Lisa Birnbach is the host of a weekly podcast called Five Things With Lisa Birnbach and the author of “True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World.”
In 1994, when his mother, iconic former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was told by doctors in New York that her lymphoma had metastasized and that there was no more that could be done, her son, John, was on his way to Los Angeles. “John could not be with Jackie that weekend because Daryl [Hannah] insisted he deliver the ashes of her dead dog and attend its funeral in Los Angeles. John longed to be with his mother, but he agreed to his girlfriend’s request anyway. When he arrived at the dog’s funeral, Hannah became distraught because John had placed the ashes in a simple box rather than something more elaborate.” (Fortunately, John did get to see his mother before she died.)
If he were anyone else’s son, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s brief life would not have resulted in a 400-plus-page biography. Handsome, charming and athletic, he was bred to have an enormous impact, and we are meant to lament the force as well as the brevity of his life. However, most of this story, written by a former history teaching assistant of Kennedy’s at Brown University, describes a fellow who is lovely but careless, curious but with a short attention span. He was a devoted son to his mother and an obedient Kennedy to the extended family. He was a B student who famously was admitted to institutions that waived their usual high academic standards to enjoy his company and the attention it would bring. He was People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” at age 27 in 1988.
Steven M. Gillon, the scholar in residence at the History Channel, seems to have followed Kennedy from the time they met in a lecture hall in 1981. After class, he became Kennedy’s racquetball partner. When Kennedy needed to write speeches for the Kennedy Library or the Kennedy School of Government or the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and so on, Gillon was his go-to resource for historical notes and sometimes speechwriting. Gillon was his Siri. Did Gillon feel used? No; like so many people who surrounded the president’s son, he was just happy to be included. And he seems to have been taking notes. He is still in his thrall.
“America’s Reluctant Prince” reviews the oft-chronicled life of the Camelot family in their various domiciles: Hyannis, the White House, Palm Beach. Yes, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was a strict parent, who thought that some of the Kennedy cousins (you know the ones; belonging to Bobby and Ethel) were a little rough. And sure, Aristotle Onassis was probably not the best choice for a fun stepdad, but nothing thus far tells us anything the casual Kennedy watcher didn’t already know. In fact, it had this reviewer scratching her head, wondering why the big embargoed fuss over the book.
Could it have been the part where Sarah Jessica Parker met John Kennedy at baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport wearing just a long mink coat with nothing underneath? (Though I found that titillating.) No, it’s not until two-thirds of the way through this book that we get to the what-I-hate-to-call-the-juicy-parts, complete with a villainess or two.
A huge hunk (get it?) of the biography details the efforts to get Kennedy’s major professional accomplishment down on paper: publishing and editing a magazine about politics and popular culture. That glossy was called George. It was launched by Kennedy and his friend and partner Michael Berman in 1995, and was published by David Pecker (that David Pecker) when he was chief executive of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines. Page after page of never-before-revealed details about their advertising plans are something to look forward to here, as well as the conflict that was a constant in Kennedy’s life — people just wanting to look at him (is that so wrong?) vs. taking him seriously. John Kennedy Jr. did not want his political magazine to be about him, but his partner Berman was shrewd enough to know that Kennedy’s sparkle was an important asset to a magazine run by guys who had never worked in magazine publishing before. Pecker made his new editor travel all around the country like a well-groomed puppy to meet and chat with advertising folks.
Kennedy’s girlfriend, Carolyn Bessette, didn’t like the people she perceived as taking advantage of her man and would scream at him with observations like: “He’s a f---ing schemer. He’s using you.” Alternatively, she would scream at Berman, saying: “You should leave! John could be so much more successful if you weren’t there! John can’t stand you!” She began calling his employees and colleagues at all hours — at the office and at their homes. Bessette was similarly indiscreet when it came to finding fault with her boyfriend. “He’s irresponsible! He doesn’t give a s--- about me. He doesn’t give a s--- about anybody but himself!” In this portrait, she comes across as unhappy, unhinged and self-absorbed. And this was before they were married.
Gillon turns up a golden nugget from 1988 at the Chestnut Hill Mall near Boston College. Carolyn, a Boston University student, worked at the Calvin Klein store there and became friendly with a customer called Grace. “During one of their chats, they shared their romantic fantasies. When Grace asked who Carolyn’s ‘dream guy’ was, Carolyn responded, ‘John Kennedy Jr.’ ‘I’m going to get him,’ Carolyn insisted. ‘I’m going to move to New York and I’m going to get him.’ Grace was shocked by the intensity of Carolyn’s focus on John . . . That obsession was not the only disturbing revelation about Carolyn. When Grace asked her what she wanted to do with her life, Carolyn stated, ‘I want to be famous. Maybe if I hook up with the right guy I will be famous.’ ”
When Gillon finally meets John’s wife at the gala celebrating the Newman’s Own-George Awards (note: I was a guest that night, as well), he declares her “stunningly beautiful, refined, and delicate.” However, whenever she is quoted, she is swearing like a stevedore.
“America’s Reluctant Prince” underscores a problem in the genre of friends becoming biographers of their subjects. On the one hand, the writer has access to his own memories and mutual friends. On the other, he is perhaps too close to his subject to dig deep. He functions more as protector than as provocateur. Further, a great deal of attention is paid to the Kennedy ambivalence about photographs; they are conscientious about their faces and physiques yet simultaneously annoyed when followed by the paparazzi. At the very least, a book about John Jr. (never “John John”) should offer the reader a bounty of great images. Sadly, the few in this volume are unremarkable and familiar; only one features him without a shirt.
Without spoiling the final surprises this biographer has in store (one of them rhymes with “kokaine”), there is a solid amount of shade thrown in the direction of Bessette-Kennedy, a woman who claimed she was not attracted to her husband. In the book, Kennedy laments the lack of sex in their marriage but admits he doesn’t want to do to his wife what his father did to his mother. Moreover, the relationship between the two Kennedy siblings, John Jr. and Caroline, much cherished as children, erodes after their marriages.
As everyone knows, this biography ends most unhappily. According to Gillon, if Kennedy had not recklessly piloted his single-engine plane after dark, in the fog, navigating without instrumentation, he, his wife and her sister might still be alive today, and we could have looked forward to Kennedy appearing on the cover of AARP’s magazine as the world’s sexiest senior.
By Steven M. Gillon
454 pp. $29