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Sunday, August 9, 2009

The most famous guy I ever met

This is, I promise, the last of the "ever met" series. For those of you who've been complaining to me about their length, I offer this small hook: this one puts me in a bad light.

There are different degrees of fame. There is the Oh-yeah-I-remember-him type of fame that someone who, say, is a one-hit wonder gets to have. (The one hit can be in a field other than music.) This is the fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol once so famously promised us all.

Then there is the star-in-his-field kind of fame. Sportswriter John Feinstein, for instance, enjoys this sort of renown. He’s written bestselling books, and has appeared regularly on television. If you don’t follow the sports he covers, you wouldn’t know him. Yet he’s well known enough that people who are fans or who have read his books get slightly goofy when meeting him for the first time.

Then there are the stars who transcend their field. You needn’t be a cycling fan to know who Lance Armstrong is. Wherever he goes, he’s treated with adulation, and the press reports on the minor circumstances of his life simply because they know people will be interested. Stars of this magnitude tend to carry themselves a little differently.

Finally, there is the Beatles-at-their-peak sort of fame. This is when bodyguards become necessary, and people tend to lose their minds a little around them.

There are many ways to become famous. Athletes, politicians, heroes, and antiheroes all have their moment in the spotlight (though they generally don’t complain as much). Some are famous through accident of birth, such as royalty. Presidential offspring – temporary royalty – also tend to get a lot of attention.

The case can be made that no child in history was ever more famous than young John F. Kennedy Jr. He slid from his mother’s womb right into the goldfish bowl, and he never escaped. Photographers were invited into the White House to photograph the President and First Lady playing with their children, and consequently the American public felt a strong connection to the telegenic family. John’s fame was not quite Beatles level, but it was close. To put it unkindly, his was a Paris Hilton sort of fame, the oft-cited “famous for being famous” type of celebrity. It wasn’t admiration, because he hadn’t really accomplished anything of note. At the same time, the public view of him was colored by an element of affection, because we had grown up with him, and he with us.

By comparison, all the First Offspring since have seemed mere pretenders. (When was the last time you heard of Lynda Byrd Robb, Tricia Nixon, Susan Ford, or Amy Carter?) Of course, not only were all the others already born by the time their fathers occupied the Oval Office, most were well past the age of cuteness. None of their families have ever been described as America’s royal family, not even the Bushes, who, strictly speaking, have more of a dynasty going. None had the advantage of having the most glamorous couple of the twentieth century as their parents. And none of the succeeding Presidents captured the public’s sympathy by dying so young and dramatically.

And just as importantly from the public point of view, none of the other offspring were as good-looking as John Kennedy Jr. So, young John grew up to become America’s crown prince.

Whenever I would read about John in the press, my main feelings were usually envy and resentment: why should he get so much attention? Why should he get all those good-looking girls? I never thought he was that handsome, yet people talked about him as if he was just down from Mount Olympus. My feelings were somewhat leavened by a twinge of sympathy whenever I read about his reputation for slowness. (Has anybody ever failed in more public fashion than when the NY Post put “The Hunk Flunks” on its front page after he failed his bar exam?) But the primary feeling was still jealousy. I suspect most guys of our approximate vintage reacted the same way.

The vast majority of us have roughly the same reaction to hearing of some movie star complain about the price of fame: “This is what you wanted through all those years of casting calls, so don’t complain. And being a highly paid movie star depends on public recognition, so you can’t have it both ways. Anyway, you seem like the type who’d actually be upset if people didn’t recognize you.”

Mixed in with this disgust is an undeniable envy. Who among us wouldn’t like to work only a few months a year for millions, have the press take our simple-minded opinions seriously, enjoy our pick of sexual partners, and have people treat us as if we’re demigods? The difference with John, of course, was that he never asked for his fame.

Perhaps the best way to sum up John’s fame would be to say that even other famous people always seemed thrilled to meet him. President Clinton, who positively glowed at the mention that he “evoked” JFK, once hosted Jackie and John and Caroline at the White House, and was obviously thrilled to meet the family. Princess Diana, in New York once, asked to meet him and entertained him in her hotel room. And so on.

I was vaguely aware that John had been kept separate from his cousins, and that Jackie had not allowed him to become the degenerate that many of them had. John seemed instead to have become a bit of a narcissist (in the superficial, not psychological sense of the term), constantly exercising and showing off his body. But that may have been because his body was one of the few areas where he compared favorably on his own merits, rather than merely being given a pass because of his lineage.

I noticed that John was a bit of a public Rorschach test. A trader who worked with me was insecure about his intelligence. One afternoon he gleefully said that he had seen JFK Jr. at a Knicks game the previous evening, that he had come in wearing a baseball cap backwards on his head, that he hadn’t known where his seat was, and that he looked clueless.

A gay guy once told me that he thought JFK Jr. was gay.

A woman who worked in the Manhattan DA’s office at the time John worked there once told me, “Well, first of all, he’s really a hunk. I mean, he’s really handsome. But he’s also really dumb. One time he had to ask where [a certain reference book] was; that’s one of the most basic books you need if you’re going to work in a DA’s office. And he didn’t even know where it was!” It occurred to me that she only said how handsome he was to show she had nothing against him, so that she wouldn’t look biased when she took delight in talking about how dumb he was.

When I started work on Wall Street in 1984, I joined the Downtown Athletic Club to have a place to swim. John Kennedy joined soon after he started working in the Manhattan DA’s office in the late Eighties, and I would see him in the weight room and the pool. People were always aware that he was there, but nobody ever approached him, and he went his own way. One thing I noticed about John was that whenever he would be in a public place like the weight room, he would never look at other people. He always kept his eyes focused on the weights or the floor or out the window.

So I was quite surprised when I was finishing up my workout in the pool one evening and he asked, “What are those things?” I explained that he was referring to Zoomers, a type of foreshortened fin designed to allow a swimmer to practice at competition speed, and also to condition his legs. I asked if he wanted to borrow them and he quickly said, “Oh no,” but when I said I was about to take a shower and could collect them afterward, he said sure. When I came back ten minutes later, he said, “I see what you mean about the legs. They really are great exercise.”

I went home, told my wife about the conversation, and didn’t think much more of it until about three weeks later, when I heard someone saying, “Hey! I was hoping I was going to run into you!” in an extremely friendly voice. I looked up and saw John pulling up on his bicycle. I couldn’t quite believe that he was being that friendly. In fact, he was so friendly that for one crazy moment I thought he might actually have been gay, despite his public reputation. But unlike the usual disgust and unease I felt if I thought a homosexual was coming on to me, I felt nothing but flattered. At the same time, because there was that sliver of doubt in the back of my head, I was somewhat reserved, which in retrospect was the right way to play it.

I gave John a phone number where he could buy some Zoomers, and saw him sporadically around the DAC after that. Sometimes I ran into him in the pool, and we would do a set together. He was always polite and friendly, but the thought that he might be gay vanished almost immediately.

One time he told me, “I like the DAC. People are cool there, they’ll leave you alone.” By “you” of course he meant himself. But it didn’t seem to me that the people at the DAC were all that cool.

If I were talking to John, people who knew me would just walk up and stand there. I knew I had no choice but to introduce them: if I hadn’t, each of these people would never have forgiven me for not having given them their one chance to meet him. So I would go ahead and impose on John by introducing them. He would dutifully extend his hand and say, “Nice to meet you.” But somehow none of them ever seemed able to keep their heads around him. Whoever got introduced would continue to just stand there with a foolish expression; they inevitably had nothing to say. John would then excuse himself politely and go on with his workout.

One time I happened to introduce him to a partner at my firm (I was a lowly vice president). The partner, who almost never phoned me, phoned me twice the next day, neither time for any pressing reason. I knew that he wanted to talk about John, but wanted me to bring the subject up. Or perhaps he had told his wife about meeting him, and his wife now wanted an introduction. (I didn’t like him, so I didn’t give him the satisfaction.)

Another effect John had was that whenever he was around, people – while pretending not to notice him -- would act much more jovial, and would also laugh a little louder. But it was a hard, forced jollity, and it always seemed obvious that they were doing it for his benefit, to get his attention and show what happy, happening people they were.

This must have been irksome for John in a vague, subtle sort of way, but there were also much more awkward incidents for him to put up with. Another trader on my desk once said that he knew somebody who knew John in college, and that a group of students were talking politics with him one day, and the subject turned to Jimmy Carter. One of the guys blurted out, “I really hate that guy – I’d like to shoot him!”

In any case, John sent everybody’s radar screen onto high alert. My wife said that whenever John was in the DAC the women’s locker room would be atwitter with talk about him, and the women always seemed to track his movements.

I once told a woman who swam at the DAC that I had pointed her out to John and commented on her nice-looking legs, whereupon he agreed. The woman beamed and gushed, “Thanks for telling me that.” I could tell I had made her day.

One evening I worked out with him, then swam again the next day. I was doing a kickboard set with my wife, when I heard someone yell, “Two days in a row? You’re an animal!” I looked up to the pool balcony see who was yelling, but my goggles were fogged and I couldn’t see who it was, so didn’t respond. My wife told me who it was a few seconds later, but by then John had already disappeared. When I said hi later, he was a little unfriendly, and I realized that he must have thought I was snubbing him in order to somehow gain status with my wife. I wondered how often people used him this way.

Nobody ever acted normal around him. I tried to fake it. I think I succeeded, because I was told by several people that I was the only guy at the DAC he was friendly to. But it was just an act. I was never anything less than screamingly conscious of whom I was speaking to whenever I was with him. Whenever I spoke to him, internal sirens were always wailing, “JFK Jr.! JFK Jr.!”

I tried to treat him as I would have anyone else. One time when I hadn’t worked out with him for a while, I bumped into him at the DAC and gruffly asked, “Hey, when are you going to grow a pair of balls and start doing sets with me again?” He seemed to like that.

Another time I mentioned to him that I had seen him on TV the night before (on a boring public access cable show about New York City). He asked what I had thought of it, and I replied, “It wasn’t my type of show, but you were good.” I was purposely lukewarm, just because I knew that most people would have fawned all over him and lied, telling him how great the show was. (My response wasn’t dishonest, but it was calculated.)

Had I ever said exactly what was really on my mind, it would have come out something like, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m actually talking to John-John! Hey, so what’s Jackie really like? Oh, and did you really make it with Madonna?”

I’ve always despised name-droppers (it's a very poor substitute for accomplishing something on your own). But I felt that same urge. I would mention to friends that I had met him, and then feel embarrassed that I had done so, even though they would always be curious to hear about him. My connection to the crown prince almost seemed to give me a bump in status. Of course it didn’t, but somehow it felt as if it did.

Many of these friends would subsequently start off their conversations with, “So, have you seen JFK Jr. recently?” (Though they were theoretically my friends, they were far more interested in hearing about him.)

I remembered once reading that Jackie Onassis had once said that one of the worst things about being her was that people would start to act very precious when they were around her. I even felt that tug once or twice around John. (I resisted.)

I remember one time he told me that he had looked for my house in the Hamptons one weekend, but couldn’t find it. Another time he told me he had phoned me at work, but been hung up on (which happens all the time on trading desks). Both times it had made me feel good, in a way that was far beyond what I would have felt with anyone else. It shouldn’t have, but it did.

One evening I was chatting with Dave, the guy who had called JFK clueless, in the weight room at the DAC, and John walked up. He started talking with me; the conversation lasted for about five minutes. The next morning Dave announced to our trading desk, “Hey, did you guys know that John is good friends with JFK Jr.?! Those guys are like that!” and he held up two fingers together to indicate closeness. I immediately made clear we weren’t close, but everybody expressed amazement and asked why I had never mentioned this. I have to admit, I basked in my moment of reflected glory. Here I was, someone whom John was friendly to because I treated him “normally”, and I was exulting in my connection to him in a way that would undoubtedly have disgusted him.

After Dave announced to my coworkers that I was friends with John, one of them looked at me appraisingly, and said, “I guess you’re the kind of guy he’d like, because you wouldn’t be that impressed by who he is. (Though I’d like to accept the compliment, it wasn’t true -- in the least.)

One time I phoned his number to let him know that he had forgotten his Zoomers at the pool and that I had them. When I saw him at the pool a few days later, I mentioned that I had left that message, which he said he never received. He laughed and said, “They probably thought you were crazy.” His office undoubtedly got all sorts of crank calls for him, and had gotten into the habit of shielding him from them.

We all want what we can’t have; that’s human nature. It’s why expressions like “the grass is always greener” and “forbidden fruit” ring true. The one thing John could never have was to be treated normally. This was actually something he craved, but it would forever be out of his reach.

John seemed to have two ways of speaking; one was with a very upper class, cultured voice. The other was one I can only describe as a “stoner” voice. He seemed to affect it at times in an effort to appear normal. For as badly as he wanted to be treated like everyone else, he wanted to appear normal as well.

One time, speaking about his summer plans, he said something about intending to be “lying on a beach with a beer in my hand.” It seemed an attempt to appear a regular guy, something he would obviously never be able to convince anyone he was.

The burden of expectations on John must have really been crushing. This may have been part of the reason he didn’t want to give up his youth. When he was still working at the DA’s office, he would trudge to the DAC wearing a backpack, looking for all the world like a college – or even high school – student. (It is perhaps a tribute to the country we live in that its crown prince could walk around unescorted, unprotected, safe in the fiction that he is just another citizen like the rest of us. Princes in other countries don’t get such freedom.)

John continued to roller blade and ride his bicycle long past the age when most do so. And he never made an effort to dress up. It was as if he was putting adulthood – and the expectations that followed – off for as long as he could. (Of course, he also knew from experience that people were going to treat him a certain way no matter how he dressed.) Even when he started his magazine and seemed to come into his own a bit, it still seemed as if that were a way of entering the political arena everyone expected him to participate in with only one foot.

He certainly came across as quite intelligent when you chatted with him. After getting to know him a little, it occurred to me that his initial failure to pass the bar exam was simply another expression of reluctance to go down the path everyone else seemed to have chosen for him.

My feelings of envy never entirely disappeared, but they were leavened with sympathy after seeing that wherever he went, whatever he did, he would never be able to escape the sort of reaction he got at the DAC, if not worse. One time he went to Europe on vacation (I knew this from the headlines) and came back with a beard. I actually didn’t recognize him at first, so asked, “Does your beard allow you to travel incognito?” He replied, “Yeah, sort of – well, not really.”

This was why he took many of his vacations in out of the way places, such as a kayaking trip to Newfoundland – there would be nobody there to bother him. I became less envious of all the exotic vacations he had taken.

I also understood why he had grown so attached to his dog. The dog acted towards him like it would have towards any person, and – unlike me – actually felt that way, too.

It used to be said that people would always remember where they were when they first heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Most of us will probably also remember where we were when we first heard that John’s plane was missing. I was surprised how sad I ended up feeling, and also surprised at why.

I felt sad the way the rest of the country felt sad – because John-John, the little boy we had grown up with, was dead, and who among us could ever forget the image of him saluting his father’s coffin? I think I felt sadder about that that than I did at losing a personal acquaintance (I couldn’t honestly say we’d ever been friends – only friendly acquaintances). Yet here I was, theoretically a quasi-friend, mourning his death more in terms of what he represented than as someone I knew. When it came to John, I could never get past who he was, to who he was. I suspect just about everyone else he ever knew had the same problem. Other than the fact that it was cut short, this may have been what was saddest about his life.


jmh said...

What great stories! Your observations about "being John" are so sad and so true!

John Craig said...

JMH -- Thank you very much.

Steven said...

I've really enjoyed this series and I'd encourage you to write more if you can think of more to write. Your observations of people and your insights into those different qualities are brilliant.

I don't know why anyone would complain about the length. It's not like anybody had a gun to their heads.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Thank you very much, you're very kind. I've been lucky in a way that I've know such extreme people to write about (extremely smart, famous, cool, tough, and so on).

Anonymous said...

I told my twin sister about this post, wanting her to read it (having read it a while ago). John such a good, likeable person. How I wish that he was still alive. He was one Kennedy that everyone approved of. What was there not to like?


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thank you. Yes, he was a nice guy. But he had had such a weird life, having been in such a goldfish bowl his entire life, you couldn't call him normal. How could he have been, when no one had ever treated him normally?

Anonymous said...

Your post about him caused me to see things from his perspective, trying to imagine what it must have been like to be him. It had to have been hard to be a celebrity, people treating you differently than the average Joe. I do feel sorry for him, but still think that he was a really good guy. Our loss. Hopefully, John's in a very good place. If I ever get to heaven, he's one person I wouldn't mind meeting (and I believe in an afterlife).


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Not just a celebrity, but a celebrity from the time he was born. As I think I said in the post, we all want what we can't have, and the one thing he couldn't have was to be treated normally. Most celebs WANT to be celebs, in fact thirst after it, no matter how much they complain about the hassles of being famous. John honestly seemed not to want it, though he never complained about it.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you recognized this "need" in him was a blessing to him because you allowed him to be "just another guy" around you. I guess we all have things that we wrestle with (I know I do). What I liked about John was that even though he was a celebrity, he wasn't a snob, or obnoxious about his fame. He seemed like a regular person who was approachable, down-to-earth. Even if he weren't famous, he still would have had a good personality, been a good guy. I get it that he didn't know what it was like to be "normal," (due to being famous from infancy on up), feeling badly for him. Since he was a celebrity though, he was one of the good ones (preferring him over many of his relatives, plus other celebrities).


John Craig said...

Birdie --
I didn't really have all that much contact with him. I tried to be cool around him, but as I pointed out in the post, it was all fake.