John F. Kennedy Jr. came into the world already famous. “He’s just wonderful,” a press secretary reported in November 1960, just months before his parents, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, moved into the White House. “His eyes were closed. I think he had a tiny bit of dark hair.”
From that moment on, John belonged to the world. But in the all too brief years before a tragic plane crash ended his life at age 38 in July 1999, several women laid claim to his heart. They paint a picture of a handsome and gracious man trying to find his way.
“I just loved that he was kind of silly, quirky, forgetful, fun and adventurous,” says Julie Baker, a model who dated John in the late 1980s. “Like a normal and humble great guy.”
One of his longest relationships was with Christina Haag, an actress whom he’d known since his New York upbringing. During their five-year courtship, John called her nicknames like “Puppy,” “Chief” and “Sweet Frog.”
“I held him back a bit, and he pushed me to go further,” wrote Christina in her 2011 memoir, Come to the Edge, in which she details nearly drowning on a kayak trip in Jamaica with her adventurous beau. The couple split in 1990 after Christina tired of John’s wandering eye. “It wasn’t lack of love,” she says. “It was timing.”
John also met Sarah Jessica Parker, the future star of Sex and the City, in New York. “He had exquisite hair, it was like a paintbrush,” she confides. However, the intense attention around John scared her. “I never had any idea what real fame was until I met John,” Sarah Jessica says. “We would go places where there wasn’t a soul around, and the next day I’d see pictures of us there in the tabloids.”
Actress Daryl Hannah was better equipped for the scrutiny. “I get asked about [marrying John] all the time,” she said in 1993. “This morning, I call up my plumber, and even he asks me.” Though they shared Daryl’s New York apartment for a time, John’s mother, Jackie, reportedly never approved of the relationship, and they split shortly after her death. Likewise, John’s flirtation with Madonna “horrified” Jackie, recalls singer Carly Simon, author of Touched by the Sun and a close friend. “Jackie was very consumed with getting him on the right path.”
His 1996 marriage to Carolyn Bessette, who died with him in the plane crash, would have likely pleased Jackie, as she was both substantial and beautiful. “John didn’t need anyone else who was going to say yes. So she said no,” says Kennedy’s cousin Carole Radziwill. “He loved her. And she loved him. And they drove each other crazy.”
Friends and former lovers can’t help but wonder what might have been had the couple, along with Carolyn’s sister Lauren, not perished. “He was an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances,” says CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, a college pal. “And he lived his life with grace.”
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.