President John F. Kennedy walks with his son, John F. Kennedy Jr., along the West Wing Colonnade of the White House.
Photo by Cecil Stoughton/www.jfklibrary.org
‘He had no airs at all’
PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - July 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Remembering JFK Jr. on his 20th death anniversary

Twenty years ago today, on the evening of July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr., son of US President John F. Kennedy and the enduring style icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — the man they say was the closest America ever got to having a crown prince of its own — died when the light aircraft he was flying crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He was with his wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, and according to medical reports, all three died “instantly” when their plane hit the ocean.

I remember keeping an anxious vigil before the TV set as this was way, way before social media. Like many who had uttered a collective “Oh, no!” when they heard JFK Jr.’s plane was missing, I clung to hope that he would find his way to shore, with his wife and sister-in-law in tow. His father John F. Kennedy did this during the war despite a broken back, when his boat PT-109 was sunk by the Japanese. (I recently read that John Jr. did in fact swim through rough seas when he went solo paddling on the Atlantic. Hypothermic, he reached shore, broke into an unoccupied home, took a warm bath, then left a note of apology to the house’s owners for breaking in. Of course, the owners never filed charges against him and wrote him back instead with pleasantries.)

On Day 3 or 4, I suddenly got a stream of condolences over SMS — my fascination, nay, fixation, for the Kennedys was known by kith and kin. The wreckage of the plane had been found, and not far, at the bottom of the ocean, John, Carolyn and Lauren still strapped to their seats.

The next day, ABS-CBN chased me from the old Hyatt Regency on Roxas Boulevard, where I was having a press lunch, to my home (then in Makati) to interview me — I kid thee not! Their researcher knew of my being a Kennedy fan(atic) and so they interviewed me on JFK Jr. (who I had never even met) and took a video of my extensive Kennedy memorabilia, “amassed” since I was a kid (when little girls were supposed to collect Barbie Dolls, not Kennedy books).

The oddity of this Filipino girl grieving like she were JFK Jr.’s ex-girlfriend must have caught the eye of CNN because it picked up the video clip of ABS-CBN’s interview with moi, and my Assumption high school classmate Therese Gamboa saw it in NYC and must thought to herself, “Whatta… why is Joanne crying on my TV set?”

*   *   *

But there is a Filipina who did rub elbows with JFK Jr. — chef par excellence Margarita “Gaita” Fores, who had common friends with the American royal.

“In NYC in the late ‘70s,” recalls Gaita. “We had common friends. Sam Eduque and I taught him how to play backgammon. We spent a weekend at my former boss Alfonso Telese’s place in Garrison, New York. Alfonso is a super close friend of my mom, who used to manufacture the furs for Valentino. I got my job at Valentino because of him. My cousin, Jorge Yulo was with us that weekend, too.”

How was JFK Jr. like, considering his looks, his lineage, his star wattage?

“No airs at all. He was a super regular guy, unassuming,” says Gaita. “You would think all the Kennedys know everything, right? So we were surprised that he didn’t know how to play backgammon and he asked us to teach him.”

*   *   *

There is a new book on JFK Jr. titled, America’s Reluctant Prince by Steven M. Gillon, a leading historian who was also John’s close friend. 

He writes of John, who seemed poised to accept the glory and the burdens of his father’s legacy: “When I first met John in the ‘80s, he referred to his father as ‘President Kennedy’,” Gillon says. “And then into the ‘90s he referred to him as ‘my father,’ and in the last few years he referred to him as ‘daddy.’ It just suggested to me that he was becoming more comfortable with himself and he did not have to keep his father at such a distance.”

“He spent his entire life trying to figure out who he was and what he wanted to do,” Gillon says of John, “and in those final years he figured it out. What he discovered was that politics was part of his DNA… I think he was ready to answer that call.”

From another book timed for the 20th anniversary of John’s passing, Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short by William D. Cohan, excerpts of which were published in Vanity Fair:

“A few days before Jackie Kennedy Onassis died, in May 1994, she wrote a letter to her son John, to be opened only after her death. ‘I understand the pressure you’ll forever have to endure as a Kennedy, even though we brought you into this world as an innocent,’ she wrote. ‘You, especially, have a place in history. No matter what course in life you choose, all I can ask is that you and Caroline continue to make me, the Kennedy family, and yourself proud’.”

“For John Jr., her death was scary and transformative. ‘[He said] things like, ‘Until both of your parents are dead, you don’t really know how alone you are,’ Christiane Amanpour, the CNN anchor, told an oral historian. But John’s friend Gary Ginsberg said he thought John handled death better than anyone he knew. ‘He lost cousins, he lost parents, and he was incredibly unemotional,’ he told me. ‘Not that he didn’t feel it, but externally was able to hold it together better than anybody I knew. I remember saying, ‘John, how the hell do you do it?’ And he said, ‘You know, I just learned from my family. You just don’t wallow in death. You move on. You hold it inside’.”

Books and articles on JFK Jr. show that as an adult, he virtually taunted death with his activities, which he deemed were “normal:” solo sailing, paragliding, flying a plane. No one really knows why, but my sister Geraldine, a psychiatrist, thinks John probably reasoned, “I’ve stared death many times in the eye through my father, my uncles, my cousins. I can’t let the fear of death paralyze me. Bring it on!”

In fact, to me, he dueled with death. He wasn’t suicidal because he thought he would and could vanquish it.

In the end, America’s Prince could have been slain by the sword of his own courage.

(You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com. Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.)

JOHN F. KENNEDY JR.
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