High up in the clouds, John F. Kennedy Jr. discovered a serenity and peace that often eluded him on the ground.
“The sunset is so beautiful,” he radioed his flight instructor on his first solo flight in 1996. “Can I go around one more time?”
Permission was granted. And for the next three years, Kennedy escaped the burden of being the son of a beloved slain President, the burden of being a sex symbol hounded by paparazzi, by soaring above it all.
But tragedy is the Kennedy family curse. In retrospect, it no longer shocks or surprises that the thing that gave Kennedy so much joy would be his downfall.
Still, when Kennedy’s single-engine Piper Saratoga vanished on a summer night 10 years ago, it was stunning.
Many Americans sat in front of their TVs for hours as searchers scoured the waters off Martha’s Vineyard for the plane.
And when the bodies of Kennedy, his young wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister, Lauren, were finally found, grief again galvanized a nation that never really got over Camelot.
“From the first day of his life, John seemed to belong not only to our family, but to the American family,” his uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy said in his eulogy.
He also belonged to New York and the Tribeca neighborhood, where Kennedy lived and worked in his last years – and where the grieving was keenest. His apartment building at 20 N. Moore St. became a shrine.
“I can’t believe that something like this could happen, again, to the Kennedy family,” then-mayor Rudy Giuliani said, speaking for us all.
Kennedy was just 38 when he died, but for the generation that mourned his father he would always be the 3-year-old boy in shorts saluting the casket bearing the body of his dad, President John F. Kennedy.
He was forever John-John, a nickname Kennedy detested, the brave boy whose gesture captured a nation’s sorrow.
Kennedy refused to be trapped by the past – or by expectations that came with being JFK’s son.
Being famous for being famous – or having a pretty face – was not enough. He wanted to make his own mark in the world.
“It was important for me to go outside the arena for a number of reasons,” he said after launching his magazine, George. “I think everyone needs to feel that they’ve created something that was their own, on their own terms.”
After JFK’s assassination, his mother, Jackie Kennedy, decided Washington – and all its sad memories – was no place to raise her son and daughter, Caroline. She decamped for New York and home became a 15-room apartment on Fifth Ave.
Riding the subway, biking and roller-blading in Central Park, Kennedy grew up a city kid. Upper crust, to be sure, but a city kid to the bone. He even got mugged for his bike at 13.
“I always grew up just living a fairly normal life,” he said. “I thank my mother for doing that.”
Kennedy could also thank his mother for teaching him how to maintain his dignity as he dealt with an adoring public that could not get enough of him.
In addition to good looks, Kennedy inherited from his father a love of sports. Photographs of the strapping, shirtless scion playing Frisbee or touch football in Central Park led People magazine in 1988 to dub him “the sexiest man alive.”
Kennedy grew adept at deflecting questions about his love life. Consider this comment:
“And the answers to the most frequently asked personal questions are as follows: Yes. No. We’re merely good friends. None of your business. Honest, she’s my cousin from Rhode Island. I’ve worn both. Maybe someday, but not in New Jersey. Thank you.”
Kennedy also had a flair for the dramatic and wanted to be an actor – before his mother steered him into law.
Nobody was prouder then she when Kennedy graduated from New York University Law School in 1989. And nobody felt the sting more when Kennedy’s failure to pass the bar exam for a second time was lampooned with the headline, “The Hunk Flunks.”
Still, Kennedy persevered and eventually passed. As a young prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, he won all six of his cases – and the respect of his peers.
The standing ovation Kennedy received at the 1988 Democratic National Convention fueled speculation he might follow his father’s footsteps into politics.
He had other ideas. After his mother died in 1994, Kennedy said goodbye to law and launched George, a racy-yet-relevant magazine that covered politics with an irreverent style.
Critics initially dismissed it, but Kennedy relished the idea of making a stir – and stepping out of his dad’s shadow.
That said, Kennedy was not above using his family name to snag interviews for his magazine with Fidel Castro, Mike Tyson or George Wallace. Nor was he shy about showing off his chiseled physique in the pages of George – or writing about the problem children in his sprawling family.
He once called his scandal-plagued cousins Joe and Michael Kennedy “poster boys of bad behavior.”
“Ask not what you can do for your cousin, but what you can do for his magazine,” was Joe Kennedy‘s snarkly reply.
Jackie Kennedy often fretted about her son – and the women around him. She never liked Daryl Hannah.
So, two years after his mom died, Kennedy married a woman a lot like her.
She seemed to struggle at times under the strain of the public attention that her husband appeared to endure with ease, but Carolyn, 33, had no fear of flying – with her husband.
The control tower directed Kennedy to runway 22.
“Five three November to two two, thanks,” the young pilot told the tower.
Those were Kennedy’s last recorded words. At 8:38 p.m., he took off from the tarmac and flew into history.
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