If he were anyone else’s son, John F. Kennedy Jr. would not be focus of 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.
“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. 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.
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 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 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 vs. taking him seriously.
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.
In this portrait, she comes across as unhappy, unhinged and self-absorbed. And this was before they were married.
“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.
Not wishing to spoil 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. Moreover, the relationship between the two Kennedy siblings, John Jr. and Caroline, much cherished as children, erodes after their marriages.
As you all know, 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.