On the Day That John F. Kennedy Jr. Would Have Turned 60: Examining the Life of the Heir to Camelot
John F. Kennedy Jr. photographed in New York in 1988. Photo: Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images
John F. Kennedy Jr. — magazine publisher, assistant district attorney of New York City and son of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy — would have turned 60 years old today (Nov. 25). Here, we mark the milestone with a look at his life and the ideal of Camelot he embodied.
“For one brief shining moment there was Camelot.” So writer Theodore H. White famously concluded his 1963 Life magazine interview with widowed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, conducted just weeks after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.
And with that, the Camelot mystique came into being, embraced by a nation that nearly two centuries earlier ignited a revolution to free itself from the grip of monarchs. But if America did have a monarch, he or she would look like the Kennedys — beautiful, fit, stylish, smart, witty, familial, popular, natural leaders, regal yet grounded enough to empathize with their subjects and defend them against the perils of an ever-changing world.
The problem is that the nation, and the world at large, arrived at Camelot through the back door, after the final act had played out more like a Greek tragedy. In November 1963, the king of Camelot, President Kennedy, was murdered. Five years later, Robert F. Kennedy, his brother and family’s standard-bearer — not to mention the man who might resurrect Camelot — met his own assassin’s bullet. Even Jacqueline Kennedy moved on from the Camelot myth, becoming Jackie O, the ever-stylish paparazzi magnet and wife of a divorced Greek shipping magnate. But there was hope for Camelot yet.
Throughout his life and even beyond it, they called him many different names — John-John, America’s (reluctant) Prince, Sexiest Man Alive, JFK Jr. and, of course, simply John.
John F. Kennedy Jr. bore his father’s name and, from the moment he became the first child born to a U.S. President-elect, he captivated the adoring public. Photos of a young JFK Jr. spending time with his parents and sister, Caroline — including in the Oval Office while his doting father, the president, watched on — served to further cultivate the Camelot myth, which in turn proved ever-more devastating when those illusions were shattered by the iconic shot of little John spending his third birthday standing upright and bravely saluting his father’s casket during JFK’s funeral procession.
Despite his mother’s attempts to shield her children from the paparazzi and public eye in the ensuing years, John F. Kennedy Jr. could never truly disappear; he carried in his DNA the Camelot gene.
“All the hopes and unfulfilled expectations of his father’s presidency transferred to him. He was the heir apparent to Camelot, he was the one who was going to return America to the glory days of the early 1960s,” Steven M. Gillon, a friend of JFK Jr. as well as a historian and author of America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr., told Biography.com. “That was a burden that would have crushed most people, but he carried it with remarkable grace. John always said he was two people: he was just John, a typical wealthy, privileged young man of his generation. But he also played a role, that of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., son of the beloved slain president.”
Yearning for Camelot
One of America’s favourite national pastimes is to yearn for “the good ol’ days.” The country was founded on the idea of living like they did before tyrant kings and, more recently, the mantra “Make America Great Again” — the red-hat slogan that proved evocative enough to help elevate Donald Trump to the presidency — promotes a divisive and often racist idolization of a supposed bygone era in American history.
Most often the idea of “the good ol’ days” is a fairy tale and, in that sense, it’s unfair to pin those yearnings only on America. The ideal of a fairy-tale ending is universally valued, and everyone feels the gut punch when it doesn’t come to pass, be it the assassination of the Kennedy brothers or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. When it comes to JFK Jr., even 21 years after his tragic 1999 death, when the single-engine Piper Saratoga plane he piloted with his wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law Lauren crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Martha’s Vineyard, killing them instantly, the public still craves the return to Camelot he embodied.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came close upon his election in 2015, after which the New York Times declared, “Camelot has come to Canada.” Then, in 2017, the Los Angeles Times opined, “Barack Obama built a new kind of Camelot for a new generation.” And, of course, a driving force of the historic turnout that helped elect Joe Biden in the most recent presidential election was the idea of ending the toxic Trump era and returning to the nation a sense of dignity and honour and values. In fact, in the lead-up to the election, U.S. senate hopeful Jaime Harrison told an interviewer that President-elect Joe Biden is “a part of what many folks call ‘Black Camelot’” due to his service as vice-president to Barack Obama. And when JFK Jr.’s sister, Caroline Kennedy, and her son, Jack Schlossberg, endorsed Joe Biden for president, some called it the “Camelot endorsement.”
Perhaps, however, such projections are unfair, as who could possibly live up to the expectations of a fairy tale? And in today’s divided society — where some believe their freedoms are being infringed upon when they’re asked to wear a mask during a deadly pandemic — could we all even agree as to what Camelot would look like? After all, the idyllic notion never even truly existed during President Kennedy’s time in office, during which the United States was embroiled in cultural wars at home and deadly international conflicts abroad.
And yet, somehow, JFK Jr. embodied both the progressiveness of the present with the hope of rekindling some nostalgic spirit of a bygone era.
But unlike so many of his relatives, JFK Jr. shied away from elected office, though Gillon claims he did explore possible senate and gubernatorial runs toward the end of his life. Instead, he became involved in charities and providing aid at disaster zones in various parts of the world, while pursing an education and an interest in politics and issues like civil rights back at home.
He toyed with the dream of becoming an actor — perhaps the only other profession that would have forced upon him as bright a public spotlight and scrutiny as politics. “When the time came, he delivered his lines with brio, with uncanny reserves of charisma,” his Brown University theatre pal Rick Moody recalled in an alumni publication. “What’s the surprise in this? He’d been acting his entire life. One performance after another; here a proscenium, here a plinth on which to stand for Camelot and its sorrows.”
He ultimately became a lawyer — though he failed the bar exam twice, after which various papers, including the New York Post, ran the headline “The Hunk Flunks” — was named People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 1988, dated models and actresses like Cindy Crawford, Brooke Shields, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daryl Hannah and, in 1995, launched his own politics-as-entertainment publication, George, which aimed to add a more accessible, lifestyle element to political coverage while featuring provocative photography like Cindy Crawford as George Washington, Madonna as Jackie Kennedy and Drew Barrymore as Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK.
Though mocked at first by many as a vanity project, journalist Kate Storey notes in Esquire that “Kennedy’s instincts were right: In the twenty years since his death, politics and pop culture have become so intertwined that candidates now spend nearly as much time courting voters on late-night shows as they do on the Sunday talk circuit. Politicians are covered as if they were celebrities, while celebrities seek out a voice on politics.”
Young, rich, successful, handsome, beloved and a Kennedy, there was only one thing America’s Prince needed to complete the fairy tale — a princess. JFK Jr. found her in Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, a Calvin Klein publicist noted for her intelligence, kindness, wit and trend-setting style, not to mention her beauty. With her long blond hair and mesmerizing smile, she even looked like a real-life Disney princess.
In the Disney version of this story, the end credits roll here — the couple setting off to live happily ever after while the rest of us bask in the joys of a return to Camelot, whatever that is.
But the 1996 marriage, arranged secretly to avoid press scrutiny, went from Disney to disaster fast. Though the pair loved each other, the famously private Carolyn never seemed to fully come to grips with the media and paparazzi attention that defined life as the wife of Kennedy; it disrupted her own aspirations, including dreams of using a platform to become a documentary filmmaker and spotlight the struggles of those less fortunate.
In an excerpt from his book, From Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short, the author William D. Cohan recounts the couple’s marriage woes. “It was the pressure of celebrity, and John’s role in it, that made their relationship so impossible. ‘It just broke her down to the point of real fear and paranoia. Like she wouldn’t go out of the apartment,’ [friend Sasha] Chermayeff continued. ‘Her excuse — that she was really shut down sexually — wasn’t really true. But she was shut down from him.’ Chermayeff said she spoke with John about the fact that his wife wouldn’t sleep with him anymore. He was upset about it. He was in therapy. He may have, eventually, had casual sexual interludes with Julie Baker, a former girlfriend, but he was, Chermayeff said, ‘very serious, and very seriously committed to the fact that he had fallen madly in love with Carolyn.’”
In the last years of his life, as his marriage and magazine both struggled and his beloved cousin, Anthony Radziwill, slowly succumbed to cancer, Camelot threatened to crumble around JFK Jr. So the prince took to the skies.
Above the Clouds
Harbouring a love of flight his whole life, JFK Jr. got his pilot’s licence and bought a single-engine Piper Saratoga plane.
“Going up in the clouds in the sky was a really important physical escape for him,” Cohan quoted JFK Jr.’s friend, Gary Ginsberg, as saying. “He talked about that. He talked about the solitude of being in the air. It gave him great comfort, which I think is as much a reason why he wanted to fly … It was a psychological escape for him.”
One of JFK Jr.’s final flights was to Toronto, to meet with Magna International executives, including Belinda Stronach, to help secure support and funding for George.
In reality, the Camelot dream likely died long before JFK Jr.’s plane went down at night and in poor visibility over the Atlantic Ocean, en route to Rory Kennedy’s Hyannis Port wedding via Martha’s Vineyard (to drop off Lauren). But the finality of Camelot’s demise truly became apparent after the accident.
Carole Radziwill, widow of Anthony Radziwill and close Kennedy friend who spoke for the first time publicly about the details of JFK Jr.’s death for the 2019 A&E documentary Biography: JFK Jr.—The Final Year, wrote in The Daily Mail, “1999 was the end of an era. The end of a century. It was the end of an innocence we didn’t even know we had. A time before tweets, posts and status updates. Before Instagram influencers, before everyone carried a 24-7 never-ending font of information in their hands. Before the dubious fame and spoils of non-stop reality TV, there was 1999 — it was before the world was prepared to crash from Y2K computer glitches. It was before John and Carolyn died.”
Twenty-One Years Later
Twenty-one years on, the deaths of JFK Jr., his wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law Lauren stands as one of those tragically abrupt ends to an era that bookmark the pages of history. And yet, unlike his father and uncle before him, the untimely death of JFK. Jr. left no heir apparent, no young man or woman to salute the bodies of the fallen and take up their mantles of hope for the future.
And what would have happened if JFK Jr. had lived? Would he and Carolyn have started a family — a new generation of Camelot heirs? Would he have remained a private citizen — though his life was anything but private — or would he have ventured into politics like so many of his family members, including his father, before him? And if he did, would he, and not Joe Biden, have been the person that America turned to as the one to restore Camelot post-Trump? Talk about your fairy-tale ending — decades on, Americans sending JFK Jr. to finish the job his father began.
Of course, we’ll never know what would have happened. But we have learned, in these distressing social, political and environmental times, that one person or family doesn’t hold the keys to Camelot. The gates to the kingdom have been thrown open, and Camelot is, in fact, what we make of it.
A version of this story was originally published in July 2019.