JFK Jr., George, & Me: A Memoir

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9781451697018: JFK Jr., George, & Me: A Memoir

As John Kennedy Jr.’s creative director for George magazine, Matt Berman had a wonderfully collaborative and fun-loving relationship with America’s favorite son—his story is told here with unprecedented candor and wit.

If George magazine was about “not just politics as usual,” a day at the office with John F. Kennedy Jr. was not just business as usual. John handpicked Creative Director Matt Berman to bring his vision for a new political magazine to life. Through marathon nights leading up to George’s launch; extraordinary meetings with celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, and Demi Moore; and jokes at each other’s expense, Matt developed a wonderfully collaborative and fun-loving relationship with America’s favorite son.

They were an unlikely team: the poised, charismatic scion of a beloved political family and the shy, self-deprecating, artistic kid. Yet they became close friends and confidants. In this warm, funny, and intimate book, Matt remembers his brilliant friend and colleague—John’s approach to work, life, and fame, and most of all, his ease and grace, which charmed those around him.

More than any book before it, JFK Jr., George, & Me reveals the friendly, witty, down-to-earth guy the paparazzi could never capture. Matt opens the doors of John’s messy office to share previously untold stories, personal notes, and never-before-seen photos from the trenches of a startup magazine that was the brainchild of a superstar. John helped Matt navigate a world filled with celebrities, artists, beauty, style, competition, and stunningly tender egos. In turn, Matt shares the invaluable lessons about business and life that he learned from John. What emerges is a portrait of JFK Jr. as a true friend and mentor.

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About the Author:

Since the 1990s, creative director Matt Berman has been collaborating with some of the most influential photographers in fashion and art to create some of the industry’s most enduring imagery in print. In 1995, Matt was hired by JFK Jr. to serve as the creative director of George magazine. He wor­ked side-by-side with John until his death in 1999 to craft his boss’s unique vision for a new kind of magazine. Matt then moved to Paris and continued to serve as creative director on several French magazine titles and advertising campaigns. Presently, Matt is a creative director living in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

JFK Jr., George, & Me 1.

I HAVE ALL FOUR, YOU ONLY HAVE TWO!


I first met John in 1994. I had been working at Elle magazine on Madison Avenue for four years. The French publisher Hachette owned Elle, and I’d gotten the job by cold-calling the art department, trying to sound blasé but determined to work there. A girl with a singsong Parisian accent answered the phone, “Hello, may I help you?” She turned out to be the art director, Olivia Badrutt, and invited me to come in and meet everyone. I started working for her that day.

Elle was run by a group of French businessmen led by a dashing CEO named Daniel Filipacchi. Daniel would rush through the offices wearing a pair of solid gold Cartier glasses and leather-and-fabric loafers with the exact same fabric made into a matching tie. He looked like a movie producer, a French Bob Evans, and acted as if he had exactly two minutes to sign a seven-figure deal. Daniel had come to New York with two other Frenchmen, named Régis Pagniez and Jean-Louis Ginibre, to launch the French soft porn magazine Oui, which was giving Penthouse a run for its money. Oui showed full frontal nudity, but it was art directed with a lot of style, more like a European fashion magazine than typical porn mags.

The guys were about the same age as my dad, but Dad and his friends were nothing like this. While my dad’s wild weeknights were about playing racquetball with Bill Greenbaum and picking up Chinese takeout on his way home, these guys went out late at night to jazz clubs and hot spots like Raoul’s, Nell’s, and Le Zinc. They came to work in limousines, took three-hour lunches, and flew to Paris on the Concorde.

Régis, the publication director, knew everything about art and food and film. He had the most refined taste of anyone I’ve ever known. His daily uniform was a Brooks Brothers blue blazer, pale blue oxford shirt, gray flannel pants, and Hermès shoes. I liked the idea of having a uniform and invented a junior version of my own, wearing Levi’s, a navy agnès b. zip-up sweatshirt, and Paraboot shoes. Régis was a legendary art director. I stood beside him assisting in any way I could, pouring his Coke into a glass (he would never drink from the can) and Xeroxing a word in ten different sizes so he could select and place the perfectly proportioned headline next to the perfectly cropped photograph.

The editorial staff of Elle was largely from the upper crust of Parisian society. Everyone’s father or husband or brother was somebody well known in Paris. The fashion editor who dressed the models for the covers was the daughter of Jean Louis David, the Vidal Sassoon of France. The food editor was the wife of Jean-Pierre Cassel, the famous French movie star, and the mother of the actor Vincent Cassel, who as a teenager used to hang out at the office and help his mother on shoots. On the business side, there were people who had fathers, uncles, or friends in the French government. My laid-back Brazilian intern was well connected among the senior executives and wasn’t exactly worried about job security. She took thirty-five minutes to do a round-trip job at the copy machine, slowly sauntering down the hallway like she was strolling along Ipanema beach without a care in the world. There were several attractive women at the office who held less important positions, like editing the astrology page or the travel stories, and I always wondered what credentials they had. Later, I learned that some of them were former Air France stewardesses who, I imagined, had been hired at thirty thousand feet by the Hachette playboys.

I took note of what my French bosses ordered in restaurants, and I listened to what they said about how people should behave. I tried to understand what they considered chic, which was always understated. It was the industry’s best graduate program in style, and I was getting paid for it. When it was my turn to order at a restaurant, I followed the rules I’d learned and never ordered a beef carpaccio appetizer and a poached salmon entrée; meat and fish were never mixed. When white wine was poured, I’d hold my glass by the stem to be sure my hand didn’t warm the chilled Sancerre; when red was on the table, I held my glass however I liked.

The subject of food and weight triggered lots of reactions. I was at a staff lunch at Café Un Deux Trois on West Forty-fourth Street, and a waiter asked me, “Would you like fries with that?” I heard Sabine Cassel tsk-tsking from the other end of the table, “Oh là là, il est trop jeune pour être si gros.” (He is too young to be so fat.) I realized five pounds overweight meant fat in France. I once asked another editor how I could knock off a few pounds and she said, “Matt, have you seen pictures of those people in Auschwitz?” I nodded, acting cool, though I was horrified at where she was headed with this. “Did they look fat, Matt?” I shook my head from side to side. “Do you know why? Because they didn’t eat.”

What mattered at Elle was beauty, and there was plenty to learn about that. I was standing next to Régis looking at the December 1988 cover of supermodel Yasmin Parvaneh (later Le Bon). It was a photo of her head and neck, the background blurred. She wore a black turtleneck, small gold hoop earrings, with her hair pulled back in a tight bun. “It’s so boring,” I said. Régis replied, “Matt, this cover is good, because this girl is the perfect age.” I was learning a new language. I couldn’t speak it yet, but I was starting to hear it.

Things at Elle were scrutinized in a way I hadn’t imagined. From the width of a typeface, to the length of a skirt, everything was judged. I once bought a chartreuse shirt to try to break out of my safe navy blue sweatshirt routine. Olivia shook her head from side to side and said, “Oh là là, Matt, you are too white to wear this color.” Seeing my crestfallen face, she said, “Well, maybe if you get a tan.” Régis added, “Or if you were black.” I wore navy the next day.

Elle didn’t look like anything else on the newsstand, with its crisp Swiss design and in-your-face photos. It had a bold point of view in its photography, as well as in its styling, mixing clothes in a way Americans weren’t used to. We did profiles on Régis’s fashion designer friends Azzedine Alaïa, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Claude Montana. They would come into the office to drink red wine, admire our postcard view of midtown, and watch us lay out the magazine.

Years later, while I was living in Paris, I sat next to Claude Montana at a café, Le Nemours, at Palais-Royal. There was no mistaking him, with his fried and dyed orange hair, bright blue quilted leather bolero jacket, skintight red leather pants, and motorcycle boots. He was by himself, eating a parfait glass full of fromage blanc and sipping white wine. Seeing him, I was transported back to 1988 faster than hearing George Michael’s Faith. I took a gulp of wine for courage and leaned toward him, reminding him who I was. He was a little tipsy, but he was kind to me and chatted for half an hour about his childhood with his strict father, his rise to fashion superstardom, and his fall from grace. It was sad to see him there, all alone, dressed in his outfit, and it made me miss the madness of the ’80s, when there were people like him to inspire us.

Along with fashion, we did profiles on Régis’s artist friends Red Grooms, César Baldaccini, and David Hockney, as well as layout interviews with stars Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp, and the B-52s. While we were shooting the B-52s, one of our Parisian stylists handed Kate Pierson a dress to wear for the picture. Kate held the dress in front of her by its straps and in her precise Southern accent declined, saying, “It’s aw-fully conservative.”

I’d been close to famous people before, on the street or in restaurants, but for the first time I was in a professional environment interacting with celebrities. To see them doing mundane things like asking where the bathroom was or making a personal phone call fascinated me. Were they just like everyone else? To test the waters, I walked up to Fred Schneider, who was eating a plate of pasta salad, and asked, “How’s the food?” “Not bad,” he answered while chewing. To me it felt like magic. They were real.

In the ’70s, nostalgia for the golden age of Hollywood, especially the 1930s and ’40s, had been everywhere. The Sting, Paper Moon, and Chinatown were huge hits, there were Marlene Dietrich film festivals at Radio City Music Hall, towels at Bloomingdale’s had Garbo’s face printed on them, plaster statuettes of W. C. Fields stood in every card shop, and Andy Warhol was featuring Rita Hayworth in Interview magazine. When we were ten or eleven, my cousin Adam and I went to see the movie That’s Entertainment! and we became obsessed seeing all the dried-up old movie stars commenting on the spectacular movie clips. I bought a book advertised in the back of the magazine Rona Barrett’s Hollywood called The Movie Star Address Book, and Adam and I sent out letters to stars asking for autographed pictures. It became a competition, and we’d compare notes week to week. I’d phone Adam: “I got one from Bob Hope today.” “I did too,” Adam responded, stealing my thunder. “Mine says, ‘To Matt, Best, Bob Hope.’ ” Adam, with an evil chuckle, answered, “Well, mine says, ‘To Adam, Sincerely, Bob Hope.’ ” We’d compare our collections of photos, marveling that these famous people had taken the time to sign a photo and mail it to us; they seemed galaxies away from our lives in Stamford. I shut Adam down for good the day I received an envelope with the return address of 70 North Rossmore Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. I opened the manila envelope and pulled out a glossy photo that read To Matt, Sin-cerely, Mae West, in orange marker.

At Elle there were often famous people in the office. Each day at around 1:00 p.m., I’d look up from my work to see who was coming in to meet Régis for lunch. Frequently, it was one of the cover models, like Elle Macpherson or Ashley Richardson or Rachel Williams, who entered the art room like graceful giraffes. My favorite guest was the Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder. Holder was a longtime pal of Régis and his wife, Jamie, who had danced in some of Jerome Robbins’s companies in the 1960s. Holder would walk in cheerfully bellowing, “Ha, ha, ha, hello, Régis,” in that unmistakable deep voice we all recognized from his 7UP commercial that aired constantly in the 1970s.

Those were the days when magazines grabbed you by the throat. There were no websites or email blasts or blogs. Elle and its competitors had to catch your eye as you strolled by a newsstand. Today’s magazines, with their tiny type and blocks of information all over the page, seem confusing compared to the way Elle used grand gestures to garner attention. A model dressed in red from head to toe beside two words—Red Alert! A tightly cropped, sun-kissed face on the cover of a summer issue with the command Face the Heat. A portrait of an immaculately made-up brunette dressed in simple shades of beige cashmere with one word printed on the cover: Perfect.

Growing up with my grandparents, it seemed that elegance was perceived as more. My grandmother would say that her perfume, Joy, from Jean Patou, was “One hundred dollars an ounce. Imagine?” She’d gush about someone, “She had an engagement ring from Harry Winston the size of a golf ball.” And describing a restaurant: “The steak was so enormous, Grandpa had to bring half of it home.” At Elle, elegance meant less. The French said, “Americans eat too many meals” and “The tits are too big in this country.”

I was one of the few Americans in the office who were accepted by the French. Most of the American staffers were treated like punching bags and couldn’t do anything right. I was determined not to fall into that mold, so I listened to their opinions, watched my actions and words, and played the part. I kept up with their off-color sense of humor and was proud to be dubbed Le Cretin Mongolien by Régis (basically, “the stupid retard” in English). I loved getting his attention knowing that the people he was not interested in were completely ignored. I remember one of the saucier gals warning me to be careful of a tacky editor, saying to me in a smoky voice, “If she tells you that you look nice today, you go home and burn all of your clothes.” Knowing a bit of French, I’d chuckle as I overheard comments like “Oh là là, quelle fesse” (What an ass) or “Sa robe est affreux” (Her dress is hideous).

The non-French part of the staff was made up of hardworking New Yorkers who had worked at other magazines and were responsible for getting Elle out the door every month despite the Europeans’ “work habits.” These poor souls were kept waiting until noon for the French to arrive at work or for film from a shoot to arrive at Kennedy airport, then they were challenged to write an editorial essay to accompany a close-up photo of a model’s bare ass. I remember the beauty editor staring at one of these booty numbers from all angles and saying, “I guess I can talk about moisturizing after the beach . . . ?”

As I hunched over my drawing board doing mechanicals (the pre-Macintosh way a magazine was made), the stories I heard were incredible. There was a wedding in Ibiza where a top Hachette executive and his bride took their vows in the nude. A famous photographer took his giant penis from his pants and shook it in front of a group of bikini-clad models in order to get an animated reaction. An older, attractive blonde editor invited her town car driver up to her apartment after a long day at the office.

My buddies on the floor would call me the “house servant.” There were hazards in being the house servant. I remember once being transfixed by the ember of Melka Tréanton’s cigarette as she gestured flamboyantly while telling a long story. Melka was a legend in the fashion world; she discovered Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. Just as she finished her story, her hand flew back and her cigarette went sizzling into my forearm. “Je m’excuse,” she said offhandedly. I’ve never been so proud of something so painful.

I was the diplomat between the two continents. Régis would send me to the editor with something like “Matt, go to Marian and tell her that this word is too long to do a nice layout.” Shooting the messenger, Marian would shout, “You go tell Régis it’s a duck in a tangerine sauce! There is no shorter word for tangerine!”

Being the link between the two continents provided me with lots of time with the magazine’s senior editors, and I lingered in their offices whenever I could. At first, my behavior was extremely polite and respectful. I remember a chic Italian editor, an Olivetti heiress, once saying to me, “Matt, how did you get to be so good-natured?” I walked away immediately thinking that “good-natured” was a word you’d use to describe a dog’s disposition. I was beginning to be pigeonholed as the benevolent servant boy to these connoisseurs, and I was anxious to become an equal.

My family hated snobs and often spoke about real people or good people; they had no interest in high society. In 1980 I was with my parents in Heathrow airport waiting for a flight to New York. I was fascinated watching a wealthy-looking mother with long blonde hair, dressed in slacks and high heels, holding a giant Gucci handbag. She reminded me of Jerry Hall. She was chatting to another woman and allowing her beautiful young daughters to run wild around the waiting area, disturbing everyone. I was sitting patiently on a bench with my cousin Gary doing Mad Libs when one of the little girls asked us for some of our candy. We let her choose some from our bag, and ...

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