THE MORNING SUN IS SHINING BRIGHTLY IN BOSTON, AND John F. Kennedy Jr. is squirming. “Can you look here?” asks a cameraman eager to get his subject—seated on a makeshift stage a few hundred feet from the Atlantic—in just the right light. “I can,” Kennedy says, “but I’ll look like this.” He squints, and the cameraman frowns. While he adjusts the equipment that will soon connect Kennedy from the John F. Kennedy Library live to the NBC studio in Manhattan—and 4 million Today show viewers nationwide—John Jr. jiggles his foot. He adjusts his tie, crosses his legs, shifts in his seat, pulls at his jacket and jiggles some more. A crew member wanders over to chat. Kennedy listens intently, smiles now and then, responds politely when he should. Yes, he says, I’m doing well, thank you. Yes, he says, the weather has been wonderful lately. A few minutes later, Kennedy walks to the corner of the terrace within sight of the Victura, the grounded sailboat that his father once loved to race, and stands alone, staring out to sea.
His thoughts, of course, are unreadable, though there is no shortage of speculators avid to imagine what they might be. Could he be wondering what his fiercely private mother would have said about his decision to do one of his rare television interviews—about the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award—with Today’s Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel? Or what Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would think, perhaps, of his recent breakup with longtime girlfriend Daryl Hannah? Maybe he is wondering whether his current start-up project—a monthly political magazine tentatively titled George (as in Washington)—is such a good idea after all.
Eight months after the death of his mother from cancer at age 64, JFK Jr. is alone as never before. Whether dating a string of pretty women, tagging along on the campaign trail last fall with his uncle Sen. Edward Kennedy, skiing in Colorado over the New Year weekend or simply celebrating his 34th birthday—with a handful of family members and his German shepherd, Sam—in late November at 104-year-old grandmother Rose’s home in Hyannis Port, Mass., he is, one supposes, a man in search of direction.
Suddenly a voice yelling “Ready!” summons Kennedy from his reverie. He settles back in his chair and then, in a burst of unscripted activity, anxiously calls to the publicist for the John F. Kennedy Library, which established the award in his father’s name five years ago (1994’s winner was Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez). “Is it the Profile in Courage Award,” he quietly asks, “or the Profiles in Courage Award?”
Okay, so he is a bit distracted. But give the guy a break; it’s no easy thing, this JFK Jr. gig.
From the moment the 3-year-old saluted the casket of his murdered father that blustery November morning in 1963, John-John, as the world had come to know him, has been, reluctantly, a legend of sorts, carrying a massive weight of expectation and interest. “He’s like a mythological person,” says Bill Walczak, director of the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, Mass., where Kennedy made a campaign appearance for his uncle in September. “When he stepped out of his car, the crowd just enveloped him. Police had to stop traffic because he couldn’t get off the street, and people just gaped when he said, ‘Hi. I’m John Kennedy’ ”
“I felt a little ashamed,” confesses Arlene Fortunato, the health center’s capital campaign director at the time. “Nobody seemed to care about who he really is. He was like a prop, and it seems like such an awful life for him.” Yet Fortunato, like the others, couldn’t help herself. “Standing next to that little boy who made that salute at his father’s funeral—it’s history,” she says. “It was the thrill of a lifetime.”
Almost uniquely, in a family that has inspired a wide range of dangerously intense—and twice fatal—emotions, this Kennedy seems to bring out the lovers and rarely the haters. But of course he has never made the risky step into politics, and much of the world may still regard him as a dashing grown-up version of the brave and innocent child they recall. In fact, thanks to his mother’s ironbound determination to shield him from the damage of celebrity, his youth was in many ways almost “normal.” He biked, played tennis and football in Central Park across the street from her 15-room Manhattan co-op (put on the market last month for $9 million); tried out cigarette smoking as a teenager while a student at the exclusive Collegiate preparatory school in New York City; dabbled in theater at Brown University and went on to law school at New York University. Still, he was JFK Jr., and he was celebrated in spite of himself—not that it hurt that he had the pulse-fluttering looks of a minor Greek deity. Inevitably there followed flirtations with scores of beauties (including Madonna, whose high-voltage come-on he quickly retreated from) and Sarah Jessica Parker. And yes, he did flunk his first two tries at the New York State bar exam before going on to a respectable but undistinguished four-year career in the New York City district attorney’s office. Now the nation may ask young John: What next?
The answer so far seems abundantly clear: no one, not even he, has a clue. Still, his behavior in the months up to and following his mother’s death does suggest a few intriguing trends.
First is his flirtation with the media. The very day he spoke with Couric and Gumbel, Kennedy also spoke with Good Morning America’s Joan Lunden and Charlie Gibson. In April he hosted a six-part documentary on New York City’s unsung heroes, Heart of the City, which aired on the local PBS channel. It wasn’t exactly a stint on Melrose Place; yet his mother, who had opposed her son’s interest in the performing arts (reportedly balking at his desire to attend Yale’s prestigious drama school), would surely have seen these TV gigs as a step in the wrong direction.
By no means, though, was it a reckless step, and his native caution is also reflected in his wariness of romantic commitment. Last summer, word of his impending marriage to 5½-year flame Daryl Hannah, 34, kept Kennedy watchers faint with anticipation. At least once, friends reportedly were invited to a top-secret ceremony on Martha’s Vineyard—and then abruptly uninvited. A change of plans—or of heart? By this summer, the two were nowhere near the altar. According to pals of Hannah’s and Kennedy’s, Onassis was far from enthusiastic about the match. “Jackie never came out and said so,” says a friend of Kennedy’s, “but you got the feeling that she didn’t approve of his relationship with Daryl and all that it implied.” Translation: Hannah was Hollywood. Apparently, John got the message.
Whatever the motivation for the split, Kennedy is out of Hannah’s Upper West Side apartment and, as of last fall, back in his newly renovated downtown digs on his own. Yes, there are occasional spottings of lovey-dovey reunions with ex-girlfriend Julie Baker, a model, and with Hannah look-alike Carolyn Bessette, director of public relations for Calvin Klein. But on a typical night out recently, he showed up at the trendy Film Center Cafe with three women. “They were all just friends,” says the owner, known as Trigger. Though used to celeb regulars like Madonna and Springsteen, diners couldn’t take their eyes off Kennedy. “He’s got this charisma, this aura,” says Trigger. Plus, says the man who waited on him, Kennedy’s a great tipper: “He drank a ginger ale, ate a hard-boiled egg, asked for change for a hundred and left a $20 bill for an $8 check.”
Stag was also Kennedy’s preference last fall at three weddings—of his friend and George business partner, marketing executive Michael Berman, in Manhattan; of his cousin Tony Radziwill, a television producer for ABC, in Manhattan; and of his Washington attorney pal Daniel Melrod on Martha’s Vineyard. “There were a lot of Hollywood-type girls there, but he didn’t seem to pay attention to them,” says Gretchen Hershberger, 24, who waited tables at Mel-rod’s wedding. “When I saw him, my heart jumped in my throat. Each time a waitress offered him champagne, he said no. But on my time around, he took a glass. The only thing is, he didn’t say thank you.”
An oversight, no doubt. And yet, the faux pas with a member of his admiring public does bring to mind a remaining—and fundamental—question: Will JFK Jr. ever follow in his father’s political footsteps? Kennedy certainly shares the family commitment to public service. For six years he has led Reaching Up, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to better train and bring recognition to New York State hospital orderlies, home attendants and nursing aides. He also sits on the boards of the JFK Library Foundation and the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “He’s very intent on doing only things he’s qualified to do,” says a colleague at the institute. “He really wants to be involved.”
Both with causes and, friends say, with people. “There is a quiet dignity about him,” says Cape Cod Democratic activist and longtime Kennedy friend Mary Anne Grafton-Rodgers. “He doesn’t act like he thinks he is Mr. Wonderful. He always introduces himself, even though it’s obvious who he is. When you talk to him, you know he’s paying attention to you and not looking over your shoulder.”
All admirable human traits, observes Codman Square Health Center director Walczak, who watched John work uncle Ted’s fund-raiser along with his cousin Michael, 38, Bobby’s son and Ted Kennedy’s campaign manager—but not necessarily political ones. “Michael was a natural politician, maneuvering himself to make sure he spoke to the right people, making sure his cousin John got in all the right pictures,” says Walczak. “John wasn’t like that. He didn’t seem like a political person. He was open to everybody. John is just a natural guy.”
Yet few who have heard the roaring of crowds wherever Kennedy appears doubt he would be a formidable contender in any election. “I remember his speech at the Atlanta Democratic Convention in 1988,” says William Schneider, a political analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It was a success the minute he showed up onstage. There was an audible gasp. I’m not sure anyone remembers one word of what he said.” Adds political consultant Robert Shrum, whose links with the Kennedys go back many years: “I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t think there are a lot of people who’d want to run against him.”
Kennedy, though, hardly seems anxious to run against them. “Once you run for office, you’re in it—sort of like going into the military,” he said last year. “You’d better be damned sure it is what you want to do and that the rest of your life is set up to accommodate that. It takes a certain toll on your personality and on your family life. I’ve seen it personally. So if I were to do it, I would make sure that was what I wanted to do and that I didn’t do it because people thought I should.”
And so the son of the 35th President of the United States goes about what daily business he does want to do—rollerblading through the streets of Manhattan, doing board meetings and rubber-chicken benefits and showing up daily at the midtown Manhattan office of George. There Kennedy and Berman have been busy putting together story lists (subjects range from Newt Gingrich to Barbra Streisand) and creating a direct-mail package, sent out to 150,000 potential subscribers in November, complete with a statement of editorial vision. As Berman wrote, the magazine will talk about “Who’s under the covers. Who’s under indictment. Who’s running the country. And who’s running them.” As of yet, no one is quite sure whether a $24-a-year personality magazine about politicians is, in fact, what the country needs or wants. “There is sort of a market out there,” says national magazine consultant Martin Walker, “and no one has found the right handle for it—the right mix of articles and cynicism and celebrity.” Not an easy job, he says—to say nothing of the additional task of raising the nearly $10 million Kennedy and Berman think they need to launch the magazine. But on that count, says Walker, Kennedy has one big advantage—”a marvelous name. I mean, who’s not going to answer his phone call?”
Should George ever actually get to the newsstands (in a year at the earliest), it might have a different name—GW, for instance, has been considered. “Maybe we’ll change it to John someday,” says Michael Berman with a laugh. As far as Mary Anne Grafton-Rodgers is concerned, George is just fine—and about as close as her famous young friend might want to get to the family business. “It’s too much to ask anyone, even John, to live up to the Kennedy legacy,” she says, “because it’s 90 percent myth.”
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
ALLISON LYNN in New York City, S. AVERY BROWN and ANNE LONGLEY in Boston, MARY ESSELMAN in Washington