Obituary: John F. Kennedy Jnr

THE IMAGES are as indelible as any Kennedy icon, but they are of the child, not the man: the frisky toddler playing underneath his father's desk in the Oval Office and the salute John F. Kennedy Jnr gave as a three- year-old when the cortege passed by at his assassinated father's funeral.

The latest pictures are of the Kennedy clan, gathered for a wedding under a big white marquee at the family compound at Hyannis Port, consoling each other as the debris of JFK Jnr's crashed plane washed ashore; first a cushion from a seat, then a suitcase. The people gathered outside the gates, paying their respects as they had done so often before to this family plagued by tragedy.

Overhead, as befitted the son of a late president and America's surrogate royals, 15 aircraft, four helicopters and a HC130 airborne command and control centre circled the spot where the plane went down into the sea. The Pentagon gave a press conference to announce the progress of the fruitless search, and a spokesman denied that the squadron of aircraft was anything out of the ordinary. The same plane would have been mobilised for the common man.

John F. Kennedy Jnr had led a far from common life, of course. He was delivered by Caesarean section on Thanksgiving Day 1960, into a family with a fortune built on investments in stock, oil, real estate, B-grade movie production, and bootlegging. The first child ever born to an American president-elect, he was also the first infant to live in the White House in the 20th century and he was the target, even in the days of a more private presidency, of intense media curiosity. The newspapers even gave him a nickname, John-John, which the people came to believe was the name he was called at home, but it was not so.

After the assassination of his father, in 1963, his mother, Jackie Kennedy, did her best to keep her children, John and Caroline, away from the public eye while she herself was the obsession of gossip columns. The young boy was not easily confined to the back room, however, being restless and a prankster. The Secret Service detailed to guard over the family gave him the codename Lark.

In 1968, his uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, who had become a sort of surrogate father, was assassinated during his presidential campaign and his mother's task of keeping him from the media now included a new concern: kidnapping plots and death threats. In part to escape, she married the self-made Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The children went to private schools in New York and spent their summer vacations in Monte Carlo, Paris, Athens, and Montevideo in addition to Skorpios, Onassis's Greek island.

At school, the young Kennedy took to acting, first as one of Fagin's gang in the musical Oliver and later in other productions at the Phillips Academy, an exclusive private school in Massachusetts. As befitted the son of a president, summer holidays became worthy adventures: helping earthquake victims in Guatemala in 1976, and a year later completing an Outward Bound survival course on an island off the coast of Maine.

In 1980, Kennedy visited South Africa and witnessed the operation of apartheid, and on his return to the US started the South African Group for Education, funded in part by the diamond merchant Maurice Templesman, his mother's financial adviser and long-time companion.

After graduating from Brown University, Rhode Island, in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in History (he was more interested in the stage and athletics than in his studies), Kennedy raised funds for the Democratic Party and pursued his interest in acting which his mother discouraged, mostly because she thought it would bring him unwanted publicity. He eventually concluded the stage was "just a hobby".

In 1986, he enrolled at New York University Law School in Manhattan and did more good works defending minors accused of felonies in Brooklyn Family Court and performing charitable deeds for the homeless and the disabled in the Special Olympics. On graduation, he sat the New York State bar exam, but failed twice - much to the delight of the headline writers of the New York Post who had two words to say, "Hunk Flunks". He passed on the third attempt and joined the District Attorney's office, where he hoped to become a trial lawyer - which would have made his mother happy.

He tried to be a normal person. He cycled to work from his million-dollar Manhattan loft and could be spotted at weekends in Central Park, across Fifth Avenue from his mother's apartment, playing with frisbees. He rode the subway and became known for his black beret. His friends thought of him as "the coolest guy" for his efforts to be normal. But a career in the law was not to be. In 1993, he resigned after attaining a conviction record of 6-0. He said that his heart was never really in it.

As the son of JFK, politics always beckoned and during the 1980s' Republican ascendancy under Ronald Reagan, it seemed that he might enter the fray. He gave a speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention, invoking his father's legacy - "because he is with us still". But a career in politics was not to be, either.

In a rare print interview, five years later in Vogue magazine, Kennedy tried to confront the "legacy" of his father's Camelot and how it did, or did not, translate into modern times:

It's my family . . . The fact that there have been difficulties and hardships, or obstacles, makes us closer . . . You can write any amount of books about this scandal or that scandal [but] the fact remains, [during the Kennedy presidency] people felt . . . drawn to government and working for their country in a way they previously had not.

Not an actor, not a lawyer, not a politician, Kennedy turned himself, as his generation was doing, toward the business of life style. His name, his good looks and his fine physique gave him a head start . . . At the age of 27 he was voted the sexiest man alive by People magazine. He was once described as having "regulated billows of brown hair atop a face of chiselled perfection and a honeyed, honed torso that is frequently exposed". He had a string of girlfriends (mostly blondes) and in 1989 met Daryl Hannah, the 6ft (also blonde) star of Splash. They shared a stormy relationship for almost five years. His mother disapproved and tried to steer him away from starlets.

While jogging one day in Central Park, so the official story goes, he met Carolyn Bessette, a willowy blonde publicist for Calvin Klein. She grew up in rich Connecticut and her high-school class named her the "Ultimate Beautiful Person" in 1983, when she was 17.

Several days after they met, Kennedy turned up at the Calvin Klein showrooms and walked out with three suits and her phone number. They too had a stormy affair, one of their tiffs in Central Park being captured on videotape and replayed again and again on television. Kennedy became known for blowing up at the paparazzi.

However, in 1996 they married in a simple wooden chapel built by freed slaves in 1893 on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia. The island is a sanctuary for armadillos and wild boar.

The year before his marriage, Kennedy had launched George magazine, a glossy "life-style magazine with politics as its core, illuminating the points where politics converge with business, media, entertainment, fashion, art, and science" (as he described it). It was named after George Washington and the backing came from the French publishing giant Hachette Filipacci.

As editor, Kennedy looked at though he might have found his niche. He could get people on the phone. His interviews included his father's nemesis, Fidel Castro. But George was criticised for not being a strong voice about anything, and not required reading. In a 1997 issue dedicated to women, Kennedy appeared naked sitting cross-legged and looking longingly at an apple suspended above him. The lower contours of his torso were artfully shaded out.

The accompanying text took aim at his cousins, Joe, then a Democratic Representative in Washington, and his younger brother Michael. The two, JFK suggested, had become America's favourite "poster boys for bad behaviour". Both Kennedys had been in the headlines, Joe was pilloried by his ex-wife for trying to have their 12-year-old marriage annulled by the Catholic Church, and Michael was accused of bedding his family's babysitter - beginning when she was just 14. (Michael was killed in December 1997 in a ski-ing accident.) Joe dismissed his cousin as a "mere newspaperman".

In recent weeks George magazine seemed to be in trouble, with the French backers talking of pulling out.

JFK Jnr's latest adventure was flying. He died piloting a light Piper plane in which he was accompanied by his wife, Carolyn, and his sister- in-law Lauren, and Americans uttered yet another gasp of disbelief at the family's tragedies. Recalling the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales, they said, "He was our prince, you know."

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, journalist and publisher: born Washington DC 25 November 1960; married 1996 Carolyn Bessette (died 1999); died off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts 16 July 1999.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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