A few weeks ago, publisher Steven Brill was having breakfast with John F. Kennedy Jr. to offer advice on the uncertain fate of George magazine. When they emerged from Michael's, a midtown Manhattan restaurant, two women were walking by.
"They looked at him and they shrieked," Brill recalled yesterday. "It just didn't faze him. He said hello, and one of them had a dog and he petted the dog. I remember thinking, this guy has had to do this his whole life."
"Does that happen a lot?" Brill asked Kennedy.
"It's usually not that loud," Kennedy replied.
Since launching his political magazine nearly four years ago, Kennedy has occupied a dual space in American culture, a member of the media who has been the focus of unrelenting media attention from the day he was born. That continued yesterday as all the networks provided day-long coverage of the missing plane that was carrying Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren, to Martha's Vineyard. As the son of an assassinated president, Kennedy was followed everywhere by the paparazzi and was constant fodder for the gossip columns.
"It bothered him enormously, particularly vis-a-vis his wife, the personal stuff about his wife," said Paul Begala, a former White House aide who helped Kennedy launch George. "But he was always conscious that he didn't have any right to complain. He understood the rules of the game."
Kennedy told Brill's Content that he was "not a big moralizer about the paparazzi. I may not like it, and it may be a difficult aspect of my life, but it's my problem."
His larger problem in recent weeks was struggling to save his magazine as the publisher, Hachette Filipacchi, was weighing whether to pull the plug on George by year's end. Kennedy was searching for other partners as an alternative.
"He was determined to press ahead," Brill said.
George has been a mixed success at best, a monthly that almost certainly would not exist without Kennedy's fame. A glossy hybrid that covered politics and celebrity, it has achieved a circulation of 419,000, four times that of a serious political magazine such as the New Republic. Lacking a partisan point of view, it was never embraced in Washington. And it has grown thinner lately as advertising declined, and is still struggling to find its niche.
Contrary to what some critics believed, Kennedy was very much a hands-on editor who read copy, suggested ideas and sometimes killed pieces.
"He's sort of a remarkable guy," said Tony Blankley, the former Newt Gingrich aide who wrote a column for George. "He gave me the idea for my best column, on the adoption of our little daughter. I don't really like to write anything about myself, but it was his thought that that was something the audience would appreciate. Kennedy had a very good sense of the human component of journalism."
Kennedy conducted regular interviews with people who were hard to get, from reclusive philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife to George C. Wallace and Don Imus, Louis Farrakhan, Bill Gates, Colin L. Powell and the Dalai Lama. And despite his Democratic heritage, he also hired such conservative Republican columnists as Blankley, Ann Coulter and former senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.).
He saw George as having a "populist" streak that would appeal to readers, including women, who were not political junkies. After the debut issue -- which included such frivolities as asking Madonna what she would do as president -- Begala called to say that one pillar of the Washington establishment didn't like the magazine.
"Good," Kennedy replied. "He's not our audience."
Begala, who is also a George columnist, said that Kennedy was "unbothered in the extreme" about such criticism. "He's a remarkably secure guy. . . . He would say, `This is the greatest show on Earth. Let's show that. Let's celebrate politics the same way that Sports Illustrated celebrates sports.' "
Kennedy was not above exploiting his celebrity in service of the magazine. He once posed in the nude, although with strategic parts in the shadows, and he criticized his cousin Michael Kennedy for having an affair with a teenage baby sitter.
"What's the point for me to have a magazine if I'm not going to use it in some way that's personal?" he told Brill's Content.
From its lightweight beginnings, George has evolved into a somewhat more serious magazine that does some investigative work. Without Kennedy, however, George's future would certainly be even more in doubt than it has been with Hachette Filipacchi reexamining its viability.
Friends say Kennedy maintained an ironic sense of humor about the media's harsh glare. When he failed the bar exam, the New York Post taunted him with the banner headline "THE HUNK FLUNKS." People magazine dubbed him the "Sexiest Man Alive." Yet he continued to jog or play football in Central Park, and new acquaintances were struck by his casual style.
"Hi, this is John Kennedy," he said in a call to this reporter about writing a George article, sounding as nonchalant as if it were the local plumber calling. Afterward he sent a handwritten note, saying: "I dug your piece!"
Friends say he usually traveled by himself, without handlers or publicists, determined not to be a prisoner of the Kennedy mystique.
"I was amazed when I got to know him how normal he was, considering the abnormal life that had been foisted upon him and the Kennedy legend wrapped around him," Blankley said. "If you didn't know his last name, you'd just think he was a nice young man. He managed to carry it off with grace and without pretension."
CAPTION: John F. Kennedy Jr., using a blown-up cover, promotes magazine before advertising group in Seattle in 1996.