"John had an engaging spirit that could fill the room and captivate everyone in it," said Ted Kennedy of his nephew, who died 20 years ago

By Saleah Blancaflor
June 28, 2019 06:07 PM
Advertisement

“Nobody I know calls me ‘John-John,’ ” John F. Kennedy Jr., the then-adult son of the 35th president of the United States once said. The story goes that his nickname was coined by a reporter who overheard father John F. Kennedy repeatedly calling his rambunctious toddler’s name: “John! John!”

The moniker was adopted by the press corps and then by the public at large despite the fact that John himself “hated the nickname,” said Nancy McKeon, his mother’s personal assistant.

Plenty of people called him “John-John” anyway, including strangers who watched him grow up before their eyes. They wept when his father was cut down by an assassin’s bullets’ in Dallas in 1963; teared up again when he lost his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in 1994; and cheered when he married the love of his life, Carolyn Bessette, in a secret wedding in an old wooden church in Georgia two years later. The world mourned again when John and Carolyn’s lives were cut short in a plane crash that also killed her sister, Lauren Bessette on July 16, 1999.

“For a thousand days, he was a husband who adored the wife who became his perfect soulmate,” his uncle Ted Kennedy once said. “We dared to think… that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side.”

jfk-jr-6
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr.
| Credit: Getty

In a new 96-page special edition, PEOPLE celebrates the life Kennedy led, from his early days in the White House to his years as a charismatic young adult, by capturing rarely seen photographs, printed here for the first time. To the end of his life, Kennedy remained an object of intense curiosity — and affection — to his fellow citizens.

His public display of passion and love with Carolyn Bessette captured the nation’s attention — and heart — as well.

jfk-jr

Once known as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors (who, in fact, preferred relationships to dating; he spent several years with actress Daryl Hannah), Kennedy began seeing Bessette, a publicist for Calvin Klein’s fashion house, just as he was preparing to launch his political pop culture magazine George. His mother had died not long before, a moment that his former Brown University classmate Richard Wiese said was “a clarifying moment” for him.

JFK Jr, Providence, USA
Credit: Paul R. Benoit/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“He took note of all the things that were important to [Jackie], like family,” Wiese told PEOPLE. “John really matured after his mother’s death.”

When the plane he was piloting to cousin Rory Kennedy’s wedding crashed in the Atlantic, it took with it three young lives: Kennedy was just 38, his wife 33, and his sister-in-law, 34. At his funeral, Sen. Edward Kennedy eulogized a young kinsman taken too soon. John “had only just began,” he said of his nephew. “There was in him a great promise of things to come.”

PEOPLE’s special issue John F. Kennedy: An American Life is available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold