedy. President Kennedy had no moral scruples.” I have absolutely no idea where that came from, but that was what came out. As soon as the words left my lips, I realized I was in trouble. I glanced down at John, who glared up at me. Then a student in the back of the room, who was too far away to see the look of terror on my face, must have assumed that it was all a joke. She laughed and the entire class joined in. That laugh saved my career. With the ice broken, I went on to finish the lecture. I criticized JFK for being too slow to embrace the civil rights cause but noted that he eventually did, and in a famous June 11, 1963, address, he became the first president in history to refer to the civil rights movement as a “moral cause.” Before he left the room, John came up, shook my hand, and said, “Great lecture.”
It would be several years before John and I became friends. But once the bond formed, we remained friends for the rest of his too-short life.
Perhaps surprisingly, given that I am a professional historian, it wasn’t until years after his death that I began trying to understand John through the eyes of a scholar. At the beginning of our friendship, I had decided not to read anything about him. I can remember people studying his life as if cramming for a final exam. They wanted to know what he liked and didn’t, which foods he ate, which sports he enjoyed, and who his heroes were, all so they could manufacture a conversation and eventually a friendship. John was very good at weeding most of those kinds of people from his life. I wanted my connection with John to be like any other friendship. When we meet someone new, we have a chance to tell our own story. It may not be completely honest, and it certainly will contain elements of exaggeration, but it’s our personal narrative. I never wanted to take that freedom away from John. Therefore, I only knew what he chose to share with me. After he died, I realized that while I had an intimate understanding of the nuances of his personality, I actually knew very little about his life before Brown.
My interest in writing this book, then, grew partly from a need to satisfy my own curiosity, along with a scholarly desire to weave together my personal recollections with the historical record to produce a fuller picture of a truly extraordinary person.
This book thus represents a mix of historical analysis and personal reflection. It combines insight gained from nearly two decades of friendship with research into all the relevant historical materials on John’s life. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who served as an advisor to JFK and who was one of the great historians of the twentieth century, serves as my model. Now, I fully recognize that I am not Schlesinger, and John was not his father. But Schlesinger’s approach is instructive. In his books about both JFK (A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House) and RFK (Robert Kennedy and His Times), Schlesinger seamlessly intertwined personal recollections with intensive research and deep historical understanding to produce a vivid portrait of his subject. If he can be faulted for anything, it was for avoiding some of the unseemly aspects of JFK’s character: the womanizing and the abuse of prescription medications, among others. But I now understand more fully the challenge Schlesinger faced: as a friend, I was charged with protecting John’s privacy, but as a historian, I am obligated to paint a complete portrait, warts and all. In the end, my duty as a historian supersedes my responsibilities as a friend.
As a friend, I understood the role that I played in John’s life. While I knew him for eighteen years, I was not one of his closest friends. John’s friends formed a wheel, with a core group who were involved in every facet of his life. They spent weekends with John on Martha’s Vineyard or in Hyannis Port, went camping and kayaking with him, and spent long hours hanging out in his Manhattan apartment. The other friends resembled spokes on the wheel, each playing a specific and specialized role in his life. I was one of those spokes. I understood my place in John’s life was that of the racquetball-playing “professor.” When not battling each other on the racquetball court, John and I shared long conversations about politics, current events, and his father’s place in history. He would occasionally share personal stories about his family and about the challenges of growing up the son of a martyred president. Sometimes he would bounce ideas off me for talks he was planning to give. Later, when he started George magazine, John asked me to write a few “Editor’s Letter” pieces, and he gave me the title of contributing editor.
I obviously have a personal investment in telling this story. I agonized over whether I was betraying John by sharing my stories with a broader public. I always wondered why someone of John’s stature took an interest in me and pursued our friendship. In large part, it was because John enjoyed spending time with people who came from backgrounds that were different from his own. But it was also because he trusted me and knew that I would never violate his privacy. He was right. But circumstances have changed, and now that he is gone, and those of us who knew him well are advancing in age, I hope to preserve his legacy by allowing the world to understand the man I knew, and the one whom I would discover in the course of conducting research for this book.
The tipping point for me came one evening when I had dinner with Rose-Marie Terenzio, who was John’s close friend and gatekeeper for the last five years of his life while he was at George. “If John knew he was going to be dead at the age of thirty-eight,” she said, “he would not want to be forgotten. He would want someone to write a book about him, and he would want you to write it.” As a historian, the larger question I faced was, “Does John deserve a biography?” By any standard definition of greatness—passing legislation, building a business, demonstrating great courage, or helping the poor—the answer is a definitive no. But I believe that John’s life warrants a historical biography for a number of reasons.
First, up until the 1960s and 1970s, there had been few, if any, human beings who were forced to live their lives under such intense media scrutiny. John was born in 1960, at the dawn of the television era. His father, a master of the new medium, used his young family to project a false, but highly attractive, image of himself as a wholesome family man. President Kennedy’s assassination increased public pressure on John even though he was only a boy. The salute by that little boy in blue at his father’s casket cemented the belief that John would be the natural heir to his father’s legacy. One of John’s great achievements was his ability to accept those public expectations with enormous grace while never allowing them to distort his core sense of self.
Given how the weight of celebrity has crushed others carrying far lighter burdens, including members of his own family, it is a testament to his character that he remained, in the words of another friend from Brown, “disgustingly normal.”
But it wasn’t easy being John. Yes, he was fabulously wealthy, strikingly handsome, and the beneficiary of his family’s extensive connections. But the John I knew, and the one I discovered in researching this book, was also complex; he often struggled with the burden of expectations imposed upon him. John once told me that he was actually two people. He played the role of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., the son of a charismatic president who had inspired the nation. He understood what he represented to millions of peo- ple, and he was willing to assume that burden.
But he never confused that public role with his private identity. He spent his life trying to develop an authentic self, separate from that of his famous father and well-known family. He often wore a mask in public, never revealing the inner doubts that haunted him his entire life, or showing the range of emotions that he shared with only a handful of close friends. Although I was never a part of his core friendships, he occasionally opened up to me, revealing a more vulnerable side of his personality.
Second, I believe John was ahead of his time in anticipating the seamless mix of politics and culture that defines our era, but he has never received proper credit for creating George. For John, George, which he founded with business partner Michael Berman in 1995, was a natural combination of his father’s fascination with politics, power, and the press, and his mother’s interest in gossip and style. Unfortunately, the magazine did not survive long after John’s death, but it is instructive to consider the part George played in forging today’s popular and political cultures—as well as to imagine the role that the magazine or the man might have played if either had survived.
Finally, John is significant as a cultural symbol. What was it about America in the last decades of the twentieth century that made us need to turn John into a cultural icon? I believe that the same misplaced nostalgia that fed conspiracy theories about his father’s death fueled public interest in John. Many Americans viewed the Kennedy years as a time when America stood strong in the world and prosperous at home. The troubles that followed JFK’s death—a controversial war in Vietnam, student protests, angry race riots— reinforced the association between the Kennedy administration and an age of poetry and power. John served as a touchstone for many of that generation who wished to resurrect the halcyon days of the past. The public’s insatiable fascination with John derived from his charm and stunning good looks, but he represented so much more. He symbolized a lost world—a world to which many Americans wished to return. Underlying this desire was a belief that John would one day lead the nation back to the promised land, to a time that existed more in people’s imaginations than in reality. Ironically, Jackie Kennedy, the mother who worked so hard to protect John and his older sister, Caroline, from the intense pressures of public expectation, unwittingly helped foster them by manufacturing the Camelot myth.
I thought I knew John well, but I was surprised by many things I learned over the course of my research. I discovered that the last few months of his life were among the most difficult he had ever confronted. He was burdened with enormous personal and professional troubles: He feared losing the two people he was closest to—his wife and his best friend, Anthony Radziwill. His relationship with his sister was strained, and his magazine was failing. He had finally reached a point in his life when he was prepared to run for office, but first he needed to get his house in order. Although he felt trapped, John remained resilient, searching for ways to get his life back on track.
I also tried to resolve a question that had always bothered me: What was it about John’s psychological makeup that made him so restless and willing to take risks? (Anyone who has ever been in the passenger seat of a car driven by John knows what I mean when I talk about risky behavior.) I spoke with a psychologist who offered a fascinating theory that potentially explained his restlessness and shed new light on his death. It’s all very speculative, but based on my own observations, I found the comments plausible.
I was also fortunate that a number of people who had never spoken about John before were willing to share their stories with me, and even those who had already spoken offered new insights. Michael Berman, for example, who had been John’s friend and business partner for more than a decade before their ugly falling-out over George, had refused to even mention John’s name for the past two decades. But he sat down with me for more than twenty hours of interviews. President Bill Clinton, Tina Radziwill, Carole Radziwill, Elizabeth “Biz” Mitchell, Pasquale “Pat” Manocchia, Barbara Vaughn, Charlie King, Julie Baker, and many others, also participated in extensive interviews for the first time.
In addition to hundreds of hours of interviews, I gained access to Secret Service and FBI files that had been previously sealed. I went through the normal procedure for filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, but when my requests and appeal were denied—the Secret Service claimed it had no record of anyone named John F. Kennedy Jr.—I filed a lawsuit. As part of the settlement, the Secret Service turned over more than five hundred pages of documents that offer a fascinating glimpse into the tortured relationship between John’s mom and the men assigned to protect him. “She was difficult,” observed Secret Service agent Clint Hill. These documents expose the frustration of agents trying to protect John while abiding by Jackie’s often unreasonable demands. The presidential libraries were more cooperative and processed thousands of pages of documents in response to my FOIA requests. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library alone released more than thirteen thousand pages of new materials.
Usually biographies chronicle the lives of great people who have left a tangible record of accomplishment. Or they examine a notable person’s life through the lens of their celebrity. While John was both accomplished and a celebrity, no serious examination exists of his life or considers his impact on American culture and history. Although he never had the opportunity to achieve his full potential—he had “every gift but the gift of years,” his uncle Edward Kennedy said in his powerful and emotional eulogy—John, like the magazine he founded, seemed to foretell our own era, in which the line between celebrity and politics, entertainment and government, grows increasingly hazy. In the years since his death, that line has only become more distorted. This book is not just a look back at a handsome, magnetic person who died too soon. It is also a prism through which to consider the world we live in today.
Finally, many people speculate about the impact John might have had if he’d lived, raising the prospect that he might have one day returned to the White House as president. It’s possible, but I believe that John should be remembered for the authentic life that he lived and not for what he might have become.