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Me & JFK Jr.

William S. Noonan includes the good and the bad in a book about his lifelong friend

William Noonan (left) with John F. Kennedy, Jr. (second from right) in 1982.
William Noonan (left) with John F. Kennedy, Jr. (second from right) in 1982.

"John Kennedy was meant to meet me for dinner the night he died."

That's the first line of a new book about John F. Kennedy Jr., who died seven years ago when the small plane he was piloting plunged into the ocean off Martha's Vineyard. His wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister were also killed.

"Forever Young: My Friendship With John F. Kennedy Jr.," by William S. Noonan, hit bookstores yesterday. It is not just an intimate tell-all, though plenty is told. Nor is it a hagiography of "John John," who went from a 3-year-old famously saluting his father's casket to a buff guy deemed "The Sexiest Man Alive" by People magazine. It is a personal account, warts and all, of a friendship that began between two "sons of Irish kings" and ended 25 years later when Kennedy failed to show up on July 16, 1999, for a dinner celebrating Noonan's fifth wedding anniversary.

Billy Noonan was 5 years old when he spotted the president's son tooling around the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port on his tricycle. Their fathers were friends; Tom Noonan was a Brookline politician who helped out with Kennedy's various campaigns and served as a regional director of the Small Business Administration during the Kennedy years. Their sons became friends, too, bonded by a love of Cape Cod, parties, and beer, and the loss of their fathers while they were young. Noonan was 13 when his father died of cancer.

"It continued into our adult life of careers and marriages," Noonan writes of their friendship. He was also close to Kennedy's cousins Anthony Radziwill and Timothy Shriver; Noonan was an usher in the weddings of all three, and they were in his. At Noonan's wedding, Kennedy read ``Desiderata."

Though the book took only six weeks to write, it took Noonan several years to sit down and do it. ``I didn't want to invade his privacy," said Noonan, 48. But with the publication of other books that Noonan calls ``filthy" and ``trashy," he said he felt compelled to write his version of the man he said he loved like a brother.

Then there's the cancer. Noonan, who was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of testicular cancer when he was 22, was diagnosed last year with melanoma. He was in the hospital yesterday for surgery. ``I still consider I'm here on borrowed time," he said last week, sipping a bottle of water in his Wellesley house, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their four children. In the sunny family room is a picture of the couple at their wedding, with John Kennedy and Tim Shriver. There's also an autographed photo of President Kennedy, addressed to Noonan's father.

Noonan doesn't think the book is exploitative; he thinks it's an honest account of a close friendship. He likes to think Kennedy would have ``gotten a kick out of it." But he knows that Shriver -- the two are godfathers to each other's children -- wishes he had not written it. ``Timmy feels that as far as the Kennedys go, the less said the better." Shriver, who is chairman of the board of Special Olympics in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment. Senator Ted Kennedy's office said he had not heard of the book and could not comment.

Noonan said he wants to set the record straight. ``If I don't tell this story, people will still believe that he was `the hunk who flunked' and Carolyn was just a cokehead," said Noonan, a former stockbroker who handled JFK Jr.'s personal portfolio. ``I had a lot of stories inside of me. When I sat down to write, I said that it's not going to be sanitized. It's going to be honest."

First, the dirt. According to the book, Kennedy smoked marijuana. (Noonan's mother once found seeds in the pocket of a sports jacket he had left at their house.) He slept with Madonna. (``Let me tell you, she's a sexual dynamo," he told Noonan.) His relationship with Daryl Hannah was doomed to fail. (``They were really more competitors than complementary.") Kennedy's wife and sister did not get along, and Bessette never adjusted to life as a Kennedy, constantly hounded by the paparazzi.

Noonan also writes extensively about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the time he spent at the family compound in Hyannis Port. When she threw a birthday party at a club on Fifth Avenue for Carolyn and John -- who were turning 21 and 18 , respectively -- Noonan was there. At 4 a.m., long after the adults had left, some of the young people tried to rush through a group of photographers staking out the place. In the melee, Kennedy was knocked down and Noonan went after an aggressive photographer. The photos made the tabloids, with the National Enquirer referring to Kennedy's ``beefy buddy."

Though Kennedy thought it was funny, he told Noonan that ``Mummy is not happy." Noonan wrote Onassis a long, apologetic letter.

Noonan thinks Kennedy liked him because he wasn't a sycophant. ``John was feisty, he was dirty, he was nasty, he was gritty," Noonan said. ``I was friends with him before he became the heartthrob." In fact, Noonan thought the teenage Kennedy had a big nose and bad hair. ``His hair was like a Brillo pad. You could've picked him up by his hair. He was a slob, he had stains on his clothes."

The two men loved politics as much as parties and would argue endlessly. When Michael Dukakis lost the presidential election, Kennedy had to fork over $100 to the gloating Noonan, who had bet him that Dukakis would lose. ``They'd argue for sport," said Kathleen Noonan. ``They'd wear each other down." They also wrestled, grabbing and kicking each other ``like little boys," said Kathleen.

But Noonan's book also details the 10-month rift between them that began a year before Kennedy died. The couples were at Onassis's Vineyard home for their annual July get-together. Kennedy was moody and upset about Radziwill, who was fighting cancer. (He died a month after Kennedy.) At some point during the weekend, he flew off to the Cape without telling anyone. When he returned, Noonan told him he was selfish and inconsiderate. They would not see each other again until the following May, at the Profiles in Courage Awards dinner. There, they reconnected.

In mid-July, plans were made to celebrate the Noonans' fifth anniversary: four couples, including Kennedy and Bessette, at a favorite Nantucket restaurant on Friday night. But Kennedy was running late. ``The last thing he said to me was, `If this doesn't work out, when you guys come back from Nantucket, come to the [Hyannis Port] house and we'll have some champagne,' " Noonan said.

Noonan misses the debates, the joshing, and the friendship. Kennedy was the first friend by Noonan's side during his cancer surgery as a young man. ``I miss his elan, " he said. ``I miss his friendship. I miss his absurd sense of humor. I miss the magic he created when we would go out and do things."

If Kennedy had lived, Noonan believes, he would be in the Senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and now occupied by Hillary Rodham Clinton. He believes Kennedy and Bessette were settling into their sometimes mercurial marriage. Kennedy had mentioned wanting a baby; if it were a boy, he favored the name Flynn. ``Flynn Kennedy, now that's a name," he had told Noonan.