But I'm wondering, I'm Brooke friend, and I'm Erica Skidmore Williams, and this is even the Rich Oreja.
Let me ask you something. Who's the most famous person who went to your high school? Oh, that's easy. Me?
Well, I think our guest today has you beat his name is William Cohen, and his high school best was John F. Kennedy Jr. They went to Phillips Academy Andover together and over four short a lot of people consider it to be the best high school in America.
It's produced Nobel Prize winners, captains of industry and two U.S. presidents.
And William, yeah, he did pretty well for himself. He spent nearly two decades working in finance before becoming a full time writer. Now he's published bestsellers about Wall Street and contributed to magazines like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic.
But we're talking to him today because he wrote this really moving book called For Friends about his friendships with John and three other Andover classmates who all died tragically young.
I know. I read it. Yeah, but the audience hasn't. Well, audience, you should get excited. It's not every day you get to hear an interview with a guy who smoked pot with JFK Jr. and who really got to know him during his formative years.
I'm looking forward to it. Me too.
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Dotcom slash rich. The SAT and ACT were designed to help standardize the college admissions process, but today they are fraught with accusations of discrimination and fraud. Will unpack all of that and more in our new 100 plus exclusive season of business wars. Satti versus Acti join thundery plus to listen ad free and the wonder free app wondering. Feel the story. Well, hi, William, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you? I'm well, thank you.
Where are you guys? Well, I'm in Los Angeles and I am in Maryland and I'm in upstate New York, so. Oh, nice. East Coast. Yeah. Yeah, you go.
All right. So, William, you wrote a beautiful book called For Friends, about four friends of yours, all of whom tragically died young. And you met them at Andover, the boarding school you attended in Massachusetts. But it's not your average high school, is it? Can you kind of talk about that?
No, no. It's definitely not your average high school for any number of reasons. You know, the kids were from all over, not only all over the country, but all over the world. It was extremely diverse and ecumenical. The physical plant itself looked like an Ivy League college. The athletic facilities were beyond. And of course, my my brethren, my my classmates were extraordinary, as were the teachers. So, I mean, all around, it was quite, quite an eye opener for me, especially going there is a very young 13 year old coming from central Massachusetts.
So one of the friends you made at Andover was obviously John F. Kennedy Jr. Do you remember the first time you saw him on campus?
Oh, absolutely. Yes, of course. So John came as a as an upper what we would not people called juniors, but in the end over there called uppers. And he was in my dorm. And the reason he was in my dorm was because my dorm was next to the Andover in which was, you know, a real thriving in on campus. And the reason they wanted that was so the Secret Service could sort of tuck away in the basement of the Aneurin and be able to get to John, you know, if need be, you know, very quickly, because John was under 16 when he came down over and he only had Secret Service protection till you were, you know, 16 or at the end of your 16th year.
And so I remember our dorm was sort of down this little hill and the path from the road up above, you know, went down the hill. And so I remember, of course, seeing Jackie and John coming down the hill towards the dorm. And of course, now by this time, we knew that John was not only coming to hand over, but was going to be in our dorm. And I was his you know, I was one of his two were called Blue Key Advisors, seniors who whose job it was to sort of welcome him to the school and, you know, answer any questions for him and make him feel comfortable as possible.
So seeing Jackie and John come down that hill, I mean, was just, you know, and I you have to understand, I grew up in a home where my mother revered Jackie for of style, for her elegance, for her ability to withstand all of the pain and drama that she was stood. So to see her and John in the flesh was really unforgettable. Yeah, I imagine.
Now, can you tell us about the friendship that you and John developed? Are there any memories that really stand out?
Oh, sure. There there are a lot of memories. I mean, look, on the one hand, he was just completely regular guy and sort of fit into the community very quickly because he was so gregarious and so outgoing, is so friendly and so fun. I mean, really, that was the thing. He was a lot of fun. And then you combine that with just this incredible physical presence of being somebody like, you know, you've never seen before in your life.
And with all the star power that he had being the son of the president and who grew up in the White House, I mean, there were things like, you know, one time the aforementioned Secret Service, like ten o'clock at night, long after we were supposed to be in our rooms in the dorm, took us, John and I, to the next town over Lawrence to a John was hungry, of course, John, and, you know, insatiable appetites.
So we rang up the Secret Service. And, of course, they do what he wanted them to do, even though it was against the rules. And we could have been thrown out, of course. So we went over to this restaurant called Bishop's was this great sort of Lebanese Middle Eastern restaurant. And we just like, you know, picked out on hummus and pita and, you know, falafel. I mean, it was totally. Innocent, but also completely against the rules and would have gotten us, you know, expelled know other times, I remember meeting him in Boston once on the weekend to go to a bar and we were both underage and we got to this bar called the Black Rose, which had been a favorite of his father.
So you go in and there's all these photographs of the president and the senator, you know, on the walls. And of course, John walks in and immediately they can't believe what's going on. And of course, then I can't believe what's going on because they're literally fawning over him, which was, of course, a very typical thing. You know, whenever you went out in public with John, it was just I mean, it was incredibly exciting and interesting.
And, you know, the people that he would meet and run into and that I would want to be around him. I mean, it was it was just, as I said, a lot of fun.
Now, something that stuck out to me about John's time at Andover is that he tried a lot of things like sports, acting, studying, but he never really excelled at any of them.
Is that fair to say?
Let's see. He certainly didn't excel at academics. He, you know, was incredibly physical, but, you know, did not excel in athletics. I would say he excelled in acting. You know, he excelled at fun and partying. So I wouldn't say he didn't. You know, those are all important components of life in high school. So, you know, he had he had a lot of the button, the important buttons, but not not all.
Yeah. He was quite a partier, wasn't he? Yes, he was. And, you know, but again, he wasn't, you know, alone. You certainly more of a pioneer than I was. You know, I was more of a scaredy cat, although with him, you know, I ended up trying things that I wouldn't have done with other people because, again, it was sort of fun. And it was with John the seventies, especially the early 70s when I was there, it was sort of an anything goes kind of culture.
And in part because we just merged with with Abbott Academy, the girls school. So trying to integrate the girls into the boys school. And, you know, sort of the last thing they could sort of catch up with was the drinking and the the the marijuana smoking and things like that. And by the way, the you know, the pot sucked at that time. You know, it's not like today.
Yeah. So, I mean, it was it was a time of experimentation is high school is in it. And, you know, the believe me, they tried to monitor this and and police it. And, you know, if you were blatant about it, you know, especially second or third time you were going to get tossed out because of your job. And then under no circumstances where you getting kicked out of Andover right now.
So one area where John did excel was being a daredevil. Where do you think that thrill seeker nature came from?
Well, I think it's definitely a Kennedy esque trait. Right. So there's that, you know, how many of them died doing daredevil things on the ski slopes or whatever? And I think John had an even extra dose of that. You have to understand, like for any number of reasons, the normal rules did not apply to this guy. Right? Right. So it was incredibly handsome, incredibly charming, you know, incredibly sexy. So, you know, animal magnetism was like No one, no one else.
And then he was the son of the martyred president. So everybody felt that they knew him. Everybody felt that he was part of their lives. So he got a pass on everything. I mean I mean, not that he was stupid or, you know, but, you know, he didn't have to apply himself like other people. He was quite smart. But I mean, you know, you're telling me he's not going to give in and he wants to go to Andover.
He's not going to get into Harvard if he wants to go to Harvard or Brown or whatever. You know, he's not going to get a job in the DA's office after law school. If he doesn't if he wants to do I mean, come on, he's not going to go work, you know, out on a ranch in Wyoming for one of the founders of the Grateful Dead. I mean, look, this daredevil aspect comes from the fact that he the the he did not believe the normal rules of life applied to him.
And he had good reason for that because everything just came without. Thinking to him whatever he wanted, he could have like, you know, and that's why he didn't carry money. He was constantly losing his wallet. He borrowed money from me. And I had to ask Jackie, ask him to ask Jackie to give it back to me, you know, stupid 40 dollars. But at that time was it was a big deal. I mean, he he just, you know, people paid for him.
He didn't carry the money. He lost money. He never he always had the best this and the best that. The best clothes and the best. You know, Andy Warhol was his friend. You know, it's just like the people he hung out with. So why would the normal rules of life apply to him? I mean, you know, if you wanted to go kayaking in the Arctic, you character in the Arctic, if you want to go kayaking in us in the sea of in Sweden, we do that or, you know, go to kayaking in the Caribbean and almost die.
That's the way it was with John. You know, it was all good. You know, it was a high date, a guy, you know, he was like kind of living life to the fullest. He was having a great time. You know, you would go to a Studio 54 with all these models and, you know, every day and end up with Bruce Springsteen's wife's phone number and his in his pocket. And he you know, he would go to the opening of a movie with the frigging movie stars and all the cameras would be on him, not on the movie stars.
Right. He just believed and I don't blame him, that the normal rules just didn't apply to him. And so they didn't apply except one time. And, you know, it was fatal.
Now, in terms of the rules not applying to him, do you think he relished that or was there any part of him that kind of wanted to have a more normal existence?
I think there was a little of both. I mean, he couldn't escape it. If your name is John F. Kennedy Jr., there's no escaping who you are and your legacy.
So, I mean, part of him loved that because everybody was worshiping him and fawning over him and giving him tickets to this and that and you name it, whatever he wanted, he could have OK, so, so and often without even paying for it. So part of him relished that. But I mean, the other part of him, I think over time got sick of it and needed an escape and needed a place to be by himself, which is why he may have gone kayaking in the Arctic, which seems like a story to me.
That's apocryphal, but I guess it's true. And you know why he would to eat took up flying because, you know, up and up in the sky in his plane that he was piloting, you know, there was nobody around him, nobody to bother him. So he literally needed to fly to get away from what was going on down on the earth. I'm really excited to announce our newest sponsor today, Brooke, do it, announce that we get support from The New Yorker, considered by many, including myself and Brooke, to be one of the most influential publications in the world.
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Can you tell us a little more about those kayaking trips? It sounds like he was obsessed, totally just totally obsessed with kayaking. Yeah, I mean, which is who's a who's obsessed with kayaking. I know there are people who like. I mean, it's such a weird sport or whatever.
Obviously, it's very physical and very exciting to be, you know, in a kayak either with yourself or one other person or whatever. You know, I don't know where that necessarily came from because he certainly wasn't doing that, that handover. And I don't know where he would have done it in Brown, but maybe, you know, off the roiling waters of Providence, Rhode Island, I don't know. But he became he became obsessed with it when he moved to New York and, you know, lived down in Tribeca and would keep his kayak and go off with his friends to go kayaking in the Hudson, which was, of course, incredibly dangerous, both a currents perspective and, you know, the kinds of boats that would would go up in the Hudson.
So then, of course, he took it to the next increasingly dangerous levels, almost almost dying on his trip to the Caribbean with his then girlfriend, going with his buddies again to Scandinavia. And, you know, it's so interesting because he he he wrote about that trip in a blog, an op ed in The New York Times and again, how he almost died and the names of the people that he went with. You know, I never recognized one of those names, not one.
And, you know, you Google them and there's like something that seems like those names. And I don't know whether it was all just John and a bunch of his friends who did. They changed all the names or just this obscure group of people that he went with. I just didn't understand. And it's sort of like the Arctic trip, which, again, is obviously a very close friend of his, told me about it. And she she told me that he came back with a bunch of baby whale bones that she made into a chandelier for him.
That's in the end it was in Jackie's house in Martha's Vineyard. But I mean, there's no record of him going to the Arctic on a kayak trip by himself. I mean, and how stupid how stupid you possibly be to go to the Arctic by yourself on a kayak trip. I mean, literally one second in that water and you're dead. I mean, and so I don't know I don't know about these trips, but apparently they're true. So I just wrote about them because they they were true enough, I guess.
Do you think that maybe John exaggerated these things to kind of make a myth for himself? Again, I don't think so. I don't think so. But on the other hand, both the trip to Scandinavia, where, again, he almost died, seems hard to believe. Again, I didn't recognize any of those names and I still haven't really figured out who those people are. And yet he wrote about it in The New York Times. So unless The New York Times, that must have been real.
The trip to the Arctic I find unbelievable because who would be so stupid at this mutual friend of ours said not only did it happen, but she made this sculpture for him, for his mother out of the baby whale bones that he brought back and he found on this small little island that he landed on. So I don't know. And, you know, in the Caribbean where he almost died, too, you know, that was written about in his girlfriend's book.
So that must have been true. So just another day in the life of JFK Jr. We've talked about John's school life and about his hobbies.
I want to talk about his career a little bit and specifically George magazine.
I'm interested in getting your take on it because you've worked in finance and as a magazine writer. And here's a guy who had no background in publishing and no background in business. It seems like there's a decent argument to be made that John had no business launching a magazine, right?
Yeah, of course not. Except if you're John F. Kennedy Jr. and then anything that you conceive of doing, what's the only impediment is that you didn't think of it. So the moment you thought of it, then there's no impediment anymore. And you, you know, connect with Michael Berman, who has some knowledge of finance and access to venture capital, you know, and you show up with John F. Kennedy Jr. talking about wanting to start a political magazine that's going to be sort of satirical and fun where you're going to make politicians into celebrities.
And, by the way, you're going to have access to them for stories and they're going to write for you. I mean, who's going to say no to that? You know, this is sort of the heyday of, you know, being. Magazines where they were making money hand over fist in the pre Internet days, pre social media days, so no, of course, he had no business doing it. But you know John John Kerry, too.
So, of course, I'm going to do it.
Yeah. Now, I mean, on the one hand, George was kind of a product of its times. Clinton had just been elected and politics kind of suddenly seemed cool. But I'm struck by how relevant it feels today. Do you think it's possible that maybe George was actually ahead of its time?
Absolutely. George was ahead of its time. I mean, he was not a visionary, so don't get that impression. But he came up with an idea that was ahead of its time. And by the way, you know, again, as I talk about in the book, he was pretty much done with it because the magazine was losing money. He and Michael, of course, had split. And I think he was pretty much done with it and wanted to move on to politics and was gearing up for that.
Now, William, in writing the book, he talked to a lot of people who knew Carolyn, and she comes across as a pretty volatile person.
Can you say a little bit more about that and about Carolyn?
Obviously, I never met her. So this is kind of like third hand. So, I mean, John, obviously I knew and knew well, firsthand knowledge. This is third hand knowledge. So all I can say is she seemed to be ambitious personally and ambitious in her relationships. It seemed that snagging a guy like John was on her agenda and she fulfilled that agenda. But once she reached the top of the mountain with John, I think she just fell apart and couldn't handle his stardom and their stardom.
And I think suffered from some forms of depression and mental illness and took refuge in drugs and people who were not, John, and I think just sort of fell apart and couldn't handle it.
And it was a tragic figure. For John, for herself, just being incredibly beautiful, right, I mean, just you can see why he would fall for her. Yeah. And a distinct look more than just beautiful. I mean, just she was dashing and charming, but volatile and hot to handle. And I think by the end, by nineteen ninety nine, it realized that it was over. Definitely, definitely over. And how to extricate himself from it was very much on the agenda.
Someone you spoke to said there were two John's one before he met Carolyn and one after. Do you think there's truth to that?
Well then I also spoke to people who said there were to John's one before he was named the sexiest man on Earth and one after the sexiest man on Earth. So, I mean, I didn't see John. I mean, the last time I saw John was when he was dating Daryl Hannah. And we ran into each other at Columbus Circle and he was supposed to go to meet Darryl at the movie theater down below, and instead of going down to see Darryl, he's already late because, of course, John was late for everything.
He spent half hour talking to me. I mean, was ridiculous, said John. What are you doing here? Well, I'm supposed to go see Darryl, you know, go to the movies. But now look at this. Forty five minutes late.
John What do you mean? So. So, you know, so I didn't really know him after he got married to her. So, you know, I don't know. I think that she made him sad. I think she freaked him out. I didn't I think that he was hoping for some sort of like Camelot like love story.
And I think she was just too difficult and cheated on him.
And he knew it wouldn't, you know, wouldn't have any physical relationship with him.
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Well, again, I think the origin was just this need to escape his frustrations and the limelight that accompanied him wherever he went. And I don't blame him for that. It began during the summer when he was out in Wyoming and then he worked at the ranch of the Grateful Dead guy who was into flying and let John fly his plane. And I think it just went from there. And, you know, there were periods of time where he wouldn't fly because, of course, Jackie didn't want him to fly, let alone pilot a plane.
But it obviously accelerated in a big way as he got older and after she died. Well, the other interesting thing that I hadn't ever really figured out until I wrote this book is that, of course, every November, twenty second to the anniversary of his father's assassination, he always got out in New York. He always got out of town. And so one of one of the things that he did a few of those times is, is go out to this place in whatever Iowa to get this sort of whirlybird contraption.
He had one and then he upgraded it for him and Carolyn and the both of this Bucchi thing that they could both be on and fly around. And then he'd love doing that, which is, of course, insanely risky and dangerous. But, of course, you know, he loved that. And so the the natural evolution, of course, is your own plane. And then, of course, you need a faster, bigger, better plane that turns out to be more plane than you can handle or know how to fly.
One of the things we mentioned in our series is that John had a cast on his leg up until the week of his last flight. Can you tell us about how he hurt himself?
A bunch of friends around Memorial Day weekend, a beautiful day on Martha's Vineyard over at your mother's farm.
Five hundred acres and gay had I mean, you know, he was their love and life goes up in this whirlybird machine, whatever you call it, and comes crashing down. And he broke his ankle. Leg was in a cast the whole summer, which, of course, really pissed him off. And he couldn't bike. He couldn't run. He couldn't fly. And then he comes back to New York, gets his cast off. The doctor tells him, you know, not to fly because you need your legs to fly.
And, you know, the first thing he does is go up in the plane with his wife, who he wasn't getting along with. Of course, this is sort of a reconciliation mission and his wife's sister. And so. The plane was too much for him. He shouldn't have been flying that day to begin with, not only because of the weather and the likeness of the hour and the humidity, et cetera, but physically, he shouldn't have been flying because he just had his cast off on his broken leg.
I mean, John, you're an idiot. Why did you do any of those things?
So it sounds like you're a little bit angry at him for taking so many risks, one of which obviously ultimately turned out to be fatal.
And I'm not the only one at Hill who I quote extensively in the book. Who he was was close with John starting at Andover. And throughout his whole life, he was, you know, Ripshin at John again. I'm angrier now than I sort of was when I started writing the book because I didn't know any of these things. Right. And I just saw this pattern of a silly risk taking that just made no sense to me. So that's just selfish and stupid and irresponsible.
Right. And then when you marry all of that with the fact that literally he was getting ready to run for governor of New York, he probably would have won. And by 2016, I think he would have been ready to run for president and we could have had John Kennedy Jr. be the president, the United States now instead of Donald Trump. And so. Yeah. Am I angry about that? Yes.
So as you mentioned, your book is not only about John, it's also about three other people from your time at Andover, but it's really a book about friendship, which comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about the nature of friendship and what it has meant in your life?
Well, it's about friendship. And I have a lot of deep, ongoing, meaningful friendships from my time at Andover. So it was about that and also the fragility of life. Right. When you're 17, you really don't think about the fragility of life. You know, I'm now 60 now. I think about it. And writing this book, of course, made me think about it. And each one of these guys, literally each each one of them went out in the morning thinking I was going to be just another day.
And it turned out to be their last day. And that's that's sort of a unifying experience of that of the book. And I just, you know, thinking about that and how, you know, you go out in the morning and you just think it's another day and, you know, it could be your last and, you know, writing about their last moments as best as I could do, it was really I mean, it was riveting for me to explore it and riveting for me to talk to people about it and riveting for me to write it.
And I hope riveting for people to read. But I don't I don't know that so.
Well, for what it's worth, it was I felt it was riveting. So I think it's nice to hear it was a great read for me. Yeah, it was. And I think it's there's something powerful and profound about writing about the end of someone's life. So I think that you did it very eloquently and I enjoyed reading it. Wow.
William, that's all we have for you. And we both want to say thank you so much for being here with us today. Thank you so much. This was great. Thank you.
Thank you for having me. From if this is even the rich, thanks again to William Cohen. You can grab a copy of his book for friends wherever books are sold. On our next episode, we're bringing you a brand new story about Britney Spears and the ongoing fight to end her conservatorship.
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I'm Brooke Zafrin. And I'm Erica Skidmore Williams. Our producer is Caleb Beissinger. Audio Assistance by Sergio Enriquez. Our executive producers are Stephanie Gen's marshmallowy and Hernan Lopez are wondering. I'm Laura Bill, and in my podcast, Dr Death, we dug into the story of Dr. Dunwich and the system failure that allowed him to maim and kill patients in Texas. Since Dr. Death came out, I've received hundreds of tips about doctors who've abused their patients.
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