JFK Jr., George, & Me: A Memoir by Matt Berman


It is somewhat difficult to believe that John F. Kennedy, Jr. has been dead for fifteen years. Known as John-John, America’s son, the Sexiest Man Alive, the Prince of Camelot–he had almost as many nicknames as the late soul singer, James Brown–he was killed, along with his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister, Lauren Bessette, in a plane crash on his way to his cousin Rory’s wedding In Hyannisport, the summer stomping ground of generations of Kennedys. The plan was to drop his sister-in-law off on Martha’s Vineyard, but something went horribly wrong. The crash occurred fewer than ten miles from the Gay Head beaches where his late mother had owned a summer estate. Kennedy was only thirty-eight years old.


Once again the nation was plunged into grief over another Kennedy man gone too soon. The family maintained the dignified public poise it has always exhibited during their tragedies, and a number of them also attended the services for Lauren Bessette in Greenwich, Connecticut, just days later. But it wasn’t long before the public learned of some of the squabbling and frayed nerves that had marked the days between the disappearance and recovery of the three. The families also had to endure endless gossip about the state of Kennedy and Bessette’s marriage and rumors about the imminent demise of George.

Caroline Kennedy, sole survivor of the nuclear family of JFK, insisted on a private, invitation-only funeral for her brother. Like her mother, she cherishes and maintains her privacy and expects her circle of friends and family to due likewise. It is alleged that several of John’s friends were not invited to the memorial service because they blabbed to the media. Matt Berman, creative director at George from its inception to its demise, has waited fifteen years to talk about how “nothing turned into everything” when he met JFK, Jr.


JFK, Jr. George and Me is a wistful and light-hearted look at Berman’s time at the glossy political magazine whose motto was “Not Just Politics as Usual.” They seem an unlikely pair, the handsome scion of America’s most famous political family and the son of a restaurant supplier from Connecticut who was so afraid of drawing attention to himself that he allowed one of his teachers to call him by the wrong name for half a school year. But in Berman’s mind, he and Kennedy had two commonalities. First, they both experienced tragedies on November 22. Kennedy’s tragedy is seared into the national psyche. Berman’s was that of being nearly mauled to death in 1964 by the pet racoons of a neighbor when he was five months old, an accident that was so bad it made the local newspaper. His face had been severely disfigured and it colored how he represented himself and how people reacted to him. Berman said “John and I both lived under the enormous shadow of events we had no control over and could not remember . . . We both got attention for the wrong reasons.”


Second, Berman describes their mothers as woman who were very different, but tried to ensure that their sons had normal lives. Their mothers also taught them the value of making other people comfortable and feeling as though they were at the center of things, and this characteristic served both men well, especially in the publishing business.

The two men quickly became close and Berman played the role of Kennedy’s younger brother, while JFK, Jr. was Berman’s mentor. He describes Kennedy as a “regular guy” who sometimes exhibited atrocious table managers, loved practical jokes, kept a messy office and had a keen sense of the ridiculous. More than a decade later, Berman continues to marvel at how normal Kennedy was, describing a man who took the subway or biked to work, waited his turn in lines, and generally eschewed the trappings of the rich and famous. Even when Kennedy was being fawned over or used because of his celebrity, Berman says he was invariably polite and gracious.


Interspersed throughout the book are amusing tales of how those who graced the covers of George were chosen–apparently Barbra Streisand is as difficult as those who have worked with her say–and photographed, and how the magazine was put together before the ubiquity of cell phones, email, lightening fast search engines, and instant everything. It meant hundreds of late nights on little sleep, cold takeout and sometimes frayed nerves. And while George started out with a bang when it debuted in 1995, by the time Kennedy was killed, it was struggling to find its voice. Hachette Fillipacchi Media US, the publisher, bought out Kennedy’s interest in the magazine after his death and published it under a different leader, but without the Kennedy cachet, the magazine could not survive. It limped along until 2001 when the company pulled the plug.


Readers looking for dirt on the Kennedy family or gossip about Kennedy’s marriage will be sorely disappointed. According to Berman, the staff at George were good people who worked extremely hard, got along well for the most part, and believed in, if not the magazine, than John F. Kennedy, Jr. Berman found Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette charming, friendly and down-to-earth, and insists the couple were very much in love.


While Berman had worked in publishing before and after his stint at George at very high levels–he spent time in Paris at Elle– it is clear he views his time with JFK, Jr. as the seminal experience of his life. At the end he said “It always seemed like John had everything. What I realized was, if you were lucky enough to have him in your life, so did you.”