The "strange magic" of JFK Jr.

Something was going wrong in Kennedy's life before the plane crash, says Camille Paglia, who reflects on both the charisma and the emptiness of the son of the martyred president.

Published July 23, 1999 11:00AM (EDT)

SALON: What was your reaction last week to hearing JFK Jr. was missing and likely dead?

CP: I was traveling and heard a newsflash early on Saturday morning. I was stunned for many reasons. First because I think John Kennedy was a phenomenally personable individual on the cultural landscape, and this cutting down of a promising man who had not reached the peak of his maturity is one of Mother Nature's cruel jokes. Secondly, I was stunned because the heat-related weather problems that appear to have contributed to the accident were a huge part of my life the night before, when I had been touring Staten Island with family friends, who were constantly harping on the haze. This went on with every view that we had from Staten Island -- of Manhattan, Coney Island, the Verrazano Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and then of the increasingly foggy New Jersey coastline that we were contemplating from a wharf-side restaurant while we were eating dinner -- precisely when the Kennedy plane was taking off.

The term "the haze, the haze, the haze" became a kind of litany that struck me even then as rather eerie coming from these lifetime New Yorkers. So to hear that John Kennedy had taken off from a small New Jersey airport at that very moment into that very haze, which no matter what anyone in the media says was very thick --

There's no ambiguity about it to you. People are trying to say, well, it wasn't so bad.

There's no ambiguity. Some people have tried to defend Kennedy's decision to go up by saying he had no way of knowing about how bad conditions would become an hour later in Martha's Vineyard. This is a total cop-out, because there were plenty of reasons, just by driving from Manhattan to the New Jersey coast, to have been concerned. And therefore there is absolutely no excuse whatever for him not being in radio contact with the various air-control towers as he flew -- in view of the relatively few hours of experience he had in this highly powered new airplane. Furthermore, he was flying without his normal instructor, and, to top it off, he had just had a cast removed from his lower leg the prior day.

I believe as a libertarian that people have a right to destroy themselves if they want to -- I defend anyone's right to drive race cars or to bungee-jump or to try to leap canyons with motorcycles or to fly death-defying airplanes. But not when you are a custodian of the lives of two others, as John Kennedy was that night. There was an ethical lapse here, a major irresponsibility on his part to have endangered the lives of those two women.

Therefore, I was all the more enraged as the days went on and publicity -- thanks to that buffoonish biographer, C. David Heymann -- began to turn against the women. Oh, right -- blame the women! -- the passengers, not the pilot. First, JFK's wife, Carolyn Bessette, was declared to be the nag who insisted John fly her sister to Martha's Vineyard. Then we heard that Lauren Bessette delayed the trip when she was held up at the office.

Those investment bankers.

What a crock! There's no evidence whatever that they had any plans to fly earlier in the day than that. John Kennedy, from recent reports, went to his own gym at 6 p.m.

I didn't see that.

My first thoughts at the time also were: What a curse indeed is on the Kennedy clan! Bad, bad karma. Getting close to the Kennedys is hazardous to your health. As a superstitious Italian, I think the curse in this case was on Ethel, whose daughter's wedding was so hideously blighted by this accident. When her son Michael managed to kill himself on a skiing run, we all learned about Ethel's flagrant irresponsibility in refusing to constrain her grown children's obnoxious behavior on the slopes despite complaints to the ski patrol conveyed to her the prior week. As a young heiress in her own right, Ethel was a fast driver who had a long history of challenging the norms that are intended to control ordinary people. That sense of aristocratic superiority to everyone else: Laws are to be obeyed only by the hoi-polloi.

But the "curse," if there is one, seems to predate Ethel, doesn't it? I mean, Kennedys were dying tragically before she joined the family.

What I despise is this religiosity, the constant sanctimonious posing behind the Catholic Church that the Kennedys are always doing, and Ethel is one of the worst here. The quick, aggressive display of priests and Masses and prayer services really turns my stomach, because the Kennedy history is in point of fact not one of ethics. It goes all the way back to the behavior of the father --

Of Joe Kennedy Sr.

Exactly. At every stage, the Kennedy legacy is one of ostentatious public service combined with a lack of ethical scruples.

Public service and private irresponsibility?

Yes. These people are egomaniacs. The Kennedy legacy is one of megalomania and moral blindness as much as it is of public service. I was chilled to the heart by the weird fact that this accident occurred on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Chappaquiddick -- when another woman was dragged to the bottom of the sea by a Kennedy, who fled and lied about it and got off scot-free. The Kennedy travails have often been compared to Greek tragedy, and the comparison is a just one. It's the dark theme from Greek mythology of curses visited upon generation after generation after generation.

For this entire week during the horribly protracted search for the bodies, I wouldn't utter a single public word about any of this because of my pagan superstition about the disposition of corpses. I found it enormously wrenching. My thoughts have been besieged by images from classical literature. I couldn't help thinking of Hector, the great hero and crown prince of Troy, as his body was mutilated by Achilles and dragged around the walls of his parents' citadel, followed by the ritual burning of his body.

I thought about "Antigone" and the way that play begins with the impious exposure of Antigone's brother's body, left out for the flies; then Antigone breaks the law to go out and scatter a handful of dust on her brother's body so it would not be totally exposed to the elements. The scene kept coming to mind because Kennedy's body was out there someplace -- whether in one piece or a hundred -- and his sister Caroline was in seclusion and didn't formally emerge until the body was found and recovered.

And I thought also of a famous passage in Virgil's "Aeneid" about the death of Marcellus, a very promising young man who was the adoptive son and heir of the Roman emperor Augustus. Marcellus' death at age 20 produced enormous mourning among the Romans, since he embodied the future of the dynasty. That theme of the young man cut down recurs in this case, but we have to remind ourselves that John F. Kennedy Jr. was not 20, but 38.

Which is middle-aged.

Right. But it still falls under the archetype of Adonis, the beautiful young man whose blood is shed to regenerate nature. In fact, Gore Vidal very wonderfully cited this metaphor about JFK Sr. to explain the enormous popular outpouring after the assassination that made him mythological -- even though the actual achievements of his presidency were fairly limited. That John Jr. was 38 --

And had accomplished fairly little, given the expectations.

I agree. I'm not one of those who feel he had a big future as a political leader. He was too low-key, too amiable and laid-back to be a hard-nosed politician at the level of senator or, for heaven's sake, president. And at 38, he still had not managed to produce children, which I find striking. There's a parallel with the melancholy Albert of Monaco, who was similarly both gifted and perhaps cursed by having a very charismatic, stylish and famous mother. It's interesting how Albert's sisters are such strong, ferocious personalities. They're fiery, while Albert seems stymied, almost obliterated, unable to form a major, mature relationship with a woman or to produce heirs, which are crucial for the realm.

What did you make of the fact that the plane went down in full sight of his mother's estate; it's like he never got over her.

So true. He never did. In a certain way John Kennedy Jr.'s beauty was a kind of narcissism. His physical perfection came from entrapment in a youthful persona. He never developed as a persona beyond that of the handsome, loyal, affectionate, wonderful brother --

And the wonderful son.

Yes. The fact that he went down with two sisters is also interesting -- it's like a little family went down together there. And the woman he chose had his sister's name. People say, "Oh, Carolyn Bessette was just like Jackie." She was no Jackie! It's absurd. There's a tremendous elegiacal rush to find good things to say about this young woman, but she seemed to have lost energy as a personality the longer she was married to John. Pictures of the young Carolyn Bessette show what vitality she had. She was like a romping lioness. She exuded joie de vivre and an ebullient sensuality that she lost. As the years went on, she became this outwardly sour, Calvin Klein clone, a kind of Aubrey Beardsley android.

What did that woman do with the enormous opportunity presented to her as the wife of John F. Kennedy Jr.? She did nothing. She utterly lacked Jackie Kennedy's sophisticated interest in art, music and culture. All she seems to have represented was the shopaholic side of Jackie. Now that's a judgment on John also, since this is the mate he chose. He chose a woman who made herself thinner and thinner and thinner when they were trying to start a family. She got more and more fashion-conscious, more and more a fashion cipher. A recent piece in the New York Post called her -- with no insult intended -- a "lanky clotheshorse," and I thought, yes, that's what happened, she became more and more contracted and wizened, as a socialite who bloomed only at chic parties. She reserved her smiles for important or rich people. Her family called the two of them "soul mates," but she may have been a dead end for him as a personality.

But on the other hand, we must recognize what an awful burden it is to be the son of a famous man -- much less the only son of a martyred saint, as JFK Sr. became. And I think all of us who admire JFK Jr. do so because we realize what opportunities he had to be a total wastrel and an arrogant ass.


We're in effect honoring him for emerging intact from the psychological Nazi interrogation booth of the mega-celebrity forced on him from his earliest years, when he was surrounded and protected by women. It appears that Jackie herself was worried about him and described him as a sort of space cadet who would suddenly tune out and not notice what he was doing. It was his way of coping. His going off into dreamy detachment could have been a factor in this disaster.

I also think that risk-taking and adventurism are a search for transcendence, but they're also a search for oblivion. It's like there's a desire for oblivion in people who constantly defy death and need that kind of adrenaline high.

I agree. People who are always testing the limits are gambling with their lives, there's no doubt about it. And there's been this enormous shadow hanging over JFK Jr.'s life simply from Kennedy history. What we're hearing now, from the many reports from his friends who went on rafting expeditions with him or ice-climbing on glaciers in Europe, is he was always pressing the limits. He was searching for manhood, trying to come up to the much higher macho standards of his father, a military hero. It's as if he was looking for manhood in some way to escape the warm but suffocating bath of female attention.

My all-time favorite story about him goes way back to when he was 14. A woman journalist wrote a firsthand account of an incident she witnessed on the streets of New York: Jackie was shepherding John into a taxi, and as they were leaning down to get in, Jackie, "her face distorted with an expression that only another mother can understand," whacked him smartly on the back of the neck. I've always loved that story because it shows Jackie's control of him and her determination that he come out right and not be a spoiled brat. It really was a day-to-day effort that she made, and she took great pride, from all reports, in how well both her children had turned out.

Therefore, I'm even more aggravated, as tens of thousands of other people also must be, that JFK Jr. played so fast and loose with his own life, since his mother had given so much to shaping his character and ensuring his survival. It's almost like someone vandalizing a great painting. He was the artwork that was created by his mother's patience and devotion. So it's tragically ironic that the plane would go down within sight of his mother's estate -- the haunted motherland. The Cape Cod Times reports that the registration papers for the airplane --

Washed up on her beach. I give Jackie enormous credit for keeping him and Caroline away from the more destructive Kennedy kids, but I also have to say that as a 5-year-old, I was horrified by John Jr.'s salute to his father's passing coffin. To this day I can't see the salute without cringing, because to push a 3-year-old who had just lost his father out on the sidewalk to salute his horse-drawn coffin feels like coldness. A 3-year-old should be held and comforted, not made to salute when he's lost his father. I felt that viscerally then and I still do.

That's very interesting. I totally trust your reaction since you were so close in age to John at that moment. I myself was in my senior year of high school and thought the gesture was extraordinarily charming. But how awful it was that the death occurred so close to his birthday. Jackie insisted he have a normal party, and everyone had to sing "Happy Birthday" to him. What a terrible, fateful irony -- your father's funeral coinciding with your birthday.

What did you make of his status as sex symbol? Did you ever meet him?

I did see him in person on one occasion, but my sense of his beauty comes from all the magazine photographs I've enjoyed over the years. His physical conformation was absolutely remarkable. What a specimen of human breeding! The depth and breadth of his chest and torso, the shape of his thighs, the clarity and contours of his jaw, his head, his hair, his hands. He had a Cary Grant level of beauty, with the proportions of a Greek Kouros sculpture. It's one of the eternal, unfair principles of nature. Human beauty of this magnitude automatically confers power. Look at poor Prince Albert over there -- dim and balding! There's no way he could ever have John's amazing luminosity.

The one time I saw JFK Jr. was at the party that he threw at the Art Institute in Chicago during the 1996 Democratic Convention. I was in Chicago for the Oprah show and visited the convention, where I heard Hillary give her speech. I heard from people in the hallway that JFK Jr. was giving a big party downtown, and I thought I'd just drop by and see if I could get in, which I did. Normally, I try to keep clear of all that celebrity schmoozing, but I shouldn't complain since that's what got me in.

Anyhow, I did a quick, guerrilla, look-see tour -- zip, zip, zip through the jammed rooms -- and after about 15 minutes was trying to slip out a side door, when there he was -- being swept in through that very door with his stern entourage. He knew who I was, and we briefly shook hands -- I remember thinking how rock-hard his forearm was when I patted it. It was just a moment, but I have to say that in my entire life, I have never seen a more charismatic person. Of course, I didn't see him riding his bicycle around Manhattan or being the humble guy getting the hot dog and the oatmeal and the coffee, OK? I saw him in his royal persona with his battalion of burly, clearly armed-to-the-teeth bodyguards, their jackets bulging with what were surely multiple weapons. He himself seemed enormously tall, and he seemed to radiate this light that has always been identified with exceptional persons in history.

The subject of charisma is one that I've discussed in my own work. It goes all the way back to the sudden influx of grace perceived by early Christians. Halos or auras are always shown emanating from holy beings in world art. It's a theme I've applied in my work to the charisma of great movie stars, the radiant light in George Hurrell's photos of Garbo or Dietrich at the 1930s high point of the Hollywood studio system. I've seen genuinely charismatic people only a few times in my own life, and that night in Chicago was certainly one of them.

At his best, JFK Jr. exuded some strange magic. It's not something that he was necessarily responsible for. It's a gift, but it's also a terrible curse, because it separates you from other people, and the whole body of world mythology shows that the charismatic person usually gets slaughtered, OK? Mother Nature gives, and then she takes away. You don't get one thing without the corresponding other. At his entrance in Chicago, I think everyone saw that light emanating from him. There were hundreds of people milling around. The instinctive stir and parting of the waters in front of him were really kind of royalist. It was the closest thing to an atavistic, royalist phenomenon I've ever seen in our democratic country. It partly came from the mere fact of his celebrity, but it was also his physicality, his dazzling physical presence.

He had a preternatural aura. And he himself didn't know what to do with it. He struggled with it. He knew his personal power over people. He knew that his prominence primarily came from his sonship to the great fallen leader, but he knew also that he had the seductive ability to render males and females of any age into an adoring puddle around him. Now, most of the time he handled that gift well. But I think he was veering in a bad direction recently -- as evidenced by his unnecessarily posing in what appeared to be the nude in his own magazine.

That murky, ghostly shot of him with his arms around his knees now seems even more disturbing, since it shows him looking upward as if from the watery depths. At the time, I thought it was a bizarrely provocative gesture, particularly combined with his sermonizing in that issue about his Kennedy cousins being "poster boys for bad behavior." Something was starting to get unhinged there, as early as a year ago. Things were coming apart. Obviously his magazine wasn't doing as well as might be hoped, but the fact that he broke his ankle this year in that sports accident was a sign that his control of the physical world and of his own physicality was starting to slip. It was a warning sign to slow down -- to stop and reassess. Instead he pushed forward. Something was turning in his own life and fate, but he didn't listen to the signal.

That posing, offering himself up as beefcake -- it's exactly what he spent years trying not to do. It was as if he was saying, oh forget it -- if this is what you want, this is what I'll give you.

Yes, something was definitely going wrong. I've always been troubled by his relationship with Carolyn Bessette, whom I saw as the equivalent of the very annoying Linda Eastman in the Paul McCartney saga. In both cases, you have an outgoing, warm, pretty boy who takes into his life an often petulant, very private woman who is introverted to the point of neurosis. Some peculiar power thing was going on in the Kennedy relationship -- with Carolyn probably the psychologically stronger one. But what was with all that extreme, self-maiming plucking of the eyebrows? She was looking more and more like a bug-eyed pupa. It was as if she were in reverse evolution. One would hope that the wife of a man like JFK Jr., would extend him outward and broaden him, but she may have paralyzed him, locking him into a superficial social elite.

And that wedding, OK, where they went to this secret but luxurious Georgia retreat and had the effrontery to marry in a tiny, historic African church while she was wearing a slip dress that was nothing but a plain piece of draped cloth that cost an obscene amount -- [about] $38,000. The disconnect between the price of that dress and the site of that wedding seems to me to express all the hypocrisy of Kennedy politics. Which is: We're one of you; we take the part of the common man; we speak for African-Americans and Latinos and the poor and dispossessed -- while we hide our lavish lifestyle and trust funds from the public eye.

The Kennedys want it both ways. They want their exclusive life, and they want the pretense that they speak for the people. But of course that's the hypocrisy of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that we're now going to be examining with the potential senatorial candidacy of Hillary Clinton in New York. It's long overdue -- a real shakedown that exposes the arrogance and insularity of the lifestyle not only of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party but of their media cohorts. And it was really exposed this past weekend when ABC's Diane Sawyer, for example, couldn't get to work for two days because she was such an intimate of John Kennedy's.

And then that pompous windbag, Christiane Amanpour of CNN and CBS, putting herself out there to reminisce pointlessly about her big friendship with JFK, going all the way back to schooldays when they were sharing a house in Providence -- something she's carefully avoided revealing since she's been masquerading as a serious journalist and woman of the world, even after she married that shallow, 10th-rate JFK Jr. imitator, Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin. So there's been a lot of outings this week of major media figures. One reason they were all in such shock over this accident was that it occurred right off the edge of their play-land.

Right, everyone flies over there; everyone knows that route.

And now the spotlight of the world's media is on the grotesquely affluent lifestyle of the American major media. The point is, JFK Jr. comfortably inhabited that world, and all the people on the street who feel that he was "just like us" --

Don't kid yourself.

Exactly. I echo your eloquent phrase. Don't kid yourself!

I'm an Irish Catholic, but I've often wanted to be Italian. My favorite aunt is Sicilian, and when she lost her husband, my favorite uncle, when I was 10, the Sicilians wailed. They were beside themselves with grief. But the Irish barely cried. And I felt deeply that they were right and we were wrong. And I think the same thing when I watch the way the Kennedys grieve.

That's very interesting. Italians make death a common part of everyday life. It was one of the strongest features of my upbringing: Small children were always taken to funerals. On the morning of burial, you file past the open coffin and kiss the corpse. And Italians are constantly visiting the cemetery to tidy up the graves. There's a grisly realism about the facts of death --

That integrates it --

Yes, that integrates it with life itself. It descends from the ancient paganism of the Mediterranean world. It's all about fertility and extinction -- Mother Nature as the womb and the tomb. Once you get into the genteel middle class, of course, you edit out the brute facts of both sex and death. For example, the funeral service in New York City is being called "a celebration of the lives" of JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. This is the latest New Age jargon. Now you're not commemorating or marking or mourning someone's death or meditating soberly on their passing. Oh, no, you're going to be focusing on their lives -- anything to avoid the actual fact --

The fact of loss and grief.

And the gruesome physicality of corpses, OK? Working-class people in my background used to say, "Old man Pizzutti kicked the bucket!" But the more you move into the middle class, you're saying --

He passed.

Or he went to his final reward or eternal rest. You do anything to deny the horrors of death. In fact, we're in a time right now when sentimental angel fetishes are expanding and when people are less and less willing to confront the physical corruption and finality of death. Like this new vogue in spiritualists, who claim to put you in touch with the hovering spirits of your parents or relatives, who never really died.

You never have to say goodbye.

They just hang around. They loiter. They're all loitering! They never were absorbed into Mother Nature. So I think this terrible accident -- the plumbing of the watery depths to try to recover the mangled bodies before the carrion fish and parasites got them -- is a real metaphysical lesson to everyone. Those three people are gone -- utterly annihilated by their encounter with nature. All that's left is to treat their remains in a formal and dignified manner, which is part of the great pagan ritualism that has come down into the Roman Catholic Church and that gives closure. The huge heritage of rituals helps organize and exorcise intense emotions via a choreographic kind of design. We troop into a place, focus our thoughts, dispose of the remains and then troop back in a processional manner. The old rituals are of enormous import in people's lives, and small children should always be included.

By Joan Walsh

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Camille Paglia Ted Kennedy