It was Freshman Week, and I was busy drinking so much that I was about to be reported to the dean's office for alcohol abuse. But even in my disagreeable state I was aware of the reports, and their furious pace. "Oh my God, you cannot believe how good-looking the guy is," said one. "He likes to be called John," said another. "He's in my history class." Celebrity aggrandizes the shallowest layer of narrative. Even so, I can tell you everything about my first sighting: It was in the dining hall. There was a commotion at a nearby table. A tall, perfectly handsome guy in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt; a smile like a million bucks. An elbow next to me lanced me in the ribs. "That's him, that's him." I saw the most famous teenager on earth get seconds of pizza.
I spent most of freshman year in West Quad (a friend nicknamed it Gdansk, for its Eastern Bloc heartlessness), far from his more palatial dorm, with its high ceilings and large windows, and I saw little of him, just the occasional glimpse. I suspected that the other Brown, the one that featured mythic celebrities driving imported cars to off-campus apartments and swank restaurants, was a parallel realm, wholly inaccessible, without entrances and exits for hoi polloi like me. I had contempt for the residents of that celestial Brown. They always played Motown at parties, and always the same songs.
Here the story would end, if not for the fact that I got interested in theatre. I decided to audition for a play that was gathering steam in late fall of junior year, In the Boom Boom Room, by David Rabe. It had parts for a good-looking and somewhat dangerous leading man, his moll, and his drug-casualty sidekick. John, the President's son, who had a jones to act, it was said, auditioned for the lead. I remember reading with him. The details are hazy, but my sensation of incredible agitation is not - my voice locked in a hopeless struggle with vowels and consonants. I was in the presence of history. John was trapped in history's clutches; it was his constant companion, like a metaphysical Secret Service. And history had never before crossed my path. As it happened, we both got the parts.
As an actor, he had imbibed the Method without ever having set foot in the Actors Studio - a little Brando, a little De Niro, a healthy dollop of Nicholson, maybe a dash of his dad's inaugural pluck. I wasn't aware of him preparing his role in any way. I don't know if he learned his lines with the difficulty I did; like a lot of other things, it seemed easier for him. I don't remember that we ever did any improvising, or much at all in the way of acting exercises, except to dance wildly to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and "Hang On Sloopy" in the empty rehearsal space. John showed up ready to act, and when the time came he delivered his lines with brio, with uncanny reserves of charisma. What's the surprise in this? He'd been acting his entire life. One performance after another; here a proscenium, here a plinth on which to stand for Camelot and its sorrows.
After a couple of weeks of rehearsals, John had taken to treating me like his sidekick offstage, in a fashion that I found honorific and not at all beneath me. He started calling me by my character's name, Ralphie, whether we encountered one another on the Green or at the movies, and he would occasionally invite me to have lunch with him - "Ralphie, what's up, my man?" A cup of coffee here and there. In the course of this, I got to know not John Kennedy, heir apparent, but this guy John, extremely winning, to be sure, but more like other people than other people suspected: not known to refuse a joint if it came around, liked rock and roll (turned it up), didn't always pay his parking tickets on time, had the occasional woman problem, a guy like any guy in Providence then.
As the performances approached, Santina Goodman '83, who directed the play, wanted John to cut off his hair. There was a lot of it, this hair, and it curled languorously and, I think, probably occasionally stopped traffic. So John showed up one night at rehearsal with a barbarous crewcut. It had a military severity. He was incredibly excited about it. "Ralphie," he said. "I went into a bar last night and no one knew who I was!" He said it the way you or I might speak of the lotto jackpot.
About the same time, John announced that his family was coming to opening night. As the evening in questioned approached, it turned out that his mother was unable to attend but Caroline, his sister, would represent the illustrious clan. That was plenty of geopolitical context for me, but I never mentioned my sense of proximal nervousness to John. I never said anything much to him at all, because the sidekick's job is to see and to observe, to be reliable and silent and faithful. So I was. On opening night, during the end of the first act, when we were both backstage, in the stillness of waiting for glory, we heard a particularly robust laugh from the audience, singular and confident and warm. John leaned over and whispered, "That's my sister. That's Caroline."
On closing night, John had a cast party at his place. It was down on Benefit Street, and his apartment was decorated - things matched, there were tasteful furnishings and appointments. Who could I bring to such a place? I was hanging out with people who drank too much and wore too much black eyeliner. There were large social issues implicit in his invitation. I was being plucked, for a moment, from oblivion, and my feelings were mixed.
I saw him occasionally after that. I had been granted some minimal access, and I saw him for lunch once or twice, went to a couple of parties among his inner circle, ran into him. "Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise.../ To scorn delights, and live laborious days," Milton says, lamenting a friend lost at sea - a much different idea of fame from ours now. Maybe it was John's idea - by studying acting, he was gaining another set of skills to pursue what he was going to pursue, in his laborious days. Yet we among the rubberneckers failed to see how much responsibility there was in such a life; we thought it was just playacting.
Soon we were ready to graduate. The Secret Service, who had never been much in evidence during John's education, fanned out across the grounds. Jackie arrived. My brother snapped her picture. She smiled. There were crowds. Providence sweltered. I had a wicked hangover. We'd loved, danced, been mummers on the stage of youth. Now we were a bunch of kids going on to other things. In this way, John Kennedy's public life commenced.