Remembering JFK Jr. 15 Years After His Tragic Death

John F. Kennedy Jr.
John F. Kennedy Jr. Reuters

It was 15 years ago that the shocking news broke that John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., affectionately known as JFK Jr., was missing in a plane crash in Massachusetts. The Kennedys are as close as America got to a royal family, with "John-John" as the beloved Prince Charming. The fantasy came to an end when he and wife Carolyn Bessette, along with her sister Lauren, perished in a plane he was flying on July 16, 1999.

JFK Jr. was in the public spotlight his entire life. He was born in Georgetown University Hospital 17 days after his father was elected president. Sister Caroline was 3. The nation got to watch John grow up, winning the nation’s affection with pictures of him playing around his father's desk in the Oval Office.

JFK Jr. lived in the White House for the first three years of his life, until his father was assassinated in November 1963. President Kennedy’s funeral was held on his son’s 3rd birthday. One of America's most iconic images is that of a little boy saluting his father’s flag-draped casket.

Jackie Kennedy moved to New York, hoping her two children could grow up with a modicum of privacy, if not anonymity. But the heart-stoppingly handsome JFK Jr. was considered tabloid gold. Paparazzi followed him ceaselessly, including at his graduation from New York University School of Law, where he received his J.D. degree in 1989.

People magazine named him 1988’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” He was linked to superstar Madonna and dated Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah for 5 1/2 years; he married Carolyn Bessette in 1996. The couple managed to elude the media and had a small, private wedding on an island off the Georgia coast. 

In July 1999, JFK Jr., who had received his pilot’s license the year before, took his wife and her older sister Lauren on a trip to Martha's Vineyard Airport in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts and to Cape Cod to attend the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy. The Massachusetts coast was locked in with heavy fog that night.

The plane never arrived. A search started 15 hours later. Family members -- and a watching public -- were hopeful at first, but no survivors were found and personal effects and debris began to wash up on a beach near where Kennedy's mother Jackie had owned a home. 

The search ended on July 21, when three bodies were recovered from the ocean floor by Navy divers. It was determined the crash was probably caused by pilot error; Kennedy wasn’t qualified to fly by instruments only.

John's and Carolyn's ashes were scattered off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. In his last will, he left the bulk of his estate and personal belongings to his sister Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and her three children. There were 14 beneficiaries listed in his will, including the children of his many friends.

In an interview with the “History Channel” in 1997, JFK Jr. said his father “inspired a lot of hope and created a sense of possibility and then the possibility was cut short and never realized.”

Some might say the same thing about JFK Jr. himself, who never said never to running for president.  Fifteen years later, Americans continue to mourn for the national icon. As Sen. Ted Kennedy said in his eulogy for his nephew, "Like his father, he had every gift but length of years."  

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