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On the twentieth anniversary of his death, a look at 10 books about a New York and American icon
by lorraine duffy merkl
I did not know John F. Kennedy, Jr., but he was one of those high-profile New Yorkers who I had happily in my orbit purely by happenstance.
In the early 90s, I lived on the Upper West Side. Many a morning when I walked from The Ansonia to my midtown ad agency, I would spy him in a suit coming out of Daryl Hannah’s building to join fearlessly Broadway’s downtown traffic on his bike. Because I too was a cyclist back then, I also used to pedal beside him in Central Park, along with a thousand other star struck bikers, joggers and rollerbladers. (Alas, I never saw him in his shirtless, frisbee-throwing splendor.)
When I relocated back to the Upper East Side, I’d catch him entering his sister’s building on Park Avenue.
Even after he moved downtown with his wife, I saw him exiting one of his haunts, Bubby’s, as I was entering.
I spent many years having there-he-is-again moments, but those all ended on July 16th, 1999, when the light aircraft he was flying crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
John Jr.’s senseless demise affected me as it did many New Yorkers — I missed him. And so, over the years I read a number of books written by those who knew him.
Although each has its own take, there are some common themes throughout all the accounts: What he lacked in academic achievement, he made up for in sophistication, savvy, and manners; he was deferential to his mother, giving up his dream of being an actor; and most of all, John was reckless, throwing himself into extreme sports with abandon.
Some works are written by the authors, while others are “as told to.” Regardless, they all give glimpses into what it was like to have had this icon be part of one’s day-to-day, and how suddenly life became bigger and more interesting for it.
For those who are too young to remember him, and for those who, like me, remember all too well being captivated by his public image and personal story, I give you ...America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr., by Steven M. Gillon (July 2019)
“I took John and I put him under the microscope,” says Gillon, close personal friend, noted historian, and New York Times bestselling author of this new, over 400-page biography. Gillon’s book bares JFK Jr.’s highs and lows, confirms his political aspirations and reveals relationships never before discussed publicly. Gillon also shares 54 exclusive interviews, and details from previously classified Secret Service documents, which discloses info such as Jackie’s “tense relationship with the men assigned to protect her son.” Just when you thought there was nothing new under the Kennedy sun.
In the end, Gillon proves that John’s life was far more than another tragedy — rather, it’s the true key to understanding both the Kennedy legacy and how America’s First Family continues to shape the world we live in today.The Good Son: JFK Jr. and the Mother He Loved, by Christopher Andersen (November 2014)
From the coffin salute to the aftermath of his own funeral, this recaps America’s son and his sometimes-stormy relationship with Jackie O. Part I, quite frankly, is more about her than him with a whole lot of Ari; while Part II is called “John On His Own,” with a double dose of Daryl Hannah.
JFK Jr., George, & Me: A Memoir, by Matt Berman (May 2014)
The author was the creative director for George magazine, and shares his daily work-bro relationship with his boss-cum-friend. Full of behind-the-scenes photos, the book gives insight into the magazine industry and George’s place in it, as well as John Jr.’s. — messy office and all. It was not a friendship of equals, though. Although it’s believable that John liked and respected Matt (he comes off as a very nice and talented guy), it’s clear that what the latter experienced was more like hero-worship. No surprise that he was crushed by his mentor’s death. Berman eventually moved to Paris and currently resides in L.A. and is still a creative director, which is a relief given that at the end of the book he seemed to want to never work again if it couldn’t be at George with John.
Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Loss, by RoseMarie Terenzio (January 2012)
The fairy tale the author recounts is not that of the marriage between John and Carolyn, but her own as the Bronx Cinderella who became the personal assistant to a prince, aka the George editor in chief. She portrays her late boss as patient, protective, goofy, occasionally thoughtless and self-involved, yet capable of extraordinary generosity and kindness, and herself as more of a friend than an underling. Terenzio can’t be blamed for wanting her job and the exciting, high-profile, fame-by-proxy life that went with it to last forever. When that didn’t happen though, let’s just say, Caroline Kennedy appeared to move on with her life sooner.
Come to the Edge: A Memoir, by Christina Haag (March 2011)
Although a lot of the book’s focus is on the author’s Upper East Side childhood and her struggles to become an actress, Haag does chronicle their poignant story of young romance, with NYC of the ‘70s and ‘80s as the backdrop.
John was a prep school friend, before they went to Brown together, but didn’t start dating until after graduation when both were cast in an off-Broadway play. “One day he’ll leave you,” said actor Bradley Whitford, the college boyfriend she’d broken up with for the prince of Camelot. And he was right. After five years, John thought they should see other people (in his case, the aforementioned star of “Splash.”) But there’s no bitterness here, only fondness for Haag’s first adult love.
Forever Young; My Friendship with JFK Jr., by William Sylvester Noonan (September 2006)
“He told me many times, ‘If I stop to think about it all, I would just sit down and fall apart.’” So, John never sat still. “He was always moving.”
Noonan’s father served in the Kennedy administration, and eventually, the sons of the fathers became friends. Actually, it was more like big and little brother, but with a role-reversal twist: the younger was the star.
The author paints a picture of a young man, capable of organizing the clandestine nuptial event of the century, yet needed a Post-It note on his front door to remind him to take his wallet and keys.
The night Kennedy died, it was “Billy” whom JFK, Jr. was going to visit to help celebrate his best friend’s fifth wedding anniversary.
What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love, by Carole Radziwill (September 2005)
If you only know this author as a Real Housewife of New York City, all I can say is: don’t judge.
Radziwill is an Emmy- and Peabody-winning journalist and war correspondent, as well as a novelist. Hers is a story of love and loss at its most heart wrenching. Beautifully written, the book shares how she and her husband, Jackie O.’s nephew Anthony (an actual Polish prince) met at work, married and become a foursome with his cousin John Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. After five years of marriage, Anthony died of cancer, and three weeks before that, Radziwill buried her two best friends. This is a story crafted by someone with resilience, who truly had it all, at least for a little while.
The Men We Became: My Friendship with John F. Kennedy, Jr., by Robert T. Littell (June 2004)
From Brown University pal to NYC roommate to secret Cumberland Island wedding guest to honorary pallbearer (John’s body as well as those of Carolyn and Lauren Bessette were cremated), what this author offers reads like an extended eulogy.
Littell met JFK, Jr. during college orientation, and his I-don’t-care-who-he-is-I’m-treating-him-like-anybody-else attitude became part of his appeal or “irreverence” as John referred to it. He recounts the debauchery young men are known to embark upon, until the day Jackie summoned them from their post-grad Upper West Side apartment to 1040 Fifth Avenue so she could “suggest” they grow up. Only one of them actually got to go the distance.
The Other Man: John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette and Me, by Michael Bergin (March 2004)
Ok, if you want a smidge of tabloid, this is it. The author was a Calvin Klein model who dated Carolyn, the director of publicity for CK’s flagship store in Manhattan, then got dumped for JFK, Jr. Bergin hung around in the wings, an available muscular shoulder — although in the modeling biz he was actually known for his “abs” — that Carolyn could cry on whenever she was mad at her husband. In his fantasy world, if she’d lived, they would have ended up together. A guy can dream.
American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., by Richard Blow (May 2002)
The only book in the bunch where the author does not claim to be John Jr.’s friend.
Blow knew Kennedy only in a professional capacity during his four years as a writer at George; a POV experienced from a close distance. His journalistic objectivity gives a respectful and matter-of-fact report, which concentrates on the progression of the celeb-covered monthly into a must-read, and especially the evolution of the heir-to-Camelot into a magazine editor.
On November 25, 2019, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. would have been 59 years old.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is a NYC freelance writer and novelist.