Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years, by Cari Beauchamp. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009. Hardcover $35.00. 528pp. ISBN: 1-400-04000-0.
Previous books on Joseph Patrick Kennedy, of which there are many, typically underreport his era in Hollywood. Affair with Gloria Swanson . . . Queen Kelly . . . then, boom, back to Cape Cod. Beauchamp’s new book from Knopf, as the name announces, corrects that oversight. This cradle-to-grave account dramatically reduces its chronological speed from 1926 to 1931, Kennedy’s prime time in Hollywood. Every page teems with details, and as far as Kennedy in Southern California, this feels definitive. That is as much because of who Kennedy was as it is because of Beauchamp’s voluminous, unimpeachable research.
Good looks, charm, and brains go a long way. In less than five years in Hollywood, Kennedy managed to run three studios simultaneously, minimize Depression losses, oversee the making of dozens of films, carry on multiple affairs, betray just about everyone within spitting distance, and escape a very rich man. By 1931, the Boston Globe estimated that $12 million of his $15 million fortune was made in the movie business. The hackneyed question must be asked: What made Kennedy tick? Was it a lifelong effort to avoid the public humiliations suffered by his father, a minor politician felled by scandal? Was it a resolve to overcome the marginal status of his Irish Catholic brethren? Was it to groom his nine children for greatness?
Beauchamp engages in some psychoanalysis, but Kennedy comes off as opaque and soulless. He was no artist, nor did he ever demonstrate a particular love of movies. It was business all the way. In 1927, he hosted a high-profile conference uniting film moguls with Harvard’s School of Business Administration, and published the results as The Story of Films, giving himself credit as editor. But despite that self-congratulatory effort, none of his movies are in the American canon, with the likes of Aflame in the Sky, The Gorilla Hunt, and The Terror of Bar X suggesting fast revenues as top priority. His best-known producing effort, Queen Kelly, is one of Hollywood’s first examples of epic-scale folly, complete with budget overruns and a maniacal director (Erich von Stroheim) colluding with the advent of sound. (Seen today, Queen Kelly looks nowhere near as bad as its reputation.) His only major hit, 1929’s The Trespasser, was made on the quick to give Swanson something to do while Queen Kelly was in one of its many production delays. So while Kennedy was a wizard at making money, and left us an unmatched political dynasty, his legacy as movie producer is spotty at best. He was no Irving Thalberg or David O. Selznick. He wasn’t even prone to the eccentricities that make William Randolph Hearst and Howard Hughes so perversely compelling.
Habitually buying and selling companies, favors, real estate, and lives for the sport of it, Kennedy emerges from these pages as nothing less than a world-class bastard. When his father died, he made his excuses and stayed in Hollywood. He seems to have spent only enough time at home to keep wife Rose Fitzgerald pregnant, otherwise romancing movie stars, Swanson most conspicuously. His fathering paralleled his business life in that it relied on letters and phone calls. And he apparently ordered a lobotomy on daughter Rosemary without informing her mother.
During his Hollywood tenure, Kennedy destroyed or damaged several careers and fortunes. Among his victims were screenwriter Frances Marion, the subject of Beauchamp’s previous biography Without Lying Down, and her husband, the western star Fred Thomson. He shafted The Trespasser’s (right) writer-director Edmund Goulding, and loyal business partners E. B. Derr and Charlie Sullivan. The family of politician-lawyer-businessman Guy Currier claimed that his death by heart attack at 62 was hastened by Kennedy’s chicanery. He used Swanson’s bank account to pay studio expenses before dumping her with a $500,000 debt. He even lied to the woman he was lying about to his wife when protecting actress Constance Bennett against rumors that she was sleeping with Swanson’s husband. (The deceit and bed-hopping are as complicated as they read.)
Kennedy had alienated so many people by 1931 that he was lucky to get out of town alive, his methods of lining his own pockets with Pathé Studios stock inciting a written death threat. Only once did a major piece of bad publicity prove false. Kennedy had reached such heights of infamy that he was implicated in the murder of a young dancer who charged theater owner Alexander Pantages with rape. Reports circulated that Kennedy paid her to ruin Pantages, so he could buy his theaters at deflated value. Apparently no bribery, and certainly no murder, ever occurred, as the young woman in question died in 1996 at age 84. But Kennedy’s name was tarnished enough by then to be plausibly associated with such gutter notoriety.
Kennedy dabbled in movies after 1931, attempting a takeover of Paramount and loudly decrying subversive fare such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Citizen Kane. He made his moves on Gene Tierney and Joan Fontaine, but the rest of his public life was dominated by an ambassadorship to England, brief aspirations of the presidency, charges of anti-Semitism, and a roundly criticized kid glove approach to Hitler. With other ambitions exhausted, he finally turned his attention to the next generation, preparing his offspring for lives of power and responsibility.
Author Beauchamp’s iron fortitude is to be admired. It must be dispiriting to spend so much time with a man whose self-interest was as colossal as his conscience was small. She considers that he became “capable of insulating himself in self-justification.” And he may have done so by playing his own version of the classic “Blame the Victim.” Beauchamp wonders if Kennedy believed his prey “had all let themselves be put in a situation where they could be taken. If there was any fault to be found, it was with them for being naive.”
Someone needed to tell the story of Kennedy in Hollywood, and I’m glad it was Beauchamp. She has a particular aptitude for assembling the jigsaw puzzle of people’s lives. As for Kennedy’s story, if your attention strays from the finer points of one or another business deal, fear not, another one is waiting in the next chapter. And a cleansing shower is recommended upon completion.