03.01.14 5:00 AM ET
Doug Kenney: The Odd Comic Genius Behind ‘Animal House’ and National Lampoon
The flood of loving tributes to the late Harold Ramis this week has encouraged many of us to look back over his rich movie career. It also brings to mind Doug Kenney, one of Ramis’s co-writers on Animal House (Chris Miller is the other). Kenney, one of the founders of National Lampoon, also wrote Caddyshack (directed by Ramis), but he died in August 1980 at 33, when he fell off a cliff in Hawaii. The police ruled the death accidental but others weren’t so sure. “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump,” Ramis said.
The following year, Robert Sam Anson profiled Kenney for Esquire. He’d known Kenney when they were teenagers, when they attended rival private schools in Ohio. “We debated against each other when I was going to the quite academically superior Jesuit school in town, St. Ignatius,” remembers Anson, “and I had very dismissive feelings about Gilmour and anyone who went there. Boy, was I wrong. Doug, who seems to have been beloved by everyone, was a genius in the Michael O’Donoghue class, and I feel privileged to have known him, if only glancingly. I think about Doug a lot. This, by the way, is my favorite piece I’ve ever done.”
And so, reprinted with the author’s permission, please enjoy:
“The Life and Death of a Comic Genius”
By Robert Sam Anson
from Esquire, October 1981
The sign guarding the approach to Hanapepe lookout, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, is explicit. Stay back, it warns, the drop beyond is sheer.
It was here, on the twenty-eighth of August last year, that Douglas C. Kenney, thirty-three, a founder of the National Lampoon, coauthor of National Lampoon's Animal House, and graduate of Harvard College, Class of '68, parked his rented Jeep, climbed down, and, ignoring the signpost, walked through a field of low brambles toward the cliff's edge.
A cool wind was blowing in from the sea. Temperatures were in the seventies. It was the perfect Polynesian day.
As he neared his destination, Kenney turned left and struck out on his own path. In fact, it was a crumbling precipice. He walked on. The view from the ridge was awesome. Another step, then, all at once, he was there. In his hotel room was a note he had written to himself. A part of it read: "These are some of the happiest days l’ve ever ignored."
When he died, Doug Kenney was a millionaire six times over. In Hollywood, where he lived the last two years of his life, writing and producing motion pictures, he was regarded as a genius, an estimation shared by his Cambridge classmates, one of whom, writer Timothy Crouse, was to say: "He was our star. If anyone was going to write the great American novel, it was going to be Doug." Instead, he wrote comedy and in the process created an art form that influenced a generation. It was like that with everything he touched. When he tried a magazine, it became one of the great publishing success stories of recent times. When he wrote a movie, it made more money than any of its kind in history. "The golden boy," they called him; a comet lighting up the sky. He was the dutiful son who bought his parents a car, a pool, and a house; the celebrity who remembered carhops; the friend who gentled the night. Women loved him. Men thought him brave, loyal, and true. He was blue-eyed and he was blond; there was nothing he couldn’t do. And then, one sunny day in Hawaii, he went off a cliff.
"Who was Doug Kenney?” his friend Chris Miller asked after they had brought his body home. "Doug was Holden Caulfield, the Catcher in the Rye." This is his story. It is not funny.
Where it begins is Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a horsey-set suburb of Cleveland. This is where he grew up, the second of three children spaced evenly seven years apart. Later, after he had moved to New York and was writing about Chagrin Falls in National Lampoon, some of his friends suspected that perhaps he had made Chagrin Falls up, that such a prosaically named place could not possibly exist. But Chagrin Falls was real enough, as were Harry, the father who reminded people of Bing Crosby; Stephanie, the witty mother who loved to party; Daniel, the sainted older brother who was to die of kidney disease; and Vicky, the adored kid sister, who was actually kind of a drip. It was the way Doug portrayed them that was fictional: In his retelling, there would be dad, the kindly tennis pro, bearing up manfully under the insults of the country-club snobs. Turn the page, and there, in fresh ginghams, would be mom, baking pies with one hand while patting her towhead with the other. And so on down the line it would go, until at last, lowliest of the low, would be Doug, the Chagrin High dork.
That is always how he told it—how, apparently, he needed to tell it. The truth, of course, was something else. In real life, dad hadn't been a tennis pro in thirty years; he was a personnel manager for a major polluter. He didn't work for the country club; he belonged to two of them. In fact, none of it was true: not mom, not Main Street, not the gang at the soda shop, and certainly not Doug. Who he was, was most elusive of all.
They always thought so, even at Gilmour Academy, the swank Catholic prep school he attended. Gilmour was small and it was smug, and by all accounts, Doug the day student was miserable. He had few friends and spent much of his time alone. To his classmates, he seemed mysteriously aloof. The awards that came to him—the Merit Scholarship, the forensic championships, the memberships in this society and that—he shrugged off as if they were his due. Of course, he did the best; he was Doug Kenney.
But it was never so simple. The day at the Little Theatre showed that.
It was after classes, and Doug had mounted the stage to rehearse a piece he was scheduled to deliver in an upcoming speech competition. A gaggle of upperclassmen had gathered in the otherwise deserted auditorium; they were going to have fun with the freshman. As Kenney launched into the work, a humorous declamation from Thurber, one of them interrupted with a criticism. Kenney resumed and just as quickly was cut off with another critique. In the audience, there was tittering; the upperclassmen were enjoying their sport. Kenney started again, then stopped. He looked out on the empty theater and desperately stammered. Then, to the horror of everyone, he began to cry.
The problem was at home. Ever since a car accident, his brother, Daniel, had suffered from a variety of ailments, the most serious of which was kidney degeneration. Doug worshiped him, as did the rest of the family. He was his father's pride, his mother's hope, the favored child destined to do great things. The "punk kid," as Doug described himself, could only stand in awe of him. It was from Daniel that Doug had learned the secrets of girls and fraternities, the rubrics of being an all-around guy. But now Daniel was dying. As his condition worsened, Doug felt worse than bad. He felt—there was only one word for it—guilty.
Somehow, he had convinced himself that he was responsible. A part of him felt selfish for having healthy kidneys of his own. His parents did not help matters. According to friends, they had always had a difficult time dealing with him. He was, as girlfriend Emily Prager sympathetically put it, “like an alien in their midst, this boy genius set down on the plains of Ohio.” So different were they that Lucy Fisher, another friend, used to tease that "Doug had been brought by the stork." With Daniel’s worsening illness, the jokes turned bitter. There were scenes and recriminations, things that shouldn't have been said. The result, according to friends, was that try as he might, Doug was never able to rid himself of the notion that his parents wished it were Daniel, not he, who were still alive.
Doug spent the rest of his life trying to win his parents' love. When he was away from home, he called and visited frequently, so much so that his friends thought it odd. After he made his first millions, he bought his parents a sprawling colonial in Connecticut. Later, he added a pool. Then a tennis court. Then a Florida condominium. His parents liked the gifts; it was their source that troubled them. Comedy, they said, well, comedy was so crude. Someone else might have cried, gotten angry, given up. Doug Kenney bought his father a Cadillac instead.
The worst of all this was still ahead when Kenney entered Harvard in the fall of 1964. During the previous summer, something odd had occurred. Doug Kenney had become a preppie. "I remember the first time I saw him," says playwright Timothy Mayer, who recalled their meeting in the Yard. "I thought he was the most perfect WASP I had ever encountered. He was flawless." It wasn't just the J. Press clothes or the clipped manner of speaking he began to affect or even the dining club presidency of Spee he won; it was everything, the entire psychic ensemble. Almost magically, he seemed however preppies are supposed to seem.
Some wondered. Not at the brilliance of his performance or, in time, even at the conviction he brought to the part—a credibility to be repeated in later years in later roles—but at the motive behind it. Why, as one of his lovers put it, did he "put on personalities the way other people put on clothes”? Kenney offered no explanation. When pressed, he would become defensive; pressed harder, he would tell a joke; harder still, and he would leave the room, not explaining, just walking, anything to get away. When he returned hours or days later, he would say that he had been "out." Where, he would be asked, "Around," he would reply. Had anything happened? "No," he would smile, "nothing." "You communicated with him by circumspection," says Judith Bruce, a Radcliffe student who dated him for two years. "Mostly, though, you didn't know him."
One thing everyone knew: Doug Kenney was funny. He knew how to make people laugh.
He had had the gift—call it the compulsion—even as a child. Then, a joke was rewriting the lunchroom menu to include "scrambled snails" and “fried ants.” Everyone thought it was sweet; not so sweet when, as a prank, he began placing firecrackers in the neighbors' mailboxes. At Gilmour, he had upped it a notch, satirizing the headmaster—‘’Brother Bonzo" he called him—to unflattering effect in the school magazine. Unamused, the headmaster had destroyed the issue and threatened to bounce Bonzo's creator from school. It had not deterred Doug. His own conversation was peppered with one-liners—“There is no free brunch" was one of his favorites—twists and asides so many and so witty that to talk to him was not to have an exchange but to witness a performance, which, of course, suited him just fine. The less said, the easier to conceal the pain. And so it was at Harvard. Hardly had he cut his first class than he was appearing in Broadway parodies for Hasty Pudding and, soon after that, popping up in the pages of the Lampoon.
The Lampoon building had been a Harvard fixture since 1909. Its nominal charter was publishing, more or less quarterly, a humor magazine. To the notables who passed through the portals of the garish "castle," though, the Lampoon's larger purpose was to be a social club, replete with black-tie dinners every week. True, these proceedings were sometimes interrupted by the launching of a mashed-potato bomb, but in the main, the atmosphere was gentlemanly, and the humor reflected it. It did, at any rate, until Doug and Henry arrived.
Henry was Henry Beard, one year Kenney's senior and many levels his social better. Tall and taciturn, he exuded the easy authority of a young man used to money and the deference that came with it. In another life he might have wound up as an investment banker or, given the gravity that perpetually knitted his brow and weighted his shoulders, an Episcopal bishop. But Beard was, as Beard would have put it, "wry," which is the word people like Beard use when they mean funny.
They had met in 1966 during Kenney's sophomore year. Beard was fascinated by what he dryly termed Kenney's “extraordinary perception of middle-class America," a terrain as unfamiliar to him as the Metropolitan Club was to Kenney. There were other attractions: Beard was organized, Kenney was not; Beard was dark, Kenney was light; Beard liked parodying Nietzsche, Kenney loved fart jokes. For a time when the village was being destroyed in order to save it, they were the perfect combination.
Their first big project was a parody of Life magazine; it was nearly their last. The issue ran deep in the red and plunged the Lampoon into debt. But there was no shortage of tempting targets, and when next they tried Time, their humor became required reading in the house that Luce built. They were rolling now. Their next target, a send-up of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—redubbed Bored of the Rings—sold 750,000 copies and became a cult classic. After two years it was clear they were onto something. The question was what.
For a year, they worried over it. Finally, as the first anniversary of Kenney's graduation approached, they made up their minds. They would publish a magazine along Lampoon lines, only blacker, sexier, and more outrageous than the Harvard version had ever dared be. Fortified with some business advice from classmate Rob Hoffman, they went to Matty Simmons, chairman of the board of Twenty-First Century Communications, and laid out their proposal.
Simmons, an instinctive high roller (his chief assistant was even named "Mogel"), did not require much convincing. He had already assisted in the publication of two of the Harvard parodies and had made money from both. Now, to hear the plans "the boys," as Matty half affectionately, half patronizingly called them, were so confidently spinning, there was only the prospect of more profits ahead. It was, nonetheless, a bizarre union. Bilious, brash, boisterously self-promoting, Simmons, whose publishing credits included Weight Watchers Magazine, was everything the Harvards were not and vice versa. “A stripper's agent,’’ Beard later joked. But however his gold jewelry might offend, Simmons had an eye for talent. Besides, noted Emily Prager, "Matty liked to see these Harvard kids coming to him for money. He thought they were cute.”
Soon a deal was struck, and in April 1970, the first issue of National Lampoon made its appearance. It was anything but an immediate hit. Crude in appearance, sophomoric in execution, it looked the postgraduate product that it was and sold less than half its pressrun. For the next few months, they limped along. Then things really got bad. In desperation a new art director was brought in and told to change the look of the book. Out went the underground graphics; in came a cleaner, slicker style. Sales nudged ahead. Then, in September, a most unlikely heroine came to the rescue. Minnie Mouse adorned the cover that month, though not in the rodentian spirit Disney had intended. "Tits and ass," Simmons had been urging. "Tits and ass are what sells." Tits and ass—and precious little else—are what Minnie had. The result was a $10 million lawsuit, record sales, and a marketing lesson never to be forgotten.
By the end of 1971, National Lampoon was solidly in the black and well on its way toward an eventual circulation of eight hundred thousand. Its staff was doing less well. They were a quirky group, even in the best of circumstances. For one thing, many of them, like Kenney, were fallen-away Irish Catholics, a condition that set them apart from the Jewish mainstream of comedy and tinged their view of the world with darkness, myth, and not a little guilt. If the Berles, Allens, and Steinbergs regaled their audiences with tales of their psychiatrists and ex-wives, the Kenneys, O'Donoghues, and McConnachies savaged theirs with, as one notorious Lampoon cover had it, threats to shoot the family dog. Nothing was sacred. Once, when one of their number received an emergency phone call from his father informing him that his mother had lost a toe, the comedian didn’t miss a beat. "Did you look under the refrigerator?” The Lampoon staff also liked to repeat the story about the contributor who had walked through a plate glass window and plunged several stories to his death. "What's the difference between David McClelland and a pizza?" the line went. Answer: "A pizza doesn't have glass in it."
It was shark-bait humor, a lunge after the gut, trapped in the feeding pool of the Lampoon, where the Dickensian nature of working conditions was surpassed only by the sheer impossibility of the demands. The predictable happened: the sharks devoured one another. Fights were frequent, blood oaths more so. At one point, fully one half of the staff was not speaking to the other. And in the middle, presiding over it all, “like the prime minister of a bad European parliament," as Beard put it, was the editor in chief, Douglas C. Kenney.
Nothing seemed to rattle him. Phones could be ringing, typewriters clacking, editors cursing, Matty baying, and there would sit Kenney, a bemused, half-stoned, half-sly smile tracing his lips. To him they came with their problems and petty jealousies. To him—and only to him—they listened. “Doug,” says Chris Miller, “was like type O blood. He went across the board.” With few exceptions, he seemed to like, or at least tolerate, everyone, including, to the astonishment of the staff, even Matty, whom Doug came to regard almost as a substitute father. As an editor he was no less catholic in his tastes. Sitting across a desk—or, more typically, propped cross-legged on it—he was not so much a boss as the old coach, gently schooling the initiate in the fine art of comedic lobs and smashes. “Well, uh,” he would fumble when he encountered a particularly ham-handed bit of prose. Then he would smile at the writer, drag deeply from an ever-present joint, joke about his own supposed ineptness, scratch himself, cough, and, with more body language than words, precisely pinpoint what was wrong, how to fix it, and often as not, do it, all the while giving the writer, however harebrained he might be, the ineluctable impression that it was his brilliance, and his alone, that was saving Doug Kenney’s pitiable rag of a magazine. "You could write absolute crap," says former Lampoon writer Brian McConnachie, "and he would respect it. Better yet, he would make you respect it." "When it came to editing," adds writer Michael O'Donoghue, “Doug was the master safecracker. He left no fingerprints.”
Kenney's work was gentle by Lampoon standards, etched with nostalgia and scenes of mock domestic bliss. His regular features—“Mrs. Agnew's Diary" and “Baba Rum Raisin”—had won a rabid following. When “First Blowjob,” his Saturday Evening Post-style tribute to high school dating (“‘Atta girl, Connie,’ Jeff encouraged, ‘shake hands with it!’”) appeared, it was hailed as a stroke of comedic genius. By then, Kenney was almost too tired to notice. After a year and a half of eighty-hour weeks, writing, editing, settling squabbles, he was all but burned out.
A series of things had happened. One was the slow disintegration of his personal life. A year before, without fully knowing why, he had gotten married to a woman he had known at Radcliffe. Her name was Alex Garcia-Mata. She was the daughter of a South American financier. She was also very pretty and very smart. One thing she was not was funny. “What’s the joke?” she always seemed to be asking when everyone else was convulsed in laughter. "What's so funny anyway?" Doug had ceased trying to explain. Instead, he had begun having an affair.
He also started getting drunk regularly. When he was not drinking, he was smoking dope, doing his best to get stoned. Increasingly, he trailed off in the middle of sentences. More than once, his friends noticed, there seemed to be tears in his eyes for no apparent reason. He would proclaim one thing—“I’m the best goddamn comedy writer in the world—and contradict it seconds later—"I’m not worth a shit." During a scheduled lecture at New York University, he took one look at the waiting class, then locked himself in the closet. Finally, at Alex's urging, he started seeing a psychiatrist, one favored by celebrities, then quit because he was favored by celebrities. Beard, no less tired than Kenney, urged him to slow down. Instead, Kenney only sped up. He became positively manic, pouring out the work. He could not seem to sit still. He seemed terrified to be alone. After a while, he began to jest that there were snipers across the street trying to get him. Then he began imitating the sounds of their bullets. Eventually he started falling down as if shot. “I could see it," says Beard, "but there was nothing I could do about it. Doug was coming unglued."
He came apart, finally, on the Fourth of July in 1971. That morning, without telling anyone, he took a cab to Kennedy airport and boarded a plane for Los Angeles. When he arrived, carrying nothing but a knapsack, he retrieved his Lampoon credit card from his wallet and broke it in two. He then went to the house where his friends Peter Ivers and Lucy Fisher were staying. "Hi, Mom and Dad!" he called as he walked through the door. "I'm home!"
For the next two months, they cared for him as they would a child. Peter, a local music personality and a friend since Harvard, planned their adventures by day. Doug’s favorite was fighting mock cap-gun battles in the Hollywood Hills. When they returned at night, Lucy tucked him in bed and read him stories. The one he liked best was Moby Dick. To Lucy, none of it came as any great surprise. She had known him since college, known how much he wanted to be taken care of, known how he was almost pathetically grateful for any attention. Even in Cambridge, she remembers, “Doug would cling to the family of any friend who treated him like a human being.” All that had changed was the family. Now she and Peter were mommy and daddy. “He was a little boy,” she said later. “A very nice, very lovable, very funny little boy.”
Back at the Lampoon, the initial jokes about Kenney’s disappearance had grown nervous. Some wondered whether Kenney was dead; others, whether to call the police. Then one day a postcard arrived from California. Signed “Doug,” it read: “Next time try a Yalie.”
He came back, finally, but only long enough to gather some things and tell Alex that their marriage was over. She, too, was not surprised. In the time they had been together, three years of courtship and less than a year of marriage, she had never really come to know him. "He was like an onion,” she said later. "You would get down to what you thought was the core, and there would be another layer, like so many masks to take off. Ultimately, he was mysterious.”
Soon he was off again, this time to Martha's Vineyard. On a bluff overlooking the sea, he pitched a tent and lived there for the next year in near total seclusion. Now and again reports about him would drift back to New York. One had it that he had gotten into acid. Another, that he had tried to kill himself twice, once by throwing himself from a speeding car. Still a third said that he was at work on the novel everyone knew was raging within him. Teenage Commies from Outer Space it was supposed to be called, and if the rumors were correct, it would be the comedic statement of the age, Tom Sawyer and Naked Lunch rolled into one.
So went the stories. What actually went on during the time on Martha's Vineyard, or why it came abruptly to an end, no one ever really knew. Kenney didn't like to talk about it. Unannounced, he simply turned up in New York one day, a half-finished manuscript under his arm, tanner and skinnier than the day he left. His first day back at the Lampoon, he showed a copy of it to Beard. Beard read it and tried to be polite. Kenney cut him off. "It sucks, doesn't it?" he said. Beard nodded, and without another word, Kenney flung the work into the wastebasket.
The Lampoon had changed in Kenney's absence. It was Henry Beard’s magazine now, and loyalties had shifted. Once the boss, Kenney was now the interloper. He knew it better than anyone, and for months after his return, it was hard to have a conversation with him that did not include at least one mumbled apology.
Relations with Beard were especially difficult. Once chums and collaborators, they had irretrievably drifted apart. As Beard laconically put it: "Our friendship had a different quality to it now." In fact, Beard had become embittered by what he took as Kenney's betrayal, not only of him but, as Beard saw it, of the idea they had sweated and strained for. "I knew," said Beard, "I couldn't count on him anymore. And Kenney knew it, too." Knowing it helped. Freed from the pressures of management, of taking care of people, Kenney plunged himself into his work, and the result was some of the best writing of his career. It reached its summit in a project he had devised for himself: the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody.
High school had always had a special hold on him. In some respects, he had never really left. He still wore his high school jacket to work, still played high school games, still told the same dumb high school jokes. Indeed, he even walked like someone in high school, the step springy, the gait bumptious and jocky. As his classmate and National Lampoon collaborator John Weidman put it: "He would have used Clearasil if he could."
The irony, of course, was that Kefauver High existed only in his head. It didn't seem to matter. In his imagination, this was Paradise Lost, an untroubled heaven of top-down Chevys and bouffanted girls, a nine-to-three nirvana where quarterbacks were kings, necking was "mellow," and nerds never grew old. Here, in the homeroom of the mind, Doug Kenney was safe.
With writer P.J. O’Rourke, he worked on the project most of the next year assembling details like so many pieces of an Erector Set. Yearbooks they read by the score, school papers by the dozens. By the time they were finished, they were even delving into sports programs and old exam books. Nothing was left to chance. Doug wanted, he told his friends. the ultimate replica. In the end, he had it.
There, page after page, was the whole awful, wonderful saga of middle-American adolescence, right down to the requisite dedication to the martyred John F. Kennedy ("You who might as well have said, ‘Ich bein ine Kefauver Senior"'). Kenney had it all: the class nicknames ("Quickie" for the class slut, Maria Teresa Spermatozoa), the class clubs (Future Optometrists and Future Stewardesses), the class prophecies (Gilbert Scrabbler and Belinda Heinke win the Nobel Prize for "inventing a nuclear-powered car that drives itself where you tell it to [and] a new fungus that cures heart attacks like penicillin"), the class history ("Remember how all those chuckling Sophomores sent us out to get 'lunchroom passes’ and 'left-handed spiral notebooks’?l”), even the class memorial, to the "popular and handicapped Howie Havermeyer." "Most of us here ... didn't get a chance to know him too well,” the citation went. "But just because we did not know him, however, does not mean that he was not a real nice guy. He used to smile at people ... We all would have been a lot happier if he were still here among us …” Atop it, bordered in black, was the prom picture of the dear departed. It was Kenney.
In all, the Kefauver High Kaleidoscope sold more than a million copies. The Lampoon was more than a magazine now; it was a cultural phenomenon. Soon there would be a weekly National Lampoon Radio Hour and an off-Broadway Lampoon stage show featuring such promising unknowns as Chevy Chase and John Belushi. With the various residuals and licensing deals, the money would roll in for years. But it would do so without Doug Kenney. He was getting out.
The deal he, Beard, and Rob Hoffman had struck with Simmons had stipulated a complex stock buy-out after five years. Now the time was up, and when the figures were totaled, it was found that "the Harvard kids," as Simmons had so smugly called them, would walk away with $7.5 million. The day of the great payoff, Beard assembled the staff, told them he felt "happier at this moment than at any time since leaving the Army,” and with that, departed the premises, never to return again. Kenney was gentler. There were no speeches from him, no grand farewells, only a quiet spreading of cash. Then he went out and bought himself a Porsche.
He had a curious attitude about the money he made. His share from the Lampoon proceeds, for instance, came to just under $3 million. Yet, aside from the Porsche and a developing taste for cocaine, he indulged in few luxuries. He continued to live in Greenwich Village in an apartment furnished principally with books and empty orange crates. His trusty Gilmour jacket he hung on a nail in the living room. There were no limos, no visits to fine restaurants, not so much as a decent stereo. "His clothes weren't shabby," remembers one friend. "They were obscene." Later, after he had made millions more from the proceeds of Animal House and had moved to California, his surroundings improved. His regard for money remained the same. Ivers recalls thumbing through one of Kenney's books one day, only to have a check for $186,000 fall out. The date on it was four months old. “Oh,” said Kenney absently, “I was wondering what happened to that.”
Others he lavished with attention. He sent his sister to the finest schools and, when she graduated, awarded her a BMW. His ex-wife, Alex, got ten thousand dollars in cash; his girlfriend got a trip to Europe. When a stash was needed, he bought. When a favor was asked, he did it. When a tip was given, it was 50 percent. "He was so busy helping others," Chevy Chase would say at his funeral. "No one thought to ask him."
After the stock sale, it was Matty Simmons who needed help. The buy-out had drained the Lampoon's resources, and an infusion of fresh cash was urgently needed. Simmons had decided that a movie was the answer. Harold Ramis, one of the authors of the second Lampoon stage show, had been working on a notion with Kenney. The original plan had been to do a film version of the Yearbook. But Simmons had deemed high school insufficiently sexy, so the focus had been switched to college and fraternity life, and here, Chris Miller, Dartmouth Alpha Delta Phi, stepped in to lend his not inconsiderable expertise. Kenney thought the project would be a temporary assignment. A few months, he told friends, and the movie would come together. If it didn't, he wasn't worried. The main goal was having fun.
The few months stretched into a year, and the end of it was Animal House, the most successful comedy of all time. The party before the premiere, July 28, 1978, was a typical Lampoon affair. Most of the staff were not on speaking terms. The director challenged Matty to a fist fight. Everyone got stoned. Kenney felt right at home. His friends had seldom seen him happier. Earlier that evening, there he had been on the big screen hamming it up, and with their laughter, the whole theater seemed to embrace him.
A part of him had always wanted to be an actor—"Charlton Hepburn," he fancied himself—and now he had gotten his wish. To those who knew him, though, it was not how he acted but whom he portrayed that was revealing. “He could have made himself anyone," says Miller. “And who does he choose? Stork, the weirdo."
That is not how Hollywood saw him. After Animal House, Doug Kenney was a hot property, a commodity to be fawned over and fought for. There was plenty of both before he finally settled with Fox. He had asked for the world and they had given it to him: a two-year deal, a production company of his own, a personal office on the lot. All that was lacking was something to convince him he was worth it.
The more people raved about his talent, the more he seemed to doubt it. Wistfully, he talked of the "serious work" he should be doing, the novel he should be writing, the "big movie" he should be making. After Lucy Fisher became head of production for Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, he could barely contain his envy. Over and over again, he talked about Coppola’s success obsessively, comparing it with his own “failure." Late one night, in the middle of a toot, he drove to the Zoetrope lot, accosted a guard, and demanded to see Coppola to, as he later related to Fisher, "tell him how to make movies." No one was able to console him. "He didn't respect his talent," says Michael Gross, the former Lampoon art director, who saw him frequently in California. "He was like Marilyn Monroe in that way. Everything came so easily to him, he didn't take it seriously."
The studio wasn't worried. The work, when it happened, would take care of itself. In the meantime, there were parties; more parties, after a while, than anyone could count. They were remarkable affairs, not in the scale of their pretensions, but in their all-inclusive nature. On a given evening (or day, since the parties often went on until morning), the array in Doug's living room might include studio chiefs, waitresses, actors, writers, secretaries, carhops, college classmates, and hitchhiking hippies—anyone, in sum, whom Doug had encountered in the last ten years. Before long, the word was on the circuit. If you need help, a bed for the night, an introduction at a studio, see Doug. He was the center of the network.
His own life was a contradiction. On the one hand, he had never been more unsure of himself, more uncertain where he was heading. On the other, he had never felt more at ease with one person. That person was Kathryn Walker. An Emmy-winning actress from Main Line Philadelphia, she had been with him nearly a year. The night they met, at a party in New York, he had attracted her attention by very calmly eating a cut-crystal Victorian wineglass. It had been an unusual relationship ever since. The word most used to describe it, including by Kathryn, was “stormy.” They fought, seemingly, about everything, from Doug's frenetic life-style to the fact that Kathryn, a Wells College graduate, hadn't gone to Radcliffe. And yet few people were more devoted to each other. They had already talked about marriage and, in a casual way, begun to look for a house. Her presence seemed to steady him. More confident now, he started back to work.
Orion had asked him to write and produce a comedy about a country club. The working title was Caddyshack. Chevy Chase would be one of the stars and Harold Ramis would direct; the opportunity was too good to pass up.
They started shooting in October 1979 in the little town of Davie, Florida. There was not much to do in Davie, so when the day's work was done, cast and crew made their own fun. Mostly, they partied, which, for Kenney and his friends, meant doing cocaine. Cocaine first by the gram, then by the ounce. There was, apparently, no end to the stuff or to the appetite for snorting. Kenney's use was particularly heavy. "What he dropped on the floor,” says one of his friends, "would keep most people high for a lifetime.” He went after it voraciously—“like an animal in heat,” an acquaintance says—stuffing it into his nose with his thumbs, great gobs of it at a time. He was not the only one. Soon rumors began to drift back to the Coast that a "coke film” was in the making, and Orion braced itself for the result.
In December, Kenney returned to California to sit in on the editing, Initially he was pleased with what he saw. He boasted to friends in New York that Caddyshack would be "bigger even than Animal House." But, gradually, reality began to take hold; after a time, even Ramis was calling it “a six-million-dollar scholarship to film school." Increasingly depressed, Kenney started spinning out of control. He turned on old friends, dismissing one as "a failure," another as "a queen." During an argument with Orion production chief Mike Medavoy and executive producer Jon Peters over Caddyshack's promotion, he lunged at them and tried to knock them to the ground. The day the film premiered in New York, Kenney turned up drunk at a press conference. As his parents looked on, he denounced the reporters in attendance and proceeded to pass out.
The performance startled few in California. Over the last year, his drug addiction and the paranoia it was bringing on had become common knowledge. More than once, he had been spotted at Roy's Restaurant, laughing about his previous suicide attempts. “You have to learn to roll with the bullets,” he joked. His friends didn’t think it was so funny. Even before Caddyshack, they had begun to worry about "the incredible recklessness,” as Weidman put it, with which he was living his life. He seemed to be pushing everything to the limits: drugs, work, play, even his driving. “He was always running with the Furies nipping at his heels,” says Miller, “trying to keep ahead of whatever was chewing at his feet. Sometimes you wanted to hug him and say it was all right. But he never let you.” Alan Greisman, one of his partners in his production company, puts it more bluntly. "He had a loaded gun," he says. "It was just waiting to go off."
Kathryn begged him to get help. Reluctantly he agreed to see a psychiatrist. But it was only a temporary concession. Soon after he discovered that David Begelman was seeing the same one, he stopped going. Work did not distract him. There was no lack of projects waiting to claim his attention—a parody of Club Med, a film version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a sci-fi pic about Tibet—the problem was getting him interested. Part of it was Hollywood itself. "He hated the place,” says MGM vice-president Boaty Boatwright, a close friend. “It embarrassed him that he made a fortune in a business he ridiculed." Caddyshack embarrassed him more. After the film opened to withering reviews, his despair was complete. "They're going to hate me now," he told a friend. When the friend tried to dissuade him, noting that, if the projections held true, the film would wind up grossing $40 million, Kenney would hear none of it. "He insisted that it was a total failure,” recalls Fisher. "He was acting like it was a blot on his permanent record.”
Chevy suggested they take a rest. Go to tennis camp, he said, get in shape, then fly out to Hawaii for a few weeks on the beach. Doug liked the idea. In that last year, Chevy had become one of his best friends—“the older brother who didn't die,” as one of their acquaintances puts it. Not everyone was pleased by the relationship. Kathryn especially. When she protested, reminding him of a previous promise to accompany her to Newfoundland for the making of a TV movie, Doug played the hurt little boy. He needed the time, he said; he deserved it. Besides, he wanted to "get clean," and this would be as good a time as any. Kathryn was dubious, but Doug insisted. Yes, he repeated, that was part of the trip: no coke. A week later, he sent back to his dealer for a full ounce.
They had a fine time in Hawaii even if the promise wasn't kept. Doug wanted to keep it going, make it a big party. But the friends he phoned on the Coast, inviting them to come, all declined. They had work to do, commitments, families of their own. Doug seemed disconsolate. Greisman had the impression he never wanted to come back. “If you had asked him to go around the world," he says, "he would have been packed in five minutes." Lucy, who talked to him twice, had a different explanation. "He was in the midst of making a choice,” she says. "He was deciding whether he wanted to be an adult."
Kathryn joined him in late August. Doug had a limo waiting for her at the airport, flowers and champagne at the ready. When they met at the hotel, she was shocked at his appearance. Despite the vacation, Doug looked physically wasted, the coke burn worse than ever. But his mood seemed good, better, in fact, than it had been in months. In a strange way, he seemed at peace with himself. "He really seemed to want to have a great time," Kathryn recalls. We both did. Whatever had happened in the past didn’t matter. We felt we had finally arrived at a certain place.” They crammed their days with enjoyment. By day, they snorkeled for conch and paddled in the pool in inner tubes. At night, they strolled on the beach, talking about each other and making plans. The house had finally been bought, the pool put in. When he returned, Doug said, they would furnish it together. It would be their home, the place where they would raise their kids. Then he broke into song. "Having fun now!" he sang to the tune of "Rocky's Theme." "Having fun now!"
After several days, Kathryn left. Furniture was coming, and she had to meet the deliverymen. With Chevy's departure four days before, Doug was now alone. He said he didn't mind. He had always liked being alone—his "quiet time," he called it—and a while more would give him time to scout locations for another movie. He had high hopes for that film. Just then, he had high hopes for a lot of things.
The last time Kathryn talked to him was by transpacific telephone two days later. He sounded cheerful and promised to be home for a party he was hosting on Labor Day. Putting down the phone, she felt strangely safe. In the best of times, she always felt that way with him. He was, she said, “a sort of Zen master,” a giver of calm, a restorer of peace, a provider of what he did not have. It had been that way from the beginning, from the moment when he had taken her into a toy store, put on a child’s phonograph, and played Jiminy Cricket singing “When You Wish upon a Star." She had fallen in love with him then and had loved him since. In that instant, she knew she always would.
Two thousand miles across the ocean, Doug Kenney prepared to go. He finished the memo he had been writing to himself, rose, picked up a bar of soap, walked to the bathroom mirror, and scrawled the words "I love you" across it. Sometime afterward he got in his Jeep and drove the winding road to Hanapepe lookout. They found his body four days later.
Kathryn, Chevy, Alan Greisman, and one of Doug's lawyers went to Hawaii to bring his body home. At a florist’s near the hotel, they bought the prettiest leis they could find and took them out to the lookout. It had been raining, and when they arrived, the ground where he had walked was slick. They flung the flowers out over the cliff; and then something strange happened that you may not believe. A rainbow appeared, and it seemed to settle on the spot where Doug had died.
At his funeral in Connecticut, four hundred people showed up. They included some of the biggest names in comedy, the new wave, the new movement he had helped to create. There were Harvard people there; too, and Lampoon people and people no one had ever heard of. Chevy and Tim Mayer gave the eulogies and read some of his writings. The family had asked that certain pieces not be included. They weren't appropriate, they said, and they hoped that contributions in Doug's memory would be made to the Kidney Foundation, which looks for a cure for the disease that killed Daniel.
Afterward, they took him out to a cemetery in the country. The grave site was on a hill, overlooking a duck pond; it was the kind of spot Doug would have had fun with in the Lampoon. When the services were over, Peter Ivers, who was probably closer to him than anyone, took off his jacket and tied it around his waist, the way little kids do. Then he pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and played a song for his friend. It was "Beautiful Dreamer." Listening to it, the comedians did what people do at funerals. They wept.