Below is the first chapter of Christopher Andersen’s The Day John Died, published by William Morrow.
He gripped the controls tightly with both hands, trying to keep his tiny aircraft from being overturned by a stiff wind blowing in off the Atlantic. Two years earlier, in 1997, John had been warned by veteran pilots not to take off in blustery weather like this, and he had heeded those warnings. But now he was feeling more confident of his abilities as an aviator—confident enough to take a calculated risk in the skies over Martha’s Vineyard.
In the distance, he could make out the silhouette of Gay Head’s white, gray, and red chalk cliffs standing in sharp relief against the darkening sky. Gliding closer, he had a gull’s-eye view of Red Gate Farm, the 474-acre estate left to him and his sister, Caroline, by their mother, Jacqueline. On one side was Squibnocket Pond, on the other 4,620 feet of private oceanfront. In between was a wonderland of Scotch pines, sand dunes, scrub oaks, and marshes. “It was a dream place, a sunlit place,” Kennedy family friend George Plimpton had once observed. “It’s hard to explain the effect it all had on you—all the variations in color, water sparkling like diamonds everywhere you looked.”
From his vantage point high above it all, John was no less transfixed—until a sudden gust jolted him out of his reverie. He squeezed the controls even more tightly, but another gust pushed him sideways, and yet another seemed to slam down from above like a sledgehammer. He was heading toward open water, and losing altitude rapidly.
The situation would have been dire enough if John had actually been piloting a plane. But on this Memorial Day weekend he had taken to the skies in his $14,300 Buckeye ultralight powered parachute, a flimsy contraption that resembled a small go-cart with an engine-driven propeller at the back. Behind the propeller was a parachute that, once filled with air, acted like a wing, bearing the craft aloft.
“He was a natural for his first time flying,” said Buckeye Industries’ Ralph Howard, who sold John his first ultralight, a $13,000 Falcon 582 powered parachute, and trained him in its use, “John was literally at a loss for words, he was so excited.”
Toward the end of his maiden flight, he pleaded with Howard to stay airborne. “The sunset is so beautiful,” John said. “Can I go around one more time?” Once Howard had taken his student up for a few more runs, he was confident John was ready to solo. There was no need for any formal certification; piloting an ultralight does not require a license.
At first locals “didn’t know what it was,” said Brenda Hayden, who managed the sandwich shop where John often stopped before taking off. “It made this weird noise, like a flying lawn mower. But he really seemed excited about it, because he was always in it.”
Others that afternoon in late May of 1999 were alarmed by the sight of the “flying lawn mower” whisking by high-tension power lines. “Is he that stupid?” said one. “If a gust of wind pushes him in the wrong direction, he’ll get fried.” Nor was he equipped to survive a plunge into the chilly Atlantic. Wearing pants, a shirt, and a cap instead of a wet suit, John would probably not have survived the forty-degree water temperature for long.
As John tried to bring his ultralight in for a landing, police lines lit up with frantic calls from onlookers who feared the young man in the odd-looking contraption would be killed. On the ground, Carolyn’s aquamarine eyes widened in horror as John’s flying machine careened wildly out of control. At the last minute, an updraft miraculously halted his descent, and instead of plummeting to earth he collided with one of his mother’s beloved Scotch pines. Carolyn ran toward the crumpled ultralight, only to see John hopping on one foot in her direction before crumpling to the ground. “I’m okay!” he shouted. “It ... it’s just my ankle. I think I broke it . . . “
Carolyn, relieved but still shaken, knelt down beside her husband in the grass and shook her head. “Don’t ever,” she told him as she brushed a tear from her cheek, “scare me like that again. Do you hear me? Ever.”
“Please don’t do it. There have been too many deaths in the family already.” —Jackie to her college student son when she learned he was secretly taking flying lessons.
Thursday, July 15, 1999
A collective gasp went up from the crowd of forty-nine thousand people at Yankee Stadium—not because of Roger Clemens’s pitching against the Atlanta Braves, but because a new television crew broadcasting the game had zeroed in on a single fan. There, smiling over the throng, was the tanned, movie-star-handsome face of John F. Kennedy Jr. Thousands of heads swiveled as spectators frantically searched the stands for a glimpse of John in the flesh—to no avail. Inured to the sort of commotion his mere presence often caused, John leaned back in his box seat near the dugout (courtesy of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner) and washed down a Lemon Chill with Deer Park bottled water.
John, crisply attired in a white dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves, rose with his three friends to leave when Anthony Hahn, a securities trader from Staten Island seated a few rows away, bounded to his feet and walked toward him. “If I don’t get your autograph,” he said, “my sister Karen will kill me. John,” Hahn asked sheepishly, “would you mind signing?” Kennedy smiled and scribbled his name on one of the pink menus handed out to box seat holders. It would be one of his last autographs.
Then John grabbed the two white metal crutches that had been propped up against the seat next to him and began the difficult climb up the stairs leading to the nearest exit. It had been six weeks since he broke his left ankle flying his Buckeye powered parachute on Martha’s Vineyard, and the itchy, uncomfortable cast had come off only hours before. But he still needed both crutches to walk, and winced noticeably whenever he put the slightest bit of weight on the injured leg.
Attending the Yankee-Braves game that night was worth the discomfort, if only to get his mind off other, weightier things. For the last few weeks, John had been courting new financial backers for George, the irreverent political magazine he had founded in 1995. Executives at Hachette-Filipacchi, the French publishing conglomerate that bankrolled the magazine from the outset, were no longer in awe of Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s only son. After a wildly successful beginning—fueled largely by JFK Jr.’s celebrity megawattage and personal charisma—the magazine had taken a steep dive in both circulation and advertising revenues. By the summer of 1999, Hachette had lost tens of millions on the venture and was now ready to pull the plug.
John was now pleading his case before Armani-clad investment bankers and high-rolling entrepreneurs—anyone with pockets deep enough to keep George alive. “I know the sons-of-bitches he had to deal with,” journalist Michael Wolff later wrote. “He was paying serious dues.”
The previous Monday, John, unable to man the controls because of his injured ankle, had flown from Martha’s Vineyard to Toronto this time with his flight instructor—to meet with potential investors Keith Stein and Belinda Stronach. As Stein drove him north to his offices in Aurora, Ontario, his passenger was decidedly upbeat and inquisitive, sticking his head out Stein’s car window “like a dog sort of looking around, taking it all in. He was obviously someone who was keenly interested in his surroundings. He had questions about everything. “
Stein had a few questions of his own. Why, for instance, was he traveling to Canada when the deepest pockets were in his hometown of New York? “I like to operate,” John said slyly, “below the radar screen.”
“If John was stressed out about the magazine,” Stein said, “he certainly didn’t show it. He struck me as a guy who just didn’t let things get to him.” But John, who told Stein he had flown up with his instructor because he could not operate the plane’s foot pedals, was becoming increasingly impatient to have the cast removed from his ankle. “He was hopping around and couldn’t put any pressure on his foot,” Stein later recalled. “He was clearly passionate about flying.”
Indeed, John’s only real complaint was that his broken ankle had kept him from doing the things he loved—Rollerblading, biking, and most of all, flying. “I’ve loved airplanes ever since I was a little kid,” he told his Canadian hosts. “Because of this ankle, I won’t be able to do the flying when we go back to New York tonight, and that’s too bad—I really love the challenge of navigating at night. Besides, it’s so much prettier when you approach New York and look down at all the lights.”
The conversation then turned oddly philosophical. “How old are you?” Kennedy asked Stein.
“Thirty-eight,” Kennedy replied, shaking his head. “God, how time flies.” Then they discussed fate, and “how none of us knows how much time there is left.”
Kennedy shrugged. “Don’t worry,” he said, “about what you can’t control...”
Excerpted from The Day John Died. Copyright © 2000 by Christopher Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Morrow, William & Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.