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book review

‘The Reluctant Prince’ looks fondly back on the life of JFK Jr. 

John F. Kennedy Jr. with sister, Caroline, and mother, Jackie, in 1989.
John F. Kennedy Jr. with sister, Caroline, and mother, Jackie, in 1989.(John Blanding/Globe staff/file)

He is forever frozen in time, in a child’s brave salute to his martyred father, and whatever else we learned of him — of his years at Brown, of his creation of the magazine George, of his death at sea — was but pentimento. Under everything was the salute John F. Kennedy Jr. gave the day the nation buried the 35th president of the United States.

Now Steven M. Gillon, historian and friend of JFK Jr., has written a biography intended to create a final portrait of the president’s son, and the result is compassionate, comprehensive—and confounding. Compassionate because Gillon has affectionate memories of his one-time student. Comprehensive because the 464-page volume has an air of TMI. Confounding because this book is the literary equivalent of a monorail — the answer to a question nobody asked.

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Let’s acknowledge from the start that Kennedy Jr., the youngest child to live in the White House since the Grover Cleveland presidency, was Velcro to popular culture in the last quarter of the last century. Handsome, charming, evocative of the great wave of inspiration and idealism that his father set forth, he was the perfect, or perhaps the imperfect, antidote to the anomie of the 1980s and 1990s. He was celebrated and was a celebrity, famous for more than 15 minutes, but — and he understood this, perhaps better than most in the public eye — prominent less for what he did than for what he might do. Sadly an air disaster left that  future in the past.

“He understood what he represented to millions of people, and he was willing to assume that burden,” Gillon writes. “But he never confused that public role with his private identity. He spent his life trying to develop an authentic self, separate from that of his famous father and well-known family.”

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Gillon has a historian’s instinct (gather every known piece of evidence, examine every primary source, interview every possible witness, get prized access to Secret Service files) and he marries it with a memoirist’s sentiment (add personal reminiscences, slice in a few personal reflections) and the result is a brisk and engaging read. But, like the tragic disappearance of Kennedy’s plane, small questions remain, and a bigger question is unavoidable.

The small questions involve lapses in clarity (Ben Bradlee was not the editor of The Washington Post when President Kennedy was in office) and overreaching assertions (it’s an overstatement to say that JFK Jr.’s enrollment at Brown changed the profile of the Providence university). The bigger question is why a historian of Gillon’s profile and provenance would undertake a project like this, sure to have a popular audience, and also sure to prompt sneers from the faculty lounge.

But Gillon is right about many things. His subject was, indeed, a reluctant prince, and hence the beguiling title of this book. And his subject did, in fact, both capture and create the public zeitgeist. Then again, so did the late 1960s sunshine pop band the Association, but nobody would get tenure for a book on the group.  (Even with the line from “Windy” that asks: “Who's reachin' out to capture a moment?” – which in the very best reading of this book, may be what Gillon aspired to achieve.)

No need to purse that question further. Gillon knew the rewards and risks of this undertaking, and in many ways “America’s Reluctant Prince” is a fond and admiring adieu to a friend.

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Gillon, to be sure, understood the ambitions and agony of his subject — how Kennedy never lost the essential insight that he was born with his celebrity but also needed to earn it; how despite the money and the attention from the public, every life was conducted in private, with its own trials; how (and this is particularly effectively rendered) the warp, woof — and warping — of Kennedy’s life could be traced to the early afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, a date he never failed to notice but never marked in public.

Perhaps the most valuable, and surely the most haunting sentence, in this volume comes in the middle of a paragraph 92 pages in, when Gillon — a student of John F. Kennedy Jr. even as JFK Jr. was his student — writes: “He embodied contradictions: a man who seemed to have everything but who spent most of his life trying to process the repetitive strain of a tragic childhood.”

Along the way Gillon tells us of the tensions in his life — those inside the operation of George (it had a lot of rhetoric about vision but possessed no discernible vision), with his wife (who said she wasn’t sexually attracted to him), with his cousins (who did not appreciate his characterization of them as “poster boys for bad behavior”), with his sister (apparent conflicts over the sale of the Hyannis Port house), and with his brother-in-law (whose principal crime seems to have been that he was not a Kennedy).

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Gossipy stuff, to be sure, but perhaps a guilty pleasure for a nation guilty that it has produced no figure, perhaps save Ronald Reagan in some circles, who approached the glamour of John F. Kennedy, or the ability to speak to national purpose that JFK Jr.’s father possessed.

AMERICA’S RELUCTANT PRINCE: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr.

By Steven M. Gillon

Dutton, 464 pp. $29


David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.