John F. Kennedy Jr., the graceful, leading man of the real-life soap opera that is the star-crossed Kennedy clan, was presumed dead from a small plane crash Friday off the shore of the summer retreat of Martha's Vineyard. He was 38.

Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34, also were thought killed in the apparent accident, officials said.

The Kennedy-piloted plane disappeared Friday night during a would-be short-hop flight from New Jersey to the Massachusetts isle of Martha's Vineyard. Late Sunday night, U.S. Coast Guard officials allowed that, 48 hours after the aircraft went down, the chances of finding survivors were beyond slim.

"We are filled with unspeakable grief and sadness by the loss of John and Carolyn, and of Lauren Bessette," the Kennedy family said Monday in a statement. "John was a shining light in all our lives, and in the lives of the nation and the world...

"We pray that John, Carolyn and Lauren will find eternal rest, and that God's perpetual light will shine on them."

The grim news brings to a close one of the most documented lives of modern times. Kennedy was not a celebrity in the traditional mode--actor, athlete or even politician--but he was among the biggest celebrities of them all.

JFK Jr.'s fame credentials were impeccable: He was the handsome son of Camelot, the glamorous offspring of America's most prominent family. Cliché says he was this nation's prince, but Kennedy belonged to the world--capturing imaginations since his days in short pants.

The son of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, JFK Jr. was born November 25, 1960, just three-and-a-half weeks after his father captured the White House.

"John-John," as reporters (but not family) dubbed the boy, became the first infant in the Oval Office in a century. He and sister Caroline, three years his senior, proved irresistible "photo ops." Their youth mirrored the youth and exuberance of the Kennedy Administration.

And their youth amplified the loss of Camelot.

Named after the same-titled popular musical of the day, Camelot was about bright hopes and better days--and about the supposedly dashed promise of such in the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963. Widow Jacqueline actively fostered the legend and prompted its most iconic image--nudging son John, then age 3, to salute his father's funeral procession.

The oft-reproduced picture--brave little boy at attention--was so oft-reproduced its subject would later say he wasn't sure where his memories of the actual moment began or ended. The moment, like his life, wasn't his own. It belonged to everyone.

Avoiding the randy misbehavior of some of his Kennedy cousins, JFK Jr., under the watchful eye of mother Jackie, grew up in the spotlight, but minus scandal. He graduated from Brown University in 1983 and earned a law degree from New York University in 1989. The law career seemed to be his mother's dream, not his own, but he stuck with it--even after he flunked the New York bar exam not once, but twice.

Kennedy finally aced the test on his third pass and joined the Manhattan district attorney's office in 1990. At nearly 30 years old, it was his first real job. Until then, it seemed merely being a Kennedy was career enough--certainly the media thought so. In 1988, People magazine, apropos of nothing but a handful of shirtless paparazzi shots, dubbed him the "Sexiest Man Alive."

JFK Jr. didn't shy from the bold-faced lifestyle--he courted Hollywood types from Madonna to Sarah Jessica Parker to Daryl Hannah.

Prior to meeting Carolyn Bessette in 1995, the relationship with Hannah was considered his most serious. The two kept company for four years, breaking up shortly after his mother's death in 1994.

In today's New York Post, Hannah, whose film credits include Splash, says she was holding out for a miracle involving her missing ex.

"It is hard to give up hope because John has such indomitable spirit," the actress said. "If anyone could survive, it would be him."

Kennedy wed Bessette, a former publicist for designer Calvin Klein, on September 21, 1996, ending his unofficial reign as the globe's most eligible bachelor.

In addition to marrying, JFK Jr. also seemed to find professional focus in his late thirties. In 1995, he founded George, a magazine aimed at engaging young people in politics. Often that mission meant putting Entertainment Tonight-esque famous people, like supermodel Cindy Crawford on the cover, but it also entailed its editor-in-chief doing Q&A's with the likes of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

JFK Jr. once said his great, unrealized dream was not pursuing acting, and it was assumed that his destiny lay in politics, following his father, uncles and cousins to the ballot box. But he said wasn't ready.

"Once you run for office, you're in it," Kennedy said in a 1993 interview with Vogue. "Sort of like going into the military--you'd better be damn sure that it is what you want to do and that the rest of your life is set up to accommodate that."

But despite his frequent protestations, the new Newsweek says Kennedy this year did explore the notion of running for the U.S. Senate from New York--before first lady (and fellow Democrat) Hillary Rodham Clinton made it clear she was thinking the same thing.

An avid sportsman, Kennedy earned his pilot's license in 1998.

Lauren Bessette, Kennedy's second passenger on Friday's doomed flight, was a financial executive with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. She, like her two late in-laws, lived in Manhattan.

Closer look at the Kennedy clan "curse"

(ORIGINALLY POSTED 7/19/99 at 9 a.m. PT)

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