As the eldest son and namesake of one of America’s best-loved presidents, John F. Kennedy, Jr. spent his entire life in the public eye. He was just three years old when his father was assassinated, and became a living symbol of the hope, optimism, and vitality of the Kennedy administration.
And then the worst happened. Here are 42 tragic facts about John F. Kennedy, Jr.
John F. Kennedy, Jr. was born on November 25, 1960 in Washington, DC. His father (John F. Kennedy, Sr., of course) had been elected to president just two weeks before John's highly-anticipated birth. This made John F. Kennedy, Jr. the first child born to a president-elect. In other words, he was basically American Royalty.
Jacqueline Kennedy would later regret naming her son “John F. Kennedy, Jr.,” feeling it unfairly placed a burden of expectations upon him. His famous name put JFK Jr. even more in the public eye, and Jacqueline claimed that the stress and trauma drove her son to therapy for most of his life as he struggled to cope with his father's legacy.
The Kennedys were, of course, a famous family. John's maternal family were well-known and wealthy in their own right, and lived like the princes and princesses of America. The Bouviers had immigrated to the United States from Quebec, and turned their small, family-owned furniture business into a financial empire.
John F. Kennedy, Jr. was cousins with the beautiful and controversial socialite and model Edie Bouvier-Beale. Beale gained fame (and infamy) after the release of the documentary Grey Gardens in 1975, which showed the faded glamour of the Kennedy-adjacent clan as they lived their East Hamptons estate Grey Gardens.
Though many people believe that JFK, Jr. was given the adorable nickname "John-John" by his father, this sadly isn't true; the media fabricated the story after a reporter misheard President Kennedy call out to his young son. None of his family or friends ever called John F. Kennedy, Jr. “John-John.” Even so, his family adored the boy.
The Kennedy family is infamously marked by tragedy, but few people know how far back their misfortunes started. Though John Jr. had an older sister, Caroline, far too many of his siblings died young. Another older sister, Arabella, was dead at birth four years before he was born. A younger brother, Patrick, was premature and died two days after the birth in 1963.
Little Kennedy spent the first three years of his life at the White House, enjoying a happy and idyllic childhood among the men and women serving America. Young John was quite comfortable with his stately surroundings, and family and White House staff members alike often found him playing under the presidential desk in the Oval Office.
As we now know, the many tragedies of the Kennedy family were just beginning. On November 22, 1963—a day that will live in infamy—President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald while driving in a official motorcade in Dallas, Texas. It was a shot heard round the world, and little John Jr. was now fatherless and bereft.
John Jr.’s mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, later married wealthy Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. After the further assassination of his John's uncle Robert Kennedy in 1968, Jacqueline began to fear for the lives of her children. Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis moved her family out of the United States to the Greek island of Skorpios.
As she said, "If they're killing Kennedys, then my children are targets...I want to get out of this country."
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John F. Kennedy, Jr. did not like his stepfather Aristotle one bit, and later referred to him as “a joke.”
In fact, the feeling was mutual: the Kennedys and the Onassis family deeply disliked each other. Onassis had a daughter, Christina, who didn't trust the Kennedy clan and absolutely detested Jaqueline. She constantly told her father how much she hated them, and even convinced him that Jackie was cursed due to the deaths of both John and Robert.
All John Jr. had ever known was the public eye, and as he grew older, he started to try to give back to the community. He spent one summer performing construction and charity work in an earthquake zone in Guatemala. He even later traveled to South Africa to witness apartheid firsthand, and then to India, where he met with Mother Teresa.
Kennedy also made sure to get a top-notch education in between all this charity work. In 1983, he graduated from Brown University with a degree in American Studies, and moved on to law school. He spent his summers doing internships at a number of law offices around New York City, many of them connected to the Democratic Party.
Kennedy, Jr. retained a secret service detail until he was 16 years old.
After college, when he was still figuring out what he wanted from his life, Kennedy considered a career in acting. It was a passion of his, and he had appeared in some small plays in college and then throughout New York City. His biggest part, however, came when he played a fictional version of himself in an episode of the sitcom Murphy Brown.
John Jr. clearly had his father's magnetism and charm, and many of the people who saw Kennedy, Jr. act were surprised and impressed by his talent. As one of his directors said, "He has an earnestness that just shines through." However, this dream was not to be: his mother very much disapproved of the profession, and didn't think it was appropriate for his legacy.
Kennedy was not a natural in all aspects of his life, and suffered his share of failures as a young man. Perhaps less drawn to law than he was to acting, John Jr. took and failed the bar exam twice, before finally passing on his third try. Had Kennedy failed on this third attempt, he would have been ruled ineligible to work in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
Kennedy was humble about his struggles with the bar exam: at the launch of his magazine, George, Kennedy quipped something along the lines of, “I haven’t seen so many reporters in one place since the first time I failed the bar.”
Nonetheless, his hard work paid off, and Kennedy served as a state prosecutor for four years. He won his first case in 1991.
Kennedy, Jr.'s charm and magnetism extended well past the actor's stage: he was also quite lucky with the ladies. Turns out being handsome, wealthy, and the favorite son of American royalty has its perks. At one time or another, Kennedy was linked to Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cindy Crawford.
In 1995, Kennedy launched his magazine, George. Even the title pointed at Kennedy's White House roots: he named the publication for the first president of the United States. The magazine sported the tagline “Not just politics as usual,” and George sought to raise politics to the level of popular culture and encourage mass engagement.
George courted controversy even with its very first issue—and who would expect any less with John F. Kennedy, Jr. as its editor? For its first cover, the magazine featured supermodel (and Kennedy’s one-time girlfriend) Cindy Crawford, dressed as a sexy George Washington. It drew a lot of criticism, but Kennedy refused to apologize for the scandal.
But Kennedy wasn't even close to done with scandal, and he soon committed a cold-hearted betrayal. For the "Temptation" cover of George, Kennedy chose an image of two of his cousins, Michael LeMoyne Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy II, who had recently been involved in cheating and domestic abuse scandals. It had big consequences.
The Kennedy clan was absolutely furious: it was unthinkable for a member of the close-knit and tight-lipped family to be so publicly critical of other members. The cousins took it on the chin, however: in a parody of JFK’s famous phrase, Joe later remarked, “ask not what you can do for your cousin, but what you can do for his magazine.”
Kennedy wasn't afraid to put himself out there, either. He once personally appeared undressed in George magazine.
When John F. Kennedy, Jr. met his future wife Carolyn Bessette, he was still with the beautiful actress Daryl Hannah. Carolyn, however, had her own special kind of magnetism: slim and elegant, she was well-dressed and perennially polite. Once Kennedy and Hannah split, he found he couldn't stop thinking about Carolyn—and quickly began dating her.
Kennedy and Bessette were an immediate power couple, and the paparazzi reported obsessively on everything from their eating habits to their shopping trips to their lovers' spats. Bessette worked in the fashion industry for Calvin Klein, but she was completely unused to living in the public eye and shied from the attention.
The couple strove to keep their relationship private: they were engaged in secret, and when they married in 1996, it was in an entirely closed ceremony. It was just the way the couple liked it, but it couldn't last for long. After they went on their honeymoon, Kennedy’s cousin Patrick spilled the beans. When Kennedy and Bessette returned home, they were met with a swarm of reporters and photographers.
Bessette had quit her job at Calvin Klein soon after she moved in with the Kennedy heir, but she wasn't content with unemployment. She later complained to a friend that the hardest part of being married to Kennedy was finding a job, because everyone accused her of using his influence rather than her own talents.
Kennedy had a lifelong ambition of becoming a pilot, and dreamed about soaring the skies since he was just a young boy. Following these dreams, he began taking flight lessons not long after his marriage to Bessette. He even bought his own plane soon after. Though he didn't know it, this was the beginning of the end...
Soon after John started taking pilot lessons, tragedy struck the Kennedys again: his cousin Michael died in a skiing accident. According to many who knew him, the death seemed to have a profound psychological effect on Kennedy. Feeling like death was "closer and closer," Kennedy stopped the lessons for a few months, before deciding to start them up again.
His sister Caroline had hoped the hiatus would be permanent, but she couldn't seem to do anything to stop her brother...
Three months after purchasing his airplane, Kennedy made plans to fly out to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, for the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy. Ignoring warnings of poor visibility, Kennedy, his wife Carolyn, and his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette flew out of Fairfield, New Jersey on the evening of July 16, 1999, headed toward Massachusetts.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis passed away in 1994, before her beloved son even began earnestly pursuing his pilot’s license. However, Jackie still had a dark feeling about her son's flying ambitions. Before her death, she begged her partner Maurice Tempelsman to discourage Kennedy from becoming a pilot, fearing that he might meet some tragedy.
She apparently made him promise "to do whatever it took to keep John from becoming a pilot."
On Monday, November 25, three days after President Kennedy's untimely death, the White House held a state funeral for the fallen leader. Little John was in attendance as the coffin went into the cathedral—and he performed an action so heartbreaking, it has haunted us to this day. An iconic photo from the funeral shows a young John F. Kennedy, Jr., dressed in a blue peacoat, saluting his father’s casket.
That famous photo was actually the very last moments John Jr. had with his father. The Kennedy children weren't allowed inside St. Matthew’s Cathedral because it was considered too adult for them to handle. As a result, though he may not have realized it at the time, this little salute was John Jr.'s final goodbye to his beloved father.
And it gets even worse than this.
The presidential funeral was also John Jr.'s third birthday. His mother Jaqueline Kennedy and the rest of his family, however, were determined to restore the White House to some kind of normalcy, so they held a small birthday party for the Kennedy heir just a couple days after the funeral, on December 5th. It was their last day in the White House.
On July 16, 1999, at approximately 9:40 pm Eastern time, John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean nose first. In the first few desperate hours before officials found the airplane debris and black box, there were wild hopes that somehow John, Carolyn, or Lauren had survived. Tragically, these were false hopes.
Based on what we now know, all three passengers were killed on impact. The Kennedy curse had struck again.
On July 21, 1999, following a map of images of the ocean floor, Navy divers dove beneath the water to look for the remains of the three tragic souls. They found John F. Kennedy, Jr. still strapped to the pilot's seat, going down with his plane. Carolyn and Lauren were nearby, and all three bodies were brought into the medical examiner's office.
Kennedy was cremated, and his ashes scattered over Martha’s Vineyard. He died at only 38 years old.
John F. Kennedy, Jr. died alongside his wife, and they left no children. Instead, all of his belonging went to his nieces and nephews, the children of his sister Caroline Schlossberg. These belongings included an apartment in Manhattan, a home at Martha’s Vineyard, and several sentimental mementos that had belonged to his father, like a rocking chair and a Cartier watch.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, America desperately looked for a reason behind the senseless loss, or at least someone to blame. After a thorough investigation, they got a heartbreaking answer. Although investigators found a number of contributing factors to the crash—including poor visibility—they put the ultimate blame on Kennedy himself.
In addition to an ankle injury that affected his ability to control the plane, Kennedy was simply too inexperienced. The official report cited "Kennedy's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night."
This heartbreaking revelation only made the tragedy harder to take, particularly for Carolyn Bessette's grieving family. Angry and embittered, they ended up suing the Kennedy clan for wrongful death. The families settled out of court for a reported $15 million. It wasn't enough to bring their daughter back, but they felt it gave some closure.
For all the world had taken away from the Kennedys, it still wasn't done taking. Just a month after Kennedy's tragic plane crash, the curse struck again. Anthony Radziwill—Kennedy's cousin, friend, and the best man at his wedding—passed away in August 1999 from testicular cancer. The family could barely take a breath from heartache.
After early interest in George magazine that saw it become one of the most widely-read political publications in the United States, the paper began to struggle. Kennedy’s death was the final straw in a long decline, and the magazine ceased publication in 2001. With that, one of the last of John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s legacies left the world.
Like his famous father, JFK Jr. has been the subject of conspiracy theories. In 2019, conspiracy theorist Liz Crokin “revealed” that Kennedy was not dead at all. Instead, the larger theory claims, he has been living under an assumed name, and would come out of hiding on July 4, 2019 to act as the Republican running mate for the upcoming election. This did not come to pass.
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