Everyone knows the tragic story. On a hazy, mid-July evening 20 years ago, a small airplane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean en route to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The passengers on board were something of American royalty—John F. Kennedy Jr., son of former president John F. Kennedy and cultural icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette. They were on their way to a summer wedding. No one survived.
On July 16, the 20th anniversary of that fateful flight to Martha’s Vineyard, A&E will debut a two-hour documentary special titled Biography: JFK Jr. The Final Year. The film probes beyond the tabloid frenzy surrounding America’s prince and his It girl wife to explore his political aspirations at the time of his death. It is the first time that Carole Radziwill, widow of JFK Jr.’s cousin and best friend Anthony Radziwill, has done an in-depth interview on the subject. (Anthony Radziwill died of sarcoma just weeks after Kennedy’s accident.) JFK Jr. The Final Year also features interviews with friends, staffers, and former president Bill Clinton.
The documentary is based on historian Steven M. Gillon’s newest book, America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr. Gillon was a teaching assistant at Brown University when “John John” Kennedy enrolled in one of his classes. After the semester was over, the two stayed in touch and eventually became close friends. Gillon went on to contribute to Kennedy’s George magazine.
“I met him in my classroom. I was the teaching assistant and I had to give a lecture on the Kennedy administration,” Gillon told Kennedy’s former assistant Rosemarie Terenzio. “The door swings open in the back, [JFK Jr.] comes sauntering in. He sits right in front of me right like you are there. I had to give a lecture in front of 120 bright Brown students and here the son of the guy I’m talking about is going to be in the classroom.”
Watching the film, one gets the sense that this anecdote foreshadows how JFK Jr. would navigate his adult life in the face of ceaseless media attention. From the iconic 1963 moment that he, at 3 years old, saluted his father’s casket, Kennedy was accustomed to being in the spotlight and, for the most part, did not shy away from it.
In 1988, he was deemed People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, appearing on the cover with tanned skin (no doubt from a summer spent vacationing in Hyannis Port), coiffed dark hair, and the corners of his lips upturned in a slight smile. He dated high-profile celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker and Daryl Hannah, and even had a rumored fling with Madonna. Radziwill described him as a good-natured practical jokester.
However, JFK Jr. The Final Year presents a darker narrative under the surface of Kennedy’s golden boy image, one that shows the political heir grappling with his mother’s death, his cousin’s terminal illness, his life as a newlywed with Carolyn Bessette, and his supposed destiny to go into politics.
Bessette, a publicist for Calvin Klein, became an accidental fashion icon, much in the same vein as Jackie O. A Google search of her name yields paparazzi shots of her wearing simple black cocktail dresses with her wheat-yellow hair pulled back at the nape of her neck or walking the couple’s dog Friday in sunglasses and slacks. But according to the documentary, Bessette disliked the attention, growing increasingly anxious and paranoid.
In one clip, Kennedy is seen addressing the swarm of paparazzi outside his apartment building. “If you’ll just indulge me for a moment,” he implored the photographers, his hands unassumingly tucked in his suit pockets, “I’m going to bring my wife down and we’re going to go visit a few folks. I just ask that, you know, getting married is a big adjustment.” He asked them to respect that adjustment by giving the newlyweds some privacy. However, as Steve Gillon said, “For [the paparazzi], that was just an invitation to invade their privacy even more.”
At the emotional heart of the documentary is Kennedy’s relationship with his cousin, Anthony Radziwill. Extensive footage of the two men as children in Montauk, shaggy-haired and barefoot in swimsuits, is a testimony to their enduring bond. In adulthood, Anthony and his wife Carole Radziwill were extremely close with the Kennedys. The foursome often spent summer weekends together in Massachusetts. Amidst the strain of Jackie’s death and his and Carolyn’s martial issues, watching his best friend’s health deteriorate as a result of his long battle with cancer was especially painful.
In May of 1999, Radziwill decided to take a leave of absence from his job so he and his wife could spend the summer in Martha’s Vineyard, close to Kennedy’s Hyannis Port summer home. “It was bittersweet because, sure, we were in this beautiful home, the weather was beautiful, the ocean,” Carole Radziwill said, “but we were there to die.” Just a couple months later, the foreboding sentiment would prove to be true not just for Anthony Radziwill, but for the Kennedys and Carolyn’s sister, Lauren Bessette.
JFK Jr. The Final Year is a nostalgia trip for politics buffs and pop-culture enthusiasts alike, cast in the sepia tones of vintage photography and bursting with New England Americana in each shot of a sail boat or striped sweater. But the film also provides a new look at a decades-old story through never-before-seen footage of JFK Jr. rehearsing for his 1988 DNC convention speech, reflections on his foray into the magazine world as editor-in-chief of George, and fresh interviews with the people who were closest to the Kennedys in their final days.
Biography: JFK Jr. The Final Year premieres on Tuesday, July 16 at 9 p.m on A&E.