Nearly two decades after his tragic death, stars, insiders and colleagues — including Cindy Crawford, Robert De Niro, Newt Gingrich and Ann Coulter — recall in an oral history the editor's enthusiasm for bipartisan media and the day it all ended: "He truly believed it would have a positive impact."
My first encounter with John: I had handed in a piece for the third issue of the magazine that everyone was talking about while toiling for another in Philadelphia. One day, at my office, a voicemail. "Hi, Lisa? It's John Kennedy. I just read your story and I love it! Please give me a call. I want you to be part of the George family."
I did what anyone would have done. I walked into the hall and shouted, "OK, who's the asshole?" This had to be a prank, right?
Two days later, another message. "Uh, Lisa? It's John Kennedy again. I know you're busy. But can you call me back?" And so began the best job and the best years of my life.
George started with a bang; there were no whimpers at George. I mean, it was John Kennedy's magazine, which also meant — and boy, did he know it — that it had better be good. Until the day he unveiled the first issue, he was seared in the public consciousness as the heartbreaking little boy in a powder blue suit saluting his father's casket. Now here he was, in September 1995, at a podium in Manhattan's Federal Hall, where George Washington took his oath of office, staring down a packed mob of hungry media types to unveil his political magazine. "I haven't seen so many of you in one place since they announced the results of my first bar exam," he began. (He'd failed it twice, to the glee of the tabloids.) Then with a bit of a flourish, the reveal: "Ladies and gentlemen … meet George." On the cover was Cindy Crawford dressed as Washington — if the first president wore midriff tops and had killer abs. No, this wasn't going to be like any other magazine.
It was a long haul to that podium. John and his co-founder, Michael J. Berman (their partnership dissolved in 1997), shopped the idea for almost a year. Everyone wanted to sit with John. But wanting to meet John Kennedy and wanting to bankroll his magazine were two different things. It was David Pecker (yes, that David Pecker), then CEO of Hachette Filipacchi, who swooped in with a solid deal. Well, solid for Hachette — a notoriously cheap publisher. And so the sexiest magazine in town did not pay the most glamorous rates (except to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal).
The first two issues broke all kinds of records. No magazine made money in its early years — usually it took at least seven — but George did. Then, in '98, Pecker left the company, as did the magazine's original publisher. Things got rocky. Ad sales were down, the bloom was off. It was still successful, but it wasn't successful enough for Hachette. On June 18, 1999, a month before John's death, Jack Kliger, the new CEO, informed him that they were pulling the plug. John started scrambling to find new investors. Most of the staff had no idea Hachette had pulled out but John told confidants he would do anything to save George, including taking it digital and putting his own money in. No one who knew him doubted he would figure this out. (After John died in a plane crash on July 16, 1999, Kliger decided to keep the magazine going after all; it lasted another year under seasoned editor Frank Lalli, and did well, but not well enough.)
I don't believe John ever fathomed that he would die at 38. He didn't buy into things like The Kennedy Curse. Stuff like that made him hurl. But 20 years later, I do think he would want to be memorialized by the cast of characters who knew the real John — and helped him create the magazine he loved. Meet George.
The crossroad between politics and pop culture
JOE ARMSTRONG, ADVISER AND FRIEND OF JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS Jackie called me up and said, "You know, John doesn't know what he wants to do. He's at the DA's office. Two weeks ago, he had to file an action against somebody who stole a bag of potato chips. Would you just talk to him?" He didn't want to be a lawyer, and she knew that. She told me he didn't study for the first bar exam because he didn't feel like it. Or for the second, because he was having some romantic drama. After he failed it twice, he said, "I better study and get 3,800" — a perfect score. He came close. Anyway, we had a few lunches before the magazine idea came up. It was Michael Berman's idea. It wouldn't have happened without John, but it also wouldn't have happened without Michael.
ROSEMARIE TERENZIO, EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT One day, in the conference room [at Random Ventures, Kennedy's LLC with partner Michael J. Berman], the table was piled with photos, like 8-by-10 headshot things, and I realized they were all Herb Ritts photos. Gorgeous. Initially I thought it was for a charity thing. But it turned out John and Michael were starting a political magazine, and this was for the prototype. It was all pretty hush-hush. At one point they went to some class on magazines and were told, "The only two magazines that will never sell are religion and politics." And they were like, "Oh, great."
ARMSTRONG I was spending a week with Jackie in the Vineyard and John was in Vietnam with Daryl Hannah. He called and said, "Mummy, tell Joe that I was going through the tunnels in Vietnam and it hit me today that the magazine ought to be named George." And I'm thinking, "Tunnels? George?" But once he knew what he wanted, I could help him with a business plan.
TERENZIO The name George came from [music producer] Lou Adler, Daryl's brother-in-law. I think John chewed it over for a while, then was sold. He thanked Adler by putting him on the masthead.
DAVID PECKER, THEN-CEO, HACHETTE John had shopped the idea for George to all the major publishers, many of whom, like Jann Wenner, were personal friends. Eventually, John came to see me, and when he explained his concept, I enthusiastically agreed to go forward.
ELINORE CARMODY, PUBLISHER John and Michael's early way of putting it was they wanted George to be to politics what Rolling Stone was to music and what Sports Illustrated was to sports.
PECKER I recognized not only the reader appeal, but also the advertiser interest it would generate. The first issue sold out with hundreds of ad pages, more than the September issue of Vogue at the time.
ELIZABETH "BIZ" MITCHELL, EXECUTIVE EDITOR John was very clear about what he wanted in a staff — not just the smartest, most talented, but people we would want to see every day. In part, he loved George so much because the staff was chosen essentially to be his little family. And everyone very quickly stopped thinking of him as entirely a celebrity and would tease him, question him and challenge him. He could come in and be treated like pretty close to a normal person.
SASHA ISSENBERG, INTERN I was 15 and in high school. My aunt said, "You should go try to work at this new magazine." I got an interview and ended up doing research for John's interview with George Wallace for the first issue. George paid interns, but I was underage, so couldn't get paid by Hachette. At one point, John said, "I want to at least pay your expenses," so I'd get a check every week for $125 from JPK Enterprises, the family trust, for train fare from Larchmont and lunch.
MATT BERMAN, CREATIVE DIRECTOR I was at another Hachette publication, and George summoned me to create the logo. I was happy to do it, on my little salary. Now I think, "Jesus, that should have been 50 grand at least!" I did about 300 of them. John would say, "This one looks like a theater magazine. This is too serious." Then we hit on something you'd never seen before. That turned John on. At the same time, all these portfolios started to come in from art directors. I wasn't angling for the job. But John and I had bonded. He said, "I don't know about all of these people. Why don't we just use Matt?"
SUDIE REDMOND, MANAGING EDITOR I arrived the last week of August 1996 to help get the next issue out — I was supposed to be there just for a couple of weeks — and there was nobody there! The entire staff was gone, except for two editors and one intern, because it was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Last minute, John flew everybody there, the entire staff — the two people who didn't go were afraid to fly. And I'm like, "How is this magazine going to happen?"
NEGI DARSSES, CREATIVE SERVICES DIRECTOR At the DNC we were planning a small event for 100 people or so and it very quickly grew, and I don't want to say it got out of control — but the guest list, we just could not contain it. Everybody in the worlds of politics and Hollywood and journalism was clamoring to attend. "Oprah Winfrey RSVP'd but she wants to come plus 10." It was just blowing up, and at the last minute, within the last week, we had to change venues, which had me in a panic. But of course the Democratic National Committee treated us like kings. So very quickly, the Art Institute made their venue available to us — and at a good price as I recall. We called Sen. Ted Kennedy's office — Uncle Teddy, as John would call him — and he sent staffers who were planning to be in Chicago to help us man the door. And Mayor Daley shut down the street. It got so crazy with the photographers and the paparazzi, and it was such a crush, and I remember watching John move through the crowd and a beehive moved around him.
REDMOND Then everybody started coming back, and they were so excited about the success of the [George] party and talking about John on Oprah. We just started working around the clock and got the magazine to press — and John asked if I'd be interested in a permanent job. During the interview, he got a phone call. Rose came in and said, "It's the call you've been waiting for, you really need to take this." He apologized. I later learned it was a call about his wedding [to Carolyn Bessette] and all the logistics of keeping it secret. My first official day on the job was his first day back from the honeymoon. There was champagne in his office, and we had a toast. I felt so lucky to be there.
MATT SAAL, SENIOR EDITOR The word he used a lot was "demystify." He would always push that in stories. The story ideas he got the most excited for were those that would raise the curtain a little on the process of politics. I had been out in New Mexico and I met this guy who was working in a coffee shop there and he loved George magazine; he was working part time and going to the university out there. When I told John he loved it, he just loved that someone who was really far from centers of power and influence and privilege and all that was learning about politics. And that, to him, was what the magazine was about.
SEAN NEARY, ASSOCIATE EDITOR It was a very small staff, and there was a lot on the line. You knew that everything you were doing, it was also John's reputation.
ROB WHERRY, FACT CHECKER He was there every day. He was engaged. He wrote a lot of editing comments on your copy. If he had questions, he would stop by. He was in the trenches, there on Saturdays or late in the evenings when we were closing an issue. He'd bring in his dog, Friday, and we'd throw him a ball in the hall.
SAAL My first meeting there was in his office, and people were just jammed in and I was by the door, so I had a clear view straight down the hall and there were these two chairs that were just rolling toward the room up the hall, and someone was pushing them. And I realized as he came more into view that it was John, with his keys jangling and his hair. I remember thinking, like, "What?" He'd pushed the chairs into the room because he didn't want the interns to have to sit on the floor and he didn't say anything, the meeting was starting, he just kind of moved along and said, "Hey guys, why don't you sit here?" and then the meeting went on.
MICHAEL OATES PALMER, INTERN My first week on the job, he had a party at his loft for the staff. He invited the interns! Suddenly I'm having dinner at John Kennedy's house. It was like a buffet, super casual. Some of the staff climbed up to the roof to play Frisbee.
DARSSES I cannot tell you how many times we would sit in a meeting with an advertiser or someone important where he would have had to wear a suit that day and I would know, RoseMarie would know, a few of us would know that under that closed suit jacket was the chain to his bicycle because he forgot the key to the lock at home, so it was around his waist.
A splashy, star-filled start
BERMAN We had dinner in Tribeca; Herb Ritts, me, John and Carolyn [Bessette]. We needed to figure out what the first cover would be. I had this Vargas drawing of a 1776 pin-up girl with the big boobs and the whole thing but with a white wig. Somehow they all loved that but then twisted it. It could be George Washington. Herb got excited. We started throwing out names, lots of them. Everybody who was anybody. All women. When Cindy's name came up, Carolyn butted in and said, "That is perfect. She is apple pie. All-American. Self-made. She's it." Herb called Cindy from the restaurant. He must have gotten up to use the pay phone because there were no cellphones then.
CINDY CRAWFORD Herb called and said, "John Kennedy's going to call you about being on the cover of this magazine." I had met John before through other friends, like you do in New York. And I remember I was staying at the Hotel Bel-Air and getting a message that John called. I was flattered to be asked, but honestly? It was more about Herb Ritts. I worked with Herb a lot at that time and pretty much, if Herb asked me to shave k.d. lang on the cover of Vanity Fair, I said yes. So I said yes. And they were like, "And you're going to be dressed as George Washington." And I was like, "Oh, OK, that's interesting. But if anyone can make it look good, it'll be Herb Ritts." I showed up for the shoot; the stylist had gotten a real George Washington outfit, like a movie costume. And they did my hair like George Washington. They still wanted me to look pretty, but wearing a powdered wig. Then at one point we decided to cut off the shirt, and it was like, "Yes!" We're doing George Washington, but it's with a wink, you know? — with my midriff showing. It didn't get overly literal. Sometimes I'll see a special on John, and they'll show when he revealed the cover, and I think, "OK, that was pretty cool that he chose me as his first cover."
RACHEL CLARKE, ASSOCIATE EDITOR We had Cindy and Isaac Mizrahi do a conversation about Washington fashion. Isaac is hilarious, talking about these Washington women wearing their nude pantyhose. I think he called them baloney legs.
HUGO LINDGREN, EDITOR They got Gore Vidal to write an essay on George Washington for the first issue. I don't know if it was John's idea, but he would have signed off on it. It cost a tremendous amount of money, like $25,000 or whatever. And Gore Vidal wrote an essay on what a fraud Washington was, a terrible general and an awful leader, went on and on about every flaw. John was like, "We can't publish that, we named the magazine after him." It got killed, but I'm sure we had to pay every penny to Gore Vidal.
BERMAN So we get Robert De Niro for the second cover. The plan is to have him dress as (surprise!) Washington, holding a big sword. John says, "Stop by my apartment. I have a vintage sword that might be perfect." It was beautiful. I said, "John, this is perfect. It looks like a real George Washington sword." He laughs and says, "That's exactly whose that was." John's father had been given the sword during his presidency. So I'm about to get in a cab with George Washington's fucking sword. I said, "What if I leave it in the cab?" "You won't," said John.
ROBERT DE NIRO We might have talked about it at Bubby's [a Tribeca haunt]. I just did it, you know? They must have told me about the sword. (Laughs.) He lived around the corner from me. My landlord, who's since passed away, brought him up once to say hello. We didn't run into each other often, but we did from time to time. We'd go into Nobu, the original Nobu. He wasn't very talkative with me, and I'm not very talkative. But I remember I asked him once, "I'd like to see your family's property in Martha's Vineyard," and he said, "Yeah, sure." And I went to see it in the fall sometime. I just was always curious about that little beach property, beautiful on the water. It was a nice thing for him to do.
CLARKE We had Howard Stern on the cover as Washington cutting down the cherry tree. And John said to me, "Why don't you come along? You can take notes." He might have been a little nervous because it was Howard. What the hell is this guy going to say? And Howard could not have been nicer or more gentle. He said something like, "Aw, shit. You are really fucking good-looking. You are really cute. I feel uglier now than I've ever felt in my life." And they did great together. They totally clicked.
MITCHELL Oh, John got rejected now and then. When he was getting married, he told me well in advance, but we had an issue with the cover subject who backed out at the last minute. So he wrote a letter that I was to deliver with Matt Berman to that star, who we were told was filming in the city. We drove around most of the day trying to find him on the street to deliver the letter from John that said, "Secretly, I'm getting married, but I'm pleading you'll come back to do the cover." We never found him, so he never got the letter. It was Jack Nicholson.
BERMAN It was on the trip when we went to see Barbra Streisand that John and I really bonded. Carolyn pulls me aside before we left and says, "Matt, you have to say everything like you really mean it, no joking around, because this lady's going to fucking not take you seriously." John didn't come to any cover shoots. So I'm like, something's up with this if he has to come. But he knew she wouldn't be an easy subject, and she probably would be offended if he wasn't there. They had me in business, he was in first class, and he went to the desk and switched it and all of a sudden I was sitting next to him. We got there and there were all these paparazzi at the airport, because someone tipped them off. John was like, "It must have been [Barbra's] people because I don't know how anyone knows what plane we're on." I'd never seen a full-on John thing like that, it was wild. He said, "Let's go find the car," and he just walked through with his head down. When we got to the rental car, he goes, "Well, Matt, you're not going to believe this, but I think JFK Jr. just landed in L.A. with his gay lover."
DEBORAH MARCOGLIESE, ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER He would do these interviews with celebrities or politicians for the magazine, and often they'd come and speak at our offices in very small and intimate conversations. The sales staff would be invited. One of the people who came was Gerry Adams, who was the leader of the political arm of the IRA. I had just started a relationship with an Irish guy and had been to Ireland and to come back and sit in a meeting with this man, was just — I'll never forget it. He was larger than life sitting next to John.
DARSSES The first time we did this, it was a breakfast, and the caterer was so excited to be doing something for George magazine, that John Kennedy might be attending. I had ordered some bagels or whatever — coffee, bagels, some cut-up fruit. They covered all the bagels in smoked salmon. It stank up the whole room and at the end, John pulled me over — he's like "Thank you for organizing that, Negi, it was really great. Maybe we can" — he was always so gentle and polite — "maybe next time we can skip the salmon." I didn't have the heart to tell him that I didn't order the salmon, the caterers were trying to impress him.
LLOYD GROVE, FREELANCER I did a George cover story on Liam Neeson while I was at The Washington Post. My editor, Jeffrey Podolsky, asked me to come in and go through the draft with him and John. I thought, "OK, that’s fun, I get to meet the sexiest man alive." I had the impression obviously that he was a figurehead and was just there to have lunches and position himself to run for the Senate or whatever. Jeffrey took me into his office and we sat and talked about the piece and what it needed. And the guy had actually read the piece carefully and gave me meticulous notes that helped me revise it, all the while being very positive. He was actually kind of a dream editor: very encouraging and on point in terms of his comments and very clear on what he thought the piece needed. From that hourlong session in his office I totally revised my position. And then — I still feel bad about this — he said, "Well, I hope you'll write for us again." And I said, "I'd really like to do that, I think it's a great magazine, but I may have to defer to Graydon [Carter, the powerful editor of Vanity Fair, where Grove also freelanced] to get his permission." Talk about a wrong move, right? He was good-natured about it but I'm sure his internal thoughts were, "I'm not gonna assign this motherfucker anything again."
Bridging the GOP-Dem divide
ANN COULTER, CONTRIBUTOR He loved bringing both sides of the aisle together. That was kind of the hallmark of George. Can you imagine what a different world it would be if anyone still cared about that? I have a surprising number of liberal friends, many of whom I met through George — all of whom have to deny me to their friends and still I am friends with them. At a lunch event early on, I had just been fired for the 18th time from MSNBC. John thought it was the coolest thing ever. "This is something you should put on your résumé. You're like Howard Stern!" He wanted to know everything I'd been fired for. Loved it all. I thought, "Yeah, this is the magazine for me."
NEWT GINGRICH They approached my press secretary. They said it would be a lot of fun to do a cover with a lion. I've always been a sucker for animal opportunities. We ended up going to a [studio] in D.C. where they had a big old lion — even though old lions are dangerous, potentially. They had me standing astride the lion, which was a great shot. His handler had him well fed and well rested; the lion wasn't being asked to do much. It was fun. John and I chatted at the interview, and of course he was very proud of his publication and what he was trying to do. We both thought it was kind of a hoot to have a Gingrich and a Kennedy doing things.
DAN QUAYLE I was fairly close to his uncle [Teddy]. He and I worked on a lot of things. That's probably where [the idea of a George interview] originated, but I don't know. John flew out to Arizona, he came alone, he had his tape recorder, and that was it. All the women in my office had their very best dresses on that day. I said, "I think I'm going to have him come every day. You guys really look sparkling!" He was extraordinarily perceptive, because he kept digging on the question that I only got from serious journalists: Would I have been better off to stay in the Senate than jump on the vice president thing? He picked up on that, and very few people did. He was charming, very smart and very perceptive. I did call him up afterward when the issue came out. And I said, "Hey, nice headline there! 'Dumb and dumber.' Which one are you?"
KELLYANNE CONWAY, POLLSTER FOR GEORGE He was fascinated with polling, because polling was the touchstone to what people think. I remember telling John Kennedy that "I don't know" is a great answer that often gets ignored. He really enjoyed that part, "Let's not push people." We did one poll asking, "Would you rather be president of the country or president of your own company?" It wasn't even close, they wanted to be president of their own company, because they don't actually like politics, and it'd be less stressful and more lucrative. That fascinated him and definitely informed his editorial choices.
MARLA MAPLES, WROTE AN "IF I WERE PRESIDENT" COLUMN You just had faith that he was going to think out of the box. Most of what I wrote [in the column] was really honest and deep, you know? Closest adviser would obviously be God because that's who I am, and I love the part about my first act in office — making hate illegal. At the time, Princess Diana was going through so much, and it said, "What foreign problem would you like to solve?" I wrote "Her peace of mind." But then my publicist said, because I tend to get so serious, "You've got to get some comedy in there." So, "What would you fight the hardest to change?" Prenups!
LISA DEPAULO, CONTRIBUTOR Once they had this idea to send me to Honduras with Dick Morris. Morris, Clinton's top strategist, had imploded because he was caught sucking the toes of a prostitute on the balcony of the Jefferson Hotel. Now he was trying to make a comeback; he was running a presidential race in Honduras. John thought it would be great fun if I could go watch him run the campaign. It was all set, Dick was into it, then the night before the flight, Morris called and said he couldn't do it. He was in a 12-step program for sex addiction, and he was afraid if he spent too many days in a third-world country with a woman, he would "slip." I couldn't talk him back into it. I called John. "Dick just canceled. What can I do?" He calmly said, "What step is he on?" "Seven, I think." "Call him back and tell him he can do it. He can get to step eight on this trip, maybe nine. Tell him you have faith in him." And I did and the trip was back. I was so excited when I called John to tell him. "It worked! Any other advice?" He replied, "Don't wear sandals."
John and the Kennedy mythology
MITCHELL So I said to John, "This might be a little touchy, but here's an idea. It's Clinton's 50th birthday. We could do something playing off 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' [famously sung to Kennedy's father by Marilyn Monroe]." He had this look of amused incredulity, then he said, "It's great. Let's do it." He chose Drew Barrymore to be the one to pose as Marilyn on the cover.
TERENZIO John's thing was, "Why is it OK for everyone else to play with the political iconography of my family and I can't? It's my family, it's not offensive to me. Why should it be offensive to you? You guys [in media] have certainly done things in the name of my family that have been pretty damn offensive and I've kept my mouth shut, and now because I'm doing it it's bad?"
BERMAN We were doing a women's issue and I said "Let's do Eve [nude] in the Garden of Eden." It was supposed to be Pamela Anderson. We made this garden and we all went out to L.A. to shoot Pamela in the garden. The animals and snakes were real. We had the farm guy there, he brought the little lamb. So we get there — the whole team, Mario Sorrenti was shooting it — and Pamela blew us off. There was a note at the desk: "So sorry, can't do it this weekend." So I said to Mario, "Don't you know anybody in L.A. we can get?" And he's going down his list and I said, "What about Kate Moss?" So he called her up, and said, "Could she come out? We'll put her up wherever she wants." And Mario says, "She'll do it, but she says we've got to come to New York. She says she's not doing sloppy seconds in Los Angeles." So we fly back to New York, new animals, new white snake. Do you know how hard it is to find a cute little white snake in Manhattan? It was a beautiful cover. Then John was like, "Yeah, we've got Kate Moss on the cover naked. How funny would it be if I'm Adam inside?" Some of the staff got all wigged out. But it wasn't a vain thing or an exhibitionist thing, it was an editorial idea that was great.
ISSENBERG They shot it in Matt's office. No fancy photographer. At one point, John ran out in a towel and said, "Rosie, I did full frontal!"
MAPLES I was out in L.A. to shoot a movie and I had little Tiffany and a bodyguard with me. We were staying at Shutters and John sees me walking down the beach and he runs outside on his balcony and he says, "Hey, hold up, hold up!" He wanted to go rollerblading. And my bodyguard goes, "Mr. Kennedy, would you mind if I go get my George magazine and have you autograph it for me?" And I was like, "I'm going to kill you!" Of course John signed it. And he was trying to get his shirt on and it wasn't quite on and I'm like, "I'm never going to forget this vision in my entire life."
TERENZIO We wanted to put Princess Diana on the cover. There were all these calls back and forth; she was in town and staying at the Carlyle. I can't remember who hatched this scheme that he should go in disguise. We were laughing and carrying on: "Oh, go in as this" or "Go in as that." And finally he was like, "I'm not going anywhere in disguise, that's the stupidest thing ever." It just wasn't him. He had tea with her. When he came out, I said, "Well, how was she?" And he's like, "She's tall, taller than I thought. She's very nice, shy, a little coy. But she's not going to do it." At the end of the day, all he cared about was getting a yes to the cover of George. Everything else was kind of, whatever.
MITCHELL When Diana died, I remember calling him at home and saying, "We're going to have to do something." And he said, "Yeah, OK, we'll talk about it." So I called a meeting to discuss it. He just didn't come — he wasn't showing up on time, which he normally would never do. We kept delaying, and finally he came in and said, "I can't do it right now, I need to clean my office." It was obvious he was having an emotional response to the tragedy and finding it difficult. He kept saying, "I don't see why this needs to be a story." In the end, we did this incredible photo essay of the mourning going on in London.
BERMAN There were always things that we'd think he was going to be weirded out about but he wasn't. He wanted to do a cover about his mother. Something about telling the truth, it was his idea. He wanted somebody dressed like his mother sitting on a pile of every book that's ever been written about her. And I was like, "It sounds great, but we don't need the books." He called Madonna and asked her to do it. We were like, "Holy shit, you're going to see Jackie Kennedy on the cover with the sunglasses and the hair and then you're going to look again and it's Madonna."
TERENZIO He faxed Madonna a note. And she called, I remember she left a voicemail. "Hi, it's Madonna calling for John. I don't know if this is the right number, but this is the number that he gave me" — clearly annoyed that she was in voicemail. So he told her the idea, and she faxed a note back. It said, "Dear Johnny Boy" — because she loved to fuck with him — "Thanks for asking me to be your mother, but I'm afraid I could never do her justice. My eyebrows aren't thick enough, for one. When you want me to portray Eva Braun, I might say yes."
BERMAN He had his limits. I was always trying to get him to do American Gothic with Carolyn, which I still think would have been so fucking amazing. And John's like, "Oh, you think I'm that bad? Whoring myself and my wife out for the cover?" Every time there was a low blow — a dip in ad sales or someone dropped out of a cover — I'd say, "Now?" It would have sold like crazy. And he'd say, "We're not doing it."
'Anything was possible'
NEARY He gave me for my birthday his courtside seats for the New York Knicks with a note I still have: "You're doing a great job, working on some really tough stories. Take the night off, go out, have a great time and puke on your shoes." So I went to the game with my girlfriend, now my wife, and we sat in his seats. Security immediately came over. "What are you doing? These aren't your seats." So I had to explain, "I work at George, John Kennedy is my boss, he gave me these tickets." They did a whole background check to make sure we were legitimate. I told John the whole story the next morning. He loved it.
WHERRY In 1997, the staff went on a retreat to work through all the issues that were confronting the magazine. It was this old Victorian house.
REDMOND A couple of guys came to my office and said, "You cannot let this [retreat] happen in the summer. You have to tell John that with our production schedule, there's no way we can leave for a couple days in the summer." Because they didn't want to be in a bathing suit next to John. We ended up going in November.
WHERRY On the retreat, John took a bunch of us on a hike, and we got lost. It was starting to get dark and at one point, John stopped us and got down on one knee and started drawing in the dirt. He was like, "We're here and we want to be over here." I can remember thinking, "He's wrong." His sense of direction was off. Nobody said anything, and we kept following him. We're walking through the middle of the forest with no idea where we're going, and it's getting dark. Finally, 30 or 45 minutes later, we come out of this clearing. Everybody's like, "Yes! We finally found it." I just remember him apologizing profusely.
NEARY He used to get clothes sent to him, designers who'd want John wearing their clothes. And he didn't need them, so he kept them in a closet in the offices, and every now and then he'd tell the junior staff to go raid the closet. Here you were, like 22, 23 years old, probably making $25,000 a year, but you got access to Prada ties and Donna Karan jackets or an $800 pair of Gucci loafers. I remember Carl [Robbins, an associate editor, who died in 2009] picking those out. They were too big for him, so he stuffed some paper in them and would still wear them.
TERENZIO We had had a particularly brutal closing [of an issue] and the Yankees were in the playoffs, and John had me call George Steinbrenner's office and ask for 35 tickets if it were possible and obviously he would pay for them. He was JFK Jr. so anything was possible. He got 35 tickets and he said, "Guess what, everyone?"
NEARY The Navy offered John an opportunity to come out and spend time on the John F. Kennedy, which was an aircraft carrier. I don’t know if he didn’t want to go (laughs), but he extended the invitation to me and Carl instead. So Carl and I jump on a plane and head down to Norfolk, Virginia, and then got on a Navy transport and flew to the John F. Kennedy, which was off the coast of Florida doing maneuvers. We landed on the aircraft carrier. We were treated like VIPs. I had dinner with an admiral and his leading officers. I remember being in the captain’s dining room and there was actually a rocking chair there from President Kennedy's Oval Office. I can only imagine the admiral's surprise when he thought he was having dinner with John Kennedy and these two 23-year-olds show up.
SAAL My best friend died while I was at George. It was terrible. I'll never forget the day he died, I lived on this little shitty walk up on 12th Street. I went up and I remember back then, this was before voicemail, I had a crummy old answering machine and I hit play. I was lying on the couch just with my head back and it went beep and the first message was John. He said, "It's really hard to lose someone you're close to."
LISA DALLOS, PR DIRECTOR My mother and my stepfather have a home on Martha's Vineyard and John had learned that. It was July 1998, a year before his death. And he and I were talking in a meeting, something came up about a weekend on the Vineyard and on the Cape. And he asked me if I wanted a ride. And you're obviously not going to say no to your boss. I'm not a great flyer so I was very nervous about it but the Wednesday before the Friday we were supposed to go, he got weather reports that said it would be inclement weather and so he said he couldn't give me a ride. But he said, let me take your number and I'll call you on Sunday if I'm flying back. So I gave him my mom's number, never thinking he would call, and he did. A bright, sunny day. He picked me up at the Martha's Vineyard Airport and we flew to the airport in New Jersey where a year later he took off from. So it was the exact same flight but in reverse.
Losing George, losing John
PECKER He had his own vision for George. He truly believed it would have a positive impact on society by getting more young people engaged with politics. Even when the newsstand began to decline, and I began to have conversations with John about taking more risks editorially, he always listened but stayed true to his gut.
DEPAULO My mother was dying and John sent me home. "Don't think about your stories, just spend every minute with her." Occasionally, I’d come to New York for a day and spend an hour or so at the office just to have some normalcy. John would want to know how it was going. But I hated to regale him with dying stories so I’d tell him funny stuff about my hometown. Like the little mayor who stopped me at a traffic light and told me if I got any parking tickets, just bring them to him. He also chased skunks from yards and fixed potholes. Whatever his constituents needed. John loved this. After my mom passed, he took me to lunch. "I want you to write about your hometown." I balked. "I don’t want to write about myself." "Not yourself. The little mayor. Tell it through him." He named it "The Best Little Mayor in America" and wrote in his editor’s letter how this was politics at its most important level. The story was on newsstands when he died. On the top of his outbox was the last thing he put there that night: a story about the story from my hometown paper. John had written all over it in magic marker. “Love this! Hilarious! Thank you!”
DALLOS The goal was that he wanted George to be quoted, referenced, have stories picked up without it having to say "John Kennedy's George," so that the journalism stood on its own merits and didn't have to be attached to his name. In the months prior to his death, we were just getting there. There were stories in the New York Post that I was able to get in that were all about the breaking news quality of a story, and they would quote it from George magazine and not say JFK Jr.'s magazine or John Kennedy's magazine. We were getting to the freedom that he was looking for, for his magazine to not be completely consumed by his name.
CONWAY Two months before his death, there was a BMW event. Laura Ingraham was there, too. It was another example of bringing people together because it was the right versus the left, but we were in race cars and it was just fun. He had his foot in a cast, so he couldn't participate. But he had fun. He was always lovely, shy in a way, just trying to blend in and make everyone feel comfortable.
CARL ANTHONY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN AND CONTRIBUTOR In 1999, we finally got word that Hillary Clinton, who was at that point going to be running for Senate, was going to give me an interview — a full-on, big, no-holds-barred interview about her influence. He said, “I can’t believe you, I can’t believe you got that. I’ve been trying forever. I’ve been trying so hard to get that. I can’t — what did you do?” And I said, “Hey, listen, John, it’s OK if there’s one woman in the world who says no to you.” He, like, punched me in the shoulder. And that was the last time I saw him.
TERENZIO After David Pecker left Hachette to go to AMI — that was kind of a kick in the ass — Jack Kliger took over and decided he did not want to move forward with George. I remember John coming down from the meeting and saying, "I knew it was a no-go when I put my water bottle on the desk and [Kliger] started drinking out of my bottle of water, he was so nervous." That was June. He started to reach out to other investors. After five years, he understood the magazine business a lot better — we had our big debut, now it's the real world, and he had a plan to scale it down to where it did not have this amount of expectation every month.
BERMAN The last few months were tense. It was time to go, the thrill was off, it was turning into a real magazine. It started with a huge bump and then it was leveling off to that point where we’re like, "OK, now it's work. Now it's a magazine." [Hachette] just should have fucked off because to me it was a growing pain, a lull. The magazine had this kind of flat moment, which I've seen at a lot of magazines. They kind of thin out for a year and then bump up again. But John sensed they weren't into it. So there was this tension of, "Where are we going to go? Who’s going to buy us?" But I never thought for a minute that we would fold. I knew he was going to find somebody.
NEARY When he had to look for new investors, he did a really good job of keeping it close to the vest. He wouldn’t share it, really, until things started popping up in the New York Post and stuff, then he would address it. He tried to never show that he was concerned or stressed. He was very cognizant of the fact that he held the future employment of 20-some-odd people in his hands, and he wanted to keep it going.
WHERRY When the magazine was teetering, I got laid off, but I was able to stay on for a few weeks. One morning he came over to my desk and asked me to come to his office. He explained the situation — that it wasn't my work, but it was the financial aspect of the magazine and how poorly it was going. I told him I was interviewing at Forbes and he said that was a good place to go next. A couple of hours later, one of his assistants came down and handed me a signed letter of recommendation on his stationery. It said, "I'm certain anyone choosing to employ Rob will do so on account of his obvious qualities rather than this letter." He realized that if I used the letter, a lot of people were going to focus in on that it was him writing the letter. He was right.
ROB LOWE, SEPTEMBER 1999 COVER STAR John saw the pilot of The West Wing and said, "This show is representative of everything I think George should be and I want to do something special." Remember, it's never even been on the air. So for John to commit to a show that could be canceled at a time when the magazine was under a lot of scrutiny was a really big deal. And I hadn't been on a magazine cover for years, so it was a big deal for me too. It was also part of the beginning of the controversy that eventually had me leave The West Wing because John Wells, who ran the show, was very upset with John for wanting me on the cover and not the entire cast.
MAPLES I was engaged to Michael Mailer at the time we were heading up to Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey's wedding [on Martha's Vineyard]. We arrived late that Friday night and we got the phone call Saturday morning that John and Carolyn's plane hadn't made it. It was heart-wrenching.
BERMAN I was down at his apartment with Rose drinking and having fun [Terenzio was staying at Kennedy's because her air conditioning was out]. I was going to meet Rob Lowe for the cover shoot Saturday morning so I went home at like midnight, maybe 11, and that's when Rose started calling and calling and I'm like, "She knows I have to wake up, this is annoying." And she goes, "The police were just here, everyone's calling. John never landed."
TSALEM MUELLER, EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT Rose called me at 6 o'clock in the morning. She didn't even give me a chance to speak. She just said, "Get to the office right now, John is missing." Because I live closer than anybody else, I just got right over there. And then people started coming.
BERMAN It was like a wake.
LOWE We canceled the cover shoot. And there was some talk about if we would ever do it. And someone said, "No, we're going to go ahead and go through with it at a later date because John really loved this idea, loved this magazine, and he would have wanted us to do it."
COULTER I think things in politics would be different if his plane hadn't gone down. The polarization and hatred would have to be less because he set a standard. I mean, who knows? Trump still could have come along and wrecked everything, but even through Trump, life would have been better in politics, more interesting and more fun. Maybe there would be a President John.
QUAYLE He would've been extraordinarily good in politics. He might have been the best of them all if he had the opportunity.
REDMOND After the memorial service, a group of us were standing together, and Christiane Amanpour came up and said, "You know, there's a lot of conversation about John's dreams and how tragic it was that he didn't get to fulfill them. But that's not true. I want you all to know that George was his dream and you helped make it happen with him."
MITCHELL I remember him giving me this speech about how to have a great life you have to have an adventurous life. George to him was part of the adventure.
April 9 A previous version of this story identified Joe Alford as coming up with the name George. It was Lou Adler. It also contained an anecdote about Barbra Streisand wanting to feature her doll collection in her cover shoot. The doll collector/cover model was Demi Moore, not Streisand.
Interviews edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story also appears in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.