November 30, 1981 12:00 PM

They bear the name and legacy of the most famous family in America. Their stepfather was one of the world’s wealthiest men. They have spent virtually their entire lives under public scrutiny. Yet to many Americans they exist most vividly in the freeze-frame of memory: a heartbreaking tableau of two small children in matching blue coats and lace-up shoes bravely standing with their widowed mother at a President’s funeral. But 18 winters have passed since that cruel November in 1963. Sixty million Americans—nearly one-quarter of the entire population—have been born since the assassination of President Kennedy. In that time his children, Caroline and John, themselves have grown up, moved away from home and are now living on their own as adults.

John F. Kennedy Jr. turns 21 on Nov. 25, three days after the anniversary of his father’s death. A strapping (6’1″ and 180 pounds) junior at Brown University in Providence, R.I., he has inherited his mother’s good looks and his father’s way with women. He lives not in a dorm but in an elegant off-campus house with a male roommate. Similarly, his older sister, Caroline, who will be 24 on Nov. 27, left her mother Jackie’s cavernous apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue earlier this year and lives in a West Side brownstone with three friends. She has embarked on a new career as a research assistant in the film and TV department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Caroline and John both have trust funds and stand to inherit a fortune from their mother, who received $26 million after Onassis died.)

Together, brother and sister have tried—sometimes unsuccessfully—to lead ordinary lives amid extraordinary circumstances. Last summer, for example, John worked as an intern with the Center for Democratic Policy, a research arm of the Democratic Party. “He impressed everyone here,” recalls communications director Albert Eisele. “He was a bright, hardworking kid who came across natural and unaffected.” Yet John frequently lunched on Capitol Hill with his uncle, Ted Kennedy, and paid a call on Supreme Court Justice Byron White, his father’s only remaining appointee.

The visibility that the Kennedy name imposes is not always welcome. In his freshman year at Brown, John sometimes found girls sleeping in the hallway outside his room. More ominously, Caroline was stalked for several days last August by a 35-year-old lawyer named Kevin King who insisted that he wanted to marry her. In a case eerily reminiscent of John Hinckley’s obsession with actress Jodie Foster, King talked his way into Caroline’s apartment building and spent the night outside her door. Finally he was arrested and convicted of harassment after a bizarre trial in which he acted as his own lawyer and personally examined a distraught Caroline on the witness stand.

Caroline and John share what friends call a “special” relationship with their mother—perhaps, as a friend puts it, “as much for her sake as theirs. They know how dependent she is on them. It’s very poignant.” The three visit often and keep in touch by telephone. Jackie and John went to Caroline’s graduation from Harvard last year, just as Jackie and Caroline attended John’s prep school graduation from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. the year before.

The Kennedy clan comprises no less than 29 first cousins. On the male side, of course, the head of the family is Ted Kennedy, who has been a surrogate father to Caroline and John since JFK and Robert Kennedy died. (Neither child was said to be particularly fond of Aristotle Onassis, although they spent school vacations on Skorpios after Jackie married him.) Ted takes them on raft trips and ski vacations, and both Caroline and John campaigned for his last presidential bid—as much out of Kennedy loyalty as a passion for politics. “I did it,” John explained, “because I enjoyed being with my family.”

“Teddy is consulted on all decisions involving Caroline and John,” says one friend. That undoubtedly included John’s summer job in Washington, during which he gave a rare newspaper interview to the New York Times describing his work. “Senator Kennedy spent hours on the phone trying to convince Jackie to let John do that interview,” says the friend. “John has had nothing but bad knocks from the press, and Teddy felt it would be good to have some publicity that showed him as a serious person.” (John’s name flared up in tabloid headlines in 1978 when he and some friends got into a scuffle with paparazzi outside a private club in Manhattan.)

At Brown, John is majoring in American history and is judged a far more serious student than he was at prep school, where he repeated a year and got poor grades in math. “I had heard that John was a dummy, that he was more interested in sex than in school,” says Steve Gillon, a teaching assistant last semester for an American history course that covered JFK’s Presidency. “But he was very articulate and intelligent. He contributed things to the discussion that went way beyond the textbook. In fact, he dominated discussions in certain areas, such as civil rights and the role of the Supreme Court.” In class, he always referred to his father as “the President,” remarking at one point that Kennedy “held back on the Civil Rights Act because he didn’t feel he had Congress’ backing.”

John formed a southern Africa educational group on campus in his sophomore year after traveling in Africa the previous summer. This fall he helped organize the University Conference for Democratic Policy, which sponsors political debates and plans to publish a political research journal.

John typically roams the Brown campus with a group of chums whom other students characterize as “organic preppies.” He sports a fashionably untidy uniform of tattered sweaters, torn pants and scuffed-up running shoes. Still, says senior Diane Krivit, mindful of his athletic build, brown ringlets and chiseled features, “He’s definitely the cutest and sexiest guy on campus.” A third-string rugby player, John belongs to the most socially prominent fraternity, Phi Psi, and lives in a town house on a historic street where Victorian lampposts dot the sidewalk. A woman living in the building fields all his phone calls, and neither John nor his roommate is listed in the student directory. Since last spring John has been the steady beau of a Brown senior who, like Caroline, graduated from posh Concord Academy in Massachusetts.

Caroline once considered becoming a photojournalist (her mother’s original career) but soon realized she could never make her living observing other people because they were too busy watching her. When Caroline filled in as a copy girl at the New York Daily News in 1977, she sat on a bench alone for two hours the first day before other employees even said hello to her. Explains former News reporter Richard Licata, “Everyone was too scared.” Meanwhile the newspaper had to post guards at every entrance to keep camera crews out. Once a photograph of Caroline fetching coffee for the editors from a local Bagel Nosh came over the wire in the newsroom even before she returned from her errand. Another time Caroline and Licata, who gossip columnists wrongly assumed was her boyfriend, snuck out the back door to avoid network reporters coming up to interview them. Said Caroline as the pair waited until the coast was clear, “Now you have an idea what my life is like.” At the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, where Caroline worked as a photographer’s assistant, lugging heavy camera equipment and setting up tripods, she was besieged by paparazzi until she donned mirrored sunglasses and a ski hat that obscured her face. Says a friend, “Caroline puts up with incredible harassment.”

Jackie gave her approval to her daughter’s move from home only after Caroline promised to live with three old friends—two men (a writer and a film producer) and a female art student. They share an eight-room apartment near Riverside Drive. Each morning she either jogs or rides a bus to the Met. Caroline, who got a degree in fine arts at Harvard and studied antiques at Sotheby’s in London, sometimes travels to Europe on museum assignments. Said one woman who worked with her on a TV special about American art, “She was a very hard worker; she was sincerely interested in what she was doing. I think Caroline likes working in a museum because it’s a private kind of world. She can be shielded here.”

Until recently, Caroline’s love life had been on hold since she broke up last year with longtime boyfriend writer Tom Carney. “It just died of natural causes,” explains a friend. “Partly she didn’t want to get married, and Tom wanted to settle down, I guess.” Carney married photographer Maureen Lambray last winter. Then a few weeks ago Caroline surfaced with Edwin Schlossberg, 36, a Manhattan intellectual-about-town (who has a double Ph.D., in science and literature). His interests include writing (The Pocket Calculator Game Book), avant-garde art (he currently has a lithograph-and-drawings show in SoHo) and museums (he was a design consultant for the new Brooklyn Children’s Museum). The two recently fled New York to spend a quiet week in Mexico.

Living with their father’s memory is not always easy for Caroline and John. John says he cannot remember the White House and must rely on others’ accounts of the JFK years. As a child, Caroline insisted on keeping dozens of portraits of her father in her bedroom. Occasionally there have been ugly incidents. Some time ago a wild-eyed man ran up to her in the street screaming, “You and your whole family should have been killed with your father.”

With genuine admirers, Caroline can be down-to-earth and considerate to a fault. Driving home once to New York from Harvard, she and a group of friends stopped at a Howard Johnson’s on the Massachusetts Turnpike to eat dinner. A middle-aged waitress wearing a large crucifix came up to the table and said, “I have a picture of your father in my kitchen. He was a wonderful man and it was a terrible tragedy that you poor kids lost him.” Caroline thanked the woman for her kindness and spent some time chatting with her. “I thought Caroline showed a lot of maturity in that situation,” said one of her companions. “She realized her father played a role in this woman’s life and that by association, she also played a role.”

Until recently, John seemed to be heading for a career in drama after college. But friends say now that after a postgraduate year off, he plans to enter law school. That may be the first step on the road to a political career. John has already let it be known he plans to work on Uncle Ted’s senatorial reelection campaign next summer and is not ruling out a role in any Kennedy presidential campaign in 1984. His notices as a campaign orator are better than those he received as a student actor. A campus reviewer at Brown confides that John is “not professional acting material. He doesn’t move well. He’s very inhibited and self-conscious on stage. And his voice is off-putting. He sounds like a rich New York preppy.” Why, then, did the same critic praise John for his freshman-year performance as Bonario in Volpone? “I regretted it,” he admits now. “I didn’t think John was as good as I made him out to be. But I was sitting next to his mother on opening night, and I guess I was dazzled.”

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