Boy wonder

It wasn't just JFK Jr.'s looks that made him a sex symbol.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
July 17, 1999 4:57PM (UTC)
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If there was one moment of the entire run of "Seinfeld" that a generation
of women could seize upon as its own, it was when Elaine lost "the contest"
-- in which the Seinfeld buddies bet on who could go the longest
without masturbating --
because she'd seen John F. Kennedy Jr. doing aerobics. Who could blame her?
What mortal woman could refrain from impure thoughts after gazing upon such
a sight? As she slapped her losses on the table, she sheepishly offered one
simple excuse to her fellow bettors: "John-John." That's all the
explanation we needed.

When I was growing up, I never understood the hysteria over the
Kennedys, though my mother shared in it. She still proudly possessed a JFK
campaign
button and a yellow copy of the Daily News from the day he'd won the
presidency. She boasted of how she'd shaken his hand once, and that he was
the handsomest man she'd ever seen. But Kennedy died two years before I was
born, and he and the rest of his family just seemed to me like tragedies
I'd seen on the news or scandals we talked about at the dinner table. Then,
around the time I hit high school, everything changed.

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John-John, the boy we'd known only as the sweet faced tot saluting at his
father's grave, went off to college and emerged, fully bloomed, from out of
nowhere. Goodbye, Duran Duran. Au revoir, Matt Dillon. They were the
heartthrobs of little girls. It was John who now seemed the logical idol of
sophisticated young women.

At first, his appeal was largely physical. He had the thick, wavy hair of
his mother and the straight, strong jaw of his father; he was lean and tan.
In those days, we watched from a distance as he goofed around and dated,
attempted and failed passing the bar a few times, and seemed for all the
world like a very handsome, very privileged kid who didn't quite have his
act together. Oh well, at that age, neither did we.

But then, in spite of his wealth and stunning looks, he grew up. He was a
Kennedy, no doubt, but he was unlike the others. Poised and aristocratic,
he looked in the news footage that followed his every move like a man who
floated rather than using his feet. Head bowed slightly, striding quickly
through the crowds that pursued him, he had the air of someone regal yet
humbled. He never seemed quite convinced that so much fuss could be over
him. Like his mother, he intuited the necessity of privacy, and like her,
he was determined to prove himself in the working world when he could have
simply coasted on his name.

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The Kennedy men could probably have anything
they wanted, but John was one of the few who never assumed that off-putting
familial air of entitlement. He dated his share of starlets and he
floundered for a while in his career, but we certainly couldn't picture him
seducing a baby sitter or drunkenly running around the Florida compound
with Uncle Teddy.

Instead, we saw him frequently at his mother's side, two shy, quiet,
figures who didn't entirely fit in with the rest of the clan. So devoted to
her and understanding of her maternal concerns was he that he only learned
to fly after she'd passed away -- perhaps her own history gave her a
heightened foreboding of disaster. And when rumors flew that Daryl Hannah
was being abused by her soft-rock boyfriend Jackson Browne, the papers
reported that it was her old friend and beau John Kennedy who'd helped her
get out of the relationship.

It may seem like a bit of tabloid trivia to
some, but to many of us, it was confirmation of why we were so enamored. He
wasn't just the shirtless hunk sailing around the Vineyard, his perfect
hair never moving in the breeze. He seemed a truly kind and decent
man.

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People magazine called him the sexiest man in the world, one of its 50 most
beautiful. Magazines scrambled for excuses to put him on their covers,
knowing they'd fly off the newsstands. But if half the world seemed to
adore him as a pin-up, revere him as a son who'd lost his dad much too
early and respect him as a struggling lawyer, the other half saw only a
pretty boy drifting through life. From the first moment his magazine
George was announced as a concept, the snickering started. He had an
enviable Rolodex, for sure, but did that really make him think he could be
an editor?

He gave it what looked like his best effort, and while George never
entirely took
off the way he'd hoped, it actually attempted to do something intelligent
and provocative.
And we had to admire its founder for trying, with all eyes on him and many
enviously anxious for him to fail, to do something unique with his life.

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He settled down and married Carolyn Bessette, a woman as lovely and
graceful as himself.
If the sound of hearts breaking could be heard all across the country that
late summer day he emerged from a small Southern church with his slim, chic
bride, there was at least some consolation in knowing he'd picked someone
so flawlessly suitable. She made him shine even brighter -- the two of
them, black clad, young and elegant, seemed the American ideal. They
weren't how we are, in our collective love of all things big and loud and
showy, but how we'd like to be -- subtle, discreet, confident enough to be
quiet about ourselves.

Beauty is a genetic luck of the draw, but there was no way a young man with
those parents wasn't going to come out a winner. And sure, like Elaine, we
may have
let that John-John butt fuel our fantasies. But he couldn't have held our
hearts as well as our libidos if there were nothing more to him. As we grew
up and older with him, we saw him turn into our Prince Charming -- the sort
of man we could imagine would be nice to our mothers and let us cry on his
shoulder.

His name and good looks took him far, but what made him
extraordinary was that in a world of crotch-grabbing rock stars, adulterous
presidents and petulant movie actors, he seemed to be that rarest and
most prized of creatures -- a true gentleman.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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