New York Post police reporter Larry Celona got the first tip at 5:40 a.m. on Saturday, July 17: Search on for plane carrying Kennedy. Celona called Saturday city editor Steve Marsh, who called Stu Marques, the managing editor of news. Fourteen hours later, 26 pages about the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. would roll off the Post’s presses at 210 South Street.
Saturdays are staffed by a skeleton crew, with most of the Sunday paper already laid out, but by 9 a.m., editor Ken Chandler, deputy editor Xana Antunes, managing editors Marc Kalech and Joe Robinowitz, photo editor Gretchen Viehmann, and Marques had decided, via conference calls, to ditch the preplanned layout and bump the Sunday paper up from 112 pages to 128 pages. As editors rolled in, all-hands-on-deck calls went out to copy editors, photographers, columnists, media reporter Keith Kelly, Jeane MacIntosh of “Page Six,” and a five-person rewrite team including yours truly.
I was in the city room on the tenth floor of 1211 Sixth Avenue by 9:20 a.m. Saturday assignment editor Faye Penn was already studying the six televisions above the city desk, and Marsh, while taking phone calls from other editors, was hammering out “the List” – a framework of stories needed for the new edition. I asked him how he thought this would all turn out. “He’s dead,” Marsh answered.
Marques, shouting “Spare no expense,” had already authorized reporters to head to the Vineyard and Hyannis Port. Adam Miller got a flight from Newark and arrived at the Vineyard by 2 p.m. He called 25 hotels and inns, found nothing available, and staggered into a real-estate agency, which took pity and found him an empty condo for $200 a night. Mark Stamey drove to the Vineyard, arriving after first-edition deadline, his trunk stocked, as always, with a bulletproof vest, a rubber raft, and scuba gear.
General-assignment reporters fanned out to the Essex County airport, the TriBeCa apartment, George headquarters, the Bessette-Freeman house in Greenwich – anywhere we might find someone who knew about the flight or the people on it. Someone on television said Kennedy had flight-trained in Florida. Seconds later, a beep went out to correspondent Malcolm Balfour in Palm Beach with orders to track down anyone who had trained, flown with, or seen Kennedy down there. A D.C. reporter gathered official reaction. A TV reporter tuned in at home, ready to critique the tube’s coverage.
At 10:30 a.m., Marsh, reading from the List, told me, “You’re writing the main, and a ‘curse of the Kennedys’ or list-of-tragedies thing, and a separate on air disasters involving Kennedys.” I called for clips from the library. The folders filed under “Kennedy Jr., John F.” included “Bar Exam,” “England – Princess Diana,” “Frisbee,” “Gorbachev, Mikhail,” “Gym,” “Hair,” “Hannah, Daryl,” “Madonna,” “Sexiest Man,” “Tattoo,” “Trip to Cuba,” and “Wedding.” Photos were pulled and librarian Bruce Furman culled the databases – Nexis for stories about Jackie O’s Vineyard house, Infotek for anything on Lauren Bessette.
A gang of staff members’ children noisily ran down the halls. At noon, Jack Newfield, who was at the Ambassador Hotel the night RFK was shot, came in to write a piece calling John Jr. “the sweet prince of this Irish tribe.” Filing from home, columnist Andrea Peyser, who had written for George, praised John’s down-to-earth warmth; Steve Dunleavy, who once wrote a book called The Wild, Wild Kennedy Boys, gave a quick family tour; and Cindy Adams recalled encounters with John and Carolyn out on the town.
At 3 p.m., the editors huddled to figure out which stories to put where, what the headlines should be – and what “the wood” on the front page should say. Should the main story say Kennedy was “presumed dead” or just “missing”? The Daily News’s first-edition deadline is 2 p.m.; ours is 6 p.m. They went with LOST on the front page and didn’t put “presumed dead” in the story. By 6 p.m., it was apparent that Kennedy and his passengers were not likely to be found alive – although a miracle was still possible – so we went with “presumed dead.” But there was still one more thing. Headlines went back and forth. OH NO and NOT AGAIN were front-runners. But finally, decisively: MORE TEARS.