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Favorite Son

He's JFK Jr., but he'd rather be 'Just John'.

By Michael Gross
Originally published in the March 20, 1989 issue of New York Magazine

It was madness, even by Bloomingdale’s standards. The customers that late-November lunchtime were possessed by an urgency that transcended mere pre-Christmas shopping lust. Suddenly, TV lights came on and cameras started snapping like piranhas as the day’s hottest item, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., the son of America’s thirty-fifth president, stepped onto a platform. Women screamed.

“It was mass hysteria,” one store worker says. “Poor man. I don’t think he had any idea.” Kennedy looked amazed and none too happy. “Oh, dear,” he said as he joined cousins Ted Kennedy Jr. and Willie Smith, Willie’s mother, Jean Kennedy Smith, and Lauren Bacall on the store’s loge level.

Very Special Arts, a Kennedy charity, was behind this sale of boxed Christmas ornaments produced by the retarded in Third World countries. But the TV crews and the screaming women and the pushing paparazzi didn’t care about that. They didn’t care about Betty Bacall, either, or the other Kennedy cousins — all associate trustees of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation who had funded the program. Says the Bloomingdale’s employee, “They wanted John.”

Kennedy took the microphone. “I hope you’ll all buy a few boxes,” he said. “I’m here to sell boxes, and that’s what I want to get to do.” Of course, by doing that-or, more precisely, by autographing boxes for a few minutes-he got the ornaments mentioned on seven local news shows and Entertainment Tonight. Jill Rapaport, a perky Channel 2 News reporter, even got a brief interview. “It’s really the boxes they should be coming for, not us,” Kennedy told her. Then he got boxed in himself as Rapaport asked how it felt to be one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. “C’mon,” Kennedy pleaded, eyes and hands turning upward. “1 dunno.” He glanced away from the microphone hopelessly. Finally, visibly embarrassed, he said, “It feels okay.” Cut to Rapaport happy-talking in the studio later. “Kinda cute, huh?” she said to the camera.

Although Bloomingdale’s sold almost $50,000 worth of ornaments that day, John Kennedy, 28, considered the appearance disappointing. “We didn’t want it to turn out the way it did,” says Kathy Walther, a Very Special Arts executive. “It was very obnoxious from the second he walked in. John hoped it would be more substantive.”

Unfortunately, substance isn’t ‘the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about John F. Kennedy Jr. First, of course, comes the awful, indelible memory of the little boy in a blue coat and short pants, saluting his father’s bronze coffin.

That image alternates with others not so sober: Kennedy pumped-up and shirtless as People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” Kennedy linked in the columns with an enviable parade-Brooke Shields, Madonna, Daryl Hannah, Molly Ringwald, Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

Those images melded at his political coming-out party, last summer’s Democratic Convention-where John F. Kennedy Jr., tabloid celebrity, was transformed into the living embodiment of a nation’s not-quite-impossible dream: that it will wake up one morning with another JFK in the White House. Uncle Ted Kennedy passed the torch himself when he had John introduce him to the delegates, and though the nephew’s speech didn’t rattle the rafters, there was a surge of emotion in the hall. This was the first time John had ever acted the part of “a Kennedy” on a national stage. And the moment suggested that he could become the ultimate postmodern politician-a blank canvas for fantasies of national destiny.

* * *

The boy in the blue coat is grown up now, and, whether he likes it or not, people still have their eyes on him. He doesn’t like it at all, and friends insist that his life is a quest for anonymity and normality. He may never find privacy (“He’s never known life any different,” says a friend), but he’s won the battle to be normal. Aggressively normal. “Disgustingly normal,” says a friend.

He is also understandably reluctant to give anything away, having already given so much. Kennedy “is trying to have an open life,” says Faith Stevelman, who met him on their second day of law school, in 1986. “He sure turned out to be completely different than I expected. The press makes him out to be a narcissistic celebrity brat, but he’s not. People want to see him that way, because of his father, because of his name, because he’s handsome, but-praise to him-he has a life that’s much more real than that. He likes being in the world.”

He doesn’t like publicity, though. “It curtails his freedom,” Stevelman says.

So, aside from lending his name to good causes, he’s done nothing to attract attention to himself. He’s given only one print interview in his life, to the New York Times, and it wasn’t particularly revealing. Not speaking to reporters “has always been a habit,” says his aunt Lee Radziwill. “We’re not going to start now.”

One former family intimate describes the Kennedy attitude as “a conspiracy of silence, mandated from above. But when they want to get the message out, they do.” John Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this story. But there’s a message his friends want to get out, so many of them cooperated, as did former coworkers and bosses and a few Kennedy-family members.

They are setting the stage for what a Kennedy Foundation executive describes as “John emerging into the public sphere.” After having worked for New York City, a nonprofit developer, the Reagan Justice Department, and apolitically connected Los Angeles law firm, the man who is perhaps the most famous presidential child of the century is about to become one of about 400 assistant district attorneys in the office of Manhattan prosecutor Robert Morgenthau.

Like a favored candidate’s spin doctors before a big debate, Kennedy’s friends are trying to lower expectations. “The most extraordinary thing about him is that he’s extraordinarily ordinary,” says one.

Public appearances to the contrary, friends seem convinced, and want to convince others, that John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. — JFK II — doesn’t really exist. “He wants to be perceived as his own man,” says Peter Allen, a friend since grade school. Says Stevelman heatedly, “He’s not John F. Kennedy Jr. He is himself. It’s `Hi, I’m John.’ ” Just John.

John doesn’t share the problems of some of the other Kennedy cousins of his generation. “Monsters,” the former family friend calls them. A friend of John’s agrees: “They might as well have the name emblazoned on their sleeves.” John does share many traits with his father, though-and people want to believe he shares even more. Just like his father, he is bound up with his immediate family. “All of our lives, there’s just been the three of us — Mommy, Caroline, and I,” John said at his sister’s wedding. Besides them, he’s got a coterie of intensely loyal friends-some of whom go back through prep school just like his father’s. At Brown University, where John earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1983, his friends literally surrounded him, shielding him from the 14,500 spectators during their mile-long graduation processional. John’s also got his father’s charisma. “Even if he wasn’t John Kennedy,” says his cousin Cecil Auchincloss, “people would notice him at a party. Even as a kid.” Though he seems to disdain Kennedy competitiveness (when he was a child, the cousins called him “Mama’s Boy”), John shares his father’s love of athletics. An active outdoorsman, he skis; rafts, snorkels, hikes, and goes camping. “He’s an overenergetic, can’t-sit-still type,” a friend reports.

Also like his father (and like his mother’s father, Black Jack Bouvier, who had an affair on his honeymoon), John’s got serious sex appeal. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” says a young woman who knows him. “Girls come and go.”

In fact, only with women does John act as if he wanted to be noticed. “It’s no wonder rumors start,” says one woman he’s flirted with. Adds another who encountered him on the street, “He was begging for attention.”

He doesn’t always have to beg. Madonna, this generation’s self-styled Marilyn Monroe, set her cap for John. “He and Madonna were good friends,” says a fast-crowd friend of the Kennedy cousins. “She was obviously the aggressor.”

Friends of John’s also believe that their contacts were all initiated by Madonna. “I think they met when [John’s cousin] Bobby Shriver made his Special Olympics album,” says one pal. “Then Madonna invited John to her concert at Madison Square Garden. She also works out with the same trainer. I don’t think that’s chance.” Though some insist that John has had “dates” with Madonna between rounds in her marital bout with Sean Penn, a close friend of the singer’s sighed when I asked her if the duo’s rumored relationship was real. “If only,” she said.

Many of John’s supposed assignations turn out to be fictions. Another Kennedy “date,” identified in some papers as Molly Ringwald, was actually John’s steady girlfriend of four years, actress Christina Haag. “A good thing,” a friend jokes. “Christina would have believed it.”

Haag, the daughter of a retired businessman, grew up in Manhattan. She is not the blue blood she’s sometimes made out to be; she’s an actress struggling to make ends meet. A graduate of Juilliard, she has played Ophelia at Center Stage in Baltimore, acted in A Matter of Degrees, an independent film about college students, and played the public-relations woman for a hospital in The Littlest Victim, an upcoming TV movie about a doctor who treats children with AIDS. Between jobs, she has checked coats at Elio’s and worked as an assistant to Seventh Avenue designer Christine Thomson.

Luckily, both John and Christina know Daryl Hannah and knew it wasn’t true when, late last year, Suzy said he’d proposed to the star. Says a Kennedy friend, “They’ve all known each other for years.” A gossip item once appeared saying that Hannah, the daughter of a Chicago real-estate magnate, had followed college-age John down a beach on St. Martin. “They were twelve at the time,” says the friend, “and I bet he followed her. If she’d been following him, he would have stopped.”

Then there are the models. Kennedy has met some through Richard Wiese, a Phi Psi fraternity brother at Brown who is now a Ford model. Audra Avizienis, a Click face, told People she had dated John. Now she claims the magazine misquoted her. People’s reporter denies it. So has she gone out with him? “That’s beside the point,” Avizienis snaps.

An older friend of the family considers this all par for the course. “Kennedys love beautiful people, winners,” she says. “They like movie stars, like everyone else. But everybody else isn’t moving in those circles all the time. Kennedy men are intensely, highly sexed. There’s a lot of activity. But the women they marry are solid gold. They need both and they get it. Why not have the cream of the crop?”

There are two other traits Kennedy shares with his father: wit and a penchant for pranks. While working for the city after he graduated from Brown, he kidnapped a secretary’s beloved teddy bears, sent her a ransom note (“We have the bears”), and then executed them in a mock mass hanging. He also sent a stripper to meet with a co-worker who was interviewing prospective secretaries. “I thought she was a good candidate,” the co-worker says. “More articulate than most.”

* * *

Carried to extremes, pranks can reflect an underlying carelessness. But “there’s an incredible amount expected of John,” a friend points out. “He has to sacrifice what a lot of us would consider routine.”

John has had several minor run-ins with the law. Last year, he paid $2,300 in parking tickets. “I later learned the reason [he paid them],” says J. Bertram Shair, the administrative judge who heard Kennedy’s case. “He has to clear himself of all judgments in order to qualify for the D.A.’s office. I don’t think he enjoyed writing the check. He said in view of all the tickets, perhaps he ought to get free parking in the future.” Shair gave him “a gratuitous little lecture. I told him he’s going places. He should take care how he’s perceived.”

The blackest mark on Kennedy’s record is one that will be understood by anyone with a passing knowledge of the habits of 24-year-old men. Between 1984 and 1986, he and a friend sublet a co-op apartment on West 86th Street. According to someone close to the deal, Kennedy was often late with his rent checks and could never remember his keys. “He rang everyone’s buzzer,” the source says. “He drove the super crazy. He had a water bed, which was against the rules. The board was within inches of evicting them.”

Finally, their sublease ran out and the owner returned. “It looked like a herd of yaks had lived there,” the source says. “Somebody had clearly put their fist through the wall. The carpet looked like they’d had cookouts on it. Every surface had to be sanded, spackled, and patched.”

The current president of the building’s co-op board is forgiving, though. “People tend to be tougher on personalities than on the rest of us,” he says.

An older and presumably wiser Kennedy now lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment in the West Nineties. He keeps his keys tied to his belt. Though his new apartment has been “nicely done” with his mother’s decorating help, a friend says it is often “kind of messy.” Christina Haag lives nearby. Kennedy often has breakfast at a health-food restaurant on Columbus Avenue. Then he bicycles 90 or so blocks south to the Village, where he spends his days completing his third and final year at the New York University School of Law. He also works in Brooklyn Family Court, where, as a member of NYU’s Juvenile Rights Clinic, he defends minors accused of felonies.

Late last year, after a series of interviews, he got the $29,000-a-year A.D.A. job, which friends say he coveted. Morgenthau’s office will not confirm Kennedy’s appointment, but friends say he will start work in August.

John and his sister seem to be remarkably solid young people, given the circumstances of their lives, and everyone directs the credit to their mother, Jacqueline Onassis. Under unbearable scrutiny, she raised them amazingly well.

John was known at the three private schools he attended as bright but more rebellious and troubled than Caroline. His most embarrassing teenage moment involved drinking. He and Caroline celebrated their birthdays (his eighteenth, her twenty-first) with a bash at Le Club, arranged by their mother. At five in the morning, as the party broke up, Kennedy and his school friends fought with a National Enquirer photographer. “I opened the door and John was lying in the gutter,” says Patrick Shields, the club’s director, who dusted Kennedy off and deposited him in a taxi. “Jackie’s comment to me the next morning was `I’m walking on a cloud.’ ” Adds Shields, “I don’t think she’d seen the paper yet.”

* * *

John Kennedy has been a public curiosity since he was conceived. He gave out a “lusty cry” at birth, according to the obstetrician who delivered him by cesarean section on November 25, 1960. Seventeen days before, his father had been elected president. As the first White House baby since 1893, John Jr. made front pages around the world. After his christening, his 31-year-old mother imposed a press blackout. The publicity-conscious president fought it with mixed success by sneaking photographers and the kids into the Oval Office when Jackie was out of town, but still, no photos of John were released for a year.

Tidbits about him did leak out, though. In May 1963, he sucked his thumb while meeting astronaut Gordon Cooper but took it out long enough to say “Cooper, Cooper.” And in November 1963, at a Veterans Day program at Arlington National Cemetery, John-John, as he was called, upstaged the troops by performing acrobatics while dangling from the hands of his father and an aide. A few weeks later, the president boarded a helicopter at the White House for a flight to Andrews Air Force Base and then to Dallas. It was the last time he saw the young son Jackie said was “his real kin spirit.”

As a child, John would talk about his father proudly. “He was fascinated,” says a family friend, “and he enjoyed hearing how people responded to that little boy.”

Friends say that now, though John rarely brings up his father, he is gracious when others do. Nevertheless, awkward moments do occur. “One time he was hanging out in somebody’s room,” recalls a fraternity brother, “and they were playing the Stones’ `Sympathy for the Devil’ ” (which contains the lyric “I shouted out, `Who killed the Kennedys?’ / When after all / it was you and me”). “Everyone realized, `Uh-oh.’ But at some point, he’d just walked out and then he walked back in again. He just avoided the situation.”

Friends are careful with him. “It’s never come up and I wouldn’t bring it up,” says Stevelman. “It can’t be an easy thing. During the week of the [twenty-fifth] anniversary [of JFK’s assassination], I was worried for him. Who wants to be exposed to that? But he’s incredibly together about it. I’m sure it moves him. How could it not? But he’s integrating it into a sane life.”

“I think he’s very proud of what his father did,” adds another,

Aristotle Onassis died in Paris on March 15, 1975. Jackie’s $26-million settlement with his estate, negotiated with Christina Onassis, added to established Kennedy trust funds and left the children without financial worries.

During the mid-seventies, John was listed in the Social Register, regularly saw a psychiatrist, and changed schools again, transferring to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After being held back a year, he finally graduated in 1979. “He certainly wasn’t at the top of his class,” says a longtime friend.

John also. spent some time at Xenon, the club owned by Howard Stein, who calls himself a “disco uncle” to the Kennedy cousins. They were treated like kings by Stein’s partner, Peppo Vanini, who considered them “the closest thing to royals in America,” Stein says, “and made overtures to induce them into our world.”

Robert Kennedy’s children became Xenon regulars, but “John-John was special,” Stein says. “He was less a disco baby. He was shier, ingenuous. He didn’t leverage his name off the way kids of the famous do in my world. He had star quality. So every time he was there, he got his picture in the papers. It took a scandal for the other Kennedy kids to be photographed.”

* * *

In the next half-dozen years, John would be photographed often in discos with a steady girlfriend, Sally Munro, who was in the class ahead of his at Brown. Kennedy, ever the prankster, identified her to photographers as “Lisa, my fiance.”

Nightlife wasn’t the only temptation. Girls slept outside the door of his dorm room when he was a freshman. He later moved into the Phi Psi house and then into a house off campus that he shared with several students, including Christina Haag. Kennedy was also attracted to the stage, appearing in campus productions of Volpone, Short Eyes, and In the Boom Boom Room. Producer Robert Stigwood even offered John a part in a film, as his father. He was interested. His mother, reportedly, was upset.

The professional offers kept coming after he left Brown “bad things, because of who he was,” says Peter Allen. “He thought it would be fun, but he didn’t want to trade on his name.”

Show business remained alluring, though, and in the summer of 1985, Kennedy finally appeared on a Manhattan stage, starring in six invitation-only performances of Winners at the 75seat Irish Arts Center. The show was a workshop mounted by friends from the drama set at Brown. Christina Haag was a costar.

Kennedy and Haag played star-crossed lovers in Northern Ireland. Leaving the theater one night, John told a reporter, “This is not a professional acting debut. It’s just a hobby.” And reports vary on his talent. A Brown critic once took exception to his “prep-school voice.”

Sometime after the short run of Winners, John’s relationship with Sally Munro ended amicably and Christina Haag stepped into the role of girlfriend. “John had had a secret crush on her since he was five,” says a friend. “Actually, I don’t think it was secret. He asked her out every week and she said no every time.”

Friends say Haag is whimsical, stylish, and quite serious about her career-and that her relationship with John has not always helped it. She never trades on him, they say. Indeed, she avoids publicity that might help her. “They make her sound like a hanger-on,” a friend says. “The fact is, her boyfriend takes away from her craft.”

Friends admit that John and Christina have had some rough sledding. For a while after college, John “was playing around a lot,” says a former co-worker. “He got along well with girls. He enjoyed it, like anyone would.” But now, according to friends of Christina’s, the relationship is strong. Haag even refers to herself as his “law widow.”

* * *

Until now, no one has asked much of John Kennedy. But quietly, off the gossip pages, he has built an impressive resume for a young man just starting his career. The summer before he went off to college, he attended National Outdoor Leadership School with students from the United States and Africa, studying mountaineering and environmental issues at 17,000 feet on Mount Kenya. The next summer, he met government and student leaders in Zimbabwe, and worked briefly for a mining company in Johannesburg. Maurice Tempelsman — Jackie’s diamond merchant companion-probably had a hand in planning the trip.

After his sophomore year, he worked for Ted Van Dyk at the Center for Democratic Policy, a Washington-based liberal think tank. Again, Tempelsman suggested that John apply for the student internship. Living with the Shrivers, Kennedy immersed himself in political organizing, advance work, research, and working the room on a fund-raising trip to Hollywood. That summer, he saw for the first time the power he had. “He began to realize he was a celebrity,” says Van Dyk. “He had his first contact with clutchers and grabbers. He handled it.” John even talked back to Norman Lear, who, says Van Dyk, “went on about what close friends he was with the president,” then said he was saving his money for his own lobbying group, People for the American Way. “You’d be better served giving the money to us,” Kennedy said.

John was “genuinely undecided” about his future, and Van Dyk was sympathetic. “You get a churning stomach thinking about all those Kennedy kids in politics,” he says. “You’re pleased to see them respond as several have, yet relieved when any of them decides to do something else. An expectation hangs over them. I don’t think John feels compelled.” Still, back at Brown, John worked for the University Conference for Democratic Policy, which sponsored disarmament forums on northeastern college campuses.

The summer after his junior year, Kennedy and his cousin Tim Shriver tutored underprivileged children in English as part of a University of Connecticut program. Finally, after he graduated, he stopped for some fun, signing on as first mate on the Vast Explorer, searching for the pirate treasure ship Whidah in the waters off Cape Cod.

Following the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, where he helped Van Dyk raise more money, Kennedy came home and took a job with the city. In his $20,000-a-year position in the Office of Business Development, he worked to attract and keep business in New York. “His references were extraordinary,” says his boss, Larry Kieves. “He worked in the same crummy cubbyhole as everybody else. I heaped on the work and was always pleased.”

John “wasn’t overly sophisticated,” a co-worker adds. “He was one of the few young people there who acted his age.” She fondly recalls how he would change from his bicycle clothes into a suit in the office, but often leave his shirttails hanging out. (Though he still sometimes dresses that way, he was named to the International Best Dressed List this year.)

In 1986, Kennedy switched jobs, moving to the 42nd Street Development Corporation as acting deputy executive director, conducting negotiations with developers and city agencies. Jackie was on the nonprofit company’s board. “John was an intelligent bargain,” says Fred Papert, the corporation’s president. “Salary was not of grave concern to him. He knew his way around the city. He’s unpredictable in a good way. He was both orderly and passionate-a rare combination.”

Kennedy entered law school that fall. The following summer, he worked for William Bradford Reynolds, the Reagan Justice Department’s civil-rights chief, making $358 a week as one of seven interns. Last summer, his salary improved when he became a $1,100-a-week summer associate at Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Phillips, a Los Angeles law firm with strong connections to the Democrats, and worked for his uncle Ted’s lawschool roommate, Charlie Manatt.

* * *

At last summer’s Democratic Convention, major speakers chose the people who would introduce them. Ted Kennedy asked, and John was delighted. So was a party that was “trying to reach out to the younger boomer crowd,” according to a Democratic National Committee official. Backstage, John “was nervous as hell,” reports an observer. He needn’t have worried. “Stars are born at conventions,” the official says. “He certainly came out as a Democrat everyone will be watching for a long time.”

Does John want that? Friends and former employers say that he seems committed to some kind of public service. “He has a great way with people,” says Andrew Cuomo. “He’s as comfortable with homeless kids in a playground as he is at the Democratic Convention, and that’s truly a gift.” In between law classes, he works with Cuomo’s HELP program, the Fresh Air Fund, the Kennedy Library, and the Kennedy Foundation’s associate trustees. The foundation is behind his latest project: working with the City University of New York on a plan to assist the mentally handicapped. “He’s not doing it to get recognition,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, who is working with John. “He’s a real mensch.”

His enthusiasm falters, it seems, only in academia. One of his NYU professors judged him “unremarkable. Given the opportunities offered someone so blessed, one would have wanted him to give more evidence of ambition, drive, and vision. But maybe my course didn’t inspire him.”

Kennedy has apparently found something to inspire him in criminal law. And it isn’t really surprising that a man whose father and uncle were both murdered should choose to become a prosecutor. The A.D.A.’s job is “tough work,” says his law school friend Stevelman. “It takes someone who really wants to get down and deal with real people’s needs. I don’t think John likes things easy or false.”

“His interest in criminal law is marketable and useful,” adds a fellow law student. “He’s not doing it for money reasons. He’s very curious. He’s interested and open. He’s much more comfortable with black people, for instance, than your average kid of his world.”

Before John ever appeared at the Brooklyn Family Court as a student lawyer, Joseph A. Esquirol Jr., the supervising judge, worried that the court would come to a stop. He recalls thinking that “every woman will leave her desk to come see him. “I couldn’t have that,” Esquirol says, so he called his court staff together. “Don’t make it any worse for him,” he told them. “Try not to drool till he’s gone. I want to give the young man a chance to grow in his profession. He has a right to that.”

* * *

Drooling stenographers aren’t the only obstacle Kennedy faces. “How would you feel, if you were a thirteen-year-old arrested for a chain-snatch, if the son of a president was your lawyer?” asks Esquirol, who has presided over three designated-felony cases in which Kennedy appeared. Says a fellow law student, “[Who he is] comes up all the time. John presses it away and goes on.”

NYU officials and teachers will not discuss Kennedy’s grades, but Esquirol gives him high marks. “I don’t know that he’s the best or the worst,” the judge says. “I don’t envy him one minute. I think he can cut it if he’s allowed to practice without pressure. He’s got the innate common sense, ability, anti presence. He knew what he was doing and why he was doing it.” Esquirol pauses. “If I was a father, I wouldn’t be disappointed to have him as a son.”

John’s work with the underprivileged and disabled, his experience bridging the public and private sectors, his inquisitive mind, sense of obligation, and determination to avoid the obvious, a quick run for elective office, reveal a commendable sense of purpose. “He makes good decisions, not facile ones,” says Stevelman. “He makes a point not to make broad decisions about life.” It’s not that he won’t want our votes eventually. He just doesn’t want them now, when all he would be is JFK II. But John F. Kennedy Jr. will always be America’s son, and that’s a hurdle he’ll face for the rest of his life. “I honestly think,” says one friend, “in 100 years, they’ll say that whatever he did, he succeeded not because he was John F. Kennedy Jr. but in spite of it.”.

©1989 Michael Gross