NEW YORK — Since before he was even born, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. has been an intimate part of America's family album.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, stories about the young Kennedy family and their forthcoming child filled women's magazines and the popular press. Before he was a year old, "John-John" graced the cover of Life magazine in a white playsuit, chewing on a toy rooster.
The next time the little boy appeared on Life's cover, just shy of his third birthday, he and his sister, confused and uncertain, clutched their mother's hands at his father's funeral.
Since then, the news media have obsessively chronicled his coming of age, recognizing that - even with the passage of decades - America could never quite shake its fascination with the young man who, for many, came to symbolize the hope lost in the Camelot of his father's administration.
Kennedy himself, at first a reluctant celebrity, eventually acquiesced to the media demands. Indeed, he finally trumped the press, joining it by founding a magazine that critiqued and celebrated the nation's obsession with fame. In doing so, celebrity-watchers say, Kennedy was also starting to fade more into the background as he matured as a publisher and a husband.
But this weekend, the only surviving son of the slain president once again captured the nation's attention, as bits of wreckage of the Saratoga Piper he was piloting Friday night washed onto the shores of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.
His wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, were passengers on the plane. This time the country was gripped with the sense that yet another tragedy had befallen America's most prominent political family.
As of this writing, the National Transportation Safety Board has opened a formal crash investigation into the disappearance of Kennedy's plane Friday night off the coast of the scenic resort island. Hundreds of planes and boats, small and large from the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the Civil Air Patrol, have been scouring the waters in a search that has narrowed from more than a thousand square miles to half that number off Gay Head beach.
Despite indications that the plane did not survive intact, hope had not been completely extinguished.
"I can tell you miraculous stories of people surviving," said the Coast Guard's Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee late Saturday afternoon. "I can tell you in previous cases like this, we've searched as many as three or four days. We're not ready to give up on this yet."
Kennedy and his passengers had taken off from a small airport in Fairfield, N.J., in the high-performance single-engine plane, around 8:45 on a hazy Friday evening. They were headed first to Martha's Vineyard, presumably to drop off Ms. Bessette, before heading on to Hyannisport on Cape Cod for the wedding of cousin Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. An early analysis of radar from the area indicates the plane may have dived suddenly not quite 20 miles out from the Martha's Vineyard Airport.
But even as wreckage emerged from the water throughout most of the weekend, the Kennedy family tried to hold out hope. They kept the flag at the Hyannisport compound flying at full mast, as legions of news media converged again upon the compound of weathered white clapboard houses so familiar to America's consciousness.
And while the networks and the 24-hour news channels kept up a steady drumbeat of coverage reminiscent of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, reporters, historians, and family friends regularly reminded viewers of the family's extraordinary gifts and seemingly unfathomable bouts with grief.
The search for the new pilot and his passengers came on an unhappy anniversary. Thirty years ago, searchers were in the water off Chappaquiddick, the little Vineyard island where Sen. Edward Kennedy was involved in a car accident that killed a young woman and virtually ensured that he would never be president.
While John Kennedy Jr. was a witness to much tragedy in his own family, he also managed to avoid the scandal that seemed to hound his cousins. Even as a child, he and his sister Caroline maintained a "regal poise all of the others lacked," Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote in "The Kennedys," their 1984 chronicle of the family's drama.
As an adolescent, Kennedy eschewed the media and coveted his privacy, much like his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
But gradually, he began to appear more often in public, first in 1979 at the dedication of the John F. Kennedy presidential library in Boston, then in 1988 at the Democratic National Convention, where he electrified the delegates and revived some of the optimism embodied in his father's never-finished New Frontier.
The press couldn't get enough of him, and the paparazzi started hounding him regularly, whether it was swimming at the beach, playing touch football in Central Park, or rollerblading in Tribeca, his downtown Manhattan neighborhood.
In 1988, People magazine dubbed him "the sexiest man alive." His failure to pass the New York bar exam after law school made the front page of the New York Post, with a headline that blared, "The Hunk Flunks."
While Kennedy was known for his occasional blow-ups at the paparazzi, in time he learned to tolerate them, and eventually to use them for his own purposes.
In 1995, after a short stint as a prosecutor, he started George Magazine, a glossy, sometimes irreverent celebration of fame and politics.
"He understood what celebrity was all about and tried to use it to his advantage, while at the same time standing above it," says Neal Gabler, author of "Life the Movie" and a contributor to George Magazine.
When Kennedy started George, many critics predicted he would be a figurehead editor. But colleagues say he turned out to be a substantive, hands-on manager, concerned with the smallest editorial details as well as the overall direction and character of the new magazine.
The nature of celebrity
While the young Kennedy's ironic wit and pleas for privacy are often cited as resembling his mother, like his father, he grew to have a clear sense of himself, says Mr. Gabler.
So much so, he adds, that Kennedy could separate himself from his public persona. In doing so, he learned to manipulate his celebrity image to promote his own causes.
"It's something John Kennedy Sr. learned very early: how to deploy himself for the things he wanted to gain," says Gabler.
Writer Norman Mailer said of the senior Kennedy's understanding of the emerging celebrity and media culture that it was a case of Superman coming to the Supermarket.
While the president's son also grew to understand what the public wanted from him, and how to use it, he still couldn't shake what seemed to be a passion for privacy.
During a recent Monitor interview, Kennedy bristled when asked whether George was too closely identified with him personally. He even grabbed the tape recorder and turned it off.
"This isn't about me, this is about the magazine," he said, defensively.
But when the question was repeated, he relented, turned the tape recorder back on, and answered with the ease and confidence that has come to mark his public persona.
"He grew up in the camera's eye, he played in the camera's eye, but he maintained his dignity in the camera's eye, because he understood what it was all about," says Gabler.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society