Does JFK Jr. deserve a biography? Ty Burr says that a new book depicts the handsome son of a president as a story of promise left mostly unfulfilled
John F. Kennedy Jr.
Credit: John F. Kennedy Jr.: Bill Davila/Retna

American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr.

Does JFK Jr. deserve a biography?

The age of the media’s abject worship of all things Kennedy has finally, thankfully, come to a close. The proof, ironically, is Richard Blow’s controversial new biography of John F. Kennedy Jr.

How is that possible? Isn’t Blow’s book, ”American Son,” just another shovelful of kerosene on the flaming mythos of America’s own tragic royals? Shouldn’t the Franklin Mint be putting out the John-John commemorative plates any day now? Aren’t there all those Kennedy cousins around to kick the miniseries into the fourth generation?

There are, and some of them may actually be good people doing good work in the public sector, but they don’t have the bioluminescent celebritude that JFK Jr. had. What the unfortunately-named Blow’s book reveals is that that’s about ALL that JFK Jr. had: great looks, star-crossed genes, a knack for letting the paparazzi/Page Six b.s. roll off his back, and acres of unfulfilled potential.

Is that enough for a biography? Of course not, and Blow doesn’t even call his book one (it’s a ”portrait”). So why’d he even write it at all? Aside from greed, that is. Because he knows people will buy it based on who the subject’s parents were and what he was supposedly destined for before he dove his private plane into the waters off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. Because, mostly, people dearly want to project cultural importance on the guy, if only to keep Camelot alive.

They’ll be disappointed, though: ”American Son” exposes the last years of a nice guy who happened to be famous; it’s as dull as listening to someone else’s office gossip. And because it’s so inconsequential, it reveals the adoration of John-John by commentators and commoners alike as the barren pop fetish it was, driven by a need to perpetuate a culture’s youth. The weird avidity with which so many people devoured the doings of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her children was a way to hold on to the glow of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, before assassination, cynicism, and revelation spoiled everything.

Listen, I grew up in Boston, where kids learned the tragic saga like catechism — the curse of corrupt old Joe coursing down the generations — and quickly became heartily sick of all things Kennedy. (Unless you happened to know one personally — amazingly easy to do, given how small the state is, and how bleeding many Kennedys there are — and then you might be surprised at the small-scale decency of him or her). The larger myth wasn’t about the individual person, though; it was about royalty and destiny and Olympian, self-inflicted doom. It was about selling magazines and newspapers and books.

And it’s over. Caroline Kennedy survives her immediate family, and she is resolutely media-shy — except for when she’s calling the shots. There are the endless cousins, but their stories are local. (They’re probably quite happy abut that, too). Teddy Kennedy remains, but whatever cultural virility he once had, even post-Chappaquiddick, is long gone.

When JFK Jr. died, there were a few sacriligious scoffings from the young and unimpressed: The guy did little on his own, so why should we care? Doubtless there’ll be similar postings below. They’re overly harsh but essentially correct. In its very vacuity, Richard Blow’s book is a testimony to the dangers inherent in worshiping false gods, no matter how beautiful or pleasant they may be.

American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr.
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