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Robert T. Littell – Watching Kennedy Grow

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Robert T. Littell and John F. Kennedy Jr.




It’s hard to believe that John F. Kennedy, Jr. has been dead for over five years. For a young man so full of life and promise (his father called it “vigor”), he was able to form an uneasy existence with the label that was foisted upon him: “American prince.” He handled über-fame and impossible expectations with such dignity, grace and humor that we almost took for granted the amount of energy and careful stepping that must have been required in order to make it look so easy.

Kennedy seemed like he would be rollerblading through the canyons of Manhattan forever, but a fatal plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999 put an end to the life and a beginning to the myth. Unfortunately, as his Uncle Ted stated it at his funeral, John Kennedy, Jr. had every gift but the length of years.

He was in the public spotlight since he was in the fetal position, and his story is well known. As a three-year-old, he saluted his father’s casket. Although he later admitted that he had no recollection of that moment, the image became one of the most indelible of the twentieth century. The mystique of the Jackie O years – and the privacy she demanded — helped her son to more or less stay below the radar for a good part of his adolescence. However, all Americans, whether pro or con, consider stalking the Kennedys a national pastime and a birthright. It wouldn’t be long before the unblinking eye of constant surveillance was focused upon John’s doorstep, just as he was taking his first strides into adult independence. For him, in the age of video cameras, People magazine and Entertainment Tonight, keeping a low pro was not an option. The challenge was handling the attention and adulation without coming apart at the seams of his expensive suits. It was a world in which the slightest goof or slip of the tongue could send a stadium-sized wave of glee, shock, horror and/or anger, especially with his last name.

It wasn’t until the early 80s, when for better or worse he blossomed into an Adonis, that he became a staple of gossip magazines and increasingly mounting public fascination. The Kennedy name was probably enough, but the movie-star looks and the chiseled body only fueled the flames. A media fire cooked it from low simmer to high boil. It turned out to be a mixed blessing: every door was open to him, and yet he had to fight the urge to cower behind every one of those doors. His dilemma: hide or seek? His solution, of course, revealed itself somewhere between shyness and brashness. The feverish buzz of the locusts that swirled around him rivaled only that of the other media casualty of the era, Princess Diana.

Events – or rather, pseudo-events – helped to build the icon: the sightings of him shirtless in Central Park, his numerous attempts at passing the bar exam (“The Hunk Flunks” had become one of the most famous newspaper headlines of all time), his surprisingly faithful and long-lasting relationships with famous and beautiful women, and the mere mention of his name on the most memorable episode of the hippest TV show of the era (Seinfeld) set the tone for the national worship. His attempt to create his own spotlight (rather than the one created for him) with the political-personality-driven magazine George, and even his surprise wedding to a beautiful blonde mystery woman on a remote Southern island were not even the stuff of good fiction. However, the story was true and it continued to be told. It culminated with a man who was christened to be, as corny as it was in this eye-rolling, post-ironic era, “America’s Favorite Son.”

In the years since his passing, the fascination has cooled a bit. There doesn’t seem to be any Marilyn Monroe/James Dean-like cult fever, or any convoluted death theories and myths that haunt his father’s legacy. There have been a few biographies published, but they were poorly received and trashy to boot. However, in good time, there is now a new memoir that explains the icon as a flesh-and-blood man, written by someone who should really know: his best friend.

Robert T. Littell first met Kennedy while they were both freshmen at Brown University in 1979. Their instant bond grew into a life-long friendship, until Kennedy died at the age of 39. Littell’s new book, The Men We Became: My Friendship with John F. Kennedy, Jr. (St. Martin’s Press), is straightforward and raw without being gossipy or petty.

“I felt obligated to stand up for him, frankly,” Littell says.

Littell, who was born in Milwaukee and brought up in Connecticut, had a rough go of it himself. Though he was upper-middle-class and attended prep school, his father, a writer, had committed suicide at 40. His mother had remarried but more for worse than for better. He thinks of his family as “dysfunctional,” and describes himself as a “street-smart Republican jock.” Although the friendship would seem unlikely, he says this was a good basis for his relationship with Kennedy.

“We were both brought up by women,” he says, “and we both lacked a strong father figure. We sort of linked arms from that. We had the exact same experience there. There was a comfort between us in both of us not having a dad.”

While Littell was a natural jock at Brown, Kennedy was – surprisingly – not as athletically inclined as he looked. When it came to competitive sports, though, Littell said of Kennedy, “he got better. When you first met him, he had a quarterback’s body, but he couldn’t catch the ball too well. That’s one of the ways we were different. I am hyper-competitive. In the end, though, he started to win more stuff. That’s because he pulled his socks up and learned the game. I watched his mind develop and mature. He learned how to master his negotiating skills. He already had the focus and the intellect inside of him and he learned how to bring it out and master it over the years.”

Robert T. Littell and John F. Kennedy Jr.

Littell witnessed this first-hand, during their years together at Brown, and then during their student trips to Europe on the cheap (because of John’s love of being just an average guy). They also shared an apartment together after college, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As a team they fought off the media hordes as the press began to envelope them.

“He was adopted by the media and the American public, and he adopted the American public right back,” Littell recalls. “He knew that the public wanted to get to know him, and he wanted to get to know them. He was an open book. He really didn’t have any secrets.”

Littell writes that John equated the media to the neighborhood dog who comes up to you and wants you to pet him and pay a little attention to him before he goes on his way, wagging his tail, satisfied. However, at first, the press was more like a pit bull than a terrier. He says, “We were both, especially at eighteen-years old, a little scared of [the constant media attention]. However, we recognized it and pushed it aside, deliberately. That took many years. It turned into a bit of a game. We were lucky that John had his fame because it made us work harder on our relationship. It was all about being normal. I needed the stability. He needed the stability. We found a bond and we both enjoyed it tremendously. He bent over backwards just to be a great guy.”

For two young men in the New York of the 1980s, there were more things to do than merely dodge photographers and confront autograph hounds. Every night was an opportunity to wang chung.

“He was always into music,” Littell says. “Talking Heads. Trouble Funk. Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. He loved to go to concerts. He was very progressive with his musical tastes. Sometimes you fall in and out of love with your music. And if you’re not engaged in music, you’re not engaged in life. He was always plugged into music. He loved to dance. He did the herky jerk pretty well.”

Needless to say, Manhattan was one-big herky-jerky party invitation. Every club, restaurant and bar was happy to have John, and, of course, any friend of John’s was a friend of the establishment.

“John was happiest when he was with his friends,” Littell says. “He received nourishment from his connections. He had a very keen radar. He finessed it just beautifully. He ended up with people who liked him for who he was.”

And as far as holding his liquor?

“He was a bad drinker,” Littell recalls. “He was a two or three-beer guy. He couldn’t have six beers. He was the kind of guy who just wanted to be in control all the time. His body was so important to him. He always worked on it. He really valued his sense of control. He needed to, because he was always ‘on stage.’”

As roommates, Littell turned out to be Oscar while John was Felix. Littell recalls that his closet was such a legendary mess that they referred to it as “the Beast.” As for John, “he was clean and well-groomed and very organized. He was very much into [his] Rolodex and wizards and palm pilots. He was very deliberate about what he was doing, and he was always sticking to his plan.”

There was a lot of living to do, but when you were John Kennedy’s best friend, the living took a little bit of practice.

“I served a role,” Littell says. “I would make the person who would come up to John very comfortable. I would make an effort to disarm both John and the person he was meeting. The key was to be very friendly to the person approaching him, because you wanted it to be dignified, and sometimes he could appear intimidating. We had a rule: it didn’t matter who you were: the Dali Lama or Mother Teresa; if you weren’t friendly, we had no interest. The way he dealt with people was that he wanted to make them comfortable. He had the power to do it, so he did. He didn’t want people to be awkward around him. So he was a kind guy underneath it all. He was the type of guy who, if he didn’t get an airplane seat at the airport, he would just go sit in the corner until the next flight.”

It was challenging enough to be best friends with a Kennedy, but how do you manage to stand next to People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive and not feel like you just crawled out from under a rock? Littell took it humorously, as par for the course. In fact, he jokes that he would tease John about his tendency to glance into mirrors as he passed them (“Missed one,” they would rib each other as mirrors would come along.).

“He was a vain as the next guy,” Littell says. “My impression is that it’s normal. He enjoyed being America’s Sexiest Man. He didn’t exploit it. He used his fame to connect to people. His ego was already stuffed full, so he just wanted to serve. He was a sieve and he picked up so much stuff. He was a modern Renaissance man.”

The unusual social situation seemed to be never ending. Littell compared being on the party circuit with John with riding “a well-lit night train. He would jump on and off of it. But he was always in the brightest colored car.”

It was mama Jackie O who put an end to the frat boy fun and the frolics, but she did it with her usual grace and charm.

Littell recalls, “[She said] it’s time to ride into the sunset of your fraternity years. She kind of made it feel like it was our idea.”

Adult responsibilities lie ahead. John headed for law school, but not before a quick brush with the idea of becoming an actor. Contrary to popular opinion, his mother did not necessarily disapprove of his love of acting.

Littell recalls, “She said to me that [acting] was the greatest joy she got out of rearing John. She loved John acting. Acting was preparation for him, for public speaking. She wanted him to be himself, so if he had an affinity for something, she would nurture that.”

It seemed inevitable that John would go into some sort of public service, like most of his family. However he wanted to do it on his terms. “He was offered to run [for office] in New Jersey and Rhode Island,” Littell says, “but he wanted to do it in New York. He was doing things on his time. Everyone had expectations. He wanted to lead not as a young man. He wanted to have his youth first. He didn’t want to be retired at 52. He wanted to give back. He wanted to serve the people – not for recognition. He didn’t need it. He already had it.”

Robert T. Littell

Littell married soon after college, and had two children and settled into a life of domestic bliss in Manhattan.

“[John] respected and admired [my getting married and having kids],” he says. “He was naturally monogamous. When Christina Haig broke up with her boyfriend, he said to me, ‘My future wife is free!’ He wanted to have a nice, stable life. He admired his sister’s life, and wanted to have that and as soon as possible. [After his mother died], it was a heavy burden, because he was an orphan. He wanted to have a family.”

Of course, his future wife turned out not to be Haig but Carolyn Bessette, who, according to Littell, was “the most empathetic, sensitive person that I’ve ever met. She was my children’s favorite friend. She wanted to be sensitive. She didn’t want to develop a thick skin. But her sensitivity hurt her, because of the role she was expected to fill. They were soul mates. They loved each other tremendously. When they were together, sparks flew.”

And as far as the media’s pipe dream of an early breakup and divorce, Littell dismisses the theories: “They were years from any real difficulty.”

Of course, we will never know if this would turn out to be true. For Littell, along with most of the world, John’s sudden death came as a total surprise and a hard pill to swallow. Littell’s wife had awakened him in the morning with the bad news. He said, “I never heard of a positive ending to a plane missing. I was terrified by the experience that they may have had.”

Being the tough Republican jock that he was, it took Littell a while to come to grips with the loss of his friend, which led to a stint in therapy. “We don’t mourn,” he said, “so I had to learn to mourn all kinds of things. Sometimes the dam breaks. It didn’t hit me right away. The funeral was actually kind of uplifting because all of his friends were there.”

The writing of the book, however, proved to be the best therapy of all. Littell says, “I reconnected with him. Now it’s on the record, and you can’t take it away.”

In fact, the book even helped Littell with the grieving process for his own father, who he had lost to suicide when he was only sixteen. His father, a writer, was forty when he died, and Littell had only recently passed the same birthday.

The book isn’t so much a farewell to his good friend as it is a living memory. Delving into Kennedy’s personality and the history of their friendship, Littell learned about how to live a fuller life.

“He made me a much better person by his loyalty, his sense of honor, how polite and graceful he was to everybody,” Littell says. “He related to the underdog. He couldn’t stand the idea of elitism. He was actually a very simple man. He was a camper. He liked to ground himself.”

That’s when he wasn’t flying his airplane, and Littell insists that he was “a beautiful flyer,” and that his nickname for Kennedy was “Jonathan Livingston Whiteboy.”

“He was not cynical,” Littell says. “He was a really kind guy. For all that he had seen and done, he had a stormy life. But what came out of that is that ‘I will never be a cynic.’ He was an innovator [for starting George] and he had a lot of courage. The fact that he made that decision that he was not going to be cynical, that he was going to rinse himself of that, was inspirational.”

Littell’s take on his friend is unique and uplifting. He says, “He was born with an amazing Technicolor dreamcoat that didn’t fit. It was too big. He grew into it.”

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: July 21, 2004.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2004 Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.

#2 © 2004 Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.

#3 © 2004 Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.

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