By Susan Schindehette
May 20, 2002 12:00 PM

On the afternoon of July 14, 1999, at the Manhattan headquarters of the political magazine George, executive editor Richard Blow had what he recalls as an unsettling experience. Through the wall of his office, he says, he heard his boss, John E Kennedy Jr., engaged in a raging quarrel with his wife. “Well, goddammit, Carolyn,” John thundered. “You’re the reason I was up at 3 o’clock last night!”

Whatever the reason for those angry words, it was lost in the cataclysmic events that followed just two nights later when, in a thick haze, the single-engine Piper Saratoga piloted by John, 38—and carrying Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34, to a Kennedy family wedding—plunged into the Atlantic off Martha’s Vineyard, killing all three.

The story of the couple’s spat might have vanished with them if not for one thing: This month it appears in Blow’s unauthorized memoir American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., just published by Henry Holt. Based on the author’s four-year working relationship with JFK Jr., it is the first such account to be written by someone who had personal knowledge of John’s daily life. “He was a part of history, and the experience of working with him should not be locked up in a box and put away in the attic,” says Blow, 37. “It’s something to be proud of and something to communicate.”

Not everyone agrees. In fact the book’s publication has sparked a backlash from an array of John’s close friends, who for the first time are breaking a self-imposed code of silence intended to protect his privacy in death as in life. “It’s important to treat your friends respectfully, and just because John was from a certain family didn’t make him fair game,” says longtime friend Pat Manocchia, 41, owner of the La Palestra fitness center in Manhattan. Adds another confidant, New York-based media consultant Brian Steel, 36: “There were a lot of close friends who knew what John was feeling and out of a sense of loyalty decided not to write a book.”

John’s pals accuse Blow—who received a reported $300,000 advance for the memoir and recently optioned rights for a television movie—of mercenary motives. (“I wasn’t writing the book for money,” he insists, noting that he went into $20,000 debt during the 18 months he spent writing it.) They also fault him for breaking a confidentiality pledge that he and other George staffers signed in 1995—even after terminating other employees who spoke to the press. Although Blow, who served as George‘s executive editor for almost a year, says he is “not violating the terms” of the document, and Holt’s lawyers concur, the friends dismiss that assertion. “He made an agreement,” says writer Robert Littell, 40, one of John’s closest friends since their undergrad days at Brown University. “He broke it. That’s wrong.”

Most of all, the friends question Blow’s closeness to JFK Jr. “Frankly, Rich wasn’t at any of John’s birthday parties for the last 20 years,” says Manocchia. Those who did celebrate life’s big events with John recall a Kennedy quite different from Blow’s conflicted hero. Three years after his death, they remember John as generally comfortable with the press, at peace with his formidable family and dedicated to his admittedly tempestuous marriage. Indeed, one friend says that the couple were on the verge of making a commitment that would have put the lie to rumors of an impending breakup.

Some detractors concede that Blow—a Connecticut-bred Yale history grad who joined George in 1995 after a stint at the Washington, D.C.-based political magazine Regardie’s—paints a largely flattering picture of his famous employer. American Son tells how JFK Jr. would give his surplus of expensive neckties to staffers and sneak his beloved dog Friday into the office past a security guard. The memoir also offers glimpses of John and Carolyn’s genuine love for each other. On a commercial flight to Seattle, she confided to Blow that Kennedy had pursued her for a year before she accepted his proposal.”He was the only man she’d ever known who was so strong, so patient, so sure of what he wanted,” writes Blow. At a party in Washington in March 1996, the couple sneaked out a window to steal a kiss in the moonlight. And after their secret wedding that September on Georgia’s Cumberland Island—to which Blow was not invited—a giddy John sent his staffers a memo reading, “I just wanted to let you know that while you were all toiling away, I went and got myself married. I had to be a bit sneaky for reasons that by now I imagine are obvious. P.S. Does this mean you’ll all call me ‘Mr.’ from now on?”

But Blow’s Portrait contains a smattering of less savory anecdotes as well: John tore off a shirtsleeve of George‘s cofounder, Michael Berman, in an office fight; Carolyn took Botox injections to banish wrinkles from her forehead and bleached her hair so often that she once half-jokingly asked John not to stroke it for fear of breaking it off at the roots. Blow also repeats the widely reported story that on the night before his death, John—for reasons that remain unknown—slept at Manhattan’s Stanhope hotel instead of the Tribeca loft he shared with Carolyn.

By telling such tales, Kennedy friends contend, Blow violates John and Carolyn’s privacy—and fuels tabloid rumors that their marriage was headed for the rocks. In fact, says Littell, the two were mulling over the idea of parenthood. “John was keen, and she was getting ready,” he says. “It was the next step.” Littell accompanied the pair to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital emergency room on Memorial Day 1999 after John broke his ankle by crashing his ultra light plane. Given that women who might be pregnant are discouraged from exposure to X rays, he says, there was playful debate over whether Carolyn should attend the procedure. “We joked about it,” Littell says. “She asked, ‘Can I be in the room?'”

John and Carolyn were indeed “two very passionate beings, and when their flames crossed, there were sparks,” says Littell. But if a breakup were even a possibility, “they would have made plans to go to a marriage counselor, to a priest at the church his mother went to. It wasn’t on the radar. John was very keen on the long term. He felt that Carolyn was his best shot at a successful marriage.”

According to Littell, any friction that observers witnessed was the result of predictable post-honeymoon adjustments: ” ‘This is where my toothbrush goes.’ Yeah, there was tension. But they were also just as passionate as the months before—and I’m talking right up to July of 1999.”

Critics also scold Blow—who recounts an incident in which Carolyn ranted to friends for 45 minutes about allegedly inadequate security arrangements at the 1997 White House Correspondents Dinner—for portraying John’s wife as high-strung and self-absorbed. John Perry Barlow, 54, on whose Wyoming ranch a teenage John spent the summer, agrees that Carolyn could be “hell on heels,” but adds that “it was just one aspect of her nature. She was also a person who gave money to just about every beggar she saw. If there were leftovers from dinner, she gave them to the guy who camped out across the street. That was as important as the fact she could be pretty fierce.”

In private, say friends, Carolyn, a former publicist at Calvin Klein, loved to discuss art and fashion and easily stepped out of her cool persona. “Blow doesn’t get across that she was incredibly funny,” says Matt Berman, 36, George’s former creative director, who remembers the day he first met Carolyn. “John said, ‘My girlfriend is gonna stop by. Show her the [magazine’s] logos.’ I thought, ‘Oh no.’ All of a sudden, I saw her looking in. She put her hand out and said, ‘I’m Carolyn. Hi.’ Then she started looking over my shoulder, eating potato chips. The crumbs were falling on me, and she was getting greasy fingerprints all over my screen. She was doing it on purpose. She knew I was nervous and wanted to make me feel comfortable.”

A young photo editor who worked at George recalls encountering Carolyn for the first time in the bathroom: “I had just broken up with my boyfriend, and she could see I was upset. She asked what was wrong, and we went into one of the offices and talked and smoked cigarettes. She didn’t even know me, but she just made me feel everything would be all right. We joked about my ex, and she laughed about John, how he handled photographers and stuff like that.”

The volatility of Carolyn’s relationship with John could be easily explained, says Littell: “Because of her high intelligence, she didn’t take any s—- from him. [To her] he wasn’t an icon. She treated him like the regular guy he wanted to be.”

John’s “regular-guyness” is another facet of his personality that, friends say, is lost in Blow’s portrayal of a young man fraught with anxiety over his role as an emerging publisher and potential political candidate. “Blow makes John out to be a tortured soul who was burdened and conflicted,” says RoseMarie Terenzio, 34, a publicist who for five years was John’s personal assistant. “I don’t think he had any identity problems. He was comfortable with his life. He just lived it.”

The glare of the spotlight, friends recall, was something that John had not only learned to handle gracefully but at times even courted. “No question,” says Littell. “He’d read the paper and if he ever dropped off the Best Dressed List, he’d be upset. The media were his family, his brothers and sisters to an extent because they had been there forever, like a friendly dog.”

In his book, Blow writes of John’s 1999 decision to abandon a run for the Senate, attributing the move partly to Carolyn’s fear of increased publicity. Friends say that interpretation is far off the mark. “The Senate question was resolved before it ever got to the point of how comfortable Carolyn was,” says Gary Ginsberg, 39, an attorney who served as George‘s legal counsel and attended a Yankee game with John the night before his death. Instead, says Littell, John—who had been moving “like a glacier, slowly and deliberately,” toward the New York Senate race—actually opted out when Hillary Clinton made it known that she was exploring a candidacy. “He considered Hillary a friend, but he wasn’t too happy that she had showed up on his turf. He held up the newspaper at the Vineyard and said, ‘Can you believe this?’ The clear implication being, ‘What—am I gonna go out to Arkansas to be a senator?'”

Some friends believe that John was simply less driven than other members of his clan. “He was more his mother’s son than his father’s,” says Barlow. “He certainly didn’t want to oppose the Kennedy family. But he was different from them temperamentally. He wasn’t scratch-and-bite competitive. To them, touch football was like a religious observance. He loved touch football, but he didn’t like [his family’s] games, because they were too damn serious.”

In the wake of the uproar surrounding the publication of American Son, at least one of John’s former Brown colleagues, Steven Gillon, 45, now Dean of the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma, finds no real fault with Blow’s endeavor. “John now belongs to history, and I hope that the many people who were close to him will put their recollections on paper,” says Gillon. “John left a wonderful imprint, and I want future generations to appreciate it.” For his part, Blow—who admits that he never discussed the possibility of a memoir with John—remains unbowed. “This book is honest without being tawdry, and admiring without being sycophantic,” he says. “John was an idealistic guy, and I hope the book reflects that.”

But to JFK Jr.’s intimates, what is missing is a sense of the man himself. Littell last saw his friend on July 6, when John dropped him and his wife off at New Jersey’s Caldwell Airport after flying them home following a visit to Martha’s Vineyard. “I told him, ‘That was as good as it gets,'” says Littell, recalling the camaraderie of that weekend. “And he said, ‘That’s right.'”

To many of John’s pals, it seems, only someone who had spent such time with him could convey his true spirit. Still, says Littell, his friend would have forgiven Blow for overreaching: “John didn’t hold grudges, and he would have wished the guy luck. He would be amused, no question about it. He would have laughed.”

Susan Schindehette

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City