The most telling moment in “Come to the Edge,” Christina Haag’s memoir of her love affair with John F. Kennedy Jr., comes after his death in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard.
There are two memorial services, one for dignitaries and family, the other for Kennedy’s friends. Haag, no longer his girlfriend after a drawn-out breakup nine years earlier, attends the latter. Of all the words that are shared at the informal service, Haag remembers Christiane Amanpour’s the best.
Amanpour was a foreign correspondent for CNN at the time, and a former roommate of Kennedy and Haag’s when they lived together as friends in a rambling Victorian house in Providence while attending Brown.
“He was an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances,” she said. “And he lived his life with grace.”
The quote reveals two of the book’s most poignant themes. The first is destiny — how does a young man born into America’s royal family reconcile his sense of self with the enormous burden of expectation that is his birthright?
The second is grace. In Kennedy’s world — informed by his mythic, sorrow-tinged mother — grace is transcendence. It’s the intangible quality that allows public figures to live among the rest of us while remaining distinctly separate and above.
Because the life of a Kennedy is one of great privilege. And it’s into this world that Haag’s memoir allows us intimate access. However, she doesn’t bow to tabloid sensationalism; instead, she gently dusts off her tender, aching memories and bravely holds them to the light. She examines the past frankly before donning the diaphanous veil of nostalgia that makes the book’s fateful denouement all the more tragic.
The reader is swept into a rarified realm where an intensely private Jackie Kennedy — whose quietly regal life is ordered around comfort and personal space — is called Mrs. Onassis; and her children and their friends roam freely at stately homes in New Jersey, Martha’s Vineyard, Palm Beach and Manhattan.
“Come to the Edge” is about the endless, burning passion of young love — the kind that strips you bare and leaves you for dead when it’s over. And it’s here where the book finds both its strength and its weakness. When Haag recounts amorous anecdotes, the text drips with sap. And there are more than a few awkward references to Kennedy wearing nothing but a sarong.
“My boyfriend, I learned that weekend, was the man of the hour in a striped sarong, a toastmaster par excellence, and a dancer who made my knees weak.”
But for the few moments that redden the reader’s cheeks, the wistful story of love and ultimate loss is told with a wealth of finely wrought details that reveal both Haag’s deep sensitivity and wonder at the situation in which she has found herself; and Kennedy’s conflicted nature — the free spirit who just wants to climb mountains and ski in the Alps, who admits that he is not yet a man at 30.
The book also paints a compelling portrait of the lost Manhattan of the 1970s and ‘80s, a mysterious place of wealth and despair where parents left Nat Shermans “like pastel candies, artfully fanned in small china cups” on living room coffee tables, and kids hung out alone in Central Park. Greenwich Village was “untouched by designer outposts. SoHo was deserted; Little Italy was Italian; thrift shops were thrift, not ‘vintage.’”
This is Haag’s world — one that collides squarely with Kennedy’s when the two are young. The daughter of a Manhattan ad executive and a striking model, Haag, a Juilliard-trained stage and screen actress, was also born into privilege.
She lives on the Upper East Side and attends a Catholic girls’ school called Convent of the Sacred Heart with Caroline Kennedy, who is two years older. In high school she goes to Brearley, an elite prep school, and runs with the same cool crowd as the skinny JFK Jr. — who is trailed by the Secret Service and goes to Collegiate, “the boy’s school across the park.”
Haag doesn’t fall for Kennedy at first, even though — it is later revealed — he has carried a torch for her from the beginning.
When the two finally become a couple — in their mid-20s while starring together in the play “Winners” by the Irish playwright Brian Friel — it lasts for five happy, then turbulent years. Named the “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine, rumors of Kennedy’s infidelities — including a tryst with Daryl Hannah — appear in the tabloids; and that, along with the natural rigors of time and the lengthy absences required of Haag when she takes acting jobs in different cities, cause the relationship to unravel in painfully slow motion.
Six years later, when Haag comes across a headline announcing Kennedy’s marriage to Carolyn Bessette, she is devastated, recalling that “seeing the photograph was like a small death.”
“I did not know then that there are those you love no matter how much they hurt you, no matter how many years have passed since you felt them in the morning,” writes Haag. “I did not know that you could love them in death.”
Death is always present in the book, lingering in the shadows between stories of Kennedy smoking a joint, drinking magic-mushroom tea and reading a book on tantric sex in Jamaica; cooking badly with lots of tamari; and calling Haag goofy pet names like Christmas Mouse, Puppy, Chief and Sweet Frog.
The specter of his father’s violent death — and that of his uncle’s — imbues the young Kennedy with a willfully reckless nature. And the book is flush with weighted moments of foreshadowing.
The most chilling is when Kennedy convinces Haag to make a perilous kayak landing above a coral reef in Jamaica. The kayak flips and is sucked under an enormous swell. The two might have drowned, and Haag is furious when they reach safety.
“Yeah, Chief, but what a way to go,” Kennedy responds.