REVIEW: Making Sense of John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Short, Tragic, and Sadly Flawed Life

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America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr. by Steven M. Gillon  

Dutton   464 pp.

By Jim Swearingen

Trading anonymity for notoriety and privilege can be a tragic bargain. John F. Kennedy, Jr., however, was never given the choice. From the moment an emotionally shattered nation witnessed a 3-year-old John, Jr. salute his father’s coffin, his future was set out for him.  He was destined to inherit a presidential legacy that he would never be able to live up to.

Biographer and History Channel host Steven M. Gillon knew John, Jr. at Brown and went on to develop an at-times-deferential friendship with him. In his new book The Reluctant Prince, Gillon taps his personal interactions, interviews with other friends, and previously sealed government documents to give us a picture of a flawed man whose vanity insulated him from the course corrections of humbler people. Gillon offers an alternately fawning and sober appraisal of a promising young dilettante, addicted to his celebrity while impatient with its superficiality. Kennedy comes across as generous, but inconsiderate; as cognizant of the Kennedy recklessness, yet foolhardy himself.

Kennedy was also ever-conscious of the heavy weight of national expectation that had landed on him.  Gillon reminds us that Jackie Kennedy strategically crafted an idyllic image of Camelot to secure the historical legacy of her husband’s administration. That myth, she later realized, came to burden her own son with imperial expectations that he was never able to manage or achieve completely.

Jackie does not come off well in this biography. The Kennedy marriage itself sprang from mutual ambition. Jackie dumped a fiancée to marry the up-and-coming Congressman Kennedy, who had no intention of changing his womanizing habits. She tolerated JFK’s peccadilloes, which he would sometimes initiate in front of her, abandoning his wife at parties to leave with other women.

And while any mother might be forgiven paranoia over her children’s’ safety, and particularly one who had been through the tragedies Jackie had, Gillon’s research presents her as an irrational helicopter parent. She alternately blamed the Secret Service for its negligence in the two Kennedy assassinations while faulting agents for consistently overprotecting her children. She helped John, Jr. shake his protection on more than one occasion. Yet later, when he was mugged in Central Park, she became enraged at the agents’ incompetence.

As John, Jr. grew older, he cultivated a pragmatic relationship with the media. When gossip and tabloid attention flagged, he was not above stripping off his shirt in Central Park to launch himself back into circulation. He also developed a well-known Kennedy family proclivity: recklessness.  He was prone to throw himself into dangerous diversions like flying and deep sea diving without adequate training, relying on his luck to escape perilous situations. 

John, Jr. followed a similarly cavalier pattern in launching his mass-circulation political magazine, George. Though a managerial novice and certainly no professional journalist, he anticipated a blend of politics and pop culture that was soon to metastasize. Where John, Jr. hoped emphasizing human stories would increase voter interest in public affairs, it instead anticipated the cable news networks’ cage-fighting approach to the subject — and arguably helped to degrade the political culture.

John, Jr. was also happy to trade on the Kennedy brand to find financial backing for the project, but applied quirky rules around exploiting his fame when it came to his father’s death. Just before deadline, he pulled an entire cover story on Oliver Stone’s film Nixon when the director violated their pre-interview agreement not to ask John, Jr. about JFK’s assassination.

John, Jr.’s marriage entailed another tragic miscalculation. Drawn to Carolyn Bessette’s feigned indifference to his fame, he lacked the ability to navigate conflict both at home and at the magazine. Jealous of anyone with a close relationship with her husband, Bessette routinely interjected herself in daily office politics, undermining essential employees whom she considered threats to her marriage.

What a defter negotiator might defuse, Kennedy could only allow to fester. He would delegate underlings to address his wife’s intrusions, then privately reveal to her what they had reported to him. Toward the end of their lives, Bessette had fallen into cocaine abuse to escape her loneliness and the predatory hectoring of the paparazzi.

Gillon’s writing, like its subject, has trouble choosing between gossip and history, prattle or politics. At moments, he seems to enable John, Jr.’s self-absorption, accepting it as understandable under the difficult circumstances of his life: a young man so cursed with wealth, notoriety, good looks, and high expectations that abject modesty was not an option. At other times, Gillon bluntly blames Kennedy for his reckless behavior, in particular for flying his Piper Saratoga into Long Island Sound when the weather and poor visibility grounded more prudent pilots.

Those who awaited a Kennedy presidential succession found John, Jr.’s death tragic. Those who saw him as a second generation bust and the Kennedy obsession as a whitewashing of upper crust mischief viewed his passing as just another reckless celebrity death. John, Jr.’s accomplishments, more than satisfactory for the average Joe, never lived up to the mantle that had so uncomfortably been thrust upon him.