By People Staff
August 02, 1999 12:00 PM

Febuary 4 1971

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mrs. Nixon

I can never thank you more for showing us the White House. [….] I dont think I could rember much about the White House but it was really nice seeing it all again. When I sat on Lincolns bed and wished for something my wish really came true. I wished that I [would] have good luck at school [….] I really really loved the dogs they were so funny as soon as I came home my dogs kept on sniffing me. Maybe they rember the White House…

He was 10 years old and had just returned from a first visit back to his early childhood home. Seven years after his family’s heartbreaking departure from the White House, his handwritten thank-you note to Pat and Richard Nixon showed that even in evoking a past he could barely recall, young John F. Kennedy Jr. manifested a charm and graciousness well beyond his years. For that, as he was fond of telling friends, he had his mother to thank. “John really didn’t remember his father,” says a former Brown University classmate. “It was always his mother he would talk about.”

Kennedy once said that he “grew up just living a fairly normal life.” Perhaps that was because it was the only one he knew. And because, from the moment of her children’s births, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis fought, for their sake, to keep the world at bay. Once, she reportedly offered them advice about handling the world’s overwhelming interest in them. Her simple caveat: “Don’t let them steal your soul.”

In 1964, John, along with his mother and sister Caroline, spent the summer after his father’s death in the familiar surroundings of Hyannisport, where Jackie “controlled the children in a loving, not a dominating way,” recalled Charles Eager, a retired state trooper who helped guard the compound. Four years later, fearing they might share her husband and brother-in-law Bobby’s fate (“If they’re killing Kennedys, then my children are targets,” she said), she fled to Greece, where she married shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. For John, there followed long stays on the island of Skorpios, where he putted around in his own child-size speedboat, chased pet rabbits and ponies and grew close to his new stepfather. “To me, Onassis was a father,” John told Jackie’s biographer C. David Heymann. “After that first year, I was closer than my mother was to him.”

Jackie, always a hands-on parent, never stopped trying to give her son a cosmopolitan burnish. There were day trips to view old masters at museums in Manhattan, where the family lived in a 15-room Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, and visits with her tony European friends. Nearly three decades ago, “Jacqueline came to my studio holding little John by the hand,” designer Valentino told a Milan newspaper last week. “He was 9 years old, and I watched him grow up.” Yet John never lacked the common touch. Even as a boy, “when he was on [Onassis’s yacht] the Christina, he liked to eat in the kitchen with the crew,” says Kiki Moutsatsos, Ari’s longtime secretary. “Anytime he could get away from his mother’s side, he’d go into the kitchen and sit down with them.”

Despite Jackie’s antipathy for her Kennedy in-laws’ rough-and-tumble style (“She brought him up to be his own person, not part of the Kennedy’s tribal connection,” says longtime family friend Frank Mankiewicz), John played endless games of touch football at Hyannisport. “Ethel’s boys, the Shriver boys and the Smith boys all had distinctive personalities,” recalls Barbara Gibson, matriarch Rose Kennedy’s personal secretary from 1968 until 1977. “But John Jr. just sort of flowed with the group. I never had the impression that he was a real ace type. He wasn’t competitive.”

In fact, young John, who at Jackie’s behest saw a psychiatrist as a preteen, also suffered from dyslexia. Academics were never his strong suit—either at New York City’s private Collegiate School for boys or, later, at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.—nor was following all the rules. Jackie “knew he was smoking cigarettes at prep school,” says author Edward Klein, a friend of hers for the last 15 years of her life. “And she was concerned about the reports from his teacher saying he wasn’t fulfilling his potential.” In 1979, when he enrolled in college, it was not at Harvard, where his father and uncles had earned their degrees, but at Rhode Island’s more free-spirited Brown University—where Jackie continued to keep tabs on him. During one visit, recalls John’s fraternity buddy Richard Wiese, Jackie tried to locate the phone in John’s room. “He and his roommate had the sloppiest room in the frat,” says Wiese, “and she was down on the floor on her hands and knees following the wire through the clothes. It turned out to be a wire to the stereo. She ended up using the phone in my room, and she told him that my room was neater and that he should be more like me.”

John’s absentmindedness was legendary. “He lost more bikes and stuff than anybody,” says Wiese. “And he used to walk around with his keys attached to his pants, like a custodian, because he’d lose them all the time.” Once, Kennedy pleaded with him to borrow a blazer for a dinner. “Somebody hit him with a meatball during the dinner. He said, ‘I’ll take it to the laundry,’ ” Wiese recalls. “Three weeks later, I saw it behind the couch, all rolled up in a ball. But you couldn’t get mad at him. You cut him more slack than you did most people.”

Not his mother. At 18, Kennedy was offered the chance to play his own father in a film proposed by producer Robert Stigwood (Saturday Night Fever, Evita), and as an undergraduate he performed in such college productions as Playboy of the Western World and The Tempest. But Jackie nixed the idea of an acting career. “She thought it was no life for a Kennedy and that he should have a profession,” says Klein. “In order to talk him out of it, she brought [John’s uncle] Ted in,” says biographer Heymann. “The family turned to Ted when they needed a male voice.”

In the summer of 1983, after John graduated from Brown with a B.A. in American history, he savored one last fling before law school, hunting for sunken treasure off the coast of Cape Cod with salvager Barry Clifford, who discovered the pirate ship Whydah off the Wellfleet coast the following year. “John never expected any kind of special treatment,” recalls Todd Murphy, 41, one of his crewmates. “Sometimes we had 15 people living in a five-bedroom house. He usually slept on the porch with one of the guys. He worked on the bilge. If we had to fix the boats, he’d be right down in the muck with everyone else.”

In 1989, after John earned his law degree at New York University, Jackie, according to Heymann, pulled strings to get him a job as an assistant district attorney in the office of Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. There, he flunked his bar exam—twice—but handled the humiliation with remarkable grace. “I’m clearly not a major legal genius,” he told the press. After passing on his third try, he got off to a rocky professional start. Says Heymann: “In his first case—a robbery where they caught the robber on the premises—he almost lost.” In 1993, tired of the charade, and much to Jackie’s disappointment, he quit.

His mother had always been “less than enthusiastic about John’s unconventional side—his desire to live the life of someone who roamed the subways unguarded and played ball in the park, where anybody could have taken a potshot at him,” says Klein. But from then on, at least for a time, John was a free spirit. He partied, Rollerbladed shirtless on Manhattan streets, kayaked in Vietnam and Iceland. “We used to play touch football Saturday mornings in Central Park,” says Wiese. “He’d call up at 8 or 9 in the morning and say, ‘It’s a great day. There’s a blue sky,’ and we’d say, ‘John, it’s 20 degrees out.’ ” More than anything, it was the normality that he relished. “In the park he’d always say ‘Hi’ to little kids or throw them a little Frisbee,” says Wiese. “He liked dogs and kids more than adults because they didn’t treat him as different.”

Always, there were women. (“Anyone who would put on airs of sophistication,” says Wiese, “that was a turnoff for him.”) In addition to steadies Sally Munro, a Brown classmate, and actress Christina Haag, there were occasional dates with Madonna and actress Sarah Jessica Parker. More serious was his relationship with Daryl Hannah, which ended in 1994 after 5½ years, amid rumors of an impending marriage. For the liaison’s duration, says Klein, “Jackie was very concerned about her as a girlfriend. She felt Daryl wasn’t the most stable person for John.”

For a time, John appeared unwilling—or unable—to accept what others thought was his manifest destiny. Law was out, and so was politics, at least for the time being. A decade before, Bob Mann, then Ted Kennedy’s press secretary, recalls a star-studded political fund-raiser at Ted’s house on Cape Cod. “The event had been a tribute to the father he never knew very well,” says Mann, “and after the ceremony I went inside to the kitchen for a glass of water. There in the darkened room, sitting all alone at the table, was John, then in his early 20s. He had a glass of white wine in front of him and was looking pensive. I asked, ‘Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘I just had to get away from it all for a while.’ ”

Other responsibilities he could not escape. On May 20, 1994, it was John who stepped up to the microphones at the entrance to Jackie’s apartment building and announced to the world that his mother, diagnosed four months earlier with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was gone. “Now,” he said solemnly, “she’s in God’s hands.”

For a young man who had weathered a lifetime’s worth of tragedy before his 3rd birthday, this loss was greater still. Yet it was also, at least in one way, liberating. Lois Cappelen, a waitress at the Vero Beach (Fla.) Municipal Airport restaurant, a block from the flight school where he earned his wings, once asked him why he had waited till so late in life to begin flight lessons. “He told me he wanted to learn to fly from the time he was a little boy but that his mother was against it,” Cappelen says. “After his mother died, he decided to go ahead and fulfill his dream.”