On November 25, 1963, a three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluted his slain father’s casket in a televised funeral procession. The heartbreaking image became a symbol of the nation’s loss.

The world watched as the little boy became a movie star, a handsome magazine editor, married Carolyn Bessette and died on July 16, 1999 at age 38 when the plane he was piloting crashed near Martha’s Vineyard. Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren, 34, were also killed.

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Now, 25 years after JFK Jr.’s death, many of his closest friends have spoken out about the man behind the myth in JFK Jr: An Intimate Oral Biography by RoseMarie Terenzio and People Editor-in-Chief Liz McNeil, exclusively reprinted below — in print and audio.

The cover of ‘JFK Jr.: An Intimate Oral Biography’ by Liz McNeil and RoseMarie Terenzio.

Simon & Schuster

Listen to an exclusive excerpt from “JFK Jr.: An Intimate Oral Biography” by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil

Before her husband’s funeral, Mrs. Kennedy asked military personnel to teach John how to salute his casket.

Philip M. Hannan, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington

“I saw John Jr. salute (that day). I was standing next to him. I thought, This is the image that will live forever. I saw the reaction of the people across the street. It was an immediate reaction; they broke down, especially the women … I had heard Mrs. Kennedy say, ‘John, salute.’ I knew then that this was probably the most moving image of the century.”

John grew up in New York City, where his mother moved with him and Caroline in 1964. She enrolled him in private school.

David Clarke, schoolmate

“He had a big head of hair. You’d see him wandering the halls, his shirt hanging loose, his tie torn to one side, his hair a mess. He was known to lose his blazers.”

In 1976, he transferred to the elite Andover University and had to repeat his senior year when he failed math before entering Brown University in 1979. He was easily distracted, but his name and charm brought advantages—and pleasure.

William Cohan, schoolmate

“One weekend he invites me to[the family’s apartment at]1040 Fifth Avenue. I walk in and it’s mind-boggling. And his mother is there. And then John goes to his room and decides he wants to get high, grabs the bong, smokes a bowl, pours the bong water out of his bathroom on Fifth Avenue.”

Gary Ginsberg, college friend

“I met John in the second-to-last row of a history class. One day … we both had no idea what was really going on. John had to give an answer, and it was so nonsensical. But after he finished his two-minute answer, the professor nodded vigorously. ‘John, that was so insightful.’ Then I realized it was what John always called ‘the JK factor.’

“There’s no table in a restaurant? Then one appears. He always looked at me with that sh—ing grin and said, ‘JK Factor.'”

John F. Kennedy Jr. photographed at the headquarters of ‘George Magazine’ in New York City in 1996.

Anne Marie Vos

He received his law degree from NYU in 1989 and passed the bar exam on his third attempt. He dated actress Daryl Hannah on and off, but met and fell in love with Calvin Klein publicist Carolyn Bessette in 1992 before formally ending the relationship with Hannah.

Robbie Littell, best friend

“(Carolyn) intrigued him more than anyone he had ever met. A force of nature. He said he wanted to marry her. He was adamant.”

They married on September 21, 1996, on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia.

George Kyriakos, wedding guest and Carolyn’s hairdresser

“John slept in my then-wife Jackie and my room the night before the wedding. Which is crazy — there was this huge mansion where everyone had their own room, and John slept on a camp bed in our room. It was the whole not-sleeping-with-the-bride-the-night-before-the-wedding thing.”

Gogo Ferguson, who organized their wedding

“We lit up the church with all the candles and flashlights we had because by the time we got her into her dress and I was driving her down the road in my truck, it was getting dark. There was no electricity. John and Carolyn stayed at our house that night. Someone had the great idea to put rose petals all the way up our driveway and into our bedroom, which ended up being a complete mess. That was going to be the bridal suite.”

The press attention was mounting, and while John was used to it, Carolyn was overwhelmed by it.

John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy at the annual Profiles in Courage Awards on May 23, 1999 at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.

Justin Ide

Sasha Chermayeff, college friend

“She really felt like she was in danger. The paranoia set in as she let her mind wander: ‘What if someone wants to kidnap me?’ After they got married, it just escalated. John was five years older. And being followed is very different for a 200-pound man than it is for a woman on her own. By then she was thinking, ‘They’re spying on me. They’re stalking me. Now my life is being afraid.'”

John earned his pilot’s license in 1998 and found an escape in the air.

Robbie Littell

“That was one of the happiest moments he ever had. Flying around with the buzzards in his Buckeye (plane). It was freedom. But the most important thing was getting away. Flying made him super happy. Free spirit, control, doing something, you know … a James Bond type thing. Playing James Bond.”

Gary Ginsberg

“He said, ‘It’s the only place I can go where no one bothers me. I have complete silence and no one can get to me except the air traffic controllers.’ Maybe that gives you some insight into what he was really dealing with on the ground.”

RoseMarie Terenzio, friend and assistant

“When he got his plane, the Cessna, you had to have a tail number, and he wanted 529 because that was his father’s birthday — May 29th. When he went to reserve that number to register it with the FAA, that number was already taken. He ended up buying the number from the person who had it. The tail number on both of John’s planes was N529JK.”

John was trying to keep George Magazine afloat, fighting with Carolyn, and worrying about the impending death of his cousin Anthony Radziwill from cancer. In May 1999, he broke his ankle while paragliding. John and Carolyn’s relationship reached a low point the week of July 12. Although accounts vary, John spent at least one night at the Stanhope Hotel.

Sasha Chermayeff

“They were calling each other names. Maybe Carolyn was trying to worry him (by not coming home). So he did it the next night. He wasn’t with her those last two nights. The Stanhope thing was tricky. I think he went there to meet (ex-girlfriend) Julie Baker. Everyone always asks me, ‘What do I think would have happened?’ Anything was possible.”

Julie Baker

“I last spoke to John the night before he passed. There is a rumor that I was with him at the Stanhope (that night). That is not true. He was at a baseball game and wanted me to meet him and his friend for drinks. I was away so that was out of the question. However, I did have a quick lunch with him (as we often did) at the Stanhope a few days before the accident.”

On July 16, he spent the day at the office. The plan was to fly to Martha’s Vineyard to drop off Carolyn’s sister Lauren, 34, and then fly to Hyannis, Mass., for the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy. But they ended up leaving later than planned.

RoseMarie Terenzio

“I got to John and Carolyn’s apartment at 9:30 or 10:00, where I was staying until my air conditioning was fixed. They had two phones — one in the kitchen and a fax machine. Only three or four people had that number. I picked up the fax phone and it was Carole (Radziwill, Anthony’s wife). She said, ‘Oh, thank God you’re here.’ I said, ‘Carole? It’s Rose.’ She said, ‘Where are they? They didn’t land on the Vineyard.’ Nobody knew where John was. (RoseMarie spoke to John’s flight instructor Bob Marena.) He said the flight left at 8:39. That’s when I started panicking.

“Then Ann Freeman, Carolyn and Lauren’s mother, called… She was in a panic. She said something like, ‘I told him never to take two of my girls upstairs at the same time.’ She was angry. She was crying. It was panic, shock. Disbelief.”

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause of the accident was the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the aircraft, which was the result of spatial disorientation. Factors in the accident were haze and the dark night.

Jeff Guzzetti, NTSB Investigator, Office of Aviation Safety

“His flight path in the water corresponds to what is known as a graveyard spiral. The plane spirals nose down… sort of like going down a drain. The plane entered a final turn and remained in that turn all the way to the ocean. He entered it seven miles from Martha’s Vineyard.

“I don’t think the passengers knew what was happening to them. They might have felt a little G-force pushing them back into their seats, like, ‘This feels a little weird.’ You could hear the airflow over the fuselage speeding up or getting louder, during the final fatal dive. Maybe you felt yourself speeding up a little bit. And then they hit the surface and it’s over. Now the pilot is different. I would expect the pilot to be very confused and maybe a little scared, because the instruments might not match what he was feeling. The impact forces were enormous.”

RoseMarie Terenzio

“A week later I got a big brown box from the mail room. I think it was from the NTSB. In it was his wallet. It was all water damaged and warped. And one crutch. I sent it to (John’s sister) Caroline (Kennedy). I just cried.”

On July 22, the USS Briscoe brought members of the Kennedy and Bessette families to scatter the ashes for a burial at sea.

Barry C. Black, Navy Chaplain

“Caroline grabbed the urn… I calmed her down and we went down. Twisted with grief doesn’t even begin to describe it. She put the ashes in. As the ashes flowed down, she put her hand in the water to pour some water on her (as if thinking), ‘I’m not going to let go of his hand.’ They dropped flowers as the ship moved. They hugged each other as if that human closeness would somehow ease the pain.

Robbie Littell

“I’ve heard that in Irish culture, when someone dies young, they cut down a tree because they’ve only lived half their life. And I like to say, here’s a man who’s lived twice as hard as anyone else. Twice as well as anyone else… I think about the loss, not so much my loss, but his loss — of not being able to experience the life he loved. The loss would come when the stories faded — and I didn’t want to lose the stories.”

By JFK JR.: An Intimate Oral Biography by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil. Copyright © 2024 by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil. Reprinted with permission from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC

JFK Jr.: An Intimate Oral Biography by RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil is available for pre-order now and will be available July 16, wherever books are sold.