In his 38 years, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. has been an actor, a prosecutor, a philanthropist and a magazine publisher. But first and forever, from the moment of his birth as the son of a just-elected president to a plane crash Friday night, he was that quintessential American phenomenon, the celebrity. He was famous chiefly for being famous.
Yet JFK Jr., in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, insisted repeatedly in interviews that his was a "normal" life. And grieving friends recalled him yesterday not as a brilliant mind or stunning talent but as a man who embraced life and bore the weight of fame with good humor.
"He was the most graceful human being I ever met," said long-time friend John Perry Barlow, a Wyoming cattlerancher and writer on cyberspace, his voice shaky with sorrow. "He was hilarious in a very droll, dry way and was much smarter than anyone gave him credit for."
Barlow met the much-younger Kennedy after his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, sent him to work as a teen-ager on Barlow's ranch one summer. Kennedy rode horses, branded cattle and forged a close friendship with his boss, one of a few dozen people to attend his wedding in 1996 to Carolyn Bessette.
Barlow last spoke with Kennedy 10 days ago, when the younger man complained in a phone call about breaking his ankle crash-landing an ultralight plane.
"He was given one of the toughest lives I can imagine and handled it with great aplomb and clarity," Barlow said. "He will be missed."
Others saw the disappearance of Kennedy's plane as the latest tragic blow to the clan that Harvard University psychiatrist Robert Coles described as the closest approximation of royalty Americans have known.
"It's another Kennedy much too young, and it's another young person with hope and promise whose life is dashed," said Paul G. Kirk Jr., a close friend of the Kennedys, who visited the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., yesterday to offer his support.
"His dad used to say life can be unfair. But this is one of those times when you almost think it asks too much."
For many older Americans, his image was frozen as the tyke in light blue coat and short pants, saluting the casket of his assassinated father as it rolled past him on his third birthday in November 1963.
Later, the athletic young man the gossip columnists dubbed "The Hunk" was known, as much as anything, for shirtless photos and such girlfriends as Daryl Hannah, Brooke Shields, Julia Roberts and Madonna.
In 1995, approaching middle age, he found a more dignified role as the founder and publisher of George, a splashy magazine of politics as entertainment. He seemed to enjoy his role as interviewer in chief for a magazine he defined as covering "the intersection of politics and popular culture," a perfect description of the place in which JFK Jr. himself existed.
And the next year, the fellow People magazine trumpeted as "the sexiest man alive" broke hearts everywhere when he married Bessette on Cumberland Island, off the Georgia coast, in a barefoot, candlelight ceremony both were pleased to have kept virtually secret.
Through it all, he largely avoided the scandal that repeatedly touched many of his relatives. In fact, he provoked his biggest scandal in 1997 when he scolded his famous cousins in George as "poster boys for bad behavior." Yet for the same issue, as if to spoof his own gravity, he posed in the nude.
"I always grew up just living a fairly normal life," said the man who on every stroll was trailed by paparazzi and pointing, whispering admirers, in an interview last year.
"The worst thing, I think, that can happen [to famous people] is that you retreat into your own private world. For what I do and just for how I want to live my life, I think it's really important to connect to normal life."
He was delivered by Caesarean section on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1960, at Georgetown University Hospital, just 17 days after the election of his father, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first child ever born to a president-elect.
With his three-years-older sister, Caroline, he became a charming part of the charmed kingdom of Camelot. Television footage of the toddlers with their glamorous mother or tussling at their father's feet in the Oval Office enthralled the nation.
The nation knew him as "John-John;" but his parents never called him that. The nickname was the mistake of a journalist, who overheard the president calling repeatedly for his son and leaped to the wrong conclusion.
His first clear memory, he told interviewer Larry King on CNN in 1995, was of a dog given to the Kennedy family by a Soviet parliamentary leader.
"We trained it to slide down the slide that we had in back of the White House," Kennedy said. "And that, sliding the dog down the slide, is probably my first memory."
After the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy moved the family to Georgetown for about a year; but when their home became a tourist attraction, she moved with the two children to a 15-room cooperative apartment on New York's Upper East Side.
For three years, Kennedy attended St. David's, a Catholic elementary school for boys, where he got a reputation for energy and mischief. The exasperated Secret Service detail code-named him "Lark."
Even after 1968, when Jacqueline Kennedy was remarried to Aristotle Socrates Onassis, a Greek shipping tycoon, John continued to attend school in New York City.
He spent several years at the Collegiate school for boys, where he launched his acting career in the musical "Oliver!" At Philips Academy, in Andover, Mass., where he moved for his junior year (which he repeated after he flunked math) and senior year, he continued to indulge a talent for the stage, spending summers on outdoor adventures and tutoring poor teen-agers.
Rather than follow his father to Harvard, Kennedy attended Brown University. After graduation, he dabbled in acting, raised money for the Democratic Party, spent six months in India and spent a summer diving to a sunken pirate ship off Cape Cod.
Money was not a problem. He was heir to a Kennedy fortune built on oil, real estate and, originally, bootlegging. And though when Onassis died in 1975 he left only $25,000 to his stepson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis renegotiated the will with Onassis' daughter and got $20 million for herself and the two children.
In 1989, he graduated from New York University law school, shrugging off the embarrassing publicity that accompanied two unsuccessful attempts to pass the bar exam. He passed on his third try and managed to keep his new job as a Manhattan assistant district attorney.
In that job, he handled consumer fraud, landlord-tenant disputes and other ordinary cases, achieving a 6-0 conviction record in trials before leaving the office in 1993.
Later, he said he had enjoyed the "marvelous assembly of characters" around the courthouse.
He recorded his father's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage," for the Kennedy presidential library. At Bloomingdale's, he autographed boxes of Christmas ornaments made by developmentally disabled children.
Whatever daylight was left over went to kayaking, skiing, rock climbing, whitewater rafting and that perennial Kennedy favorite, touch football. The evenings of this most eligible of American bachelors were often spent in the company of starlets, providing titillation for readers of not just the tabloid press.
Under pressure for years to follow family tradition into politics, Kennedy always resisted.
"Once you run for office, you're in it," he said in 1993. "Sort of like going into the military -- you'd better be damn sure that it is what you want to do and that the rest of your life is set up to accommodate that."
In 1995, seeking some of the excitement of politics with fewer hassles and less responsibility, he founded George.
"I grew up in a family where we were saturated with politics," he told King. "I like, not being in politics, I like the proximity to it that a magazine like this affords me. I think it gives you a view of the large issues of the day that few other professions do, so how can you not be thrilled at it?"
At the unveiling of the first issue, featuring on the cover supermodel Cindy Crawford as George Washington, with powdered wig and bare midriff, Kennedy deadpanned to the press: "Our first choice was Alan Greenspan in Speedos."
As in most of his career, Kennedy did not gain fame from the venture -- but lent his fame to it. The magazine was criticized as lightweight, but curiosity drew readers for a time.
Among the most talked-about features were Kennedy's own interviews with an unusual variety of personalities: former Gov. George Wallace, prizefighter Mike Tyson, the Rev. Billy Graham, right-wing millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
He kept up the weekend thrill-seeking. Addressing the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1997, he called himself a "lapsed pilot," tracing his fascination with flying to "all those helicopters" around the White House during his childhood.
He said he was working toward a pilot's license, which he received last year.
On the 25th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1997, he visited Cuba. The trip followed the flap over his "poster boys" comment in George about the troubles of his two cousins, Joseph and Michael, Robert Kennedy's sons.
But when Michael was killed in a skiing accident on the last day of 1997, friends said he deeply regretted the controversy. He mourned his cousin not just with the traditional family gathering at Hyannis Port but by spending hours alone in a sea kayak.
Yesterday, the Kennedy clan gathered again. He had told an interviewer a few years ago that such tragedies had brought the family together.
"It's hard for me to talk about a legacy or a mystique," he said. "We're a family like any other. We look out for one another. The fact that there have been difficulties and hardships, or obstacles, makes us closer."
Sun staff writer Devon Spurgeon and wire reports contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 7/18/99