To the tables down at Mory’s To the place where Louie dwells To the dear old Temple bar we love so well Sing the Whiffenpoof assembled with their glasses raised on high And the magic of their singing casts its spell
—Whiffenpoof Song, 1909
I think of that song when I think of the dead young Kennedy couple. I think of Yale and New England and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s careless couples. They were swell people, he might have written, real swells. Wellborn, graceful, easy in the social swim, sometimes even quick-witted. “If you were president what would you do?” Barbara Walters asked John F. Kennedy Jr., who paused, then replied: “Call my Uncle Teddy and gloat.” Even Barbara, who was a bit hostile to him, smiled at that one. Who could help it?
They had the kind of seamless skin that money buys when the complexion is soothed from common garden worries: worries of failure at school or failure at work or a failed love affair. They could forget failure and go to Aspen or Nepal or ride white waters. And, oh, how they looked! Last winter at a charity bash in New York City, we were all mutton dressed up as lamb trying so hard in our velvet and chiffon, our hairdos and sparkly bits while she, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, sat next to me in her crisp white wrap-over cotton shirt and long black skirt, not a bauble in sight, so impeccably of-the-moment.
When she spoke in a low modulated voice, I couldn’t make head or tail of her conversation. She was hopelessly lost in a self-inflicted language maze, talking about some existential question she had just discovered. It didn’t matter a whit. All anyone could think was that this must be perfection, so marble was her skin, so pellucid the eyes, so touchingly girlish her little movements tucking in the blouse.
The two of them played at things, especially he. He always played nicely, a gendeman player. A whiffenpoof. He was a high-society do-gooder for a while and helped earthquake victims and the batde against apartheid. Next, it was the law, where he failed his bar exams twice, no whining, but finally passed and for four years he played at being a lawyer. He had a perfect conviction record of six wins, no losses as an assistant prosecutor. Not that it’s very difficult, since prosecutors win over 90 per cent of their cases. Then, he stopped being a lawyer.
He played at being a publisher and an editor. He played the role to perfection—mischief and the right amount of gravitas—when he unveiled the inaugural cover of Cindy Crawford as George Washington. For that same issue, he asked Madonna to answer the question: “What would you do as president?” None of us remember her answer, but
we remember him and George. Still, he was looking for money in Toronto only a few weeks ago to keep his magazine going. He was thinking, we are told, of playing at politics next.
There are certain things in life you can play at with relative impunity. A person with good looks, some money, breeding and charm can go a long way playing at this or that. You can be a lawyer, a publisher, a businessman, or a politician, a statesman even. JFK Jr. s final endeavour was to play at being a pilot. On that last night, he probably helped his wife onboard. That was another nice quality about him: he was always a gentleman, cut-glass manners and a protective arm.
He probably started a normal descent ready to drop his sister-in-law off at Martha’s Vineyard. He went from 1,700 m to 700 m and then something occurred. Up there, on a dark hazy night, his eyes must have watched the navigational aid of the moving map with its little airplane symbol showing him the numbers—altitude, compass heading, points from destination, bearing—but not how to fly the plane. And he needed to know. The horizon was probably gone and with it his visual ability to fly.
If you are not instrument-trained, you can’t legally fly when you can’t see the horizon, but that doesn’t prevent a pilot like JFK Jr. from starting out in marginal conditions and running into bad ones. He might then have done what all pilots learn in basic training if they inadvertendy fly into cloud, and that is to do a 180-degree turn—but that may not get you out of haze. If he had the time he could have tried to, quote, “let George do it”—not the magazine but what pilots often call their autopilot—which would have kept the wings level, preventing a spiral dive and giving him a little time to think about how to get out of his predicament.
If he had had the time, he might have reflected that his mother did him no favour when she stopped him from being an actor—the first thing he played at. The cameras liked him. He moved well, he was engaging and breathtakingly handsome. He may have had all the talents of a matinee idol and there are worse things in life than that.
One of the worst things is to find yourself in a moonless hazy night inside a little metal tube over the Atlantic at 750 m with nothing but the law of gravity and aerodynamics as your company. You can’t glitter your way out of that. Social position and connections can’t help. The only thing you can rely upon are your inner resources and your knowledge. Gentleman songsters off on a spree Doomedfrom here to eternity Lord have mercy on such as we Baa, baa, baa.
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