Skip to main content

Kennedy, Jr., John Fitzgerald

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr.

The life and death of American publisher John F. Kennedy, Jr. (1960–1999) mirrored that of his presidential father and others in the influential but tragedy–stricken Kennedy family. The first flickering images involved White House play and the funeral following his father's 1963 assassination. JFK Jr. died in 1999 at age 38 when he lost control of his plane off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. "Kennedy," Larry McShane wrote in the Boston Globe, "grew to manhood in the shadow of a president's legend and the glare of the public eye, remembered always as the young boy who raised his hand in a brave salute to his father's coffin. By all accounts, Camelot's heir bore the burden, and the blessing, with grace."

Early Years

Kennedy was born November 25, 1960, just 17 days after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon to become the 35th president of the United States. Young Kennedy became the first infant to live in the White House since the Grover Cleveland administration in the late 1800s. He, his older sister Caroline, and their youthful parents portrayed an image to the world often described as "Camelot." McShane wrote: "Americans met him as the playful boy hiding beneath dad's desk at the Oval Office." A reporter called him "John–John," and the nickname stuck. A third child, Patrick, was born in August of 1963, but died within two days.

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy faced the first tragedy of his young life when his father, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Three days later, television footage showed a young man, clad in a blue coat and shorts and on his third birthday, saluting his father's casket during the funeral procession. "The image still conjures strong emotions," Bruce Kennedy, no relation, wrote on the Cable News Network Website, Years later, Kennedy admitted his memory of the moment was foggy. "I think that what happens is that you see an image so many times that you begin to believe you remember the image, but I am not sure I really do," he told CNN talk show host Larry King in 1995.

Family Moved from Washington

Following the assassination, JFK's widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, moved the family to New York, to attempt to get her two children out of the Washington political media glare. While Jacqueline Kennedy married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, young Kennedy, wrote McShane, "grew into a quintessential New Yorker, likely to pop up shirtless with a Frisbee on the Great Lawn of Central Park, decked out for dinner in a Tribeca restaurant, casually riding a subway downtown. 'I thank my mother for doing that,' " he once said, according to McShane. "I always took the bus. I always took the subways." Kennedy was raised without the limos and hotel rooms that many pictured him living in.

Kennedy attended St. David's Catholic school in New York, then for third grade was enrolled in the nearly 400–year–old Collegiate School; its Protestant tradition flew in the face of his family's Catholicism. "He was as charming as people remember him," says Geoffrey Worrell, a former classmate of Kennedy's at New York's Collegiate School, according to CNN's Kennedy. "But he was one of the people who could raise hell with malice towards none." Photographers, fascinated with all things Kennedy, stalked the young man outside the school building. The Collegiate School protected all of their students, keeping a special eye to make certain that Kennedy was not harassed. "[It] helped to let John as much as possible lead a normal childhood and have a normal school experience," Worrell told CNN. The Kennedy family, meanwhile, suffered more tragedy. Robert F. Kennedy, brother to the slain president and a 1968 White House aspirant, himself was gunned down by an assassin in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic presidential primary, which was tantamount to a nomination.

In 1976, Kennedy entered Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, as an eleventh–grader; held back one year, he graduated in 1979. Bucking his family's tradition, he decided to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, rather than Harvard. Majoring in history, he graduated from Brown in 1983. Once he had graduated, Kennedy appeared to be floundering a bit, having no particular direction in life. He tried acting in the theater, traveled a lot, and helped his mother with her urban improvement charity. He drifted, studying at the University of Delhi, working for the New York City business development office, and performing in the drama Winners.

"The Hunk Flunks"

When Kennedy entered New York University law school in 1986, many saw the move as a prelude to yet another Kennedy political career. In his mid–twenties at the time, the latest photogenic Kennedy attracted headlines labeling him a sex symbol. "His good looks and personal charisma, along with the Kennedy family aura, combined to make him one of the most eligible bachelors in America," CNN wrote. New York tabloid newspapers took to calling him merely "the Hunk." People magazine called him "the sexiest man alive," and newspaper and television gossip linked him romantically with the likes of Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, and Daryl Hannah. Further satiating the political media's appetite, Kennedy introduced his uncle, Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy of Massachusetts, at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

Kennedy himself, respectful of his family's legacy, still carved his own identity. "It's hard for me to talk about a legacy or a mystique. It's my family. It's my mother. It's my sister. It's my father; we're a family like any other," he told Vogue magazine in 1993, according to CNN's website. "We look out for one another. The fact that there have been difficulties and hardships, or obstacles, makes us closer." He stumbled in his bid for a law career. After graduating from NYU law school in 1989, he worked as a prosecutor for Robert Morgenthau, the district attorney for New York's Manhattan borough. Meanwhile, though, he failed the bar exam twice, prompting the splashy tabloid headline: "The Hunk Flunks." Those close to Kennedy said he went to law school primarily to please his mother. His heart was never really in the endeavor. Kennedy passed the bar exam on the third try. However, he resigned from the Manhattan DA's office in the mid–1990s, having won all six cases he prosecuted.

Launched Publishing Venture, Got Married

Kennedy's mother died on May 19, 1994. John and sister Caroline spent several months after her death settling her estate, estimated at $200 million. It was a very hard time for both siblings. Meanwhile, intense political pressure to run for office included New York Democrats urging him to run for seats vacated by Rep. Ted Weiss and later, the Senate seat that Daniel Patrick Moynihan would vacate, and which former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a Democrat, secured in 2000. One private poll, according to the British newspaper the Guardian, had JFK Jr. sporting a 65–percent approval rating.

But in 1995, rather than take any political action, Kennedy launched George magazine, a personality–themed political journal named after George Washington, the nation's first president. "Instead of writing about the highest–grossing film, we'll write about the best campaign ad," Kennedy was quoted as having said by the Boston Globe. For Kennedy, it meant political involvement without the downside of running for office. Interview subjects included Cuban leader Fidel Castro, former Alabama Governor George Wallace, and even boxer Mike Tyson. "An article he wrote for the magazine criticizing two of his cousins as 'poster boys for bad behavior' made headlines—and reportedly caused some hurt feelings within the Kennedy family," CNN's Kennedy wrote.

On September 21, 1996, Kennedy married his girlfriend, Carolyn Bessette, a publicist for upscale clothier and fragrance maker Calvin Klein Incorporated. Their wedding was highly secretive, taking place on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. Ironically, given her romance with Kennedy and her own profession, Bessette was media shy. Bessette grew up in wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, 45 miles northeast of New York, as a surgeon's stepdaughter. "But not even that could prepare her for life with White House invitations and family weekends in Hyannis Port, Mass.," McShane wrote. The media called her "Camelot's New Queen," and photographers and writers chased her, comparing her with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Paparazzi and television cameras shot the pair, even in public spats in New York's Central Park, one of which involved Kennedy pulling the ring off her finger. "The glamorous lifestyle, while heady, came with some baggage," McShane wrote. Still, the marriage carried on. "She was totally crazy about John," said fashion stylist Joe McKenna, according to People Weekly. "That fact that she was not a public person and made herself public for John says a lot about how she felt about him." In the same People Weekly article, former Calvin Klein co–worker Lynn Tesoro said of Kennedy's wife: "I saw her the Wednesday before [she died], and I thought she never looked better or sounded more in love."

Plane Vanished, Grief Followed

On Friday, July 16, 1999, Kennedy flew Carolyn, then 33, and her sister, 34–year–old Lauren Bessette, from Essex County airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, to Cape Cod for a family wedding at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. They never made it. Kennedy's plane, a single–engine, six–seat Piper Saratoga II HP, got lost off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. "It has come to the point when Kennedy tragedy now seems to overshadow Kennedy triumph, when the passage of time is marked not by political conquests, but by soulful gatherings to grieve the loss of another young son," Brian McGrory wrote in the Boston Globe. While the Kennedys and their friends are no strangers to tragedies, this one hit hard. "It makes your heart sick just to talk about it," Kennedy confidant Paul Kirk told McGrory.

Kennedy tragedies extend beyond two assassinations. They include two family members dying in plane crashes and Ted barely surviving another; Robert Kennedy's son, David, died of a drug overdose in 1984; Joseph P. Kennedy II, who served in Congress, was in a car crash that left a woman paralyzed for life; and another Kennedy, Michael, died on a New Year's Eve when he skied into a tree. John Kennedy Jr.'s death eerily came on the 30th anniversary, and on the same July weekend, as the date that Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, near Martha's Vineyard. A passenger, 28–year–old Mary Jo Kopechne, died and Kennedy drew widespread criticism for not having helped her. The controversy essentially derailed Ted Kennedy's own White House ambitions.

One year after Kennedy's death, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a 400–page report on the JFK Jr. accident, citing "spatial disorientation" as having triggered the spiral into the water that killed all three occupants of the plane. Darkness and haze confused him, the NTSB summarized. After a year of speculation about Kennedy recklessness—he had gotten his pilot's license but a year earlier—the report appeared to vindicate him. "One impression that I get after looking at the complete file is that Kennedy was a very serious pilot," Peter Katz told People Weekly. Katz, the publisher of NTSB Reporter and Aviation Monthly, was one of the few people to see the entire document, according to People Weekly. Meanwhile, George magazine, having lost its charismatic founder and amid an advertising downturn, folded in early 2001.

JFK Jr.'s Legacy

Kennedy, one of the more visible members of his family, accepted his status but set out to do things his own way. He connected with people through celebrity and tragedy, "John follows the family tradition that the man should live this intrepid life," Laurence Leamer, who has written separate books about the Kennedy men and women, told McGrory. "He should have been a coupon clipper, a wealthy guy going to his clubs. But he wouldn't live that kind of life." What the young Kennedy could have done with his life will never be known, but it is certain that he lived a full life until his untimely death.


People Weekly, July 24, 2000.


"America Reluctant to Deify Son Like Father," Guardian Unlimited,,2763,206558,00.html (July 25, 1999).

"Camelot's Son, J.F.K. Jr., Presumed Dead at 38," Boston Globe,–obit.htm (July 19, 1999).

"Family Overshadowed by a Litany of Tragedy," Boston Globe, (July 18, 1999).

"Jack, Jackie's Children Had Taken Mantle of Kennedy Legacy," Boston Globe,–people.htm (July 18, 1999).

"John F. Kennedy Jr. Biography,", (December 7, 2004).

"John F. Kennedy Jr., in Memoriam,", (July 18, 1999).

"Times in the Life of JFK Jr.," St. Petersburg Times Online,–in–the–life–of–.shtml (July 17, 1999).

"Wife of John F. Kennedy Jr. Presumed dead at 33," Boston Globe,–obit.htm (July 19, 1999).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Kennedy, Jr., John Fitzgerald." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 20 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Kennedy, Jr., John Fitzgerald." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (April 20, 2019).

"Kennedy, Jr., John Fitzgerald." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 20, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.