03 July 2011

Christina & John

It’s unfair to say that John Kennedy turned me gay. But he certainly didn’t do my love life any favors. When we were in college, John had a natural gift for making himself irresistibly attractive to any girl I had a crush on, with the result that my hopes, as I perceived them, were automatically doomed. What could I do? He was American royalty, the crown prince of the United States, godlike in his beauty. There was simply no competing with him, and I didn’t try.

One of the most acute of my crushes, Christina Haag, would have been out of my league in any case — though for the record John didn’t start to date her until after we had all graduated, and while at Brown she still belonged (like the girl I did date) to that special category of women who were too sensible to fall for him. Christina intimidated me: a sophisticated New Yorker, a Brearley girl, a great natural beauty with professional credits already on her résumé. She was effortlessly elegant no matter what she wore, brilliant, and thoroughly mysterious — in a class apart, even at an age when all women seemed mysterious to me. She often struck me as melancholy, but gracefully so, not in the showy, self-pitying way of other college girls, and she possessed an intense sort of nervous energy that I haven’t seen in other women, before or since.

I played Orsino to her Viola, in Robin Saex’s production of Twelfth Night at Brown, the only time I ever got to play Prince Charming and surely the only way I’ll ever get to kiss Christina Haag. And yet what I remember most is my being absolutely terrified to approach her before the show started. She’d be sitting in a stairwell, hunched over as if to concentrate the aforementioned nervous energy into a full-body fist, vibrating, rocking back and forth as her lips moved. It seemed a great deal of work just to get into the character of Viola, who’s no Lady M. and surely the most insouciant shipwreck victim on record.

On the other hand, look at which one of us went on to Juilliard and a real career. Clearly, she knew what she was doing. And was it an accident that, the only time I ever cried onstage, I was looking into Christina’s eyes, which were Viola’s at that moment and not Christina’s at all?

Meanwhile, John seemed conscious of his destructive power over my romantic life, or anyway he went out of his way to be nice to me, and even invited me to a couple of parties at his house in Providence. We ran in tangential circles, the theater crowd, and some of my closest friends acted with him in plays. He was without fail nicer than he had to be, and smarter than I expected him to be. But I didn’t know him well, to the point that I almost believed him the last time we met, when he told me he didn’t remember me.*

John in Summer:
He used to wander around the Brown campus like this.
No, there was no way to compete with him.

Even before his looks began to prompt favorable comparison with Greek deities, John was a creature of myth. I heard about him long before I ever heard him — long before that evening when I came back to my dorm room to find him chatting with my freshman roommate, who resembled John enough to have been mistaken for him by the paparazzi on registration day. They were talking about football, and John was telling Paul that he didn’t like Dallas, the very town I’d fled only weeks before. He meant the Dallas Cowboys, presumably, but here was my first clue that anything he said would be parsed and analyzed by people he didn’t know, exactly the way I did then: Maybe he doesn’t like Dallas because of … you-know-what.

That’s a terrible burden for any guy on the brink of his 19th birthday, even for one who’s grown up in public. I’ve known other famous people and worked closely with them, and shared their lives in some sense for a time, but I’ll never know what John’s life was really like. I remember one night after a play at Brown, when John was accosted by an old man, who’d driven down from Massachusetts to see the show. (The Tempest, I think.) “I loved your father,” the man said, tears filling his eyes and falling to his cheeks. Coming from Texas, where the Kennedy Mystique is less powerful, when it exists at all, I was stunned by this outburst. Soon, the man could no longer speak, but he stood there, refusing to let John go.

I don’t remember exactly what John answered, but he was gracious about it. How should anybody — much less a 20-year-old — cope at such a moment? And keep on coping, every time it happened, in the full knowledge that it would keep on happening? How does anybody reconcile his own ambitions with those of countless, nameless others, once attached to the lost father and now projecting their hopes and ambitions onto you? There’s really nobody who can answer these questions: John had to figure it out for himself.

What’s interesting to discover is that Christina Haag, who knew John so much better than I did when we were at Brown, and who would come to know him better still, knew him first much as I did. She heard about him; she saw his photographs before she saw him. But gradually destiny drew them close and then closer. They ran with the same crowd when they were in high school, shared rooms in a house when they were at Brown, and only a few years later began an affair. Thereupon she, too, had to figure out a few answers.

Now, in delicate, precise prose that makes me proud to be an alumnus of the same college, Christina has written Come to the Edge, a memoir of their lives together, which seems (at least, until you read it) to defy the code of silence upheld faithfully by all of those who were close to John. And yet it’s an essential document.

So much of what’s been written about John is the handiwork of hearsay: gossip, speculation, fantasy. That cheats anybody who wants to understand John and his singular role in the American imagination (which may, in turn, tell us something about the country and its relationship both to history and to celebrity). When John died, stealing my thunder yet again on the eve of my birthday in 1999, I listened to the news in something like stupefaction as my former boss, Dan Rather, eulogized an amalgam of John’s own father and Dan’s own son.** The person Dan described didn’t exist, and was as much mythological beast (half-Kennedy, half-Rather) as mythological hero — but Dan felt the loss profoundly.

Christina’s description is more accurate, naturally, rounded out and backed up by the journals she kept in her youth, but it’s nonetheless incomplete: she slides past John’s defects. Which, being human, he did have. There’s nothing scandalous or bitter or recriminating about this memoir, and really, we would all like to be recalled so tenderly by an ex-lover. Even John’s mother (described here with special fondness, and a little awe) might like to read this book for the portrait it paints of her son.

Christina’s John is a true romantic, pining after her for a decade before kissing her, then plying her with gifts and notes, going for long walks and taking getaway vacations together. He’s always ready to compliment her outfit, and he speaks easily about his feelings. Even marriage. Even kids. Even baby names. Stuff that my girlfriends despair of ever hearing from their men. Around the time Christina depicts, Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes obsessed over John: how much worse her crush would have been had she realized what a terrific boyfriend John really could be.

Well, almost terrific.

Running like a dark undercurrent through the book are themes barely mentioned by name. Public life takes its toll, and Christina suggests that it’s from a sense of public duty that John renounced the theater he loved (and excelled at***): people expected more from him, and he felt he had to deliver. Moreover, Christina’s acting career often calls her away from John’s side and requires a great deal of her focus; and paparazzi, reporters, and glamorous starlets are not here to make life easier for our protagonists.

The darkest undercurrent, however, is John’s love of risk. Christina never spells it out, barely hinting at it in her title, but a dispassionate reader may wonder whether there’s a connection between John’s death and the daredevil character we see here — in fragile boats and planes and in speeding automobiles, climbing up cliffs or the side of Christina’s apartment building.

Christina, as a character in this book, is still grieving over John’s loss, and maybe that’s true of Christina the woman, too. They never said goodbye, he married someone else, and now he’s gone. How do you get over that? And yet the girl I knew was often melancholy, as I say, and perhaps no more so in this matter than in other sorrows she has faced in her very real life. A lot of things might have worked out differently for her — for John — for all of us. What’s most impressive is that she deals so little with remorse and so much with the sweetness she shared with John. And lest we forget, her story is far from over.

It’s a strange thing to see people you knew as characters in a book — perhaps especially when you’ve got a degree in English and American Literature from Brown University. The urge to deconstruct the narrative is great, and yet these are real people you’re looking at. Start to analyze them, and suddenly you’re heartless. Or worse, by analyzing you’re succumbing to the very sort of speculation that you used to disdain in tabloid columnists, when you’d toss the newspaper aside and say, “That doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Christina and John!”

Perhaps a similar impulse spurred Christina to write: she hadn’t seen in any account a trace of the man she loved, a guy who deserved to be remembered. Who among us wouldn’t want to speak up, whether that man was a Kennedy or a Shmoe? We do see the real Christina and John here, albeit not whole; mostly Christina offers us realities at which we could never guess, but that we may be able to recognize in our own relationships. For those of us who reside far from them, as indeed most of us do, that ought to be enough.

Young love, when it’s going well, makes princes and demigods of us all, and when it’s over, we who survive must mourn our incalculable, irreparable losses. Parnassus is sealed, Camelot closed. That was true for Christina and John, and for John’s parents, and for you and for me. All we can do is remember — and speak.

Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not….

*NOTE: It would have been strategically useful for John to deny any recollection of me at that moment, since I’d arrived at his office with Dan Rather in tow: acknowledging me would give Dan an unfair advantage in the interview they were about to conduct, on the eve of the launch of John’s political magazine, George. On the other hand, I’m not the world’s most memorable person, and John kinda was: surely I remembered him better than he remembered me.

**John Kennedy and Danjack Rather worked together for a time in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

***John possessed no special gift for classical theater, despite several attempts, but he was almost perversely good at portraying working-class thugs. He demonstrated this quite memorably in Santina Goodman’s productions of Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room and Pinero’s Short Eyes. Thus it was a disappointment to the entire Brown community when he didn’t even audition for Jim Barnhill’s mainstage production of Streetcar, but the fellow who did play Stanley Kowalski, Nick Chinlund, has gone on to a fine career as an actor.


Mark Bradford said...

I saw him in "Short Eyes" my freshman year. Riveting.

William V. Madison said...

He really was terrific in that, wasn't he? I was also lucky enough to see Robin Saex's production of Brian Friel's Winners, which turned out to have such significance in Christina and John's relationship, and which represented (I think) the last time John ever appeared onstage. Though another man might have coasted on looks and celebrity, John didn't need to: his gift was authentic.