The Lost Prince: The life, death, and legacy of John F. Kennedy Jr

As a new film project enters production about America's favourite son, Harry Shukman examines the life of the president that never was

Americans old enough to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when his father died thought John F. Kennedy Jr bore the weight of the Twentieth Century on his shoulders. But to the young women born after November 22nd 1963, young John wasn’t just famous. He was a catch.

The mania was inescapable. In 1988, after People magazine announced that he was the sexiest man alive, the 28-year-old became so besieged by girls that he had to develop a survival strategy. He tried to give off the impression that he was never single — an ingenious ruse which required dating as many women as he could. Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Roberts were each deployed as human shields. It didn’t work. By 1989, JFK Jr needed some time away from the squealing stalkers of Manhattan. So he booked a holiday with some friends to go mountain climbing in Washington state, south of Seattle, just to get away from it all. No strangers asking for his number, no weirdos demanding dates — just him and his buddies and the wilds of the Cascade mountain range. Bliss.

But things didn’t go to plan. It soon transpired that, halfway up Mount Rainier — one of the biggest active volcanoes in the world — a high school girl was lying in wait for John. “I knew you were coming here, so I came up because my prom is tonight,” she said, hoping to snag a dance with America’s most eligible bachelor. Later, on the flight home to New York, another woman sat in the empty seat next to John. She introduced herself as an off-duty flight attendant who found out his schedule and flew six hours out from New York to Seattle that same day so she would have the chance to meet him on the six-hour trip back east. Twelve hours on a plane in one day, all to see John. “You gotta rescue me,” John begged his friends, who just laughed. Like a scene from a French farce, there was a third woman waiting for John at the airport in New York, naked under a huge mink coat. It was one of his new girlfriends — an actress by the name of Sarah Jessica Parker. Some vacation.

It’s no mean feat to live a well-adjusted life with a surname as heavy as Kennedy (not to mention a jawline like a post-juice cleanse Adonis.) But John F Kennedy Jr bore the weight more profoundly than most. Known affectionately by the American public as ‘John John’, John Kennedy Jr had his childhood etched into the national memory via two images. The first was a picture of him as a baby, happily bootling about by his father’s feet on the carpet of the Oval Office. The second was taken on the occasion of his third birthday, three days after JFK was assassinated — a desperately sad vignette of a child saluting his father’s coffin with a tiny hand. As an adult, John said he couldn’t remember that day – in fact, he said he had no memories of his father whatsoever. Whether that was true or not, the answer nimbly deflected the questions he was forever being asked — and helped him to prise himself out of that grainy footage from 1963, and out from underneath his father’s name. 

Counterfactual historians like to imagine what would have happened to America had JFK never been murdered. Would it still be the shining city on the hill, twinkling even brighter? Or would the country have continued tumbling down to its status today as the dirty village in a hole? More intriguingly, perhaps, the same question is now sometimes asked about JFK’s son, John. On the night of July 16th 1999, he crashed his plane in the sea off Martha’s Vineyard and died, aged 38. His wife Carolyn Bessett and her sister Lauren were also on board, perishing alongside him. 

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