This story is one of nine that has been republished to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Washington Post’s Style section.
With Martha Sherrill, the reader rides shotgun. Here she puts us next to JFK Jr. and you can almost smell him. But a Style profile, however dishy and vivid, is never just a profile. It is a portal into a psyche and a biopsy of a moment. It shows us where we’ve been, and where we are, and where we’re going.
NEW YORK — You are sitting in a Manhattan office with three men in dark blue suits. One of the men is John Kennedy, which, to be entirely honest, means you are sitting in an office with John Kennedy and two indistinct blurs who occasionally attempt to speak.
“I have to shift into gear,” Kennedy said earlier, while he was ambling down a hallway, all six feet of him, along with his big brown hair and his hesitancy. “I've been in denial for months now that I could quietly start a magazine, without attention, too much hype, and without having to do this” — meaning an interview — “and now it's here.”
Yes, it's here. His first interview in years. But he has company. A newspaper photographer will not be allowed to take an individual portrait of him. Group picture only. Alone is out of the question. Alone would be too much. Alone might crack the camera lens — as if his presence were so overpowering that it needs to be diluted like Scotch or plutonium. There is also his infinitely private image to consider.
The man to his immediate right on a black leather sofa is David Pecker, the president of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines. He has a mustache, and Kennedy's magazine idea is costing him $20 million. That might be all we will say about him.
The man to his far right is Michael Berman, the executive publisher of George, as the monthly is called. Berman talks more than Pecker. Talks and talks. He used to have a PR company. He is perfectly nice — full of useful information — and until today, he was the only one available to the media. Sorry, he told New York magazine last month, but “John doesn't give interviews.”
How mythmaking and mysterious. How elusive, and Jackie-like. Not blabbing in public has done for Kennedy what all that exhaustive blabbing has done for Roseanne. He is a tabloid staple, without having a TV show. (Last week: “JFK Jr. and Sharon Stone . . . Two Nights of Passion.") And he has appeared on the covers of Newsweek, Esquire and New York magazines in the past month without having to utter a word.
Hype. Hype. Hype.
And how it mushrooms.
“I expected some attention,” Kennedy says with a shrug, with a voice that's laid-back, more California than New England, what Kevin Costner would sound like if he'd gone to Andover. “But the degree of it has surprised me. Ultimately, all this, the hype, I mean, it's not like we've invented a new form of transportation or a cure for a major disease. We're only doing a magazine.”
George debuts today. It's published by Hachette Filipacchi, the fourth-largest magazine company in America. As its editor in chief, Kennedy promises he will produce a lively nonpartisan journal about politics and popular culture. The “Rolling Stone” of Government or the “People” of Process. “And it will look like Elle or Mirabella,” Kennedy says, “and it will be written the way people write about entertainment or sports.”
You can't help but wonder, right off, why on earth he needs handlers. He seems smart and articulate. Except that he has a restless animal feeling, stares at the carpet when the blurs are speaking, moves around in his seat a lot — moves around in his blue pinstripe suit, too, as if he's not entirely civilized yet. And won't be anytime soon. As if he'd rather be swimming, or bodysurfing, and emerging — as we've seen in hundreds of images of him already — like a butch Venus from the sea.
“I had a vivid experience this week,” he says of his many bathing suit pictures. He's up there with Cheryl Tiegs now, in his ability to upstage the ocean simply with his body. “What happens is that every August photographers camp out in Hyannis Port. So anytime I go down to the beach, or go to the pier or whatever, there's no avoiding them. I'm sure after our press conference we won't see any pictures of me in my business suit, but we'll see a lot of me."
Emerging from the sea?
“Emerging,” he says, “from Labor Day.” And he laughs.
An observation is offered: Isn't it ironic that John Kennedy — he has dropped the Jr. — finds himself a member of the media now, after all those years of fleeing it? “I think anyone who knows John Kennedy,” says one of the blurs, Berman, “knows that he always does the unexpected.”
“I have,” says Kennedy, “a slight contrarian impulse I can't seem to shake.”
“Sometimes the weight of expectations, of doing anything, can be a little bit heavy,” Kennedy says. “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.”
The night he was born, the ambulance team arrived in Georgetown and found “Mrs. Kennedy in bed waiting for them,” according to some yellowed clips in The Washington Post morgue, “wearing a gray tweed coat over her pastel nightgown and a pair of thick white wool sox on her feet.”
A pillow was placed under her head, a sheet was spread over her, and she was rolled “gently on her side” and lifted onto the stretcher.
“Mrs. Kennedy asked Dr. Walsh if everything was going to be all right,” the ambulance driver told the newspaper. “He assured her everything was going to be just fine.”
Hype? It's a way of life for political people, and sometimes it's impossible to tell the difference between an invasion of privacy and a well-planted heartwarming tidbit — something a few cynical souls wondered about as reports of John Kennedy's supposed engagement began to appear in a New York tabloid just in time for the magazine's launch. In any case, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. was born to the president-elect on Nov. 25, 1960. He weighed 6 pounds 3 ounces and was 20 inches long. He was delivered by C-section, a little prematurely, and had some fluid in his lungs. He was given powdered milk to drink. He spent his first night in an incubator with oxygen being piped in.
He was christened at 14 days old, and he reportedly “slept, murmured, gurgled and yawned” through the service at Georgetown University Hospital's chapel. He was wearing the same white linen and lace gown that his mother wore when she was baptized, but with a religious medal pinned to it — a present from his godfather, Prince Stanislas Radziwill. He cried only once. Right after, the priest asked, “John Fitzgerald Kennedy wilt thou be baptized?”
The next day, he took his first airplane ride — down to Palm Beach, Fla.
“We finally decided who he looks like,” his father announced, after a visit with his own father, Joseph P. Kennedy. “He looks like Dad.” But when Janet Auchincloss, Jackie's mother, saw him, she said her new grandson looked “the way his mother did as a baby.”
He ended up looking a little like everybody, except a million times better. And now, at 34, John Kennedy finds himself with a job that combines both his parents' professions: high-end New York publishing, where his mother worked, and politics-as-movie-stardom, which his father invented. Since 1992, with Berman, he's tried to get this crazy magazine idea off the ground. Marketing surveys, focus groups, practice covers. He talked to editors and ad guys, publishers and designers.
His mother helped set up meetings for him, and he met with everybody who was anybody in the business. But they were all shaking their heads. “Early on, people said no one will ever care about a political magazine,” says the blur called Berman. “You'll never get a page of advertising, you'll never get political subjects to pose for photographers in any way but behind their desks. You'll never get writers to write for a magazine that has politics as its core. So that we've come this far is a bit of an accomplishment.”
This morning, there will be a news conference to launch George with Kennedy and various blurs in the Federal Hall of New York, where George Washington, for whom the magazine is named, gave his inaugural address. On Sept. 18, he will appear as himself in a 1 1/2-minute cameo on CBS's “Murphy Brown.” By Sept. 26, there will be 500,000 issues flooding newsstands — each one fat and greasy with ads. Its debut edition breaks a record for the number of ad pages in a magazine, set previously by Vanity Fair's 1983 relaunch at 166. George arrives with 175.
Kennedy is aware of the lousy things people are saying. That he sold out his name, that he's a hood ornament, not an editor. That he's a hunk, a dummy. And he's been handed this magazine on a sterling platter.
“I can't pretend that my last name didn't help sell this magazine,” he says. “Or that it didn't help bring it to people's attention, or help bring it to advertisers' attention . . . But when we came to Hachette, we already had a business plan, a prototype and a direct-mail plan that quantitatively showed there was a market for this kind of magazine. It was a fully articulated idea.”
After Hachette committed to a 50-50 deal with Kennedy and Berman in the spring, they took their prototype and worked it over, from April until August. Eric Etheridge, previously in charge of the wickedly urbane New York Observer, was hired as an editor. And Rich Blow, too, the last editor of Regardie's.
And over the past four months, according to sources in and around Hachette, there were loud noises coming from the offices of George.
“Screaming?” asks a blur.
The other one laughs.
“Someone had first described putting together a start-up like being nailed up on a wall,” says Kennedy, “and having your skin peeled strip by strip. You know, we had this idea for a long while, and suddenly we have a staff. There was a difficult process of getting that specific idea out of our heads and onto the page. And at the same time, sparking a collaborative effort.”
The rumor was that Kennedy was too nice, had no edge. And didn't want his magazine to be too hard-hitting. He denies this. “It was a more a conflict of managerial styles,” he says, “and doesn't reflect my editorial process. But I'm probably not as confrontational as some people.”
Kennedy's first official portrait was taken for his first birthday, at the White House, and handed out to the media. His first bedroom was decorated for him by Sister Parrish. His first drink was Similac, and his first bed at home was a white wicker bassinet with a long white organdy skirt, previously occupied by his sister, Caroline, and before that, used by his mother when she was a baby.
He slept through his first inauguration, his father's.
His first words were “Ma-Ma” and “Da-Da.” He took his first public steps at 13 months old, when he weighed 23 pounds and was 30 inches tall and had seven teeth. And the public so hated his first hairdo — bangs across the front, “English-style” — that his nurse gave him a side part.
He threw his first public tantrum at 2, throwing himself down on the ground in front of the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and had to be carried off crying, “But they didn't give me my cookie!”
His first suit was designed by “Mrs. Parker,” a custom children's clothing designer in Newport and Palm Beach. It was made of white broadcloth with lace-covered buttons and a ruffled collar and cuffs and “styled after the clothes English children wear at court — like Lord Fauntleroy,” Mrs. Parker explained.
From the black leather sofa where he's sitting, Kennedy gestures with his hands, which are rather dark and beefy. The whites of his eyes are awfully white. His socks are navy blue and his lace-up shoes are cordovan. Kennedy. A miracle of normalcy. Who has more mind-numbing feats expected of him, and seems to have survived so unfazed by them? He seems to have thought a great deal about things, about entering politics or not. About how to fulfill a potential without being chased somewhere by ghosts.
“We grew up in my family thinking that politics was a really fascinating way to spend one's career,” he says, “and a way to be involved in the issues of the day. And certainly, my father and my relatives really loved all that.”
But not him?
“I'm a big fan of the process,” he says.
In a rare interview three years ago, on ABC's “PrimeTime Live,” Kennedy was asked whether he had considered running for office. He said that he and Caroline had a strong sense of their father's “legacy and how important it is,” but he realized that “things are different.” He was sure, he said, his father “would have wanted us to go on with our lives and not reenact his.”
And given the revelations that came later, about his father's less-than-saintly private life, Kennedy said: “I think the real question is, given the tenor of the times, whether my father would have gone into politics at this point.”
Does he still ponder this?
He looks up from the carpet. Out the window. Then back into the room. “After the war, when my father first made a foray into public service,” he says, “that was really the center of the action. That was where an aspiring young person went. I think it still can be, but I think that people are much more skeptical about political careers and the consequences that it has on their own lives. There are other ways to be of service. So, you know, I don't know what he would have done, but I'm sure he would have thought about it pretty hard.”
He is allergic to horses.
His mother told him to salute.
He can't spell particularly well.
He hasn't been called “John John” — by intimates, at least — since his father died.
“I have very few memories,” he has said of his father, and the White House days, “and most of them are involving playing around his desk. He kept chewing gum in it.”
When he was 6, on a trip to Waterford, Ireland, he walked into a beachside candy shop flanked by two Secret Service agents. “What do you want, dearie?” the shopkeeper asked him.
“I want everything,” he said.
And the papers kept up with Jackie and John and Caroline, that sad, exotic threesome. There were trips to Gstaad and Stowe and Aspen and Sun Valley, where they skied. There were various aunts and uncles and cousins in the picture too — the Smiths, the Lawfords, the Robert Kennedy brood. They went to Paul Mellon's estate in Antigua. In 1965, there were trips to London, dedications for Kennedy memorials, and they were accompanied at all times by a Secret Service detail.
His mother was famously reticent to talk to reporters. But in 1967, she gave an interview to the New York World Journal Tribune.
“Caroline is more withdrawn,” she said, “but John, well, he's something else. John makes friends with everybody. Immediately. He surprises me in so many ways. He seems so much more mature than one would expect of a child of six. Sometimes it almost seems that he is trying to protect me instead of just the other way around.”
The woman who orchestrated the riderless horse, and the eternal flame, was also passionately determined to fix symbolic memories of John Kennedy in her son's mind. She took him on a trip to Argentina, to a place where she had traveled with her husband. “And John put a stone on a mound, next to where Jack had put a stone,” she said. In the summer, she suggested he sail in his father's boat. When he went off to his new school, where he had to wear a necktie to class, she said, “It gave him a chance to wear his father's PT boat tie pin.”
“I don't keep books about my husband lying around our place,” she said. “I mean the standard books about Jack. But I do keep the picture books, and the children have them in their rooms.”
During the interview, she also recalled a time when John wanted to show her a book called “A Child's Life of JFK.” But before he'd show it to her, he said, " Close your eyes, Mummy.' And he tore out what was the last page of the book,” she said. “I couldn't help but look at what he didn't want me to see. It was a picture of the car.”
He was in third grade at Collegiate School in New York in 1968 when his mother remarried, to everybody's surprise, Aristotle Onassis on the Ionian Island of Scorpios. When he was 11, eight Greeks were arrested for plotting to kidnap him. At 13, and still technically under the protection of the Secret Service, he was mugged in Central Park, and his bicycle and tennis racket were stolen. At Andover, a boarding school in Massachusetts, his mother reportedly made him go to a psychiatrist when his first batch of bad grades came in.
He loved acting, did impressions, sang Irish folk songs. And there were endless official Kennedy family duties, self-improvements and see-the-world sinecures. “I don't want the children to be just two kids living on Fifth Avenue and going to nice schools,” Jackie said.
The summer after college — he broke with the family tradition of Harvard and went to Brown University — Kennedy turned down several acting opportunities and took a job serving as first mate on a salvage vessel, Vast Explorer, which was searching for sunken pirate treasure off the coast of Massachusetts. Acting might have been his real love, as some seem to think, but he chose law school instead, at New York University. One of his classmates there has said his “heart was never in it,” that he'd gone into law to please his mother. “I'm clearly not,” he said after failing the New York state bar exam the second time, “a major legal genius.”
He took a job as a prosecutor, as an assistant district attorney in New York, and after four years, and a perfect 6-0 conviction record, he left. Apparently without regret. “I don't want to be just another passenger on a liner,” he said to a colleague.
It's been more than two years since he left the DA's office, and his pursuits have ranged from the very trivial to the compassionate and dutiful. Before George came along, it looked, for a time, as if he was simply going to make a career out of being rich and fabulous looking. He had lots of girlfriends. He sat on boards of worthy organizations. He helped found the Profiles in Courage Award. He participated in family weddings, and christenings, and summer gatherings, and he buried his mother a year ago.
He also grew a goatee, went to parties, fundraisers, rock concerts. He took a six-week trip to the South Pacific and Indonesia with actress Daryl Hannah. And he moved around, too — from Manhattan's West Side to Hannah's apartment, then moved out and bought his own loft in Tribeca. There were rumors that he was interested in a Clinton appointment, in the Justice Department's criminal division. Others talked about his running for a congressional seat in New York.
And he seemed to be foundering a bit — while Caroline had her third child and worked on her second book. The first one was “Defending Our Honor,” about the Bill of Rights. And this coming November, “The Right to Privacy.”
Mostly he seemed interested in exercising, in clothes. In being contrary. He rides to work on a bicycle, and roller-blades everywhere else. Soon after his mother died, his relationship with Hannah seemed to end, and he now is seeing Carolyn Bessette, a public relations woman at Calvin Klein.
But the period of drifting, it seems, has ended.
Kennedy stands, takes off his pinstripe jacket and hangs it behind the office door. His shirt is white. His skin is deep brown. He has just returned from a Kennedy clan weekend on the Cape. He is known as the “least competitive Kennedy,” but there are some aspects of this new gig that are obviously already appealing to him.
“Last summer this time, on Labor Day, I was amongst my family,” Kennedy says, “and they were saying, What are you doing now? And I'd say, I'm going to start a magazine about politics.' Oh yes? And then they'd nod and turn to the next person. And then this summer, they didn't need to ask. They're like — Which issue can I get in? That made me happy.”
His father once said he wanted to run a newspaper when he left the White House. And his mother, while she was growing up, spent endless hours laying out the pages of her own photo albums. Page after page. Album after album. But it's ridiculous to always be seeking out the similarities — trying to see why George is part of some genetic destiny, a perfect marriage of pursuits.
“I hear that,” Kennedy says, about the perfect marriage stuff. “It might be true, but it wasn't conceived that way. I mean, they were both in the word business in one way or another, and I grew up in an environment where, like some families grow up in the movie business, in a political and word environment. Obviously, that's where my interests lie.”
The walls behind him are lined with magazines. Fat and glossy, colorful. All beckoning, all promising. All taking you to some world you weren't exactly sure existed. And if politics is an industry, you could argue that it isn't being covered the way it deserves to be.
Or making much money for publishers. The magazines — from the Nation to National Review — explode with opinions but not many ads. Kennedy and Berman offer a solution: no opinions, and get celebrity photographer Herb Ritts to shoot the covers. There will be stories of gurus, consultants, journalists, speechwriters — not just politicians. And according to this week's Advertising Age, model Cindy Crawford posed for the first issue. There's a Q&A between Kennedy and George Wallace. There will also be a regular feature called “If I Were President,” and the first guest columnist is reportedly Roseanne.
To test their idea, Berman and Kennedy did a direct mailing. They sent out two kinds of mailers about George. One with Kennedy's name — for which they received a 5.7 percent response. Without his name, it was 5.1 percent.
“That's twice the average,” says one of the blurs.
“Anything over three,” says Kennedy, “is considered a hit.”
Which is a nice way of indicating that maybe all this George stuff isn't just hype, another see-the-world sinecure for Kennedy, or even, as Esquire describes it, “the riskiest venture of a pampered life indelibly marked by tragedy.”
Maybe, just maybe, it's a good idea.
And maybe, Kennedy — who could have his parents' instincts and better access than Tina Brown — might have editorial vision, despite his lack of experience.
“There are two Johns here,” says Berman, ever the salesman. “One is sort of John Kennedy, the celebrity endorsement, and the other is John Kennedy, editor in chief, and that's the far more critical role. And whether the magazine succeeds or not will have very little to do with the hype — or John's celebrity. It will have to do with John's vision and his voice.”
The blur just earned his keep.
John Kennedy: hood ornament, and editor. In one!
Kennedy leans over to the glass coffee table in front of him, and his hand finds the lid of a candy jar — all these years and miles from that little store in Ireland. He reaches in for a miniature Three Musketeers bar, smiles, and very very quickly, he eats it.
Memorable pieces from 50 years of Style
“The Law of Twelve, Which Makes Washington Whirl, and the Boy from Pocatello” by Sally Quinn, June 23, 1974
“New Hampshire is a Fraud” by Henry Allen, Feb. 11, 1988
“Clark Clifford: The Rise of Reputation” by Marjorie Williams, May 8, 1991
“The First Father: William Jefferson Blythe and the back roads of fate” by Gene Weingarten, June 20, 1993
“White Girl?” by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Aug. 8, 1999
“The Couch That Warped Space-Time” by Hank Stuever, Feb. 23, 2000
“Dick Cheney, Dressing Down” by Robin Givhan, Jan. 28, 2005
“A Butler Well Served by this Election” By Wil Haygood, Nov. 7, 2008