He was young, handsome, athletic, always seen with a gorgeous woman at his side. He lived in the hippest quarter of Manhattan, chased by ravenous paparazzi as he rollerbladed his way through a fantasy life.
''They had a really beautiful life,'' said Andrina Williams, 26, of Boston. ''It's a bit of a fantasy for everyone.''
For a generation of Americans now entering their golden years, President John F. Kennedy was a defining figure, an icon who embodied the idealism of public service and the tragedy of hopes cruelly dashed.
To a new generation of Americans, born long after Camelot and Dallas 1963, the initials JFK are no less potent. But to these younger men and women, the slain president's son endured as a different kind of icon. To them, he was less of an epic hero and more a lifestyle star. Where many saw President Kennedy as a transcendent national leader, people in their 20s interviewed in Boston yesterday described John Jr. with few of the Olympian adjectives still used wistfully by their parents.
Indeed, some members of a generation often derided as shiftless and underachieving seemed to appreciate John Jr.'s life of career angst and blithe city living. Winthrop resident John Muson, 26, compared Kennedy to actor Matthew Perry's handsome but feckless character of Chandler on the hit TV series `Friends.'
''He sounds like a pretty cool guy,'' said Munson. ''He didn't get the best grades and he failed the bar twice, and I like him even more.''
It's not that young people are unfamiliar with the meaning of John Jr.'s inheritance. Even those people born more than a decade after President Kennedy's assassination say the family's mythology is a familiar story spun by nostalgic parents and history books - and kept alive by such pop-culture forces as Oliver Stone, director of the 1991 movie ''JFK,'' and People magazine, which named John Jr. ''Sexiest Man Alive'' in 1988.
''There's enough footage of JFK and enough history, it's almost like I knew him,'' said Ed Hall, 25, of Winthrop.
And yet people interviewed said they never saw the younger Kennedy - whom they came to know through tabloids and gossipy chatter on cable networks like CNN and MSNBC - as conveying the same gravity as the president they knew from grainy black-and-white documentary footage.
''Our generation sees JFK as a part of history,'' said Boston University student Brenna McCormick, 20. Of the former president's missing son, she added, ''I don't think he'd achieved a certain historical stature.''
To some, John Jr.'s largely nonideological profile - embodied by George, the monthly magazine he founded in 1995 that treated politics as popular culture - was an appropriate fit for apolitical, even cynical, times. With many young people showing an unprecedented apathy toward politics and public service, perhaps it wasn't surprising that the nation's most prominent young Kennedy was known more for star power and good looks than the big ideas and liberal trench warfare of his father and uncles.
But interviews showed that Kennedy's lack of a sharp-edged world view was frustrating to some.
''At least from what I've learned on the Discovery Channel and everything else, I think JFK stood for a lot more,'' said Braxton Zink, 24, of Boston. Of the younger Kennedy, Zink said, ''I've never seen him take a stand on anything. It's like a Hollywood life.''
''Everyone goes on about our generation's disillusionment, and he was part of that,'' said Jonathan Dupuis, 20. ''It's kind of unnecessary to have an American royal family.''
''His claim to fame is that he was the son of JFK,'' said Nora Connolly, 22, of Southbury, Conn. ''No one seemed to enjoy his successes - they enjoyed his failures.''
But they unquestionably admired the way he wove humility into a life of privilege.
President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, were no less glamorous than John Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette. But if President Kennedy's White House was an unattainable Camelot, John Jr.'s appearances at New York Knicks games and strolls through Central Park made him seem to be enjoying a life, while opulent and blessed, not entirely foreign to young people around the country.
Nevertheless, for many people in their 20s, John Jr.'s disappearance was clearly lacking the profound impact President Kennedy's death had on an earlier generation.
Jennifer Collins, 21, of Dumont, N.J., recalled that her mother ''used to say that the world would never be the same'' after the Dallas slaying of President Kennedy. Asked whether she had the same feeling about this bleak summer weekend, Collins didn't hesitate to say, ''No.''