Come to the Edge: A Memoir

Image of Come to the Edge: A Memoir
Release Date: 
March 28, 2011
Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by: 

The second thing that the reader finds surprising about Christina Haag’s memoir Come to the Edge is how well written it is. How Christina Haag’s memories of first love, of its sweetness, pain, and loss, are evoked in such sparse, elegant language.

But the first thing, the primary surprise, is that the book exists at all. Given its subject matter—the love shared by Ms. Haag and the boy then considered to be “America’s prince,” the young John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr.—and given the fact that, to this point, so many years after Kennedy’s sudden death in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, the author has remained silent, it is hard not to ask, “Why now—if ever, why now?”

Part of the answer comes from a surprising source—Christina Haag’s author’s page at Amazon. Here, as part of a brief discussion of the book, is a post from the author’s brother, Robert Haag. He writes:

“Dearest Christina,

“I am so proud of you. I have seen you work on this book for more than 7 years. You poured your heart and soul into it and never once allowed your little baby brother Robert (now a somewhat fat man) to read even a page.

“I remember all those years you and John were together and know how much you loved each other and how sad you were when he passed. I know that this was much more than just a book for you, but a catalyst for a true and deep transformation.

“I have pre-ordered it and can't wait to read the book when it finally gets to me here in Shanghai, China.

“P.S. Great Cover

“Zhu ni hao yun
“That means ‘Wish you good luck’ in Mandarin Chinese”

And so we know that author has been laboring for at least seven years in order to pull together her memories and present them in printed form. She has, perhaps, been working since the day she first got the news of his airplane crash.

About that day, Saturday, July 17, 1999, midway through a summer mired in heat and drought, she writes:

“That day, when I received my friend’s call, I knew in my heart he was gone. There would be no rescue. And I also knew that this was not possible. In my mind, I kept seeing the purple shadows of the small, uninhabited islands off Martha’s Vineyard, ones I have been to with him years before. Surely, they would be found there. Surely, they would be rescued. And like everyone else, I waited.”

Of the events that followed, she continues:

“Plane debris had begun to wash ashore on Philbin Beach near Gay Head by Saturday afternoon. On Tuesday, at a depth of 116 feet, the fuselage was spotted several miles northwest of No Man’s Land, the island you could see from his mother’s beach. . . . On Wednesday, after the bodies were found, I took the train to New York to attend a memorial service that Friday—not the one filled with dignitaries and family members, with a reception in the Sacred Heart ballroom—but one arranged by his friends . . . and held at La Palestra, an upscale gym he frequented near Café des Artistes.”

In remembering the memorial service, she focuses on the moving words spoken by their mutual friend and housemate Christiane Amanpour:

“It was Christiane, our Benefit Street roommate, whose words comforted most. They still do. ‘He was an ordinary boy in extraordinary circumstances,’ she said, her voice unwavering. ‘And he lived his life with grace.’”

Impressively, Ms. Haag does not end with these words, or with the shadow of Kennedy’s passing. She deals with the tragedy early on in her memoir, allowing her to concentrate instead on the living and the story of the relationship that began with them as schoolyard friends many years before they would become young lovers.

The heartbeat of the book is JFK’s. The author paints a portrait of him that is not mired in the accoutrements of his status—the flashbulbs, tennis rackets, ski trips, sports cars, law books, or the dark-suited Secret Service men—as it so easily could have been, but instead roots it in flesh and blood.

“We had been together more than a year,” she writes, “and there were things I had learned. He was chivalric and competitive, puritan and sensual. He wore Vetiver and Eau Sauvage, and when he didn’t, his skin was like warm sun. He loved to cook but burned his food, and he slept with the windows open. I wore his sweaters, he ate off my plate, and we spent most nights at his apartment on Ninety-First street.”

Thus, we are given an understanding of the man she loved as she slowly begins to understand the role he seemed destined to play.

And through Ms. Haag’s longstanding contact with him, we are given the unique opportunity of watching him grow from a child who sounded surprisingly like Little Lord Fauntleroy on the printed page (When a young JFK takes some friends home for an impromptu party, she quotes him as telling his guests that “Mummy’s away tonight.”), whose friends run freely with him through Central Park at night, knowing that the Secret Service is there to protect them, to a youth whose nature, blending equal parts passion, restlessness, and responsibility, suggested nothing less than a young Gatsby—with the author as his Daisy.

In Come to the Edge, Christina Haag works something of a miracle in that she shares with an open heart her knowledge of John and of his family, especially of his mother Jackie Onassis and her world, her very private world in Manhattan and New Jersey and Martha’s Vineyard, without for a moment seeming exploitative. The portrait of the mother, like that of the son, is rendered lovingly, crafted by many years of personal knowledge and honed by the gift of time.

In perhaps the reader’s favorite passage, a young Christina sneaks out of class and through the hallways of the mansion in which her Catholic school is housed. She slips by the receptionist to get through the front door to the portico beyond, only to find:

“There was someone there. A woman backlit by the sun had just stepped through the arch onto the cobblestone drive, her face obscured by shadow. Behind her, a photographer was taking a picture. He looked curious to me, like a monkey bending in all sorts of ways, but oh so careful not to drop his camera or cross the line that divided the sidewalk from school property. Even through the flashes, I recognized her: the long neck, the dark glasses, the hair just like my mother’s when she went to a fancy party. Tall, like an empress from a storybook, she glided toward me without interest in the man who continued to take pictures of her back. Her face was calm, as if by paying no attention, she could will him from being.”

Those who choose to read this book to learn more about the Kennedys and their ways will not be disappointed, as the portrait of Jackie is as thoughtfully presented as that of her son.

But forget the Vineyard and Hyannis and Jackie and the Kennedy mystique. Forget the drop-worthy names dropped and the A-list settings. Forget, as they never could, the mantle of expectations that lay upon his shoulders. While all of that gives this story a remarkable traction that it would otherwise lack, in lacking it, it may remain perhaps the most honest, most thoughtfully rendered, and most memorable memoir of young love published in recent years.

It is a remarkable work.

And the author’s brother is right: It has a great cover.