It is an overcast, chilly Friday, but the crowd in the ballroom of Detroit’s Westin Hotel is feverish. In the Adcraft Club’s ninety-year history, only Lee Iacocca has drawn more people to a speech. But today’s guest has set pulses revving faster than even Iacocca ever could.
Sighs (“I made eye contact with him!”) and whispers (“His jawline is perfect!”) and four burly guards accompany John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. as he circles the room to the blue-swagged dais. Women creep forward, their cameras flash-framing to capture that famous, evocative face.
After lunch, Phil Guarascio, the sleek advertising master of General Motors, takes the podium and ticks off the handsome young speaker’s accomplishments: his education at Brown University and NYU Law School; stints with the United Nations in India, with economic-development outfits in New York, and with the U. S. Attorney General’s Honor Program; his role in founding a group that helps educate health-care workers; and, most notably, his four years as an assistant district attorney in the office of New York City crimebuster Robert Morgenthau.
But it’s not his resume that’s brought this mob out to hear the thirty-four-year-old son of the country’s thirty-fifth president and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the eternal icon. It’s not even their moist interest in his celebrated romances with Daryl Hannah and other beauties. Nor is it to stare at the buffed pecs and thighs, often captured in Central Park grab shots by New York’s tabloids but today hidden under a dark, conservative suit. No, this crowd has come to learn about the future of the man they still think of as John John.
“I’m well aware of the expectation that sooner or later I would be giving a speech about politics,” he says. “So here I am, I’m delighted to say, fulfilling that expectation.” He speaks a bit more about his career, his prospects, his hope that he’ll do the right thing. Finally, the excitement building, he tells the crowd what it wants to hear.
“I hope eventually to end up as president,” says John F. Kennedy Jr. Three beats. “Of a very successful publishing venture.”
The nineteen hundred car and ad people explode into laughter and applause. They know that this charmer has come to their city to flack the riskiest venture of a pampered life indelibly marked by tragedy: a magazine he’ll launch in September about the family business-politics. More than a few of them will buy ad pages in the publication curiously named George (for George Washington), gambling that Kennedy’s sizzle will attract readers to a subject that Americans love to hate and have never much wanted to read about.
What they don’t fully realize is that they are present at the creation of the latest and most dramatic chapter of the Kennedy saga: a rite of passage of the family’s-if not America’s-crown prince. For much of his life, John F. Kennedy Jr. has been what he seemed-a dilettante, unable to commit to a woman or a career. Now he thinks he has found a way to fulfill his daunting genetic destiny-one that shows his sure grasp of what being a Kennedy is really all about. In his grandfather’s day, money was power. In his father’s day, politics was power. In his own day, media is power. By charging boldly into its realm, John Jr. may prove to be the most genuine Kennedy of his generation.
* * *
“DON’T LET THEM STEAL your soul,” Jackie Onassis would warn her children. John has seemingly spent the last dozen years trying to distance himself from the family legend. Until his full name turned into an advertising draw, he preferred to style himself simply John Kennedy, like at least a half dozen other New Yorkers.
For most people, the montage of images,, triggered by mention of this John Kennedy begins with the picture of a little boy saluting his father’s coffin on a gray November day barely within his memory’s reach. Ever since, he’s held himself a little apart. At the fashionable parties he frequents, he’s had a way of inching his back around to fend off the approach of strangers. That practiced self-protective instinct, the flip side of the intense attention he pays when he does decide to engage someone, has usually served to wall him off from unwanted overtures.
That wall was constructed, solidly and with great difficulty, by his mother. From the moment of her son’s birth by cesarean section on November 25, 1960, two and a half weeks after his father was elected president, the new First Lady tried to shield him and his older sister, Caroline. But President Kennedy didn’t play that way. He plainly understood how the image of a happy family could protect him, as it had his own father, from the consequences of his own philandering. So when Jackie was out of town, he’d contrive to sneak photo opportunities with the kids in the Oval Office.
President Kennedy was assassinated three days before his son’s third birthday. Within a year, Jacqueline Kennedy had created a new life for herself and her offspring in New York, where she later enrolled John and Caroline in private schools. The children became independently wealthy in 1968 when their mother married the squat Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. By the terms of President Kennedy’s will, a trust fund he’d inherited from his father passed to his children upon his widow’s remarriage. John H. Davis, a Bouvier cousin, believes that trust fund doubled in value during the sixties, leaving John and Caroline with about $10 million each.
Onassis helped shield the Kennedys from prying eyes and provided them with the money to support a lifestyle even more lavish than the one they’d experienced in the White House. But the billionaire degraded Jackie by blatantly continuing his longtime affair with diva Maria Callas. And when he died in 1975, he showed his contempt for her by leaving her, John, and Caroline a pittance in his will. An ugly legal battle with Onassis’s daughter, Christina, ended with a settlement that gave Jackie more than $20 million. Maurice Tempelsman, the diamond merchant who became Jackie’s consort in later life, helped her invest that money and plump her estate to somewhere around $100 million, Davis estimates.
The money didn’t free John Jr. from his family’s past and expectations-at New York’s Collegiate School, he was shadowed by Secret Service agents and regularly saw a psychiatrist-but his whispery lioness of a mother raised him to sidestep the family’s darker edge. His cousins might act like a pack of druggy Keystone Kennedys, Uncle Ted might screw and screw up, and Aunt Lee could wind up a fashion flack, but John and Caroline kept their heads down and emerged as decent, intelligent, modest, and good-natured young people.
* * *
POLITICS BECKONED early; public service had a strong plan on John. “He has a tremendous sense of duty and responsibility” his cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said a few years ago. “Whenever any of the cousins need help on one of their projects-whether it’s the Special Olympics or the RFK Human Rights or journalism awards or the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation awards John participates.” He helped his cousins Joseph and Patrick Kennedy win House seats and pitched in on cousin Kathleen Kennedy Towns end’s successful bid for lieutenant governor in Maryland. He showed up in court for his cousin Willie Smith’s trial on rape charges. “He’s got a very strong sense of responsibility, but he’s not overwhelmed by it,” said Bobby Jr. “He’s very comfortable with it.”
Comfortable, perhaps, but strangely without passion. When Kennedy went to law school, he was following his sister and six cousins who had studied or were studying to become attorneys. Even his mid-1989 decision to become an assistant district attorney in New York tracked the family record: His uncle Ted had prepped for his first Massachusetts Senate race by serving as an assistant DA in Suffolk County. “John said his heart was never really in it,” says someone who served in the DA’s office with him. “He was doing it for his mother.”
While he waited for the verdict on his New York State bar exam, which Caroline had passed on her first try a few months earlier, John started work as a $30,000-a-year prosecutor. Although this was a competitive position, Bob Morgenthau’s office was also a hiring hall for famous sons. Andrew Cuomo, Cyrus Vance Jr., and Dan Rather Jr. have worked there, as have the sons of Rhode Island senator John Chafee, labor leader Victor Gotbaum, and New York City Council speaker Peter Vallone. So had John’s cousin Bobby Jr., before his resignation amid charges of drug abuse.
John was assigned to the Special Prosecutions Bureau, which handles low-level crimes ranging from corruption, fraud, con games, and check bouncing to arson and car theft. Kennedy was placed thereat first because “we clearly didn’t want him in the trial division,” says Mike Cherkasky, then chief of the DA’s investigative division. “We didn’t want the attention to distract him.”
That fall, John learned he’d failed the bar exam. “John didn’t take the test seriously,” says a fellow assistant DA. He learned he’d flunked a second time (by 11 points out of a needed 660 at the end of April. Although more than half of the other twenty-five hundred aspirants failed as well, only Kennedy was ridiculed on the front pages of the New York tabloids, all three of which used variations of “Hunk Flunks.”
Even so, John kept his cool. “I’m clearly not a major legal genius,” he said.
“He held up under unbelievable pressure,” says Owen Carragher Jr., his officemate at the time. John even kept smiling when a maitre d’ with wobbly English accosted him while he was having a consolation beer, and said, “I heard news you failed! I’m glad!”
Kennedy played his part in the public perception that he was a lightweight. He made his first courtroom appearance as a witness in a case against an immigration officer who’d been charged with making illegal raids and pocketing confiscated money only to have to admit that he didn’t know the title of the landmark Supreme Court case that made the Miranda rights part of every cop’s lexicon. Even after Kennedy laid out $1,000 for a six-week bar-review course, it wasn’t clear that he cared about the exam, especially after he was photographed “studying” poolside at a Los Angeles hotel. But he did pass, earning a $1,000 raise and the right to try cases in court. In his first solo prosecution, he went up against a burglar who was caught asleep in his victim’s bed, his pockets stuffed with her jewelry. He eventually graduated to bigger cases involving Mafia families, labor racketeering at a big newspaper, and construction fraud, but one state-supreme-court judge before whom he’d appeared said, “I don’t think he had the potential to be a great trial lawyer. His passion lies elsewhere.”
Eventually, he won a share of respect from bosses and coworkers. “There’s a premium on certain intellectual as opposed to advocacy skills in investigations,” says Cherkasky. ` John fit that.” Working on what’s called “intake” once a month, interviewing complainants off the street, he proved a natural at getting people to open up and at judging when they were telling the truth.
After two and a half years in the DA’s office, Kennedy transferred to a trial bureau. “He wanted something quicker,” says Carragher. “He wanted the action. He wanted to do a trial where the defendant wasn’t asleep.”
In his first case in the trial bureau, he prosecuted two men who’d run a chicken stand in Harlem that burned down just after they took out fire insurance. An accelerant had been lit with a match in the store, but the evidence against the owners was circumstantial, and the only witness was a felon who didn’t want to testify. Kennedy extracted the testimony he needed during a complex, three-week trial. “It was a loser and John won it,” says Carragher.
That, and others. In four years as an assistant DA-a year longer than the normal term of service-Kennedy had a perfect 6-0 conviction record. A political career now seemed logical. When Kennedy had introduced Uncle Teddy at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, he’d electrified the delegates by invoking his father’s name. “So many of you came into public service because of him,” Kennedy said in a prime-time speech. “In a very real sense, because of you, he is with us still.” The two-minute ovation that followed seemed a fitting kickoff to his first campaign.
During John’s law-school years, he and several friends had convened weekly “issues meetings,” sessions that Bobby Kennedy Jr. characterized as “just a private thing that he does.” Might they lead to elected office? “It’s something that, you know, you never say never and it’s obviously a source of interest, but I’ll just see,” John equivocated shortly before quitting the DAs office. “I don’t really know.”
* * *
JOHN MAY HAVE OWED at least some of his indecision to a more pressing interest in the Kennedys’ other familial pursuit: sexual conquest. A glorious mosaic of women threw themselves at John Jr. At the district attorney’s, a cleaning woman who’d squabbled with Carragher and stopped cleaning his office began spending hours a day in it once John moved in. “She dusted the underside of the desk,” Carragher says. “She just wouldn’t leave.” Paralegals had to screen deliveries and open John’s mail, which often contained unsolicited pictures of women. Once, an admirer sent a cappuccino machine.
Kennedy is a gentleman. “He doesn’t pick up girls and screw them and dump them out of the car,” says a woman who has known him a long time. “He’s pretty tame for a guy who’s that good-looking.” But at the same time, he’s no innocent. Womanizing-and pride in it-is, as historian Garry Wills has pointed out, “a very important and conscious part of the male Kennedy mystique.” John, blessed with looks almost as stirring as his name, was an early enthusiast. A prep-school classmate, when asked what he thought young Kennedy would be doing in ten years, answered plainly: “Dating.”
As an old friend puts it, “He got around a lot. He didn’t capitalize on it. Things just came his way.”
John’s one foray into filmmaking, a 1990 coming-of-age movie written by, produced by and starring college friends and called A Matter of Degrees, played on the young man’s studly proclivities. Identified in the credits as a “guitar-playing Romeo,” he had a tiny role as a fellow consumed with coupling. In one scene, he strums his instrument and tunelessly proclaims to an adoring paramour, “Oh, baby, I can’t live without your love.” Moments later, he is shown quarreling with the woman.
“What does it matter what we do when we’re not together?” he pleads with her.
“Because when we’re not together,” she answers, “you’re fucking Alison,” referring to another of his love interests.
Like his grandfather, who used to keep Gloria Swanson around even while his wife, Rose, was on hand, and his father, who pursued Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, and Gene Tierney. John Kennedy Jr. has long favored actresses. His longest and most notable liaison was with Daryl Hannah, herself rich and social. They first met as youngsters on vacation with their families on St. Martin. They met again after John’s aunt Lee Radziwill married Herb Ross, who had directed Hannah in the film Steel Magnolias.
That this affair-and numerous others-was carried on in public showed John to be more like his mother than his father. Just like Jackie O., her son can be a furtive exhibitionist. When he strips off his shirt to play Frisbee in the park, when he smooches girls on street corners or coaxes them into shorts at sea, he’s cruising for the cameras, just as his mother was when she unknowingly “posed” for her famous topless photos on Ari Onassis’s island, Skorpios.
Kennedy has kept his voice out of the public record except in carefully crafted snippets, but he puts himself on view with insouciance. He can afford the privacy and luxury of limousines, yet he propels himself around town on Rollerblades and a bicycle. “Aristocrats are dangerously uninhibited men,” writes Nelson W Aldrich Jr., a chronicler of the American upper class. “Like David the King and [Fitzgerald's] Tom Buchanan, they are sensual, ruthless, and intemperate.”
The story is told that John used to walk around the campus of Brown in gym shorts so brief they emphasized an endowment almost as impressive as the university’s. In New York, he has continued to flaunt himself. When he lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, even after he was declared the sexiest man alive, he used to sprawl at an outdoor table at the Jackson Hole hamburger joint, shirt off. One neighborhood woman says Kennedy would stop her to ask for the time. “My sense was that he was dying for attention, dying for people to look at him,” she says.
* * *
JOHN KENNEDY DEVELOPED a public image as a dilettante and nourished it as he grew. As early as 1983, he was dubbed “the least competitive Kennedy” in a book about the family. Once, asked whom he had admired as a child, he said, “I guess I have to answer that honestly. My role models were Mick Jagger and Muhammad Ali, actually.” Even as he spent his days prosecuting petty thieves and swindlers, he seemed to pour his heart mostly into partying and exercising; at one point, he belonged to three Manhattan health clubs at once. “If I had to pick a defect on him, I’d be hard put to find one,” Bobby Kennedy Jr. once said, “except that he pays more attention to his clothes than the rest of us.”
The effect wasn’t always salutary. He showed up at his thirtieth-birthday party in a custom-made maroon zoot suit and leopard wing tips.
His one consistent interest apart from women-acting-heightened the impression that he was unserious. By many accounts, he was a natural and precocious actor. “He’s got an incredible ear for mimicry, and he used to tell us all stories in an Irish brogue or in Russian character or Scottish,” his cousin Bobby once recounted. “This is starting when he was nine or ten years old, and he’d have all the grandchildren listening to him … A lot of us were a lot older than him, and he could keep us entertained.”
It didn’t take long for Kennedy’s hobby to bloom into a potential career path. He was only eighteen when the film producer Robert Stigwood offered him a role playing his father as a young man. That. didn’t happen, but other professional parts did.
Jackie Kennedy soon showed the world how iron her will could be when it came to her son’s future. “Jackie was a loving but extremely demanding mother,” says her cousin John Davis. “John wanted to be an actor, and she dissuaded him. She didn’t think it was a dignified profession. She didn’t like Hollywood at all.”
But Jackie’s friend Rudolf Nureyev criticized John for giving up the stage. “Show some balls!” the ballet star told him, according to author Diana DuBois. “Do what you want!”
One of John’s closest friends heatedly denies that his mother’s influence steered him from his own chosen path. “John has a compass,” he says. “He’s usually pointed in the right direction. Did Jackie guide him? Probably. But he went to law school because he likes to learn and law was a natural thing for him to do.”
Whatever the reason, John abandoned acting for membership on the board of Naked Angels, a society-oriented company that produces plays in Manhattan and benefit galas in the Hamptons.
With an acting career out of the question, John left the district attorney’s office in mid-1993 and seemed to plunge ever deeper into triviality. A very public manwithout-anything-special-to-do, he grew a goatee, showed up at parties for rock groups, and appeared at the opening of a technology installation created by his brother-in-law, Ed Schlossberg, that was held in the lobby of an office building.
He glided around the city like a tomcat. He moved from the Upper West Side to an apartment he shared with Daryl Hannah, then bought a loft in TriBeCa. It looked as if he was finally going to marry the big blond starlet: She was spotted buying an antique wedding dress at a flea market, and the couple went on a scuba trip to the South Pacific and Asia. “Daryl really liked him,” says Chicago gal-about-town and novelist Sugar Rautbord. “She was desperate to marry him.” But John couldn’t, or wouldn’t, commit. Only two months after tabloid reporters descended on Cape Cod, expecting a Kennedy-Hannah wedding, John was seen kissing Carolyn Bessette, a PR woman for Calvin Klein, near the finish line of the New York City Marathon.
* * *
FOR ALL HIS LESS THAN ZERO gadabouting, John was still struggling with the driving Kennedy will to succeed. “You don’t want to be a passenger on the liner,” he’d told Carragher when he quit as an assistant DA. Would he enroll at Harvard’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy School of Government, or join the Clinton administration, or perhaps even run for Congress? Nothing came of any of it. (He turned down a House race, says Carragher, because “any semblance of privacy John has ever had, he’s had to fight for. The only claim he has to keep it is to remain a private citizen.”)
But the dynastic imperative can overwhelm an American aristocrat. “If society as a whole is to gain by mobility and openness of structure,” a former Harvard president, Charles W Eliot, once said of his class, “those who rise must stay up in successive generations, that the higher level of society may be constantly enlarged.” As Aldrich puts it, this craving for success follows a set pattern. For the founding generation, it’s all about money, ruthlessly acquired (by, say, bootlegging. For the next generation, public service (serving as senator, attorney general, president, for example becomes the vehicle, because nothing better highlights the freedom money conveys than selflessly boosting the commonweal.
The third generation, though, is often swept away by the liberties unsheathed by trust funds. They “exert a terrific centrifugal force on the spirits of their inheritors,” writes Aldrich, “constantly threatening to shoot them out into trackless space.”
Young John Kennedy has certainly seemed more trackless than most. But he was actually trying to keep his end of what Garry Wills calls the “Kennedy contract,” a compact whose components are “power, money, fame.” John Jr. had the latter as a birthright. He had enough of the second to keep him comfortable. All he lacked was the first.
* * *
JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS died of lymphatic cancer at 10:15 P.M. on May 19, 1994, in her Fifth Avenue apartment, with John, Caroline, and Maurice Tempelsman at her bedside. “John was at his desk at 8:30 A.M. the day after the burial,” a friend says. “He did exactly what Jackie would have done. He went back to work.”
What he was working on was a magazine. It was the first real risk of his professional life.
The idea had come to him a year and a half earlier, on a night shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president. Over dinner, John and a pal, Michael Berman, started talking about how the way people looked at politics had changed. “Politicians have taken their cue from the entertainment industry” is how John puts it. “Al Gore on David Letterman was that show’s number-one-rated show for that year.” He pauses and shakes his head in wonder. `Al Gore.”
Was there something in this for them? No one is sure who said it first, but the question was asked that fall night: “What about a magazine?”
The idea was intriguing. Existing political magazines, Kennedy believes, haven’t “caught up with the moment.” Then there were the other, larger issues a publication could capture-”power and personality, triumph and loss, the pursuit and price of ambition for its own sake and for something larger,” all subjects with which John has more than a nodding acquaintance. Despite the irony inherent in running precisely the sort of venture he’d been running away from all his life, he and Berman decided to give it a try.
They’d been friends for years. The son of a real estate developer from Princeton, New Jersey, Berman had prepped at Lawrenceville, earned a degree in history from Lafayette College, and then gone. into public relations. He met Kennedy through mutual friends on the city’s party scene in the early 1980s.
When John entered law school in 1986, he stayed in touch with Berman, and in 1988, they first went into business together. Kennedy had gone kayaking and come home raving about some handmade boats he called “the Rolls Royces of kayaks.” John wanted to buy out the small company in Maine that made them, manufacture kits, distribute them nationally, and teach others to make the kayaks. Nothing came of the plan, but the two men never abandoned the corporate entity they’d established to do the deal. It was called Random Ventures, which for the next six years seemed an apt description of John’s approach to life.
After Kennedy became an assistant DA, Berman evolved into John’s Sancho Panza. “The press became an issue,” says a close friend. So whenever a media problem came up, John suggested that the DA’s overworked press office hand it off to Berman. “At first, it was once every three months,” John’s friend says. “Then it was every three days.” After John failed the bar exam for the second time, the calls started coming every couple of hours.
Meanwhile, Berman was building his own PR business, representing clients like Cointreau, Pfizer pharmaceuticals, DuraSoft, and the Mexican tourist board. Although he was and remains a Democrat, he also helped run the annual White House Easter-egg roll throughout George Bush’s presidency. But by mid-1993, Berman was as eager to move out of PR work as John was to find a direction, so when the men came up with the idea for a magazine, they threw themselves into it with equal fervor.
Working first at a desk at Kennedy Enterprises and later from space in Berman’s office in New York’s Flatiron district, John used his name to secure meetings with potential backers, including Edgar Bronfman Jr., who, like young Kennedy, traced his money to the liquor business but wanted to make his own mark in the world. “Every door was open to them,” says a friend of John’s. “But that was good news and bad news. Did these people believe, or did they just want to meet John?” Berman and Kennedy would joke about charging a million dollars for a first meeting with potential investors, because that was really all many of them wanted.
Kennedy’s mother set up a meeting between John and her friend Joe Armstrong, who’d worked in magazine publishing for twenty years. “John was determined not to do what people expected,” Armstrong says. Soon, he, Kennedy, and Berman were meeting regularly.
The impulse behind the magazine, at least at first, was high-minded. Berman and Kennedy wanted it to be populist, nonpartisan, and centered on process instead of personalities or party politics. They thought that would appeal to people aged twenty to forty who felt disenfranchised by politics but still wanted access to the circles of power. The magazine would have a small circulation based more on subscriptions than newsstand sales. “Publishing,” says Armstrong, recounting his meetings with Kennedy, “looked like a way to approach public service and keep a balance in his life.”
Unfortunately, few of the people they talked to were interested in helping young Kennedy work it all out. When Jann Wenner, a longtime Kennedy-family friend, heard of the project after reading about it in a media newsletter, he was irate. “What’s this about?” he allegedly asked John. “You better see me immediately. Politics doesn’t sell. It’s not commercial.”
Using some of the family’s media contacts, Kennedy and Berman wended their way through the tight inner circles of the New York-based magazine industry, a gossipy enclave whose nervous denizens simultaneously pray for new publications that might employ them and denigrate any new idea that isn’t their own. In connect-the-dots fashion, they talked to several former editors at 7 Days, an upscale New York weekly that flamed and then flopped in the early 1990s. “It was very much amateur hour,” says one of the many people whose brains were picked.
* * *
BY FALL 1994, BERMAN AND KENNEDY were getting dispirited. “People didn’t get it,” a friend of John’s says. “It wasn’t an easy sell.” They’d won the promise of about s3 million in funding, but their advisers warned that it wasn’t enough. Finally, to scare up more interest, they leaked the venture to the gossip columns.
Some were surprised that Kennedy was joining the very craft that had hounded him so mercilessly throughout his life, forgetting that his grandfather had palled around with journalists-had even chased skirts with New York Times Washington columnist Arthur Krock-decades before. His mother, too, had built a sweet career in patrician publishing, editing celebrity and art books at Doubleday, and President Kennedy, so his son was told, had hoped to run a newspaper after leaving the White House. “I think the idea was somewhat inevitable,” John says of the magazine he’d started calling George. “Both my parents not only loved words but spent a good part of at least their professional lives in the word business.”
Undeterred by the naysayers, Berman and Kennedy decided in late 1994 to test their idea by mailing solicitations for the nonexistent George to 150,000 people whose names were drawn from other magazines’ subscription lists. The offer, for a twenty-four-dollar-a-year charter subscription, was aimed mostly at media junkies; the copy said less about George than about other magazines. “George is to politics what Rolling Stone is to music. Forbes is to business. Allure is to beauty Premiere is to films,” read the piece. It was a “soft” offer that didn’t require a check, but the response was encouraging. Mailings that didn’t mention Kennedy’s name got a solid 5 percent response; those that did attracted even more, 5.7 percent.
Sensing, finally, that something might happen with their project, Kennedy and Berman also began changing. The high-mindedness with which they’d originally approached the venture began slowly giving way to a desire to succeed, whatever changes in tone, look, or content that required.
George Lois found this out shortly after he got involved with George.
The rumpled veteran adman, whose Esquire covers in the 1960s set the pace for international magazine design, was one of the many approached by the duo for input. “I’m the kind of schmuck, I got excited,” he says. “And suddenly I was designing his magazine.” Lois designed a logo-a truncated version of George Washington’s signature, pared down to his almost unreadable initials. Beneath it, Lois put the words WE CANNOT TELL A LIE.
Using his own money, Lois also produced a series of outrageous covers. Richard Nixon had just died, so he got Alger Hiss to pose for one, over a headline derived from a classic Esquire line about Nixon: WHY IS THIS MAN SMILING? A photograph of a torso in a pinstripe suit was captioned, TOTALLY NEW ADVICE TO FUTURE CANDIDATES: KEEP IT ZIPPED! A photograph of Barbra Streisand with a smudge on her nose ran with the line BROWN-NOSING: HOLLYWOOD DOES WASHINGTON, WASHINGTON DOES HOLLYWOOD.
Kennedy and Berman loved the covers-at first. “A week later, they’d tell me, `Everybody says you can’t do that,”‘ said Lois. After a few more meetings, he gave up. “If you want a safe magazine,” he told them, “you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Eventually, the notion of using George to stimulate involvement in politics joined irreverence on the sidelines as John and Berman started talking about politics as theater and their magazine as a glossy journal for the not entirely engaged.
“The basic concept,” says Roger Black, the design director of Esquire, who was consulted by the pair at that point, was “to be a half-fan, half-insider magazine, not a New Republic or a political-science journal. They felt people were ready for a magazine treating politics like entertainment.”
“Michael positioned it as a Vanity Fair-ish product,” says one of their consultants. “That wasn’t necessarily John’s first instinct.” But Kennedy quickly got with the program. “They wanted Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber, nonpolitical writers,” says John’s close friend.
They edged even closer to glitz after Hachette Filipacchi Magazines got involved. The American arm of a giant French media company, Hachette is the nation’s fourth-largest magazine company, with twenty-two titles and $750 million in revenues. The company, which owns Elle and the successful but unglamorous Car and Driver and Road & Track, has expanded mainly via high-profile acquisitions. Here was an opportunity to get credit for starting something hot and turn America’s crown prince into a corporate hood ornament.
Hachette CEO David Pecker had been pursuing Kennedy and Berman ever since he’d heard about George at a benefit dinner in June 1994. After several months of unrequited messages and letters, John finally called him back. “I just want you to know we have a lot of interest, and not just in having lunch with John Kennedy” Pecker told him.
They finally met in December. Pecker subsequently studied the George projections and called some key potential advertisers, concentrating on the Detroit automobile manufacturers he’d dealt with in his fifteen years as a publisher of car magazines. Other meetings were arranged, with Jean-Louis Ginibre, Hachette’s editorial director, and then, over lunch at Le Bernardin, with Daniel Filipacchi, its chairman.
A fifty-fifty agreement was signed in mid-February between Hachette and the duo’s company, Random Ventures. Their venture wasn’t random anymore. Berman, now George’s executive publisher, sold his PR business and, with editor-in-chief Kennedy, moved into a conference room on the Hachette floor where Elle is produced. Not long afterward, they moved to a floor they share with, among others, the staffs of Elle Decor, Family Life, and Metropolitan Home.
Hachette, a company with a strong newsstand emphasis, isn’t interested in an earnest subscription-based magazine about issues and ideas. “Suddenly, the struggle over the direction of the magazine is very serious,” says someone who’s been inside George. “There are different conceptions. John is smart, but he lacks an edge. He’s one of the least assertive people you’ll ever meet; he’s never had to assert himself-he’s John Kennedy! Now, suddenly, he’s in a huge corporation. He wants a magazine of ideas with a sugar coating. They want a political People.”
Early on, Ginibre suggested renaming the magazine Criss-Cross, after the lines of power, money, and culture that circumscribe the fluid boundaries of its beat. Then, when some of the initial designs seemed to resemble Elle Decor and one of the editors expressed’ his doubts, the art director assigned to the project supposedly snapped, “I was hired by Hachette-I work for Hachette!”
“They got off to a bad start,” John’s friend admits. It was worse for Berman than for Kennedy. Walls had to be torn down to make the executive publisher’s office comparable to the editor in chief’s, although Kennedy’s still has the better view of New Jersey Central Park, and all of northern Manhattan. Pecker won’t discuss the reports of internal discord, but he seems to refer to them in one pointed comment: “Normally in business, the person who puts up the money has the last say.”
Pecker is a happy guy these days, and not just because he has America’s prince in his pocket. George has booked 160 pages in ads for its first issue. “We’ve already sold ads for eight issues,” Pecker crows. “We know where we’re going to be.” It’s said that Ginibre has suggested in a memo that the magazine must go all soft and gooey toward the powerful people it hopes to feature in its pages in order to gain their cooperation, and that John must be as public as Tina Brown. How he’ll cope with that expectation is yet to be seen, but he’s already been reported to have interviewed George Wallace and to have requested a chat with everyone’s favorite undeclared presidential candidate, Colin Powell.
* * *
SO IT IS THAT THESE DAYS, John Kennedy has finally abandoned his directionless life, all but vanished from the club scene, and joined the working class. He gets up early every morning and exercises, then bikes from TriBeCa to his midtown office, carrying his front wheel upstairs in elevators where JFK Jr. sightings have ceased to incite hormonal frenzies. In an office decorated with images of the magazine’s namesake (including a blown-up dollar bill on Kennedy’s door, he meets writers, makes ad calls, and often works late. He’s even issued a memo instructing his staff that he expects them there when he arrives at 8:30 in the morning.
Off-hours, he still sees Bessette, but there are others. “We’re talking about John Kennedy!” his friend guffaws. Finally, he has bigger things on his mind than whom he’ll be with at night; he’s made his bed in a much different place than the one he and Berman first imagined that night after Bill Clinton’s election.
Initially Hachette promised only to produce and distribute two issues of George. But soon, the company upped its commitment, pledging to go bimonthly early in 1996 and monthly in September ’96, two months before the next presidential election, at a total investment it puts, vaguely, between $5 million and $20 Million. “I pushed them to do a magazine that connects with a lot of people,” says Ginibre. From Kennedy and Berman’s original idea of a small journal that encouraged participation in politics, George has grown into a magazine its publishers hope will sell three hundred thousand to four hundred thousand copies on newsstands each month-or about what vanity Fair, with its Hollywood covers, manages to sell.
If George does, the magazine will connect not through the language of politics or journalism but through the new voice of success in America: entertainment. John has made this clear in the way he has described George to potential advertisers. It will showcase “politics as miniseries, suspense thriller, comedy, sometimes even great drama,” he’s said.
Examples? George has commissioned an article on Newt Gingrich’s lesbian half sister, a piece by Roseanne titled “If I Were President,” and a review by James Carville of the new A1 Pacino film, City Hall, which a source says will actually be ghostwritten by a George staffer, and it has considered a story by a New York gossip columnist on fundraising benefits. But the biggest tip-off is George’s covers. The first issue will likely feature Cindy Crawford, shot by Herb Ritts and posed like Washington. Anthony Hopkins, made up for his role as the star of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, is in the running for cover number two.
“They don’t even feel the need to pretend to serious intentions,” says rival Martin Peretz, the editor in chief and owner of The New Republic, a magazine that became indispensable for a time when President Kennedy made it a favorite read (right up there with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels). “A magazine like this will reflect the interest of the public but cannot stimulate it,” Peretz sniffs.
Samir Husni, the acting chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi, has made a ten-year study of consumer magazines. “So far, George has had a great reception in the advertising community because of JFK’s name,” he says. “The danger, of course, is that when you have this high expectation, everyone is going to judge it with a sharp razor edge.”
The big question, concludes Husni, is this: “Is there a magazine behind the hype?”
Even some of the people who worked on the prototype of George are leery about its intentions and prospects. “Glitz is a tightrope walk,” says one. “Run enough stories on Hillary’s dressmaker and Tabitha Soren, and serious people won’t return your phone calls.”
But perhaps they will anyway-showing that John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. may know more about the power of politics and the politics of power than anyone suspects.
©1995 Michael Gross