Joe Kennedy's Hollywood Fling

The Kennedy patriarch who emerges in this sharp new biography could be the hero of an American novel—a supersexed and vengeful Jay Gatsby, who made a fortune in the movie biz. And then there was his affair with Gloria Swanson…

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My uncle, Sir Alexander Korda, who came to Hollywood in 1926 to direct his wife, the Hungarian silent film star Maria Corda, in The Private Life of Helen of Troy, worked briefly for the studio owned and controlled at the time by Joseph P. Kennedy, and on his first day on the lot gave the financier and father of President-to-be John F. Kennedy a courtly bow as he passed him. He overheard Kennedy say to his assistant, “Who does that guy think he is, some kind of fucking baron or something?” Alex later described his brief period of working for Joe Kennedy as “a reign of terror,” and moved on to work at the Fox Studio for Sol Wurzel, whom he described as awful, but better than Kennedy.

In his flamboyant love affair with Gloria Swanson, Kennedy was dealing with his equal, a woman who was too famous for him to push around.

Kennedy apparently disliked Alex’s courtly manners, his Sulka silk shirts, his Hungarian accent ,and his air of intellectual superiority. Although Alex was not a man to hold a grudge, his opinion of Kennedy did not change when the latter became United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James in March 1938. Alex, by then himself the owner of Britain’s largest film studio and a hugely successful producer and director, thought the new American ambassador was a yahoo, an anti-Semite, and an appeaser of Nazi Germany, and he was right on all counts.

Alex’s feelings about Joe Kennedy were shared by many in Britain. After the war broke out, Kennedy took to spending every night outside London to avoid the danger of being bombed, prompting one Foreign Office wit to remark, “I thought my daffodils were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy.”

Nothing is harder to write than the biography of a thoroughly unlovable man who was also on the wrong side of history. (Kennedy had a love/hate relationship with FDR that eventually curdled into pure hate, and deluded himself into thinking that he would be FDR’s successor. He admired Neville Chamberlain, was against fighting Nazi Germany, disparaged Winston Churchill, and believed that Britain would lose the war in 1940.) So in Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years (Alfred A. Knopf, $35), Cari Beauchamp deserves great credit for bringing Joseph P. Kennedy into sharp focus with a wealth of detail, especially about his business dealings, which other biographers have tended to skip over, and his long involvement with Hollywood and the movie business, which was considerable. This is usually treated as a sideshow of his life, but in fact Kennedy was fascinated by the movie business. He came to the conclusion early on that he could beat what he described as former “pants pressers” (i.e., Jews) at their own game, and made a huge fortune in it, which is more than you can say for other East Coast businessmen who have followed in his footsteps and bought themselves a studio.

Of course one of the things that used to make owning a movie studio interesting was that for owners of less glamorous, though often more prosperous, businesses it represented a great way to get laid. Then as now Hollywood was the sex capital of the world, and then as now a man who owns a movie studio is going to seem a lot more attractive to girls than one who owns a bank, or an automobile spare parts company and a zinc mine, or a bunch of newspapers, or an outdoor advertising company (no prizes for naming the more or less contemporary business mogul in each case).

Of course, Joe Kennedy needed less help in this area than most moguls—it was always said of him that he slept with the friends of his daughters and the daughters of his friends, or at any rate tried to. But the great and flamboyant love affair of his life was with Gloria Swanson, and Cari Beauchamp tells this story brilliantly, making it clear that for once Joe Kennedy was dealing with his equal, a woman who was too famous for him to push around, and too big a star for him to hide their affair from his wife Rose, as emotionally tough as a pair of old boots and just as greedy for money as Joe Kennedy.

The glamorous aura that hung briefly over Caroline Kennedy as she reached for Mrs. Clinton’s Senate seat, and the veneration extended to Sen. Edward Kennedy will no doubt not be diminished by this, or any other book on the family. But in showing us in detail just how Joe Kennedy made his fortune, and how he relentlessly pursued fame and public acclaim while at the same time browbeating everyone around him to do what he want them to, does not make a pretty sight. It has become usual to portray this as a Greek tragedy—and of course it contains enough deaths and hubris to make that plausible. But it is in fact much closer to Sinclair Lewis’ Oil, a saga of greed, envy, and ambition, without much in the way of grace notes to justify the human cost spread over so many generations—in short, a very American story. Indeed the Joe Kennedy who appears in these pages could also be the hero of another major American novel, a supersexed and vengeful Jay Gatsby, always in pursuit of that ever retreating orgiastic green light of success, until fate catches up with him.

Ms. Beauchamp has had access to documents nobody has ever used before. She has had the patience to read through them and write a coherent and well-informed business saga showing just how Joe Kennedy did, indeed, beat the studio bosses at their own game, “became the first and only outsider to fleece Hollywood,” and walked away from the movie business with a fortune. The cast of characters, which includes C. B. DeMille, William Randolph Hearst, David Sarnoff, and countless actors, actresses, and studio heads, is fascinating. Really, this is three books in one, a business story, a lively biography (especially on the subject of Joe Kennedy and Gloria Swanson), and a detailed examination of the movie business from 1926 to 1930. Those were the years during which sound changed everything, and in which the marriage of the East Coast media business, which dominated radio (and would dominate television, when it came) and the West Coast movie business began to take place, blessed by the bankers and by Wall Street—a business model largely created by Joseph Kennedy, who shrewdly saw that the “the picture business” was about a lot more than making pictures.

For anybody interested in the movie business, this is must reading. Beauchamp seems to be one of the few people who actually understands how movies were made and financed under the “studio system” (which hasn’t actually changed all that much), no doubt having learned much of it from reading Joe Kennedy’s papers—which, as she puts it, were guarded like the gold in Fort Knox, and which turn out to be full of interesting tidbits.

The end of Ms. Beauchamp’s book artfully recreates the last years of the old tycoon in a way that still has the power to move, showing just what a strong hold the Kennedy family still has on our imaginations. There are details which I love, but doubt—I find it hard to believe that Marlene Dietrich kept the pair of pink panties she wore when she slept with President Kennedy to show her daughter and son-in-law when she got home, but who knows? On the other hand, the picture of the old man, silenced by a stroke, able only to mouth the word “No” over and over again during the eight and a half years in which he watched, on television, the funerals of two of his sons, is truly tragic.

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So perhaps I’m wrong—perhaps it is a Greek tragedy. Perhaps the old man at the end was like Oedipus blinded by his own hand so as not to have to look at what he had done, reduced in Joe Kennedy’s case to agonized silence so he could no longer express his horror at what had become of the family which he had consciously shaped into an American dynasty, and in which the unforgiving gods one by one destroyed, first Kathleen, then Joe Jr., the heir apparent, then Jack, then Bobby, and on and on even long after the patriarch’s death, as John and his young bride vanished into the sea. It was a kind of serial tragedy very different from the bright, brash days when the young businessman from Boston took on Hollywood, and not only conquered it, but changed it forever.

So much has been written about all this that is hard to imagine a new way of seeing it, but thanks to her diligence, Cari Beauchamp has succeeded not only in finding a new way of telling the story, but one which adds to it much we didn’t know before.

New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Dutchess County, New York.

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