WASHINGTON—He is etched in America's memory as the little boy in the blue coat and the short pants who saluted the bronze coffin bearing his father, the president, as it passed by him that horrible November day in 1963, his third birthday.
He seized our imagination again when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1988, the handsome son of the assassinated president whose two-minute speech was interrupted six times by applause.
John F. Kennedy Jr. is feared to have met a tragic, sudden end. Kennedy, his wife and her sister were all reported missing after their red Piper Saratoga apparently crashed sometime Friday night near Martha's Vineyard on their way to a family wedding. He is 38, eight years younger than his father when he died, four years younger than his uncle when he too was killed.
The editor of the glitzy George magazine--its tagline, "Not just politics as usual"--was struggling in recent weeks to keep viable the publication he began four years ago.
He obtained his pilot's license in 1998 after a lifelong fascination with flying. "Must have been all those helicopters landing on the front lawn," he quipped in 1997.
But the man who grew up to be dubbed by People magazine "the sexiest man alive" really remembered little about those days of Camelot. If truth be told, no one in his family ever called him John-John; the nickname stuck with the public after a reporter misheard a conversation. He told interviewers that he had seen those pictures of himself so many times that he began to believe he remembered them, "but I'm not sure I really do."
What he did remember was chewing gum--something his glamorous mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, disapproved of--under his father's desk in the Oval Office. His Secret Service code name: Lark.
After the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy moved John and his sister, Caroline, to a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York, hoping to escape the public limelight, determined to assure her children as normal a life as possible.
His mother told an interviewer that her young son was mature beyond his years. "John makes friends with everybody," she said in 1967. "He seems so much more mature than one would expect of a child of 6. Sometimes it almost seems that he is trying to protect me instead of just the other way around."
When he was in the third grade, she married Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. She told a friend she did not want her children living in America anymore, though she gave in to pressure from the Kennedy family and kept them in private schools in the United States. "If they're killing Kennedys, my kids are No. 1 targets," she said.
But privacy would never be theirs. In 1972, eight Greeks were arrested for allegedly planning to kidnap the young Kennedy on one of his visits to Onassis' island of Skorpios.
He had trouble at school--and the whole world knew. He flunked a year-end exam at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and was held back a grade.
Then he went to Brown University, where he acted in two plays and graduated with a degree in history in 1983. After dabbling in the theater, Kennedy went to New York University law school.
Along the way, Kennedy traveled to Africa to study the environment, worked with the Peace Corps in Guatemala, went diving in search of a pirate ship off of Cape Cod and tutored underprivileged children. After a summer in South Africa in 1980, he created an educational foundation to battle apartheid, which was funded in party by Maurice Tempelsman, his mother's longtime companion.
But he would never escape the media. Paparazzi followed him everywhere--to the beach, the gym, the New York clubs. He made tabloid news when he twice failed to pass the bar exam. The Daily News headline: "The Hunk Flunks . . . Again."
He spent the summer of 1988 as an associate at the Los Angeles law firm then known as Mannatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Phillips, a political powerhouse in Democratic circles. He eventually ended up as a prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office in New York, where he won six cases and lost none during his four years there. His first case involved a burglar found asleep in the victim's locked apartment, her jewelry in his pocket.
He took the subway on his first day to the job in 1989. More than 40 reporters and photographers showed up to watch his swearing-in ceremony. His salary: $30,000 a year.
"I always grew up just living a fairly normal life," he told USA Today last year. "I thank my mother for doing that. I always took the bus. I always took the subway." Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died in 1994 at age 64 of cancer, leaving a $200 million estate.
But what was normal for a Kennedy was out of reach for most Americans. His girlfriends were box office names. Over the years, he was romantically linked to a number of Hollywood's high-profile stars--from Madonna to Sarah Jessica Parker, though his longest, and most serious relationship was with Daryl Hannah.