His plane flew into a moonless night, carrying his wife and his sister-in-law, America's crown prince at the controls. They were flying to the family compound for a wedding.

A day later, as the Coast Guard cutters circled off Martha's Vineyard, they are missing at sea. And the images of John F. Kennedy Jr. -- of the toddler, the child and the man -- are again seared in the national consciousness.

John-John, the stout-hearted boy in the blue coat and shorts, standing on his third birthday and saluting the coffin bearing his father's body.

The free-spirited teenager snaring frisbees in Central Park. The rollerblader sweeping up a gorgeous bride. The 100,000-megawatt personality who is founding editor of a political magazine, George, but playfully resists the siren song of electoral politics.

And now he has disappeared, along with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette. Kennedy, 38, was a newly minted pilot flying a six-seat Piper Saratoga plane to that most iconic of American family settings, Hyannis Port, Mass.

Kennedy graduated from Brown University, served as a prosecutor in Manhattan, winning all six of his cases, gave a stirring speech that met with a standing ovation at the Democratic convention in Atlanta in 1988, and founded George magazine in 1995.

He was often carefree -- taking a whirl as an actor, dancing on a rooftop terrace on a Sunday morning with the starlet Daryl Hannah -- and had a bit of the daredevil encoded in his DNA. He adored ocean kayaking and paragliding, and took an Outward Bound survival course.

Where he indulged his wanderlust said much about Kennedy's love of adventure and passion to live life beyond the predictable borders of the jet set. He wasn't poolside in Palm Beach -- he was scuba diving off Palau. His apartment wasn't overlooking Central Park, it was a loft in an edgy warehouse district.

He was not unaware of the weight of his talismanic family name. Who could be? And he kept the family flame, the sense of obligation to those less endowed with money and fame, alive. He tutored poor youths in Connecticut, did good works in Africa and served on a committee that handed out Profiles in Courage Awards, named after the book penned by his father.

"It's hard for me to talk about a legacy or a mystique," Kennedy said in 1993. "It's my family. The fact that there have been difficulties and hardships, or obstacles, makes us closer."

But it was Kennedy's charm, and a curious hesitancy and willingness to laugh at himself, that prevented him from becoming an amber-encased myth. He exuded the air of a man who did not take himself too seriously.

He is photographed bare-chested with skin deep brown, and anointed "The Sexiest Man Alive!" by People magazine. And he laughs. He fails his first bar exam and gets the tabloid treatment: "Hunk Flunks!" And he laughs at that one too.

He's a tabloid staple schooled in the wisdom of silence. A man who could have made a career of being famous and fabulous looking. But he gave a bit of thought to not letting family ghosts chase him through life.

"Sometimes the weight of expectations, of doing anything, can be a little bit heavy," he told The Washington Post in 1995. "For me, it's always sort of fun to try to play with the blocks and see what you can come up with that's a little different."

So Kennedy founded that curious animal, the resolutely apolitical political magazine. A publication devoted to exploring the nexus of politics and celebrity, to divining lives not unlike his own.

As he wrote in the first issue of George magazine: "As a lifelong spectator of the giant puppet show that can turn public people into barely recognizable symbols of themselves, I hope we can provide something more useful."

"John has always been a gentleman to me," said Russell Turiak, whose photos of Kennedy and Bessette honeymooning in Turkey ran in newspapers around the world. "Even when he lost his patience a little bit. He'd get annoyed, but was never offensive about it. He'd never curse . . . he understood."

Kennedy was born Nov. 25, 1960, weighing 6 pounds 3 ounces and stretching 20 inches long. He soon became known to the nation as "John-John," a name erroneously bestowed on him by a reporter who misheard a conversation.

Christened at Georgetown University Hospital's chapel, he was the first infant to take up residence in the White House.

It is as though those early years of his life are pictures in a national album. He was present at his father's inauguration, but slept through the ceremony. His first official portrait was taken for his first birthday at the White House, and promptly handed out to the media.

As he grew, John-John virtually had the run of the White House. And when he would careen into the Oval Office, in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers, his father would interrupt meetings to play and talk with him.

"Hello Sam!" his father would say, jokingly.

"No, No, No," the little boy would reply in the high-decibel way of 2-year-olds, "my name is John!"

Taking their cue from the boss, President Kennedy's staffers were no less indulgent of the child's meanderings. McGeorge Bundy once halted a meeting to taste a mock serving of John-John's "cherry vanilla pie."

For three years it was all this simple: a little boy known for his plaid shorts, miniature London Fog raincoat, toy trucks and helicopters squirreled away in his crib.

And then we knew him for something else, something terrible and crushing: the salute, the singular gesture that cracked already-broken hearts. The president's friend, Dave Powers, had taught young John that salute. And as his father's casket rolled by, he puffed out that chest and his face tensed and he put a stiff hand to brow.

It had fallen to the Kennedys' nanny, Maude Shaw, to tell Caroline and John-John what had happened in Dallas, and she relied on the religious imagery they had been steeped in.

"Your father has gone to look after Patrick," Shaw said, referring to the baby who had died just two days after birth that previous summer. "Patrick was so lonely in heaven. He didn't know anybody there. Now he has the best friend anybody could have."

John squinted at Shaw and asked: "Did Daddy take his big plane with him?"

Yes, Shaw said.

The little boy considered that.

"I wonder when he's coming back," he said.

Her husband dead, Jacqueline Kennedy moved the family to Manhattan, in the rarefied reaches of Fifth Avenue and the Upper East Side. During elementary school and on into his early high school years, John attended Collegiate, a private school in Manhattan. Even that was no shield.

"He had to deal with some incredible pressure," recalled Jim Bailinson, a friend and schoolmate. "In elementary school, kids would follow him into the bathroom, just to gawk at him."

From an early age, Kennedy, a prankster, made a game of trying to ditch his Secret Service agents. "John made a point of knowing the side entrances in his friend's buildings, so he would go in for a visit, then duck out the side for a couple of hours of freedom," Bailinson said.

Secret Service agents, who suffered a thousand tiny heart attacks every time their most famous charge disappeared, had their own code name for Kennedy: "Lark."

"He turned out remarkably normal for someone who led such an abnormal existence," the schoolmate said. "He did totally normal teen stuff, but his mother kept a pretty tight rein on him."

At parties in the New York private school scene in the mid-1970s, Kennedy's presence was always announced by the two Secret Service men seen either in the building lobby or the apartment hallway. The agents granted him enough leeway to be on his own inside his friends' apartments. But even there, he was almost like an exhibit in a zoo.

Strangers and photographers would watch and analyze his every move, even within his earshot. More than once, he could be seen standing alone. Spoken about by all, but spoken to by none.

Perhaps as a result, he broke occasionally with the tribal rites of the Kennedy family. While he was close to his cousins, his mother kept him and his older sister Caroline a bit distant from the family and its many myth makers.

And when it came time to pick a college, he chose to attend Brown rather than Harvard University, where generations of Kennedys had gone. In college and afterward, he showed some talent as an actor, performing in several plays.

But his mother gave a thumbs down to that career, and by most accounts he didn't resist.

In the years after law school, Kennedy took to New York with a frisbee-throwing, skating elan. His was a gusto for the everyday, the ordinary. He treated half a dozen colleagues in the DA's office to a guy's night out -- dinner and stogies at a Manhattan steakhouse. And he favored public transportation -- or his own feet -- over chauffeurs and limousines.

There was, too, an undeniably romantic side to the clan's most-dashing young heir. Several years ago, a high-rise neighbor spied him dancing cheek-to-cheek with his beautiful lover on their rooftop terrace; John Kennedy Jr. was wearing his boxer shorts, and actress Daryl Hannah was still in her nightie.

"He was tickling her, and she'd run away. Then he'd catch her, and they'd dance around," the witness duly reported to People magazine. "Even if you didn't know who they were, you'd be entranced."

It was this tender John who could ride a tandem bicycle with his beloved without looking hopelessly corny. Who could be glimpsed watching quietly from across the street when movers emptied his dead mother's Fifth Avenue apartment. Who wore a boutonniere of blue cornflowers -- his father's favorite -- on his own wedding day.

It was this John who rushed protectively to Daryl Hannah's side after the actress allegedly was battered by singer Jackson Browne. Who implored the paparazzi to cut some slack for his overwhelmed bride, Carolyn, and who nuzzled her in public as she perched in his lap at a gala.

"He doesn't act like he thinks he is Mr. Wonderful," longtime friend Mary Anne Grafton-Rodgers told People in 1995, a year when the still-single Kennedy once showed up at a trendy restaurant with three women in tow. "He always introduces himself, even though it's obvious who he is. When you talk to him, you know he's paying attention to you and not looking over your shoulder."

When he settled on marriage with Bessette, his wedding became a covert operation of impressive dimensions, demanding signed statements of confidentiality from everyone involved in the intimate affair -- from waiters hired for the reception to ferrymen needed to bring the 40 guests to remote Cumberland Island off the south Georgia coast.

A year earlier, Kennedy launched George magazine, the accomplishment for which he is now best known. At the time, he made the ironic point that his mother knew something about politics, and his father, who had talked about starting a small newspaper after leaving office, knew something about journalism.

"He liked that marriage of politics and culture," said Paul Begala, a former White House aide who helped Kennedy start the magazine. "That's what the magazine was trying to do. He understands exactly who he is. That's why the magazine tried to shine the kind of light on the political circus that has been shined on John."

Kennedy was no lawn ornament for the editorial operation. He threw himself into editing and writing. And he used his star power to talk celebrities into posing on his cover, giving it that often elusive quality known as buzz.

"I can't pretend that my last name didn't sell this magazine," he told The Post a few years ago. "Or that it didn't help bring it to people's attention."

If often unthreatening, George also took risks, not least in a piece written by Kennedy. In September 1997 he wrote an editor's note about marriage and temptation, titled: "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree."

"I've seen the cycle up close in the past year," he wrote. "Two members of my family chased an idealized alternative to their life. One left behind an embittered wife, and another, in what looked to be a hedge against mortality, fell in love with youth and surrendered his judgment in the process. Both became poster boys for bad behavior."

The Kennedy family, which has often reveled in the tribal and the celebratory, was not amused.

But in the end, the ties of a large and loving family held Kennedy no less tightly than his cousins. Symbolic of the vastly unfair fates that beset this sprawling American family, Kennedy and his wife disappeared en route to the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 while running for president.

At their own wedding three years ago, Kennedy and Bessette took their vows and, as they turned toward one another, heard the strains of "Amazing Grace," a song that loses none of its power for being so familiar:

"Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,

I once was lost, but now am found . . ."

CAPTION: John F. Kennedy Jr. founded George, a magazine about politics and celebrity.

CAPTION: John F. Kennedy Jr. and his sister, Caroline Kennedy, are shown in this 1977 photo at ground-breaking ceremonies for the library in Boston memorializing their father.

CAPTION: A dapper young John F. Kennedy Jr. poses with his smiling mother, Jacqueline, his sister, Caroline, and his uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, on the day of his graduation from Phillips Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Andover, Mass.

CAPTION: As a child, John F. Kennedy Jr. was captured on film peeking out with wonderment from a "secret door" under his father's desk in the Oval Office. He called the favorite hideaway spot "my house."