In the '90s, John F. Kennedy Jr. founded and edited a revolutionary magazine called George, which covered politics like it was pop culture. Was it folly—or a glimpse of the Trumpian future?
It was the summer of 1996; he was the editor of a magazine named George, which was less than a year old and still finding its way; Drew Barrymore was posed in a nude-colored cocktail dress and platinum wig, with a mole perfectly placed on her left cheek. The idea came from George’s executive editor, Elizabeth Mitchell, who suggested it as a fiftieth-birthday tribute to President Bill Clinton. The reference: In May 1962, in front of fifteen thousand people during a Democratic-party fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, Monroe had famously serenaded Kennedy’s father ten days before his forty-fifth birthday with a breathy, seductive "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." The subtext to the song, of course, is that the president and the actress were rumored to have had an affair.
That photograph might seem a strange choice for a man who adored his mother—even stranger than asking Madonna to impersonate her—but the thing was, according to Mitchell, Kennedy never believed anything had happened between his dad and Monroe. "He just thought it was sort of tweaking the expectations of the public," she says all these years later.
An irreverent play on politics and pop culture with a dash of Kennedy intrigue, the Barrymore/Monroe cover accurately sums up George, the magazine Kennedy launched in September 1995. His concept, in today’s terms at least, seems relatively straightforward: "a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core." Back then, however, George was revolutionary; there had never been anything quite like it. Nor had there ever been a magazine editor quite like John F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer by training. Perhaps predictably, media critics sneered, lampooning him as aimless and unqualified, his idea frivolous. Esquire called the magazine "the riskiest venture of a pampered life indelibly marked by tragedy.
But Kennedy’s instincts were right: In the twenty years since his death, politics and pop culture have become so intertwined that candidates now spend nearly as much time courting voters on late-night shows as they do on the Sunday talk circuit. Politicians are covered as if they were celebrities, while celebrities seek out a voice on politics.
Some of the people close to him believe George was Kennedy’s first step toward his own eventual run for office. His plan, they say, was to build it up as a successful magazine that could survive without his star power so that he could one day step into politics. But he ran out of time. On July 16, 1999, less than four years after the first issue, the aircraft Kennedy was flying plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing him; his wife, Carolyn Bessette; and her sister Lauren Bessette. Just eighteen months later, George folded.
Beyond the personal tragedy was a professional one: Kennedy had worked hard to build a fiercely loyal team; an exciting, buzzy brand; and a new way to think about politics. But the personal and professional were hard to separate. It was the Kennedy name that persuaded publishers, advertisers, and readers to take a chance on him, but at the same time, it was his family’s legacy that complicated his role as an editor and led to conflicts both inside and outside the magazine.
“John died before his time,” says Frank Lalli, the editor who replaced Kennedy (and who controversially put Donald Trump on the cover in 2000). “And this magazine died before it's time.”