I hope and pray I never become famous. I could handle the mass adulation part pretty well. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I would know just what to do with Barbara Walters, paparazzi harassment and that awful Cojo person criticizing my clothes. What I couldn’t handle would be all those books people would write after I’m dead. I’m afraid the general assessment of my character would not come across the way it does in my own mind—i.e., truthfully.
Take poor JFK Jr. and his beautiful wife, Carolyn. It’s been seven years since they died in that plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard, but the books about them keep coming. In fact, the pace seems to be accelerating. A guy named William Sylvester Noonan has just written a memoir called Forever Young, and Carole Radziwill, the wife of John’s cousin, Anthony, has told her version of the story in What Remains. Other books about the couple include American Son by Richard Blow and The Men We Became by Robert Littell.
The most striking quality in all these JFK, Jr. books is the “I knew him best” angle. To quote one of them: “Many of the books and articles about him do not capture John at all.” The various authors argue over who got more time with him, who received his innermost confidences, who protected him best, who loved him the most. A typical entry: “Contrary to published accounts, it was me John was going to visit the night he died.” They usually don’t even mention each other, which leads you to believe that “John-John” sure had a lot of friends—or that they’re all exaggerating a little.
But there are certain things they all agree on.
He was unspoiled, good company, loyal.
He was a klutz. He tripped over his own shoelaces. He lost things—keys, jackets, passports. He apparently suffered from attention deficit disorder, did poorly in school, found it difficult to sit still. He was late for everything. He smoked grass. He was sensitive to the fact that many of his friends refused to fly in his plane.
He was a mama’s boy. And since Jacqueline Kennedy was the most famous and admired woman in the world, this posed all sorts of problems that nobody else could even imagine. Everyone agrees she was a good mother, but John’s friends bring up the obvious: She wasn’t perfect. She nagged, she made him go to law school, she refused to let him become an actor, she complained about him to her friends, she even opened his mail. And, perhaps most telling of all, when Daryl Hannah came over for dinner, she would eat on a tray in her room.
He was neither a particularly good businessman nor journalist. His magazine, George, was ill-conceived. Was it about celebrities? Politics? Whatever it was, people didn’t get it. And his management style didn’t help. He was not a Type A personality, and something I’ve learned firsthand, over and over, is that people who run magazines are driven and compulsive. He didn’t have that inner fire. He wouldn’t fire people.
And most important of all, he married the wrong woman.
Carolyn Bessette was an upper-middle-class girl from suburban Connecticut whose primary distinction was her physical appearance. She did not pursue ideas or art or politics. Her concerns were fashion and analyzing relationships. She called people “Lamb” and “Mouse.”
Carolyn has the distinction of having two books written about her, each from wildly different perspectives. The first, entitled The Other Man, created somewhat of a sensation when it came out several years ago. It’s by Michael Bergin, an underwear model and Baywatch hunk, who by writing it has forfeited forever his right to be called a gentleman. This is the Bad Carolyn, who sleeps around with underwear models, who has abortions, who is moody and sullen and a general pain in the neck, who flies to L.A. for a secret encounter with him, even after her marriage, whose entire life reflects nothing but ennui and self-absorption. It’s a train wreck of a book, made even more repulsive by his undying declarations of love. Still, he does have pictures of them lying in bed together, which go a long way toward proving his story.
Carole Radziwill has no pictures of her and Carolyn together, just an engraved toe ring from Tiffany’s. And while other friends claim Carolyn’s supposedly close friendship with Carole was just a manipulative way to drive a wedge between them and John, Carole has still written the best book. She has a real tragedy to relate, and she does it in Chekhovian terms. Her husband, Anthony Radziwill (Lee’s son), was John’s closest friend; he died of cancer that last unhappy summer, up in Jackie’s big house on Martha’s Vineyard, just three weeks after John. Whatever her motivation, Carolyn seems to have been particularly nice to Carole, and this memoir is the very definition of bittersweet. It also answers the question: What would it be like to be Lee Radziwill’s daughter-in-law?
By the time you’ve read all the books, you get sadder and sadder. John thought Carolyn would complete his life, supply what was missing, make him whole. She—well, she was marrying John F. Kennedy, Jr. What else did a girl have to know? Little did she realize what a trap it was, one that she was particularly ill-equipped to deal with. With no inner resources to carry her through, she sat day after day in his loft, her “bright young thing” friends dropping by with drugs. John couldn’t give the attention she felt was her due. They fought. He moved to a hotel. Then came that awful last Friday. They hadn’t seen each other in three days. They had to go to a cousin’s wedding, a friend’s fifth anniversary, and deal with their dying houseguest in Jackie’s seaside mansion. Carolyn’s sister tagged along. John’s ankle, just out of a cast from a flying accident, was killing him. What else could go wrong?
What makes these books so fascinating? There’s the dying young and beautiful angle, of course. And the sheer and spectacular beauty of the couple—he sleek and dark, she sleek and blond. Some might say it’s the Kennedy curse. But what John and Carolyn really tell us is the way character and chance collide to create fate.
Senior editor Robert Plunket is author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie.