Download the Cubby Creatures' ode to the recently departed, "Johnny K".
John Kennedy's death is being called an American Tragedy by reporters, who fly from around the world to camp outside the Kennedy family's lawn, waiting to snap photos of grieving relatives in sunglasses. S.F.'s own Terilyn Joe was there Monday night, providing characteristic razor-sharp analysis. Standing in front of the windswept Kennedy Compound, Terilyn testified that "there is a sense of shock," though the most shocking image was what a mess the wind was making of her hair.
For me, shock has been a secondary reaction; mostly, I feel a huge, numbing sense of disbelief. Celebrity deaths do that to me. It's not that I don't believe famous people die; instead, I find myself doubting that they ever lived. These stories play out like scripted installments of an epic, cast-of-thousands primetime soap opera: The Famous Show. The Kennedys, like the Royal Family or the Bonos or the cast of Diff'rent Strokes, are merely one tangled plotline among many, and every few months it's time for that plot to heat up again. When things are particularly boring--when Mideast Peace starts taking center stage--it's time for The Famous Show to kill off a character.
I first heard about John-John's plane disappearing on Saturday night, when the TV reporters were still trying to talk about it with a modicum of hope in their voices. More than 24 hours had passed since the plane vanished, long enough that it seemed likely Kennedy and his wife and her sister wouldn't be surfacing any time soon, but not so long that the Coast Guard had dropped the "search and rescue" label. They were keeping alive the notion that it was just a matter of time before one of the missing passengers would be found clinging for dear life to a hunk of flotsam. Wouldn't that have been the photo of the year? John-John, snatched from near-death in the Atlantic, being hoisted into a helicopter, his torso shivering from hypothermia but still nicely defined for the evening news by a tattered, soaked t-shirt.
There were no photo ops or sound bites to speak of: no portentous videotapes of his single-engine plane taking off, no panicked radio transmissions from the cockpit, no interviews being granted by grieving Kennedys. On CNN things were particularly desperate. First they brought out a nondescript guy in a polo shirt, a pilot named Kyle, who had been at the airport when John Kennedy's plane took off. Kyle provided such tantalizing details as the fact that John-John arrived at the airport in a car, and his wife followed shortly thereafter, dropped off by a car service. Then CNN cut to a phone interview with a Kennedy Biographer, who began by saying, "I didn't know Mr. Kennedy, nor did I ever speak with him," neither of which prevented him from a lengthy analysis.
Finally, they brought out someone who had spoken with Mr. Kennedy: Lois Capellen, a waitress at the diner near the flight school where John-John took his lessons. Lois spoke through lips pinched tight from years of gossiping: "I said to him, 'If you ever have five minutes, Mr. Kennedy, I'd love to sit and talk to you about your mother. She was a great woman.' And he said, 'If I had five minutes, I'd tell you all about her.'" I'm not even going to get started on the idea that you could learn "all about" Jackie O. in five minutes (oh, the slander!). Let's just sit for a moment with the figure of Lois Capellen. She gets a polite mouthful of small talk from her celebrity customer--a well-mannered brush-off, in other words--which she's probably been repeating to her neighbors and grandchildren, and anyone who would listen, for years. Now, at last, she gets to tell it on TV. And CNN, under pressure to offer the kind of non-stop coverage that The Famous Show depends on, plucks up Lois's measly morsel and spits it out into the world as a keystone of Saturday's episode.
The point is, The Famous Show is stumbling here. Unlike other celebrity infernos of the past few years, this one is missing that key ingredient, the conflict: Princess Di had the paparazzi; Versace had Cunanan; Monica Lewinsky had Linda Tripp. John Kennedy just has his family's "cursed" history, which might lead to some speculating that, yes, Joe Kennedy did in fact cut a deal with Satan ("Make me rich, and you can have my family. All of them!"), but in terms of an unfolding story is pretty played out.
The most consistent reaction from my gay friends has been, "I'm just glad Jackie isn't alive to see this," and, as usual, the gays have gone right to the heart of the matter. Jackie, ever beloved, is the key to why John-John had to be killed off by the producers of The Famous Show. Jackie was the big ratings queen. They've never replaced her, and we've never gotten over her. We've never let go of that particular fascination that left us wanting to protect her from harm even as we participated in the public stalking of her every move. John-John, more than being a bland New Englander like so many of his Kennedy cousins, had that Frenchified, high-fashion Jackie-glamour about him. And, after all, it was Jackie who first pushed him into the public eye, by instructing him to salute his dead father's coffin on TV. John F. Kennedy, Jr. became John-John in that moment, and The Famous Show put his storyline into development.
Actually, I have proof that John Kennedy wasn't just a burst of screenwriting imagination. Ten years ago, when he was a District Attorney in New York, I wound up in an elevator with him. We rode four floors together; he waited for me and my boyfriend to exit, and then he got off and walked in the opposite direction. A brief, meaningless moment of contact, but perhaps one that I could spin into my own cameo role on The Famous Show: a CNN reporter comes to San Francisco to get the Gay Reaction to the story. The reporter finds me laying a bouquet of flowers on a makeshift community altar at the corner of 18th and Castro. He sticks out his microphone; I clear my throat and testify: "Yes, I met him once. I felt very comfortable around him. He didn't act phony at all. He was the strong, silent type. Very dignified, very much his mother's son."
Download "Johnny K" by the Cubby Creatures.
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