With his confidence and charm, John carried the weight of history with an uncommon grace

By Liz McNeil
July 04, 2019 12:00 PM
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“No one will ever live a life like John F. Kennedy Jr.,” says his friend and historian Steven M. Gillon. Growing up the only son of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, JFK Jr. was surrounded by cameras.

“There’s probably no one who’s ever walked this earth that was the focus of such media attention their entire life,” Gillon says.

Twenty years after the plane crash that killed John, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette, Gillon’s biography, America’s Reluctant Prince, which is excerpted in this week’s PEOPLE, reveals a JFK Jr. more complex, more introspective and more human than the world ever knew.

With his confidence and charm, John carried the weight of history with an uncommon grace. But, as Gillon reveals, those expectations also led him to question who he really was and he was in therapy almost his whole life.

• For more on John F. Kennedy’s privilege and pain and for never-before-seen photos from friends, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. 

“John was pretty open about his therapy,” Gillon tells PEOPLE. “There was one day a week where you knew where John was. There were two things John always had scheduled: his massage and his therapy appointment.”

As a result, Gillon says, “John was the best person in the world to get advice from. You could tell he had spent a lot of time analyzing himself and by doing so, he had a better sense of other people. His nearly lifelong therapy was an immense help to him but also made him a fantastic listener and problem-solver for his friends.”

Still, John had his struggles. While he had a very close bond to his sister, Caroline Kennedy, Gillon’s book details the mounting tension between them. In the final months before John was killed, the two were barely on speaking terms.

John F. Kennedy Jr.
Ron Galella/WireImage

There was friction over their spouses: Caroline’s husband, Ed Schlossberg, and John’s wife, Carolyn. “John just never liked Ed [Schlossberg]” a friend told Gillon. “And Carolyn told John that his sister and her husband, Ed, viewed him as ‘the family f— up.’ “

“John felt like Caroline was dismissive of him, and she didn’t like he was involved with George magazine,” Gillon explains, “but the real tension was with Ed. The Sotheby’s auction in 1996 of his mother’s belongings after she died — John wanted a private auction, Ed thought that a public auction would raise more money. What John resented was that Ed was making the decision.”

RELATED: How JFK Jr. Coped with His Father’s Assassination — and Once Said, ‘Bobby Knew Everything’

There were other arguments as well, says Gillon, who notes “John believed that he and Caroline were the only two Kennedys, the only descendants of their mother and father, and the only two who could make decisions related to the family.”

In the days before he died, John had one last conversation with his sister.

“She was gracious,” Gillon says. “They agreed they needed to do a better job of staying in touch. John loved Caroline. I think they probably both thought they had time to work it out.”

John F. Kennedy Jr.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty

• For more on JFK Jr.’s world and sudden death, pick up PEOPLE’s 96-page special edition John F. Kennedy: An American Life, available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.

In the book’s final chapters, Gillon illuminates how, despite the challenges in his life, there was a resolve to John as he became more clear about his future and was finally able to answer a key question: What was he here to do?

“John didn’t want to enter politics because of his last name and not because people expected him to,” Gillon says. “He wanted to develop his own identity, and what he discovered was politics was part of his DNA.”

In his last months, Gillon says, “John was becoming more comfortable with his political ambitions. He wanted to run for governor of New York and his ultimate goal was to return to the White House.”

RELATED: JFK Jr. ‘Shouldn’t Have Gone Up’ the Night of Plane Crash That Killed Him and Carolyn Bessette, New Book Says

Gillon describes a moment, years earlier, when John was watching the 1989 presidential inauguration of George H. W. Bush on television with a close friend.

“John said he wanted to go home again,” Gillon recalls, “and by home the meant the White House.”

Looking back, he says, “I think in the year before he died, John planned to be president of the United States at some point.”

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