"I took John and I put him under the microscope. It's only been now, as I go through this process, that I'm rediscovering him," author Steven M. Gillon says about his new book, which inspired a documentary

By Sam Gillette
May 22, 2019 11:00 AM
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As the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death approaches, there’s still much curiosity about the beloved son of President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

On Wednesday, Kennedy’s close friend and noted historian, Steven M. Gillon, gave PEOPLE an exclusive first look at his upcoming book, America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr., and the A&E documentary it inspired. The book will be published by Dutton on July 9, a week before the anniversary of Kennedy’s death, and the documentary, Biography: JFK Jr. — The Final Year, will be released on the anniversary, July 16.

“I was haunted by John’s death. It still hurts,” says Gillon of Kennedy in the documentary. (See below for the exclusive clip.)

The author first met Kennedy at Brown University and was friends with him for decades. After college, Kennedy launched George, a political and pop culture magazine, and married Carolyn Bessette, a publicist for Calvin Klein. Together, they dazzled the world. Yet the fairy tale came to a tragic end on July 16, 1999, when a plane piloted by Kennedy, 38, carrying his wife, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34, crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, killing all aboard. Their family, and friends like Gillon, were left reeling.

JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette
| Credit: Arnaldo Magnani/Liaison/Getty

By writing the biography, Gillon feels like he’s “rediscovering” his longtime friend, he explains. And he now hopes to share his insights with the world.

“Writing a book about John involves not only getting access to documents that no one has seen before — it also involves talking to people who have never spoken about John before,” the professor of history explains. “And I took John and I put him under the microscope. It’s only been now, as I go through this process, that I’m rediscovering him.”

Gillon conducted 54 interviews — including one with George executive publisher Michael Berman, who spoke for the first time since the bitter dissolution of his partnership with Kennedy. Gillon also secured hundreds of documents from the Secret Service, which offer insight into his mother Jackie’s “tense relationship with the men assigned to protect her son,” according to the press release.

“Gillon covers the highs, the lows, and the surprising stories, viewpoints, and relationships John never shared publicly,” reads the press release, “revealing the full story behind JFK Jr.’s complicated and rich legacy.”

Interviewees include former President Bill Clinton and close friends Gary Ginsberg, Sasha Chermayeff and RoseMarie Terenzio, who also provided on-camera interviews for the documentary.

Biography: JFK Jr. — The Final Year, a two-hour documentary special, highlights Gillon’s findings and other interviews to present an inside look into the final year of JFK Jr’s life.

The author
| Credit: Weston Wells

“This captivating special is the most substantive documentary to date and includes convincing new evidence regarding [Kennedy’s] political aspirations before his untimely death,” reads the documentary’s press release. “[It] shines an unexpectedly poignant light on 1999, his last year, as he coped with the fatal illness of his closest friend and cousin, Anthony Radziwill, struggled to save his marriage and tried to rescue his political magazine, George.”

Biography: JFK Jr. — The Final Year premieres Tuesday, July 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on A&E Network.