“He cultivated the image,” Robert Timberg wrote in a biography, “John McCain: An American Odyssey” (1995). “The Episcopal yearbook pictures him in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling Bogey-style from his lips. That pose, if hardly the impression Episcopal sought to project, at least had a fashionable world-weary style to it.”
John and a few friends often sneaked off campus at night to patronize bars and burlesque houses in Washington. He joined the wrestling team — a 127-pound dynamo, he once pinned an opponent in 37 seconds, a school record — and the junior varsity football team, as a linebacker and offensive guard. His grades were abysmal, except in literature and history, his favorite subjects. He graduated in 1954.
That summer, he followed his father and grandfather into the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He resisted the discipline. His grades were poor. He stood up to upperclassmen, broke rules and piled up demerits, though never enough to warrant expulsion. But he became a ferocious boxer, a magnet for attractive young women and one of the most popular midshipmen in his class.
In the Cockpit
Mr. McCain possessed the rugged independence of a natural leader. It came out at parties and in carousing with friends. Caught by the Shore Patrol at an off-limits bar, he led a carload of drinking buddies in a daring escape. “Being on liberty with John McCain was like being in a train wreck,” one recalled. In 1958, he graduated 894th in his class, fifth from the bottom.
Accepted for flight training, the newly commissioned Ensign McCain learned to fly attack jets at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla. He also had flings with a succession of young women, from schoolteachers to strippers, and once with a tobacco heiress, “often returning to base just in time to change clothes and drag himself out to the flight line,” Mr. Timberg said.
He liked flying, but his performance was subpar, sometimes careless or even reckless. In the 1960s he crashed in Corpus Christi Bay in Texas and Tidewater, Va., but escaped with minor injuries — and his flying skills improved over time. Early assignments were aboard aircraft carriers: the Intrepid in the Caribbean during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and the Enterprise in the Mediterranean.
In 1965, Mr. McCain married Carol Shepp, a model. He adopted her two children, Douglas and Andrew, and they had a daughter, Sidney. After a long separation, the couple were divorced in 1980. He then married Cindy Lou Hensley, a Phoenix teacher whose father owned a beer distributorship. They had two sons, John IV and James, and a daughter, Meghan, and adopted a girl, Bridget, from a Bangladeshi orphanage.