Exclusive Excerpt from New Book

On Nov. 25, 1963, three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluted his assassinated father’s casket in a televised funeral procession. That heartbreaking image came to symbolize the nation’s loss.

The world never stopped watching as the little boy grew into a movie-star-handsome magazine editor, married Carolyn Bessette and then died at age 38 on July 16, 1999, when the plane he was piloting crashed off Martha’s Vineyard, also killing Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren, 34. 

For more on JFK Jr., pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Now, 25 years after JFK Jr.’s death, many of his closest friends have opened up about the man behind the myth in JFK Jr: An Intimate Oral Biography by RoseMarie Terenzio and People editor-at-large Liz McNeil, excerpted exclusively — in print and audio — below.

The cover of ‘JFK Jr.: An Intimate Oral Biography’ by Liz McNeil and RoseMarie Terenzio.

Simon & Schuster



Listen to an exclusive excerpt of “JFK Jr.: An Intimate Oral Biography” by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil

Before her husband’s funeral, Mrs. Kennedy asked military personnel to teach John how to salute his casket.

Philip M. Hannan, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington

“I saw John Jr. salute [that day]. I was standing by him. I thought, This is the picture that will live. I saw the reaction of the people across the street. It was an instantaneous reaction; they broke down, especially the women … I had heard Mrs. Kennedy say, ‘John, salute.’ I knew then that this was probably the most poignant picture of the century.”

John grew up in New York City, where his mom moved with him and Caroline in 1964. She enrolled him at the private Collegiate School. 

David Clarke, schoolmate

“He had this big mop of hair. You’d see him wandering around the halls, shirttails hanging out, his tie ripped off to one side, his hair a mess. He was known for losing blazers.” 

He transferred to elite Andover in 1976 and had to repeat his senior year when he failed math before starting at Brown University in 1979. He was easily distractable but his name and charm brought advantages — and fun.

William Cohan, schoolmate

“One weekend, he invites me down to [the family’s apartment at] 1040 Fifth Avenue. I walk in and it’s mind-boggling. And his mother’s there. And then John goes into his room and decides he wants to get high, takes out the bong, smokes a bowl, pours the bong water out onto Fifth Avenue from his bathroom.”

Gary Ginsberg, college friend

“I met John in the second-to-last row of a history class. One day … neither of us had any clue what was really going on. John had to give an answer, and it was so inane. But after he finished his two-minute response, the professor’s nodding vigorously. ‘John, that was so insightful.’ That’s when I realized it was what John always referred to as ‘the JK Factor.’

“There’s no table in a restaurant? Then one appears. He’d always look at me with that sh—eating grin and go, ‘JK Factor.’ ”

John F. Kennedy Jr. photographed at ‘George Magazine’ Headquarters in New York City in 1996.

Anne Marie Fox


He got his law degree from NYU in 1989 and passed the bar exam on his third try. He dated actress Daryl Hannah off and on but met and fell for Calvin Klein publicist Carolyn Bessette in 1992 before formally ending things with Hannah.

Robbie Littell, best friend

“[Carolyn] intrigued him more than anyone he’d ever met. A force of nature. He said he wanted to marry her. He was adamant.” 

They wed on Sept 21, 1996 on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia.

George Kyriakos, wedding guest and Carolyn’s hairdresser

“John slept in my then-wife Jackie’s and my room the night before the wedding. Which is crazy — there was this huge mansion where everybody had rooms, and John was sleeping on a cot in our room. It was the whole don’t-sleep-with-the-bride-the-night-before-the-wedding thing.”

Gogo Ferguson, who hosted their wedding

“We lit the church with all the candles and flashlights we had because by the time we got her in her dress and I drove her down the road in my truck, it was getting dark. There was no electricity. John and Carolyn stayed at our house that night. Someone had the great idea of putting rose petals all the way up our driveway and into our bedroom, which ended up a complete mess. That was gonna be the honeymoon suite.”

The press attention intensified — and while John was used to it, Carolyn was overwhelmed.

John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy at the annual Profiles in Courage awards on May 23, 1999 at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Mass.

Justin Ide


Sasha Chermayeff, college friend

“She genuinely felt she was in danger. The paranoia set in when she kind of let her mind spin off: ‘What if somebody wants to kidnap me?’ After they got married, it just escalated and escalated and escalated. John was five years older. And being followed, it’s very different for a 200-lb. man than for a woman alone. By then she was thinking, ‘They’re spying on me. They’re stalking me. Now my life is being afraid.’ ”

John got his pilot’s license in 1998 and found an escape in the skies.

Robbie Littell 

“That was some of the happiest times he ever had. Floating around with the buzzards in his Buckeye [plane]. It was the freedom. But most of all, it was getting away.  Flying made him super happy. Free spirit, in control, doing something, you know … a James Bondian endeavor. Playing James Bond.”

Gary Ginsberg

“He said, ‘It’s the only place I can go where no one is bothering me. I have complete silence, and no one can get to me except the air traffic controllers.’ Maybe that gives you insight into what he was really dealing with on the ground.” 

RoseMarie Terenzio, friend and assistant

“When he got his plane, the Cessna, you have to have a tail number, and he wanted 529 because that was his dad’s birthday — May 29. When he went to reserve that number to register it with the FAA, that one was taken. He ended up buying the number from the person who had it. The tail number on both of John’s planes was N529JK.”

John was trying to keep George magazine afloat, fighting with Carolyn and  worried about the looming death from cancer of his cousin Anthony Radziwill. In May 1999, he broke his ankle  paragliding. John and Carolyn’s relationship hit a low point the week of July 12. Though accounts vary, John spent at least one night at the Stanhope Hotel.

Sasha Chermayeff

“They were spiting each other. Maybe Carolyn was trying to make him worry [by not coming home]. So then he did it the next night. He was not with her those last two nights. The Stanhope thing was tricky. I think he went there to meet [former girlfriend] Julie Baker. Everybody always asks me, ‘What do I think would’ve happened?’ Anything was possible.” 

Julie Baker

“I spoke to John for the last time the night before he passed. There is a rumor going around that I was with him at the Stanhope [that night]. This is not true. He was at a baseball game and wanted me to meet up with him and his friend after to grab a drink. I was away, so I couldn’t. I did however grab a quick lunch with him (which we often did) at the Stanhope a few days before the accident.”

On July 16, he spent the day at the office. The plan was to fly to Martha’s Vineyard to drop off Carolyn’s sister Lauren, 34, and then fly to Hyannis, Mass., for his cousin Rory Kennedy’s wedding. But they ended up leaving later than planned. 

RoseMarie Terenzio

“I got to John and Carolyn’s apartment, where I was staying until my air conditioning got fixed, at 9:30 or 10:00. They had two phones — one in the kitchen, and then a fax machine. Only three or four people had that number. I picked up the fax phone and it was Carole [Radziwill, Anthony’s wife]. She said, ‘Oh thank God you’re there.’ I said, ‘Carole? It’s Rose.’ She said, ‘Where are they? They didn’t land in the Vineyard.’ No one knew where John was. [RoseMarie spoke to John’s flight instructor Bob Marena.] He  said the flight took off at 8:39. That’s when I panicked.

“Then Ann Freeman, Carolyn and Lauren’s mom, called . . . She was panic-stricken. She said something like, ‘I told him never to take two of my girls up at the same time.’ She was angry. Crying. It was panic, shock. Disbelief.”

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of the accident as the “pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane, which was a result of spatial disorientation. Factors in the accident were haze and the dark night.”

Jeff Guzzetti, NTSB investigator, Office of Aviation Safety

“His flight path into the water is consistent with what is known as a graveyard spiral. The airplane makes a spiral nose-down . . . kind of like going down a drain. The plane went into one final turn and it stayed in that turn pretty much all the way down to the ocean. He went in seven miles from Martha’s Vineyard.

“I don’t think the passengers knew what was happening to them. They might’ve felt a little G-force pushing them down in their seats, like, ‘This feels a little bit weird.’ You would’ve heard the rush of air over the fuselage accelerate or get louder, during the final fatal plunge. Perhaps feel yourself accelerating a little bit. And then they hit the surface of the water and it’s over. Now, the pilot is different. I would expect that the pilot would be very confused and perhaps a little frightened because the instruments may have not been matching up with how he was feeling. The impact forces were tremendous.”

RoseMarie Terenzio

“A week later, I got a big brown box from the mail room. I think it was from the NTSB. There was his wallet. It was all water-damaged and warped. And one crutch. I sent it to [John’s sister] Caroline [Kennedy]. I just cried.”

On July 22, the USS Briscoe brought members of the Kennedy and Bessette families to scatter the ashes for a burial at sea.

Barry C. Black, Navy chaplain

“Caroline clutched the urn . . . I calmed her, and we went down. Contorted with grief is not even an adequate description. She put the ashes in. As the ashes were pouring, she reached her hand into the water to put some water back on her [as if she thought], ‘I’m not going to let go of his hand.’ They dropped flowers as the ship was sailing. They embraced one another as if that human closeness would somehow mitigate the ache.

Robbie Littell

“I’ve heard they cut a tree down in Irish culture when someone dies young because they only lived half of their life. And I like to say, here’s a guy who lived twice as hard as anyone else. Twice as well as anyone else . . . I think of the loss, not so much my loss, but his loss — of not being able to experience life which he loved so much. The loss was going to come when the stories faded — and I didn’t want to lose the stories.”

From JFK JR.: An Intimate Oral Biography by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil. Copyright © 2024 by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC

JFK Jr.: An Intimate Oral Biography by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil is on sale July 16, and available for preorder now, wherever books are sold.

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