Varied Images of JFK Jr. Evoked by Older, Younger Generations


To Generation X, he is the hunk who broke the hearts of millions of women when he was married three years ago. To the postwar generation, he is the wavy-haired boy who stoically saluted the passing coffin of his father while a tearful nation watched.

At libraries, malls and other gathering spots Saturday, Southern Californians reacted with shock and sadness at the news that 38-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. was missing after the plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic near Martha's Vineyard.

His feared passing provoked vastly different images from older and younger generations.

Teenagers and college students who know him as the handsome heir to a rich and powerful family, compared the unfolding tragedy to the death of Princess Diana.

"When I heard about John F. Kennedy Jr., it gave me the chills," said Christina Navoa, a 19-year-old UC Riverside student. "I felt exactly the same way when I heard about Princess Diana."

But for an earlier generation, the news brought back stark memories of the assassinations of President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 and his brother Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles five years later.

Some people in their 50s and 60s choked back tears at the news of another Kennedy who may have been taken at a young age.

Regardless of age, most Southern Californians who spoke about the Kennedys on Saturday wondered how a family could be struck by so much tragedy.

"I was shocked; I felt like I needed to sit down," said David Bryson, a 65-year-old artist from Studio City. "Tragedy just seems to follow that family. It never stops."

Also aboard the single-engine plane were Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her 34-year-old sister, Lauren Bessette.

Young and old said the accident was doubly tragic because he was married only three years ago, had no children and appeared to be starting a stable, happy life.

One woman called the latest tragedy "the unraveling of an American family."

For those who were old enough to remember President Kennedy's assassination, Saturday's news whipped them back to the time and place they had heard of it.

Mary Pat Thompson, 45, who was visiting Los Angeles from Cedarburg, Wis., Saturday, said she was a young student at a Roman Catholic school when she heard of the Kennedy assassination.

"The nuns were very solemn," she said. "I remember going home and my mother was ironing in tears."

Kennedy's plane crash brought back the same feelings of that day, she said. "In a sense, it's our first family."

Catherine Rossbach, a 50-year-old editor at Sage Publications in Los Angeles, cried as she recalled the assassination.

"At the time, the whole country lost a president," she said, standing outside the Los Angeles Central Library. "I remember the children who were deprived of their father."

Richard Fajardo, 47, who was attending the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in Long Beach, said news of the plane crash transported him back in time to JFK's funeral.

"I remember the salute, and it is an image that is ingrained in my mind," he said. "I didn't understand the significance then, but I do now. The news took my breath away."

The Kennedys represent much more than political power, said Bob Miller, 48, a design engineer from Costa Mesa. For him and his generation, Miller said, the Kennedy family still offers a link to their own childhood, memories of growing up worrying about the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis and racial upheavals.

"It's like your first kiss," he said. "It might not be your best, but you never forget it."

Miller's wife, Carol Roberts, agreed. Even when JFK Jr. was playing the role of the man about town in New York, she continued to think of him as the young son saluting his father's coffin.

"I think that's what people remember most about him," Roberts, a 52-year-old administrator at UC Irvine, said as she left South Coast Plaza. "It's not just history to us."

But for 14-year-old Jason Kraft, the Kennedys are exactly that: History. Kraft has learned about the triumphs and tragedies of the Kennedys not from watching them through the decades but from talking to his parents, surfing the Internet and reading history books.

Kraft's 15-year-old friend Vanessa Long said she saw JFK Jr. more as a "sexy" socialite than the symbol of a political age.

"When I think about him, I think more about the magazine George" than his image as a president's son, she said.

For Carmel Evans, 25, a production coordinator for a marketing firm, JKF Jr. is mostly a heartthrob. "He's really good looking, really handsome," she said. "He's definitely a cutie."

Caroline Stack, a 25-year-old office manager for a filmmaker, said she sympathizes with the Kennedy family but doesn't feel the connection with the Kennedy's that an older generation feels.

"People who were alive when he saluted his father going by in the coffin are more interested in him and his family than the generation after my generation," she said. "But I'll be praying for them."

Times staff writers Agnes Diggs, Jack Leonard, Patrick McDonnell and Hugo Martin also contributed to this story.

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