credit: St. Martin's Press
updated 6/6/2004 7:59:25 PM ET 2004-06-06T23:59:25

It's been nearly five years since the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister -- but he's hardly left the headlines. One of his closest friends, Robert Littell, writes the story he says has not been heard, the story of the man he knew and the bond they shared. Read an excerpt from "The Men We Became: My Friendship with John F. Kennedy, Jr.," below.

Chapter One: First Impressions
On a sunny September afternoon in 1979, I stood at the water's edge of 1st Beach in Newport, Rhode Island. It was orientation week for the freshman class at Brown University, and we were on a school-sponsored outing. I'd spent the day swimming, playing football, and catching Frisbees. Happy and tired, I was soaking up the sun before we headed back to campus. Not far from me sat a handsome, bored-looking group, obviously private-school graduates.

They were easy to spot: set off to themselves, a blasé tribe wearing Vuarnet sunglasses, untucked button-downs, and baggy shorts. Only one of them, a good-looking guy with an athlete's body and a head full of brown curls, seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, swimming and horsing around in the water.

I had just graduated from the Lawrenceville School, an all-boys prep school in New Jersey, where I'd been a day student. I'd spent the summer in Venice Beach, California, surfing, drinking San Miguels, and hanging out until the sun went down. I thought I knew the beach better than anyone. So, being eighteen years old and competitive, I'd used the day to establish my alpha-dog status among my new peers. I'd caught more passes, ridden more waves, and spiked more volleyballs than the next guy.

I looked nothing like the J. Crew ad seated near me. I was six foot two and weighed 210 pounds, built more like a Midwestern farm boy than an East Coast patrician. My hair was plastered with seaweed and I had a mouth full of stainless-steel orthodontic work. I realized later, to my horror, that there were flecks of seaweed-the exact same green as the yin /yang symbol on my board shorts-stuck in my braces.

But none of that seemed to matter to the curly-haired fellow I'd noticed a few minutes before. He walked up to me, stuck out his hand, and said, "Yo, my name's John. What's yours?"
Matching his friendly tone, I answered, "Rob Littell," and we shook hands. John and I swapped high-school war stories for half an hour or so.

He'd gone to Andover, a storied prep school in Massachusetts. I told him I was playing lacrosse for Brown. He told me he'd never played a team sport but was thinking of trying rugby. We hit it off immediately. He was cool, funny, and restless. He laughed at my oddball sense of humor. I liked his good-natured confidence.

Someone blew a whistle and we filed back onto a bunch of old yellow school buses. Bouncing toward Providence, battling motion sickness and a carbon monoxide headache, I dimly heard my new roommate, Bradley Foerster, say that the guy I'd been talking with was John F. Kennedy Jr. This was news to me. I'd had no idea that he was at Brown or even that "he" was such a big deal. In high school I'd played sports. Period. If People magazine existed in those days, we didn't get it at our house. I muttered to Bradley that John seemed friendly enough and I returned to my nausea. I remember being vaguely proud of my ignorance.

The next time I saw John was the following week, at my dormitory on the north side of campus. I was returning from class one afternoon and found him penning a note on the little bulletin board I'd Velcroed to the wall of my cinder-block alcove. He'd stopped by to say hi, so I treated him to a sampling of the B-52's and the Talking Heads. I was glad to see him. We clashed immediately over music-I was into New Wave while John was a throwback, a purist who preferred rock 'n' roll to pop, and the Rolling Stones to everything-and argued happily for an hour. John told me to come by his room sometime, so a few days later I headed over there. I remember thinking it was like an experiment. I'd see how it felt: if it would be easy and fun, or awkward and not worth the effort.

John's room was a classic freshman dorm room. Furniture from the fifties, a rotary phone, two narrow twin beds, and a roommate seemingly chosen at random. The roommate, John Moubayed, was from Providence, a local guy with a perpetually slightly sheepish smile.
He didn't get too involved in the whirl of attention around John.

They had a live-and-let-live arrangement that seemed to work well enough.

When I arrived at his room, John put his "master recording" of Supertramp's Breakfast in America on the stereo. I still don't know what a "master recording" is, but it sounded better than my records did. I soon learned that-no surprise-there were a lot of perks to being famous. John constantly received freebies and upgrades and "master recordings" of Top 40 hits. It didn't faze him, though, partly because it had been the norm all his life. He certainly didn't go looking for freebies, accepting most gifts just to be polite.

We started to hang out together, doing the normal things kids do at college. We went to parties, drank beer, and played Frisbee.

Sometimes we hung out at Toad Hall, the lacrosse fraternity. Although I didn't think about it at the time, John had other options besides drinking beer and meeting jocks. Within weeks of the beginning of classes, and before the social cement had set, I met John's cousin Kerry Kennedy, who was also at Brown, and her beautiful friend Nancy Richardson, who eventually married John's cousin and confidant, Bobby Kennedy. I recall a Wednesday conversation with them about the upcoming weekend. John and I had run into them at the Blue Room, the mid-campus coffee shop and center of social activity at Brown. After a bit of small talk, I asked Nancy, "What are you guys doing this weekend?"

She replied, "We're going to Virginia to ride horses. It should be fun." She added, "Do you want to come? I think John's going."

Shocked that anyone might opt out of a beer-soaked weekend at the local fraternities to go horseback riding in another state, I answered, perhaps a bit defensively, "We're going to Phi Psi."

John changed his weekend plans on the spot. Assuming a perfect lockjaw accent, he exclaimed, "To Phi Psi!" as if it were the fox at the end of the hunt. We all laughed. And that weekend John and I went to Phi Psi, an on-campus fraternity with a reputation for rowdy parties. He had cast his lot with the regular guys.

Later, when I knew him better, I learned that John worked hard to be a "regular guy." His friends weren't famous, he never asked for special treatment (though sometimes he got it anyway), and he loved being "one of the guys." As easily as he moved about in the aristocratic world he'd grown up in, he was never intrigued by it. By the time I met him, he already knew that his fulfillment would come from less-privileged pursuits. It's not that he wanted to give up his fame, which was as familiar to him as air is to the rest of us. And he guarded his privacy. But he wanted to be able to walk down the street or ride his bike just like everyone else, whether he was recognized or not. He deserves credit for this: He was one of the most famous people on earth and he rode the subway, played in the park, and hung out with his friends in full view of the world. No bodyguards, no Secret Service, no subterfuge. By refusing to be a recluse, he forced people to give him some space. And he returned the favor by being a generous and gracious public figure.

But I digress. My point is that starting college wasn't easy for him.

He had to reestablish his hard-won freedom all over again, at a new school, in a new city. Supposedly there were television news crews on campus the first day, filming John as he registered for classes. I hadn't met him yet, but I'm sure he hated that. He wanted to be a college kid, not a freak show.

Coincidentally, I arrived at school feeling out of sync myself. I'd had a wild ride from birth to eighteen. The short version: My parents divorced when I was seven, my father moving on to seventies-style bohemian freedom with my wonderful stepmother, Tina Sloan. Freedom was short-lived, though, followed by drugs, then serious mental illness. My mother remarried as soon as he left, and for a while I had a stepfather as well as a stepbrother my own age. I loved them both. They left when I was fourteen. Two years later, my real father-whom I didn't see much anymore, but still . . . hurled himself off a sixteenth-floor balcony of the Hollywood Holiday Inn, a suicide. We were living in another house by then, with my mother's new boyfriend, though he didn't last. Over the years we were rich and we were poor. We moved often. By the age of eighteen, I'd lived in fourteen homes-not foster homes, mind you, and some of them would qualify as mansions. But I would have traded them all for a permanent tree house. By the time I got to school, I was certain that I was special for everything I'd been through.

John and I, despite the obvious differences, shared similarities that connected us quickly. We had both weathered turbulent childhoods and emerged with the confidence of survivors. Neither of us had a father, nor could we really talk about our fathers' deaths. We'd been raised by and with women-she-wolves, as I called our strong-willed mothers and brainy sisters. And we shared a belief in our own future greatness. John's destiny was thrust upon him at birth, when he became the first (and last) child born to a President-elect who was then assassinated. Mine was harder to explain, a genetic quirk maybe, or the resolve of a child determined to wrest control of his fate.

My big Teflon-coated ego was an important part of our fast friendship. Irreverent and cocky, I believed that I was John's equal or better. I could be wowed by the trappings of his lifestyle-maybe-but I felt I deserved just as good. I can't explain this and don't defend it; it's just the way I was. And John liked it.

We found friendship easy. From the start, we were each other's best audience. We each knew the other to be hilarious, brave, and brilliant. That's one of the key conditions for male bonding-deep, unconditional admiration. Add a constant stream of well-intentioned abuse and you've got the recipe for a great friendship.

In 1979, the year we started college, the Kennedy name carried a lot of baggage-good or bad, depending on whom you talked to. My grandfather, who asked me maybe three questions during our twenty-five years together on earth, popped one of them during a Thanksgiving visit I made to Florida that year. He was an old-line WASP from Barrington Hills, Illinois, where he'd made his name and fortune in banking. Granddad spent his winters in Naples, Florida, and while we stood together on the porch of his beachside home, the old sage asked whom I'd met at Brown. I told him about my roommate, Bradley, about a couple of lacrosse players I'd fallen in with, and about Francesca Hayslett, a girl from Connecticut with whom I was fast falling in love. I also mentioned that I'd met John Kennedy Jr.

Granddad's left eyebrow rose slowly above the dark frames of his Ray-Bans. "Those Kennedy boys are no good," he stated.

"Oh, really," I responded respectfully, uncertain what else to say. I admired my grandfather more than anyone else in the world.

A silence. Thirty seconds later, Aunt Lee, Granddad's wife, walked by and added, "Those Kennedy boys are a pack of drunken wolves. They're always crashing parties up and down the coast."

I didn't find this new information especially crushing. But clearly, in the view of the conservative WASPs from whose nest I had recently flown, the Kennedys were masqueraders at best. Indeed, Aunt Lee made clear that but for their moonshine fortune, the Kennedys would be chauffeurs, not the chauffeured.

I had a chance to run with the Kennedy wolf pack the following weekend, when John and I decided to take a road trip. John wanted to pay a visit to his cousin Timothy Shriver, who was attending Yale.

Since he didn't have a car-his mother wouldn't let him have one until junior year-we loaded two sports duffels and a cooler of Budweiser on ice into my Mazda GLC. We wore our best rugby shirts, with real rubber buttons, to honor Timmy's position on the notoriously hard-partying Yale rugby squad. Then we hit the highway, visions of bar dancing, coed cohabitation, and Animal House revelry in our heads.

The truth began to dawn on us somewhere south of Mystic, Connecticut. We were rolling along the East Coast's big family driveway, I-95, when we realized that we were going to New Haven. Ostensibly the Gateway to New England, New Haven has all the charm of a bus depot (though it does have great pizza). And we were visiting a seminary student. Whatever hope we still held for a wild weekend was dashed when we pulled up in front of Timmy's house. A large, light-filled town house, it was clean, comfortable, and eerily quiet-there wasn't a leaf out of place on the genteel block. Timmy was living there with his girlfriend, Linda Potter, whom he married not long after graduating. We'd come to New Haven to visit a quietly studious, as-good-as-married minister.

The rest of the weekend was like the house: clean and quiet. Linda was the perfect hostess in a milk-and-cookies way. We didn't crack open the cooler. We didn't light up the town. We didn't even get to town. Instead, we had a glass of wine at dinner that evening, the four of us discussing apartheid as though part of a televised panel.

We finished the night on the couch, watching TV and falling asleep before Saturday Night Live came on. My guess is that Timmy wasn't always so staid. But that weekend he chose to set a good example, giving John and me a glimpse of a quiet, purposeful campus life. It wasn't until years later that I caught a glimpse of the wild side of the Kennedys, and there was no drunkenness or party-crashing involved. It was the summer of 1988 and John had invited Frannie and me to stay at the family compound in Hyannis Port, on Cape Cod. The family was getting ready to play one of their famously competitive touch football games. The whole gang was there, with most of the players piling out of Robert F. Kennedy Sr.'s household. His sons Joe, Michael, Bobby, and Max and Senator Ted Kennedy's son Patrick were on the lawn, along with anyone else with a strong set of front teeth. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and we were in high spirits.

The instant that play started, though, things took a turn for the ferocious. During the first five minutes of the game there were three arguments, two shoving matches, and no scoring. The cousins' handsome faces, smiling just moments before, contorted into grimaces. We all played fiercely, victory momentarily more important than life itself.

I'd never played this kind of game. I'm not even sure it was a game.

It was more like a battlefield, an arena in which these brothers and cousins played out the complex rivalries and emotions that all families have, especially theirs. Two-hand touches became tackles.

Tackles became pile-ons. And John seemed to be on the receiving end of most of the excess elbows and biting commentary. By the end, I was mentally exhausted. Instead of the usual post-victory elation, I felt as though I'd just lost a two-hour catfight. As John and I walked back into his mother's house, I said to him, "What a pack of assholes."

John responded laughingly, "That was a mellow game."

I believed him. These guys were true warriors. John took the most heat because of the position he held in the family. On one hand, he was the only son of the most accomplished member of an accomplished clan. He was also, without question, the media's favorite Kennedy: the "sexiest" one, the one who never got in trouble. On the other hand, John was something of an outsider within the Kennedy family.

Though close to several of his cousins, especially Timmy Shriver, Bobby Kennedy, and Willie Smith, he had a slightly strained relationship with the tight-knit crew as a whole. He'd been raised outside of their Massachusetts world, kept apart by his protective and New York-based mother. She saw to it that her children were as independent as she was. It wasn't long after our game that Mrs. Onassis built her own home on Martha's Vineyard-close to the family, but separate. The Hyannis Port gang teased John not for lack of love but, in my opinion, out of envy. This didn't bother him a bit. He had the best of many worlds and he knew it.

As it turned out, we didn't need to take any road trips freshman year. Our visions of wild times and raucous behavior were easily satisfied by walking across campus to Wriston Quad, which on a Saturday night felt like Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras. Not long after our Ozzie-and-Harriet-like Yale excursion, John and I found ourselves at a recruiting party at Phi Psi, located right on Wriston Quad and reputed to throw the best-looking parties in the school. We were there at the invitation of Rich Wiese, a born-and-bred New Yorker and decathlete whose all-American face had recently been discovered by the Ford modeling agency. Rich was the president of Phi Psi and had recently, famously, hosted Brooke Shields on her college visit. We figured him for a girl magnet.

Although we weren't members yet, Phi Psi quickly became our gathering spot. One evening a group of us were hanging out in the Phi Psi TV room when our friend Billy Way blew in the door. He was followed by six attractive and evidently inebriated young women from Providence College. Billy, who'd attended Andover with John, was a tennis star from Bermuda with yellow eyes and a sly, sweet manner. Women found him irresistible. He had made love to more girls by his eighteenth birthday than most guys fantasize about in their whole lifetime.

Billy began to introduce his new following to the rest of us, escorting the cutest girl over to John. He introduced them, first names only. They chatted for a minute or so before Billy circled back around. Sensing a lack of spark, he told the girl that she was talking to the late President's son. She lit up like a Christmas tree, as if this news changed everything. Looking John right in the eye, she said, "Prove it." Without changing his straight-faced expression, John stuck his hand in his back pocket and from his wallet produced his New York State driver's license. The girl, all business at that point, reviewed the license for a moment and then, with a Cheshire kitten's grin, stuffed her right hand down the front of John's pants and led him out of the room.

When you're eighteen years old, you can get into a lot of trouble when people respond to you like that. And it happened often enough.

John's combination of fame, good looks, and charm had a weird effect on some people. An astounding number of women wanted to sleep with him. Some men kept their distance, too proud to risk looking starstruck. Others were instantly ingratiating. To his credit, John handled the attention well. He had an enthusiastic libido but almost always resisted the sexual opportunities that came his way, preferring real relationships. And with people who completely lost their balance around him, he knew how to be polite but distant.

I had a harder time with John's star power. Basically, it scared me, because I was looking for stability or nothing in my future relationships. These instant friendships that John was offered seemed too fleeting, too subject to change. And I wanted nothing to do with change. It's no coincidence that I met my future wife, Frannie, and my best friend, John, in my first week at Brown-one week out of the hotbed of a household I'd grown up in. But in the beginning, John's celebrity made me nervous, as though I couldn't trust things on their surface. I liked the guy, but I was wary of his public persona. I certainly didn't want to be a fawning admirer.

Instinctively, I held myself and John to a higher standard. At least that's how I saw it. In truth, I compensated for the possible imbalance in our friendship by being a prick. Mostly it was minor stuff, like making sure that I rode shotgun on any car trip (and he had to ride in the back) or that I got the biggest slice of pizza. I always took the A section of The New York Times first. I would never cancel a plan, even a dumb one, if John invited me to do something.

Little things, but it was not the way most people treated John. It was months before I eased up. John understood what I was doing because he subtly cheered me on, coming closer each time I pushed his public self away. He had no use for fawning admirers, and I challenged him. Slowly, the two of us made a game out of defining and adhering to the rules of friendship. We demanded fair and equal treatment from each other. When his head got big, I'd tell him, usually in an acerbic and pointed fashion. When I was a jerk, he'd be the first to break the news. It took a while, but we ultimately built a solid bond far removed from the corrosive effects of celebrity.

Over the winter break that first year, my family and I visited New York City to see the tree at Rockefeller Center. It was Christmas Eve and at my request, we began at Trader Vic's, a legendary watering hole that used to be located in the basement of the Plaza. We started by sucking down a couple of Samoan fog cutters (the drinking age was still eighteen). Our discussion got louder and more animated as we kept drinking, things reaching a fevered pitch when Mom started in on the gardenia-topped tiki puka puka I'd ordered for her. Thoroughly inebriated by now, we made our way to the Ravelled Sleeve for a seven-thirty dinner reservation. No sooner were we seated than my mother abruptly stopped talking. Her face turned an odd shade of gray and she excused herself to the ladies' room. Linda, my sixteen-year-old sister, went down to check on her about ten minutes later. She returned to report, "Mom is lying on the bathroom floor and won't get up. She claims she's dying."

When Linda's snickering subsided, she and I went down to the ladies' room to visit our maker. It wasn't every day that Mom wound up drunk in a restaurant bathroom, and we wanted to enjoy the spectacle firsthand. I leaned over her prostrate body and kindly informed her that she was simply drunk. She, however, continued to insist that she was dying and requested to be taken to the hospital. We hauled her off the tiles and up the stairs with considerable difficulty. It wasn't so funny anymore. We drove to St. Luke's Hospital on Seventy-second Street, where Mom was admitted for alcohol poisoning.

The doctor told us to come back in a couple of hours in the hope that she could recite the alphabet. With any luck, we could be home before Santa's rounds.

I have a phobia of hospitals (dangerous places, you can get seriously hurt in there) and wanted to escape as fast as possible. So I called John. It was Christmas Eve and all, but, well, I was feeling a bit blue. John got on the phone and, after ribbing me for my sorry family outing, yelled to his mom to ask if Linda and I could come over. I protested-weakly, I admit-and a few minutes later we were in a cab on our way to 1040 Fifth Avenue. A doorman wearing a green jacket, striped vest, and bow tie let us in. As we passed through the glass-and-wrought-iron doors, the hustle and din of the city magically disappeared, replaced by another world, one of soothing civility. The porter led us through the typically decked-out Upper East Side lobby-checkered brown marble floors, gilt-framed sketches of tall ships, and mahogany tables to rest one's Bergdorf bags on-to an elevator on the left side of the building. Upon reaching the twelfth floor, the elevator opened onto a small foyer appointed with an antique table and mirror. I loved that mirror, a generous touch that let you smooth your clothes and check your hair before entering the elegant household that Mrs. Onassis ran. Everything in the house was beautiful, so you might as well look your best.

Rough-hewn suburban jungle boy that I was, I rang the doorbell with excitement. It was Christmas Eve and I was on altogether new turf, but I didn't feel the least bit uncomfortable. Chalk it up to ego or ignorance or pure competitive spirit, but all I wanted to do was see my friend and check out his obviously cool apartment.

My sister and I heard someone inside bound across the apartment. John swung open the door, said, "C'mon," and headed toward his room, impatient to show off his stuff. Disarmed by John's lack of pretension, Linda and I followed him through the apartment. As far as I could tell, the household looked ready to turn in for the night, though it was only about nine. It was quiet, calm, the lights on the Christmas tree brighter than anything else in the house. As he led us on, John paused for half a second in front of a prominently placed, professionally lit two-foot-tall Egyptian statuette. In his only reference to the apartment's extraordinary appointments, he turned his head slightly and said, "Original paint."

I saw that ancient statue again in the Metropolitan Museum about three years after John's mother passed away and her apartment had been sold (to a man who told John that he was "going to fix the place up and give it some class"). The little Egyptian fellow sat at the entrance to the Temple of Dendur, with a plaque describing it as 4,500 years old. As I passed, I nodded my head and casually informed an onlooker, "Original paint."

The apartment was grand but unmistakably a home, a place where a family lived. For me, the decor had an emotional impact more than a visual one-it felt strong and timeless. Ancient Roman busts stood beside beautifully crafted ceremonial weapons. Paintings, old-looking and probably famous but unrecognized by me, covered the walls. The library was filled with books, both classic and contemporary, many of them obviously read and reread. Everything was beautiful in a quiet, serious way. Even a brash, preppy punk out of New Jersey couldn't help but be moved by the sheer quality of it all.

Walking back toward John's room, my sister and I paused in front of two of the most amazing collages I've ever seen. Mrs. Onassis had filled several four-by-six-foot frames with family pictures from over the years. I distinctly remember a picture of young Knucksy, as I'd begun to call John, sitting on the outsize water-level afterdeck of a converted luxury freighter. There was a Greek island in the background and he was preparing to water-ski. A luxury freighter that you could ski off! The collages were impressive and eerie at the same time. Even with my limited knowledge of Kennedy family history, I thought these pictures were remarkable. They depicted a world that was so much larger than life, and yet the casual snapshot images were just like the pictures my mother took, a record of family moments.

Mrs. Onassis's first job had been as a photographer for a Washington paper, and she was clearly fascinated by printed images. She continued to add pictures to her beautiful collages right up until her death, creating a joyful pastiche on the walls of each of her homes. The pictures were all of poignant moments and happy days and, interestingly, all were taken after 1963.

John's room was just past the family picture wall on the left, off the hallway. At first glance it looked like a normal college guy's room, except for the closet. At home I had a closet with some clothes and maybe a football in it. John had a storeroom of industrial-grade adventure equipment. It was like James Bond's closet as appointed by Q, with scuba tanks and boardsailing keels and underwater jet packs and Arctic tents. Sure enough, there was a football in there, except that it was signed by Joe Namath and all the Jets and was bolted to a wooden stand. The only reference to John's dad was a large frame containing a small portrait and signature of each U.S. President up to and including his father. The frame had one of John Kennedy's actual pens embedded in it. I remember noticing that he had no posters of sports figures or rock stars pinned, stapled, or taped to his walls and that his model collection consisted of a highly detailed, fully rigged wooden ship, the USS Constitution, that was too big to fit in a bottle and so took up the entire top of his bureau. Despite the fact that this had been his room for close to fifteen years, it didn't seem to have his signature on it. I figured his mother ran a tight ship. Also, he'd spent his high-school years, the time when most teenagers mutiny, out of the house at Andover.

We were hanging out in John's room, my sister and I listening to his continuing overview of his adventure toys, when Mrs. Onassis called for us to come eat. We went out to the dining room, where a spread of gingerbread cookies, ice cream, and milk was laid out on the table. I remember thinking, "Hooray for Christmas!" as Mrs. Onassis got us back in the holiday mood, regaling us with tales of Christmases past.

I barely recall snippets of a story of her father and his good humor over a fallen Christmas tree, but I know that she was more animated than I ever saw her again. Though she was about fifty years old at the time, her legendary beauty was not lost on me. She had a broad, symmetrical face with strong features, especially her dark, seductively shaped eyes. It was a refined face, elegant but not delicate or fragile-looking. Slim and with an athletic build, she moved with incredible grace. Every movement was smooth, like a ballerina. Really, though, and I'm not the first to say this, it was her voice that was most extraordinary. She talked in a kind of whisper, low and breathy and compelling, all the while focusing intently on the person she was speaking to.

That was the only time I ever heard Mrs. Onassis speak of herself or her past. She and John had turned our disastrous night into a special Christmas Eve. The best thing was, despite the lofty trappings of art and history, it really didn't feel as though we were doing anything other than visiting our neighbors in Princeton. Except for the 4,500-year-old statue.

Copyright 2004 by Robert T. Littell

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