Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
IN 1995, I WAS ONE OF A SMALL, ENTHUSIASTIC group of writers, editors, and businesspeople who helped John F. Kennedy Jr. found his magazine, George. I signed on as a senior editor and worked at the monthly for the next four years, eventually working my way up to the role of executive editor. (John, of course, was editor in chief.)
It was a dream job for me, a combination of compelling subject matter and the chance to work with a boss who was not only fascinating in his own right, but also warm and funny and immensely likable. Nearly all of us who worked with John felt the same way. You couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to live his life, of course, and so you couldn’t really know John; his status in American culture was unique, his experiences far removed from anything the rest of us had known. But he handled himself with grace and an unexpected (to me, anyway) humility, and all of us who worked at George for any length of time came to feel protective of him. You couldn’t help it.
When John died in July 1999, I was devastated. We all were. To have someone we cared about so much yanked away as if by the flip of a switch…to have John and his wife and sister-in-law found at the bottom of the ocean.
That pain was difficult for people who didn’t work at the magazine to imagine, because they didn’t know how personal our relationships with John were. (Most didn’t even realize that he came to work every day.) But the grief was overwhelming. For many of us at George, it was the most profound loss we had known.
I couldn’t bear the empty office next to mine. I had to leave, and I knew it. But I stayed for five more months to help put out the magazine and support my colleagues until a new editor could be found. It wasn’t easy. At first we responded to John’s death with a determination to carry on. But as the months passed, the reason for doing so became less clear, and that energy turned into a lingering malaise. Emotionally exhausted but still deeply sad, I left just before Christmas 1999.
I took some time off and traveled solo in Australia; on the Great Barrier Reef, I learned to scuba-dive. But I couldn’t stop thinking about all that had happened. It bothered me that the remembrances I’d read after John’s death were polite but often damned with faint praise; many were entirely dismissive of his magazine. One writer for Salon concluded, “From his salute to his father through his career at George, JFK Jr.’s triumphs were mostly style over substance.”
I thought that maybe I could tell his story from a more informed perspective. And so I decided to write a book about John and his magazine.
When I returned from my trip, I contacted a literary agent, Joni Evans of the William Morris Agency. Some of her clients had written for me at George. Tough but fair, Joni was someone I’d liked working with. And Joni liked my idea. Obviously, it had commercial potential. But also — and this mattered to me — she thought that my concept could be a good book, a useful book. She encouraged me to write a proposal, and in March 2000 we sent it to about half a dozen publishing houses. All expressed interest, but we chose Little, Brown, a house with an outstanding literary reputation. Publisher Sarah Crichton, who’d signed Malcolm Gladwell and was known for working closely with her writers, offered $750,000 for the project, American Son.