Barry is back this week for Friday’s Forgotten Books with a biography on Peter Lawford……
PETER LAWFORD: THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS (1991) by James Spada
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
An excellent biography recommended to me by a writer friend years ago when it was first published, this one has been languishing on my shelf until very recently, when I finally read it and had a hard time putting it down. This is an outstandingly readable history of a man who might—and possibly should—have become a major Hollywood heartthrob, and whose decline is both surprising but perhaps not altogether atypical of its time.
The product of an oft-married, relentlessly social-climbing mother who hated sex, let alone babies, whom he came to loathe, and the famed and knighted military-legend father he adored but who loved his son undemonstratively, Peter Lawford was an extremely well-traveled but poorly-educated (in any formal sense) subject of the British Empire who knew from the age of four that he wanted to be an actor.
James Spada’s account covers Lawford’s formative years, revealing a great deal about mother May in the process; the actor’s arrival in Los Angeles and his dual life as another steer in the herd of the era’s Hollywood studio system and the celebrity friends he made at MGM in contrast to his “civilian” existence among friends from California’s beach scene; his marriage to Patricia Kennedy and, consequently, his insalubrious relationship to the Kennedy clan which turned his prominence into that which could benefit the lives and careers of others, not only more than his own but sometimes to his own detriment; and to his eventual and rather desperate decline into multiple marriages, drug and alcohol abuse.
Those reading this sometimes verbally- as well as somewhat sexually-explicit (and, thus, potentially reader-warned) biography, might find themselves offended not only by Lawford’s behavior but by the behavior of others, not the least of whom are John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, on whose behalf Lawford often acted, for all intents and purposes, as pimp. Their presumably (at the start, anyway) unintentional victim? Marilyn Monroe. And then there was Frank Sinatra, whose celebrity and underworld ties helped JFK get elected but whose criminal associations were undermined by Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s war on organized crime. Lawford got caught in the middle, which cost him Sinatra’s friendship.
I can’t predict, obviously, how other readers might react to Peter Lawford and how he dealt with the circumstances he found himself caught up in, but I personally felt sorry for some and contemptuous—to put it mildly—of others.
A strongly recommended biography worth readers’ time.
© 2015 Barry Ergang