Since he launched his political magazine, George, nearly four years ago, John F. Kennedy Jr. occupied a dual space in American culture: a member of the media who has been the focus of unrelenting media attention from the day he was born. As the son of an assassinated president, Kennedy, presumed dead with his wife and her sister in a plane crash Friday night off Martha's Vineyard, was followed everywhere by the paparazzi and was constant fodder for the gossip columns.
"It bothered him enormously," said Paul Begala, a former White House aide who helped Kennedy launch George. "But he was always conscious that he didn't have any right to complain. He understood the rules of the game."
Kennedy's larger problem in recent weeks was the struggle to save his magazine as the publisher, New York-based Hachette Filipacchi Inc., was weighing whether to pull the plug on George by year's end. Kennedy was searching for other partners as an alternative.
"He was determined to press ahead," said magazine publisher Steven Brill, who recently met with Kennedy.
On Monday, Jack Kliger, president and CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, said in a prepared statement that the publishing company "continues to be committed to fulfilling John's vision for the magazine."
George has been a mixed success at best, a monthly that almost certainly would not exist without Kennedy's fame. A glossy hybrid that covered politics and celebrity, it has achieved a circulation several times that of a serious political magazine such as the New Republic. Lacking a partisan point of view, it was never embraced in Washington. And it has grown thinner lately as advertising declined, and it's still struggling to find its niche.
The Associated Press reported that ad revenue tumbled 20% in the first half of the year, and the number of ad pages, another key barometer, fell 30%, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
Paid subscriptions edged 5% higher to 313,000 in the six months ended in December 1998, the most recent period for which figures are available from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
But George's newsstand sales, which are more closely watched as an indicator of a magazine's popularity, tumbled 28% in the same period to 91,000, according to the ABC.
Contrary to what some critics believed, Kennedy was very much a hands-on editor who read copy, suggested ideas and sometimes killed pieces.
Kennedy conducted regular interviews with people who were hard to get, from reclusive philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife to George C. Wallace to Don Imus. And despite his Democratic heritage, he also hired such conservative Republican columnists as former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato.
He saw George as having a "populist" streak that would appeal to readers, including women, who were not political junkies.
Begala, who is also a George columnist, said Kennedy "would say, 'This is the greatest show on Earth. Let's show that. Let's celebrate politics the same way that Sports Illustrated celebrates sports.' "
Kennedy was not above exploiting his celebrity in service of the magazine. He once posed nude, although with strategic parts in the shadows, and he criticized his cousin Michael Kennedy for having an affair with a teenage baby-sitter.
"What's the point for me to have a magazine if I'm not going to use it in some way that's personal?" he told Brill's Content.
From its lightweight beginnings, George has evolved into a somewhat more serious magazine that does some investigative work. Without Kennedy, however, George's future would certainly be even more in doubt than it has been with Hachette Filipacchi reexamining its viability.