COME TO THE EDGE: A MEMOIR
By Christina Haag
Spiegel & Grau, $25, 276 pages
It was the peculiar fate of John F. Kennedy Jr. to figure as a series of images firmly implanted in the consciousness of millions. Born to a president-elect, he duly celebrated his third birthday with the traditional ice cream and cake at the White House, but not before making the world draw in its collective breath earlier that day as they saw him salute the flag-draped casket of his assassinated father.
And on and on it went, increasingly in the tabloids as he grew up and acted out, taking a new leap with being enshrined as People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive (1988) in his late 20s. Christina Haag was his girlfriend at the time when that particular tidal wave swept over him and can testify to how it upped the ante:
"From then on, whenever a picture was published in the Post or the Star, it was more likely that strangers would approach to tell him what his father/mother/uncle meant to them. ... There would be a shift in him then, effortless and imperceptible to whoever was walking away, but I'd notice. It was as though a measure of spirit would leave him and then, easy as breath, would slip back in ... a necessary removal that allowed him to walk this world and keep his kindness intact. Conscious or not, he had found a persona."
Clearly, Ms. Haag was profoundly sensitive to this complex young man, and we are her beneficiaries as we encounter the real-life person beneath the various images, imposed and self-created, that hid his essence. With her, we enter the strange world of the Kennedys, with the various family compounds from Palm Beach to Hyannisport treated like hotels by family members; encounter Aunt Pat "in her cups" and Uncle Ted - each unaware that the other is in residence - and see the rough, nasty but routinely tolerated cousinly "joshing" of John.
Ms. Haag knew him from the time they were students at schools on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s, where their whirling milieu of parties, bar-hopping and hanging out is reminiscent of today's teen television hit "Gossip Girl." But when John was one of the kids running around Central Park or on dark, sometimes dangerous New York streets, there was always a Secret Service agent around to make sure nothing untoward happened or, if it did, to defuse it expertly.
For a long time, they were just friends, but somewhere along the trajectory that included their years at Brown University in Providence, R.I., his dalliance - and her engagement with - an acting career, and finally his succumbing to law school and lawyering, they became deeply, emotionally involved. In short, unlike all those items the tabloids so breathlessly reported, they were the real thing.
Certainly his mother thought so. When John said he had a surprise for her (a vintage sports car, as it turned out) Jackie Kennedy Onassis prepared her own engagement ring for him to give to Christina. "You remind me of me," she confided to the young woman, who continued to call her Mrs. Onassis even after she had been told "Call me Jackie." Others, such as Aunt Eunice Kennedy Shriver, also remarked on the resemblance.
Aye, that was the rub, the reader sees clearly. For this is one of those books in which the writer seems sometimes to be telling more than she realizes, more than she herself has crystallized in her own mind, but it's all there for us to see plainly. Her resemblance to his mother is what attracted John to her, but it ultimately doomed their relationship for that very reason. And perhaps because it was so clear that Jackie approved of it, wanted it, knew it was right for him, all this made him chafe in the bonds of something he genuinely valued and loved.
For if there is one central insight in "Come to the Edge," it is just how large the iconic figure of Jackie loomed in her son's life. Christina is only invited to sister Caroline's wedding when she has acknowledged that John is to be his mother's escort, not hers, at the event. He has been shaped by being her son and in being required as an attendant over the years: when he wants to surprise Christina, he is careful to acquire beforehand not just her dress size, but also shoe, hat and glove sizes so that the surprise will fit perfectly.
His mother's perfectionism left its mark, and that invasive presence, as well as her withdrawals at crucial stages in his development, left their emotional scars. In her way, Christina also was under Jackie's magic spell, as shown by the continuation of their friendship after the break-up as well as the many fond memories of the queen and her domains throughout this account.
Ms. Haag displays an admirable dignity and restraint about the tragic trajectory of John's life for the rest of the decade, culminating in the fin de siecle disaster in the cold waters of the Atlantic. For the reader, there is a frisson as she describes a terrifying flight with him on the same route a decade earlier. As she describes John's taking her to the island farther south where he would later marry someone who seems in many ways her opposite, her feelings on learning he was married, and so soon after that he was dead, are manifestly intense.
But the overall impression left by "Come to the Edge" is sadness at the path not taken by a still young man who might yet be with us now. "Johnny we hardly knew ye" indeed, but Christina did, and, thanks to her, now we do a little more.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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