NEW YORK – In 1995, John F. Kennedy Jr. introduced the world to his new political magazine with the memorable words, "Ladies and gentlemen, meet George."
Then, with a smile and a flourish, he unveiled the first issue, featuring Cindy Crawford in a powdered wig and men's colonial garb (and a taut bare midriff), posing as the father of our country.
Matt Berman, who oversaw the sexy Crawford cover shoot, was the magazine's young creative director. Now, nearly 15 years after Kennedy died in a plane crash at age 38, Berman is looking back at those heady days and recalling his friend in a new memoir, JFK Jr., George & Me (Gallery Books).
"Weirdly, there are people under 30 who have never heard of George magazine, people I hire and work with," says Berman, 49. "Some of them, sadly, will ask me, 'Was that the president's son?' It's crazy."
Berman writes that he, the "self-conscious, self-deprecating" son of a restaurant supplier, and JFK Jr., the "confident, charismatic" son of President Kennedy, made an unlikely team.
But despite his star power and movie star looks, young Kennedy was a "regular guy," easy to work with and a supportive boss.
"He had this maturity about him. He always had an answer to every question," Berman says. Kennedy was also fun. "He had a great sense of humor. He used it to make friends, to manage us at work. If he was upset with something, it usually was some sort of ribbing or joke. You got the message."
Their collaboration over five years meant cover shoots with the likes of Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Demi Moore, Claudia Schiffer and Barbara Walters. Berman remembers a particularly priceless session in Malibu where he and Kennedy wrangled Barbara Streisand into posing as flag-stitcher Betsy Ross.
But George's glow had begun to fade by the time Kennedy was killed; the magazine's mix of politics and pop culture, Berman believes, was ahead of its time. A little over a year after Kennedy's death, George folded.
Kennedy's glamorous wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, died along with John, who was piloting the small plane that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha's Vineyard on July 16, 1999.
The news shattered the world, and devastated the Kennedy and Bessette clans.
The trio were on their way to the Vineyard to attend the wedding of John's cousin, Rory Kennedy. After 15 hours of searching the waters off of the bucolic island, the plane was located and the bodies recovered. On July 22, their ashes were scattered from the Navy destroyer USS Briscoe off the coast of the Vineyard.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. was born on November 25, 1960 to President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy. He was a lawyer, philanthropist, author and publisher of the now defunct George magazine.
Carolyn Bessette and John were married on September 21, 1996, on Cumberland Island, Georgia. She worked as a publicist at Calvin Klein.
Lauren Bessette was a successful executive with Morgan Stanley.
JFK Jr., George & Me by Matt Berman (Photo: Gallery Books)
There were rumors of trouble in the Kennedys' marriage, but Berman says he never saw any evidence they were unhappy, aside from the normal bickering of any couple.
Carolyn, he says, was a friend who liked to hang out in his office. When John would come in to say hello, "it was always very romantic and I'd kind of walk out of the room," Berman recalls with a laugh. Carolyn's icy image was unfair, he says, assumed by a public that saw her unsmiling in photos because she was uncomfortable in such a public role.
"She was a really caring, funny person," he says, "really entertaining, high energy, always with a big, big smile."
The deaths of John and his wife, Berman says, were "devastating," and it was difficult to relive that time in his book. "It threw a lot of us off course for a really long time. It was a huge, huge, healing process."
Berman left George and for several years worked in Paris. He's now a creative director for advertising in Los Angeles.
His friend John would now be 53. Does Berman think Kennedy would have followed in his father's footsteps?
"I always saw John as someone who really lived in the moment," Berman says. "Everybody always thought he'd go into politics, but it was never a real plan. I would hope he would have done that by now if he were living, because the person I knew would be someone that everybody would love to know. He could have done a lot of good for a lot of people."
John F. Kennedy Jr. had a tried and true way of selling George, his magazine, which had the tagline “not just politics as usual,” sexy women on the cover.
In “JFK Jr., George, & Me,” out Tuesday, the glossy’s former creative director Matt Berman tells how his handsome boss got involved in booking Cindy Crawford to pose as George Washington, with an exposed midriff, for the inaugural 1995 issue. Later, they got Claudia Schiffer to pose in nothing but a Clinton-Gore banner.
Berman also tells how, at the last minute (and to the tune of $20,000 wasted), Pamela Anderson cancelled a cover shoot where she was to pose nude as Eve. The editors had to scramble to get Kate Moss to replace her.
“Kate didn’t need a partitioned set. She handed her robe to the stylist, walked into our dreamlike garden, and took her position amidst the foliage and the live animals as naturally as Eve herself.
“Evidently John wasn’t the only one who liked nude woman on magazine covers. The newsstand sales soared that month,” Berman wrote.
In a hush hush rendezvous with Princess Diana at a posh New York hotel, John F. Kennedy, Jr. asked the royal beauty if she would consider posing for the cover of George, his politics-as-lifestyle magazine.
John, who had an obsession for photographs of naked women, particularly on his magazine’s cover, was cheeky enough to ask Diana to consider the possibility of posing in the all-together when he met up with the tormented princess at the Four Seasons before her tragic death in 1997.
‘She said no,’ he told his friend and creative director Matt Berman. ‘But she had a great pair of legs!’
What was he thinking!: John secretly met with Princess Diana to ask her to pose on the cover of George not long before she was killed in 1997. She turned him down. It was rumored that the tragic pair were having a fling.
The book includes the story of how Martin Scorsese held a private screening of “Casino” for JFK Jr., who wanted Robert De Niro for a cover.
“Five minutes into the movie, I heard snoring, looked over, and saw John, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, with his head back, mouth open, dead asleep. I hoped Mr. Scorsese couldn’t see him.”
Berman seems to have saved every photo and scrap of paper from those days, including a note criticizing a page layout with a photograph of Norman Mailer.
The note reads: “Matt, Norman is the biggest deal we have in the magazine but his head is the size of a zit. Could we make it a bit bigger. JK”
‘Quick, come to my office. I’ve got Barbra on the phone, and she’s not getting the idea. Talk to her and tell her how beautiful she’s going to look dressed as Betsy Ross!”
“Oh, thanks. Throw me into the lion’s den,” I whined as John pulled me by the sleeve into his office. We had decided to try to convince Barbra Streisand to appear on the cover of George magazine as the mother of the American flag. But I thought I’d be working with an agent or an assistant, not Barbra herself. I nervously took the receiver from John. “Hi, I’m Matt, John’s creative director.”
“NAT?” the familiar voice responded.
“No, no,” I corrected her. “MATT, with an M!”
“Oh! I’m Barbra, with a B!,” she replied, sounding more like Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
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I miss JFK, Jr.
I remember being a young girl watching the rescue mission to find his plane. Sad face.
Carolyn would still be a fashionista, of course.
I can't believe it's been 15 years.
Carolyn & Kate Moss
Carolyn and Jen Aniston
A family filled with tragedy. How sad.