Copyright © 1996 Armand Eisen.All rights reserved.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. wasborn on November 25, 1960, two and a half weeks after his father was elected president of the United States, less than two months before his father was inaugurated. Three years later, that father, murdered by an assassin's bullet, was buried on John's third birthday. Twenty years after that, he graduated from Brown University on the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination of his uncle Robert F. Kennedy.
Assassination, and the threat of assassination, has haunted the Kennedy family for an entire generation now, and it has shadowed John throughout his life, although he refuses to let it worry him. There have been deaththreats against him; against his mother; againsthis older sister, Caroline; and against various members of the larger family, especially hisuncle Ted. Until he was sixteen years old, hewas guarded by members of the Secret Service every day of his life. They were often necessary merely to bat away the spectators and reporters and photographers who considered it their right and duty to pester him.
When he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, legions of photographers virtually trampled people to get to him. As a friend of his said of that occasion, "Afterexperiencing about twenty minutes of what it meant to be John, I really sympathized with his having to cope with all that attention every day of his life." That, however, was par for the course, one of the inescapable corollaries of being John F. Kennedy Jr. Yet to most people, who he is, is far less important than what he represents.
John F. Kennedy, for at least the last three years of his life (and the first three years of his son's), was the most famous man in the world and remains so perhaps even now, over thirty years after his death. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, for those three years and many more to follow, was unquestionably the world's most famous (and admired) woman. His sister Caroline was the most famous girl and he was the most famous boy.
Throughout much of his life John Jr. could not walk out the door of his house, apartment, or dormitory without running the risk of being accosted, photographed, or asked to sign autographs--even at three in the morning. Today if he takes his shirt off in Central Park (which he often does), the world not only knows it but sees it. If he travels to almost any city of the world, flunks an exam, or dines in a fashionable restaurant (or even a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall), that fact is recorded in dozens, perhaps hundreds, conceivably thousands of newspapers and magazines and TV tabloid and news shows across the globe. He can have no secrets; his life, simply because of who (or rather what) he is, is virtually devoid of privacy.
On the event of John's first birthday, American citizens were miffed because they were not allowed to take their own pictures of him and had to make do with prints of the official photographs. "Millions of American mothers . . . monitor[ed] the progress of baby Kennedy as if he were their own." And when "baby Kennedy" was only a little older and his mother allowed his hair to grow long in Little Lord Fauntleroy fashion, irate citizens flooded the White House with cards and letters, some filled with money; they wanted John to have a "proper" haircut.
At five, he went skinny-dipping on vacation; that act made headlines. When he went trick-or-treating with friends at Halloween, plainclothes Secret Service agents trailed behind him. As a boy in New York, he had to run a gauntlet of reporters in order to make it to school, and even in school he and his acquaintances were pestered relentlessly by news squirrels and ordinary citizens who wanted to know all about him and his family. As a teenager he was so mobbed at a screening of Saturday Night Fever that even John Travolta, the film's idolized star, was left wondering where his adoring audience had gone.
It sounds like a life scripted by Robert Ludlum or by Ian Fleming (his father's favorite author) in a particularly grim but gleeful mood. But of course it has its compensations: He is a millionaire. He is a Kennedy. He receives adulation worldwide, but above all in his own country, which some people believe his family should rule as a birthright. Women throw themselves at him daily, as do sharks, hustlers, and Hollywood pitchmen who want him to play his father in films, along with legitimate movers and shakers in politics, law, finance, society, the arts, and almost every other field.
His family name is legend, one of the most powerful and influential in the history of this country, and to this day many people look to him to redeem America from its current doldrums. His cousins are the sons and daughters of past or present senators, but he is the son of a former president. Some of those cousins have been involved in drug and sex scandals, but he has remained unscathed. He is the Shining Prince, Prince Charming, and the heir apparent. Many considered him the heir eventual from the moment he was born.
He does not have to work, although he does. If he wrote a novel it would be the subject of a major publishing bidding war, however wretched it might be. (And if it were brilliant, we would take for granted that someone had written it for him.) If he started a law firm, the gliterati of whatever city it happened to be based in (and perhaps many others as well) would fight to become his clients. He can do anything he wants or nothing at all--and even if he does nothing, the world will still kill to throw him presents.
On top of all this John is personable, charming, unpretentious, athletic, and impossibly handsome, with the "matinee idol" looks of his father, but he's darker, more intense, and therefore even more swashbuckling. He had every reason in the world to become an unbearable snob but did not: not even his enemies (who are enemies mostly through jealousy) have accused him of that. Nor is he spoiled, bratty, or driven to self-destruction. He seems impossible, in short, and yet he exists.
But still the question must be asked, Would you want to trade places with this man? Could you bear to be in the spotlight every day of your life? Could you deal with the fact that every meal you eat in a public place and every book you buy or magazine you subscribe to, will likely be recorded somewhere? That the title of any video you rent might appear in the National Enquirer? He is photographed at ATMs getting money; it is front-page news when he acts up in public. How many people could live such a life--and he is now thirty-five years old--without losing their grip on reality?
And yet John Kennedy has come through all this with extraordinary grace, patience, charm, style, and even wit. When a lawyer said on national television that the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, one of John's closest friends in all of his enormous extended family, symbolized "the fall of the house of Kennedy," John sent the lawyer chrysanthemums and a note: "Still standing, baby. Best, The House of Kennedy."
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the very rich are different from you and me. John Kennedy is not only very rich: He is the last great knight of Camelot, the man who so many hope will be able to restore the fabled kingdom his father and mother established. In so hoping, of course, they deny him his humanity and individuality and turn him into a symbol: the Redeemer, the Shining Prince, the Next Kennedy.
Who is John Kennedy? Does he want to be president? If not, just what does he want to do? He is still in the process of defining himself and discovering the answers to those questions, but since his life thus far has been one of the most public in history, we know a good deal that might hint at the possibilities. To tell his story, however, and to understand the pressures that bind him, we must begin with his family.