By Frank DiGiacomo
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on July 26, 1999.]
New York doesn’t have room to bury its very important dead. Ulysses Grant, of course, is up on Morningside Heights. A few old bishops rest in the crypts at St. John the Divine, and some cardinals lie under St. Patrick’s. Some dusty patriots fill the yard way down beside Trinity Church. But when Gershwin or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or even Thurman Munson dies, they’re honored here, then sent away for burial in greener, more sacred ground, and New York feels palpably lonely without them.
This morning, New York feels older without him. John Kennedy led an exterior, sometimes sunny life in this sometimes dark city. He was part of the brotherhood of his family, but he also lived a life apart, which was his own, and the city helped to set him apart. The New York of John Kennedy stretched from the duchies of Upper Fifth Avenue, where he grew up, to the warehouse district of TriBeCa, where he lived his married life; from the green football fields of Central Park to the wrought-iron gates at Collegiate School on West End Avenue; and from the bright, flag-flying offices of George magazine, where he was founding editor, to the perky murals in the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle, where Ludwig Bemelmans figures of little, snow-dotted, sledding New Yorkers recall the elegance and fun and playful wit that was New York before … everything.
John F. Kennedy Jr. lived his life bathed in so much unwanted light that it is almost impossible to imagine him searching the opaque darkness over the Atlantic for some recognizable glimmer that would help him re-establish his bearings.
He lost his reference ,the aviation experts speculated as the 24-hour cable news coverage desperately chased their tails. He could not find the horizon. These were odd phrases to hear in connection with a man whose inner compass rarely failed him when the eyes of the world were watching.
And usually when the world was watching, the pictures and words were coming from New York, the city that Mr. Kennedy had called home since 1964. Here in this metropolis that has consumed so many wealthy, handsome scions with vainglorious notions of power and mortality, Mr. Kennedy had actually managed to define himself, not as some media-inflated myth, but as a man of his own design, right down to the ever-present chain that connected his wallet and keys to his belt.
His mother brought him and his sister to New York to achieve a kind of privacy, and they got that. But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis insisted that her son become part of the city, and he did that as well. He made the city his Forest of Arden, his Emerald City. And, in a surprisingly optimistic period, John Kennedy made of New York a palace, not a prison-shooting to Yankee Stadium by subway, making Olmsted’s park a playing ground, surfing the rivers of traffic. And when the city conspired to confront him-when the paparazzi assaulted not just him, but his wife Carolyn Bessette-he went one-on-one; a fair fight between the best-known-guy-in-the-world-in-a-ski-hat up against the mob of the voracious, vulturing press corps.
New York liked it.
When Alfonse D’Amato, his typically impetuous choice as George columnist, suggested he run for Mayor, it had the crazy D’Amato combination of plausibility and smarts: John Kennedy would not have liked being Mayor, but New York would have loved having him; it infused him into its identity. He was the self-deprecating, grinning assistant district attorney at 1 Hogan Plaza, the city booster hosting a WNYC television series, the publisher going to work in that damned back-slung beret-how could any man get away with looking good in a beret in 1999? And he knew he looked good. As one friend said: “He was aware of his power.”
And as an embodiment of New York, he was exactly emblematic of the New York that had taken over from the old, ethnic melting pot. Manhattan in the 90′s became the capitalist capital of the world-it was no longer a place your grandparents had come to; it was the place a generation was setting up camp to remake the urban experience. And John Kennedy lived here like nobody else-and like everybody else. He started a business; tried out suspenders; wore crutches, evening clothes, bandannas; moved on wheels, walked the dog, held the door for his wife, yelled at the paparazzi, fought with his partner in the hallways of Hachette, did quiet work for charities, and avoided phoniness on every front. “He liked sports and women and danger,” said Gil Shapiro, a neighbor who lived in the TriBeca co-op where Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Bessette Kennedy lived. “He did what made him happy. He wasn’t afraid of the consequences.”
So he became more than a New Yorker; he became a quintessential New Yorker. He did the whole thing: by day, he was the working stiff, Bruce Wayne going to the office. By night, in a formal suit, he looked like a Rolls coming around the corner. Vital, vigorous, full of fun, generous, confrontational, an unsentimental existential lesson in the joy of daily living. At a Municipal Art Society gala at Grand Central Terminal, Mr. Kennedy pulled aside a waitress. Osso buco had been served that night and he wanted to know if she would put together a bag of leftover bones for his dog, Friday. Larry King and Dan Rather asked him about being the little boy who had saluted, but New Yorkers of his generation didn’t think of him that way; New Yorkers saluted him, sometimes with a wave, sometimes with an envious middle finger, but saluted him nevertheless. When he flopped-like the New York bar-he passed the New York test by non-aversion, meeting reporters head-on. And when he succeeded-most of the time-he averted ever so slightly.
By that definition, Mr. Kennedy was very much a New Yorker. Unlike the celebrities whose relationship with the city is an antiseptic one, buffered by town cars and bodyguards, Mr. Kennedy had become intimate with the asphalt in a way that most rank-and-file New Yorkers do not even achieve. He rode its subways and traveled its roads on bicycle and Rollerblade. Chanel president Arie Kopelman remembered that Mr. Kennedy once rode his bicycle to Rao’s restaurant in East Harlem to meet him for dinner. “I said, ‘John, come on, riding a bike in the city is crazy enough, but coming all the way up here? I don’t think it’s safe.’” Mr. Kopelman said that Mr. Kennedy laughed and said, “It’s the only way I can get some great exercise.”
Mr. Kennedy played in New York’s public parks and immersed himself in its rich cultural and culinary offerings and, over three decades spent here, he achieved a certain symbiosis with the city. His knowledge of Manhattan enabled Mr. Kennedy to use the city both as a cloak of invisibility when he needed to elude the media that always hounded him, or as his technicolor dream coat when he chose, for instance, to make the startling announcement that he was joining the very group that had been scrutinizing him since his birth.
As he roamed our precincts, Mr. Kennedy became a poster boy for the new New York that had risen up during the reign of Rudy Giuliani. As he played shirtless in Central Park or braved the paparazzo gantlet at a black-tie gala, Mr. Kennedy sent the message that New York was a playground, not a prison. The world was watching, but those paying the closest attention were those who, like Mr. Kennedy, had been born at the tail end of the Baby Boom and had settled in the city. Now, in their mid-30′s and early 40′s, they saw Mr. Kennedy as a point of reference-albeit an exceedingly handsome one-for what they hoped to achieve. “He was our guy. He represented our generation,” said Merrill Holtzman, an actor who co-founded the Naked Angels theater group, where Mr. Kennedy was on the board. “He was the head of the class.”
Mr. Kennedy certainly had the looks and the surname to be head of the class. On these attributes, let alone the wealth that he had inherited, Mr. Kennedy could have coasted through life, ending up one of the many titled hollow men who haunt the city’s nightspots with gin and bitterness on their breath.
But those who knew Mr. Kennedy said he loved to confound expectations. “He was determined not to do what people expected him to do,” said Joe Armstrong, senior vice president and group publisher of Capital Publishing, who knew Mr. Kennedy and his mother, Jacqueline Onassis.
It’s unclear how much of Mr. Kennedy’s need to this was the result of the proto- Truman Show life he lived. Unlike the fictional Truman Burbank, however, Mr. Kennedy knew that he was constantly under surveillance by the media. It was a pressure that he dealt with in different ways, but rarely did Mr. Kennedy crack. He had his father’s temper, and occasionally his arrogance, some have said who worked with him, but the media did not see it.
The photographer Peter Beard, who once dated Mr. Kennedy’s aunt, Lee Radziwill, and, he told The Observer , served as a “baby sitter” of Jacqueline Onassis’ children, remembered Mr. Kennedy as a “well-adjusted miracle of psychological balance.”
Mr. Beard recalled a trip to the Everglades in the mid-1970′s, when, he said, Mr. Kennedy ventured into a hotel lobby to find a sleeping photographer who had been tailing them for days. He said that Mr. Kennedy, who was in his teens, stood in front of the slumbering shutterbug and performed a “brilliant” imitation of Mick Jagger performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” “The guy started to wake up toward the end of it,” Mr. Beard recounted. “And as he realized what he was missing and grabbed his camera, John made this really suave exit.”
Back then, Mr. Beard said, Mr. Kennedy saw the media’s unbridled interest in him as “a game.” But he added: “It doesn’t seem like a game year after year.”
Mr. Holtzman, who got to know Mr. Kennedy later in life said that he was “well aware of the contract” that existed between him and press. He recalled leaving a Naked Angels benefit and getting into a cab with Mr. Kennedy a few years ago, then watching it become surrounded by paparazzi. “The cab’s window was open and one of the photographers just shoved his lens inside and started shooting away. The flash was going off in the car and the guy wasn’t even looking into his viewfinder,” said the friend, who ended up getting hit in the head with camera. “I took the camera and shoved it out the window. And as the cab pulled away, John looked at me and said: ‘I can’t do that.’”
Photographer Victor Malafronte remembered a moment in the early 1990s when he was chasing Mr. Kennedy down a SoHo street. Mr. Malafronte was on foot and loaded down with three cameras. Mr. Kennedy was on rollerblades and losing his pursuer. “I’m trying to get this gorgeous image of the man skating down West Broadway”, remembered Mr. Malafronte when suddenly Mr. Kennedy turned and started skating toward him. “I thought he was going to grab me,” said the photographer, but instead his quarry stopped within a few inches of Mr. Malafronte and stuck out his right hand. “He says in the soft spoken voice, ‘Hi, I’m John.’” Mr. Malafronte said he managed to stammer back, “I know.” but, really, he said, “I was blown away.” Mr. Kennedy let Mr. Malafronte get the shots he wanted, which, he said, made the covers of the New York Post and People . And then he skated away.
Mr. Malafronte saw another side of Mr. Kennedy a few days later when he and a documentary crew staked out Mr. Kennedy’s apartment in a van. Mr. Kennedy snuck up on the crew and gave them a tongue lashing. “He had had enough,” Mr. Malafronte said.
In late 1997, just months after Diana, the Princess of Wales, had been chased to her death by paparazzi on motorcycles, Mr. Kennedy confronted a group of photographers outside his apartment building by training his own videocamera on the group. “You’re looking for a harassment lawsuit,” he told one of them.
Mr. Kennedy could have hid behind lawyers and a publicist, but he did not. Just as he did not duck reporters in 1990 when he failed the New York bar exam for the second time. “I’m very disappointed. But you know, God willing, I’ll go back there in July and I’ll pass it then. Or I’ll pass it the next time, or I’ll pass it when I’m 95,” Mr. Kennedy told the press phalanx that had gathered outside 1 Hogan Place. “I’m clearly not a major legal genius. I hope the next time you guys are here will be a happy day.”
In 1995, Chris Cuomo, who is related to the Kennedy family by marriage, said that he was studying for his bar exam when Mr. Kennedy contacted him. “He said, ‘I know you’re nervous about this test because of what happened to me. Don’t sweat it.’ He said, ‘Listen, as long as you know who you are and you behave that way, everything will be fine.” Added Mr. Cuomo: “I think that was the key to his dignity.”
When Mike Nichols spoke from the Book of Revelations at Jacqueline Onassis’ funeral in May 1994, his voice a shipwreck, he said: “There will be no more death.” But here we are again, and this time it’s us, our generation, and so the loss, the sense of vulnerability is ours to bear. We’re all older now. And somehow, New York’s 21st century seems a little colder and more distant knowing that John Kennedy-who was supposed to be in our future, who may be irreplaceable in our lives-is contained forever, back here with our youth, in his father’s century, the 20th.
If only he had been able to look out the window of his Piper Saratoga and seen the striated lights of the World Trade Center towers, the glow of the Chrysler Building’s Art-Deco hubcaps, the white streams of the avenues, the Empire State’s block of blue-lit limestone and the streaked spiderwebs of the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Triborough bridges. Then west to the river and home.