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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

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

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