The Beautiful and the Damned
Tragedy began shadowing John F. Kennedy Jr. before he was born.Jacqueline Kennedy suffered severe complications during the premature labor, and on her way to the hospital she frantically asked the ambulance attendant, "Will I lose my baby?" Though it was a difficult delivery, things turned out OK for the 6-pound 3-ounce baby, born on Nov. 25, 1960, just weeks after his father was elected 35th president of the United States."Do you want your son to be president?" President Kennedy was asked as he stood outside the incubator at Georgetown Hospital."I hadn't thought about it," Kennedy said. "I just want him to be all right."He was, but the next Kennedy son wasn't so lucky. John Jr.'s brother, Patrick, died on Aug. 9, 1963, just two days after his birth.President Kennedy didn't get to spend as much time with his son as he wanted, and he once worried aloud to an aide: "John sees so little of his father. How can he ever know me?"But their brief relationship was marked by laughter. "John-John and JFK quite simply break each other up," former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee wrote in his book "Conversations with Kennedy." "Kennedy likes to laugh and likes to make people laugh, and his son is the perfect foil for him."The young boy was also entranced by the helicopters that landed on the White House lawn. And in an unsettling anecdote related by Ralph Martin in "A Hero for Our Time," President Kennedy once gave his son a toy plane and told him he would buy him a real plane when he grew up."Promise, daddy?" Kennedy said to his father."I promise," President Kennedy answered, holding his son tightly. Both Kennedy children were mesmerized by aircraft; according to aide Ted Sorenson, Caroline Kennedy's first word was "plane."John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963; his son turned 3 on the day his father was buried. With tears in their eyes, his mother and his uncles Ted and Bobby, sang "Happy Birthday" to the toddler. Despite his extraordinary adult accomplishments, the world will probably always remember him best for his heartbreaking salute, at his mother's side, as his father's horse-drawn coffin passed by.Almost a year after President Kennedy's funeral, Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing, who led mourners in the Lord's Prayer at the funeral Mass, still couldn't talk about the salute. "Oh, God, I almost died," he told a reporter.After the president's death, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis worked hard to keep her son and daughter grounded despite the wealth, privilege and intense media glare that marked their lives. She also made a point of limiting their contact with the Kennedy brood at Hickory Hill, Hyannis Port and Palm Beach.Still, every possible tidbit of Kennedy's life was served up to a ravenous public. From the age of 2, when Look magazine featured a photo spread on him, the young prince was an object of fascination and hope -- all the more so after his father was martyred. As a child, Kennedy was curious as to why the world held him in such rapt attention. In William Manchester's "The Death of a President," Kennedy -- still only a toddler of 3 -- approaches a newspaper photographer who'd taken his picture while he drank from a water fountain."What are you doing?" he asked the photographer. "What are you taking my picture for -- my daddy's dead."The obsession continued. An excursion through New York's Central Park at the age of 9, the theft of his bicycle and tennis racket at the age of 13, an Outward Bound trip at the age of 16, uncertainty about which college to attend after high school graduation, not passing the New York bar until the third try -- no matter how innocuous (or inaccurate) the detail, it was shared with the world.Mostly the attention was fawning. In the 1983 "Growing Up Kennedy: The Third Wave Comes of Age," by Harrison Rainie and John Quinn, the 22-year-old Kennedy was described as "astonishingly good looking, reminding at least one gawker of the Greek athletes sculpted by Praxiteles." Another book, "Kennedy: The Third Generation," said that Kennedy "has become a tall, darkly handsome young man with the startling Bouvier looks of his mother's family and a poetic air that has been described as Byronic."After flirting with the idea of becoming an actor -- a notion that displeased his mother to no end, almost as much as the thought that he'd enter politics -- Kennedy graduated from Brown University in 1983 and soon entered law school. He joined the Manhattan District Attorney's office and won all six of his cases.He had no love for the law, however, and in 1995 he launched George magazine, a political-style glossy billing itself as "not just politics as usual." Though the intelligentsia scoffed at George's marriage of show biz and politics, its debut marked the largest single magazine launch, and has since settled to a circulation of more than 400,000. But the magazine's future was uncertain. Just last month there were reports that the magazine had lost roughly 20 percent of its ad revenue, and Kennedy was reported to be unhappy with his relationship with the Paris-based Hachette Filipacci Media, which partnered with Kennedy to publish George.George is a melange of policy, political profiles and Hollywood stardust. Kennedy described his publishing experiment as an attempt to bring women and young people into the electoral fold. Cover photographs have included actors like Robert De Niro, John Travolta and Tom Hanks, and eye candy like Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford. Contributors have included Norman Mailer, former Sen. Al D'Amato, R-New York, and former Clinton advisor Paul Begala. Kennedy himself has conducted a number of the interviews, with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Cuba's Fidel Castro, conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife and radio personality Don Imus. He thumbed his nose at the staid political media world in many ways, not least by inviting Larry Flynt to be his guest at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner.In a March interview with Brill's Content, Kennedy remarked that "This enterprise has consumed almost six years of my life. It came at considerable, personal kind of risk. There [were] a lot of people that would have loved to see this be a farce, and it hasn't been." Kennedy defended the magazine's mix of politics and Hollywood."It would really be unsatisfying to me to have some somber politician on the cover, and we gather dust in the back of some newsstand somewhere. I mean, if I sell 180,000 copies of a political magazine -- man, I am happy. And so I could do something else, with some drawing of [South Carolina Republican Sen.] Strom Thurmond and sell 20[,000], and maybe I'm serious and consequential in Washington. But if the people that I'm trying to reach are passing me by, then that's a failure."Kennedy was known as a risk-taker, and not only for trying to launch a political magazine. He was known for his love of physical adventure: he kayaked in rapids, rappelled down mountains, inline-skated through Central Park and was a fan of extreme sports. He broke his leg in a parasailing accident this summer, and according to some reports the injury might have interfered with his flying, since his Piper aircraft was partly controlled by foot.He got his pilot's license 15 months ago. By some accounts, he waited until after his worrying mother died to pursue his lifelong passion.In a story in the Palm Beach Post, observers of his flight training at the Flight Safety Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., said that Kennedy "could probably be called a natural" at flying. But last Labor Day, New York tabloids reported that Kennedy family members refused to accompany JFK Jr. in his refurbished 20-year-old Cessna, out of concerns for their safety. According to the New York Post, William Kennedy Smith said "John may have pushed his limitations getting his pilot's license, but he hasn't overcome them yet. He's yet to persuade any of his relatives to fly with him."And in May 1998, Kennedy told USA Today, "The only person I've been able to get to go up with me, who looks forward to it as much as I do, is my wife. The second it was legal she came up with me."In 1996, in an ultra-secret ceremony, Kennedy married Carolyn Bessette, a 30-year-old public relations specialist at Calvin Klein. Until then, he may have been the most eligible bachelor in the history of the Western world into his 30s. Named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1988, Kennedy was linked in gossip columns to actress Daryl Hannah, Madonna and others. Bessette, the daughter of a Connecticut doctor, regularly made Women's Wear Daily and other fashion magazines for her singular style. Tabloids reported occasional spats between the papparazzi-plagued couple, but friends said the marriage was solid.Clearly, tragedy has spared no generation of Kennedys. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash during World War II at the age of 29. The husband of Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy was killed in World War II; Kick herself died in a plane crash in 1948 at the age of 28. Since 1941, Rosemary Kennedy has been institutionalized due to a failed lobotomy. President Kennedy was 46 when he was killed in Dallas. One year later, Sen. Edward Kennedy was in a plane crash that took the lives of two men and broke Kennedy's back and punctured his lung."How much more do [my parents] have to take?" Robert Kennedy asked after Ted Kennedy's plane crash, according to C. David Heymann in "RFK: A Candid Biography of Robert Kennedy.""Somebody up there doesn't like us," he added.In June 1968, an assassin's bullet felled Robert Kennedy in a Los Angeles hotel. He was 42.Then there are the many Kennedy scandals that are no less tragic, though more complex. Sen. Ted Kennedy saw his presidential hopes plunge with his car -- and a 28-year-old victim named Mary Joe Kopechne -- in an accident on Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969, 30 years ago Sunday.In 1972, Joseph Kennedy's car overturned on Nantucket in an accident that left a woman paralyzed. Robert Kennedy's oldest son, a future congressman, admitted guilt and was convicted of negligent driving. His brother, Robert Jr., was found in possession of heroin in 1983, and another brother, David, fought a long and public battle with drugs, eventually losing the fight when he died in 1984 of an overdose.In 1991, nephew William Kennedy Smith was accused -- and later acquitted -- of rape charges. Ted Kennedy's son, Patrick, now a congressman, has battled cocaine. Robert Kennedy's son Michael -- dragged through tabloid muck for an alleged affair with a baby sitter -- died in a skiing accident in 1997 at the age of 39.John Kennedy Jr. took his cousins to task in the pages of George, referring to Joe and Michael as "poster boys for bad behavior."In February 1998, not long after Michael Kennedy's skiing accident, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the oldest of the third generation of Kennedy's, spoke with Larry King about the black cloud of doom hanging over her family."One of the great things about my family is we try to -- we know that life is tough," she said. "I mean, there is pain. And we all know that It's not fair, and -- what the challenge in life is, how you deal with it. Do you complain, or do you say, you know, we have been blessed as a family, as you well know, we have been very fortunate.""And unfortunate," King said."But it's good to also focus on the fortunate," she replied.Indeed, the Kennedys constantly reaffirm their need to look for the good. At the October 1979 dedication of the library named for his father, Kennedy, then a freshman at Brown, read a poem by Stephen Spender, called "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great.""What is precious is never to forget The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs ... Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit."When his plane disappeared, Kennedy was on his way to the wedding of cousin Rory Kennedy, a woman who will always be known as the daughter of Robert Kennedy who was born five months after his assassination. Now another tragic clause has been added to her biography. REQUIRED TAG: This article originally appeared on Salon, an online magazine at www.salonmagazine.com.