A life lived in celebrity

Fame: John F. Kennedy Jr. endured the spotlight with rare grace and humor.

July 18, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

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."

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