Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye

articles
July 27 1999 9:00 PM

Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye

JFK Jr.: My Story

There will be a lot written in the coming days and months by people who didn't really know John Kennedy. Those of us who had the pleasure of his company, if only for a few, seemingly fleeting moments, will have to struggle on to keep his true memory alive.

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I first met JFK Jr. at a fancy party for his magazine in a swank Fifth Avenue apartment. It was the sort of apartment he could have lived in, if he'd wanted to, but he chose to make his home in the gritty industrial area of TriBeCa. John was wearing one of his trademark tailored suits. I made eye contact and smiled. I thought I saw the flicker of a responsive grin cross his face. He wheeled around, turning his back to me, and started to talk to someone on the other side of the room, a malnourished blond woman who had been trying to get his attention. I instantly recognized this as something his mother, Jackie, must have taught him. Who else could have disciplined him to show such natural grace and reticence, coupled with the noblesse oblige to talk to those you might otherwise prefer to avoid?

After that, our relationship stabilized. We dined frequently in New York, albeit in different restaurants and with different people. We went to concerts and movies. One encounter was especially evocative, I think, of the sort of man he was. One afternoon, I was Rollerblading in Central Park when I spotted him. He was blading a few yards away, lean and handsome as ever, wearing the tank top and the backward baseball cap I'd come to know. I had just started to skate toward him when he saw me. Almost immediately, he sped ahead. With his long powerful strides, in no time at all he was a football field in front of me. He looked back, and I recognized that old Kennedy competitiveness, the playful funhouse spirit epitomized by the famous impromptu touch football games at Hyannis Port. He was challenging me to catch him! I tried, panting and sweating. His challenge called forth resources in me I didn't know I had--he had that effect on people! But for an unfortunate encounter with an incompetent sorbet peddler, I would have caught him and shared a good laugh.

I had a chance to make light of the incident when I next saw him, near the offices of his beloved George. I was in the elevator, heading to the 20th floor to pick up a kill fee for a piece I'd submitted to another Hachette publication. At the 14th floor, the door opened, and there he was. It was just like John to use the common elevator instead of, say, chartering a helicopter to pluck him off the 14th floor and deposit him on the 18th, or buying a rocket pack, or rappelling up the side of the building, all of which, I knew, he could have chosen. Instead, he was here, in an elevator, with me.

I hadn't seen him in such a long time, I immediately burst out my greetings, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. I added a few suggestions for the future editorial direction of George. He took it all in stride, pausing for a moment, obviously wondering whether to show emotion. "Oh ... uh ... hi," he stammered. I found this humility, this forced gracelessness--when of course some modicum of suavity would have come so easily to him--breathtakingly charming. I could tell he wanted to call me by my name but was afraid that would hurt the feelings of the others in the elevator who perhaps didn't know him so well. One often had this sense when talking to John, this sense of reserve, of intimacies withheld.

Then he did something that showed a side of him I'd only heard about. He looked at me, squarely, directly--the effect was powerful--and asked: "Who are you? Do I know you?" I was stunned by the philosophical depth of his questions. In a few seconds, he had penetrated to the core of my identity, indeed to the very question of identity. Who was I? Was it ever possible to really know another person? I've pondered these issues ever since. And to think there are some who say his good looks made up for a lack of intellectual heft!

And so it went for years. I would run into him. He might say something insightful, or boisterous, like the time he jokingly yelled, "Are you insane?" when I came up behind him as he was using an ATM machine. But despite the warmth of our friendship, there were clear limits, boundaries to our relationship that we both recognized. He never took me sailing with him, for example, or included me in his intimate family outings. Ultimately, there was no getting around the fact that I was a journalist, his natural enemy.

There came a time when an editor, to whom I'd casually mentioned my acquaintance with John, asked me to write a short piece about one of his mother's book projects. I agonized about it for several long minutes. Was I only getting this assignment because of my connection with John? Would I be guilty of cashing in on our relationship? Would John feel I was betraying his trust, given his Kennedyesque obsession with privacy? And, perhaps most difficult, could I see Jackie honestly, on her own terms, and not just as John's mother? Ultimately, I decided to write the piece, and a few details about John and me found their way into the text.

John must have taken offense--though at what I can't imagine--because our friendship foundered after that. We no longer spoke. A gulf grew between us. It was a deeply saddening time.

His too-early departure, therefore, is especially tragic to me because our relationship can now never be healed. But I will always deeply treasure the mementos of our friendship he left with me. There is the rejection letter I received from George, which he was too modest to put his own name on. (He must have kept the original, however, because what I have looks like a duplicate.) And I still have a copy of the restraining order he obtained when I attempted, in an excess of neighborly zeal, to climb the fire escape in the loft next to his in that gritty industrial area he called home. Characteristically, he didn't sign it, or even add one of his famous cheery little messages. Such was the man. I will miss him.

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