Sunday, September 7, 2008

Peter, Peter, Peter


Before he became a pimp for The Kennedys; before he became a toady member of The Rat Pack; before his drinking and drugging all but disintegrated his looks and career; Peter Lawford (September 7, 1923 - December 24, 1984) was a true Golden Boy of Hollywood. Bursting onto the scene in the mid-1940's, when Hollywood was embracing all things British, Lawford became a bona fide MGM heartthrob...

...squired the likes of Lana Turner and Ava Gardner...

...and starred opposite such legends as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Elizabeth Taylor in such high profile films as Easter Parade (1948), Little Women (1949) and Royal Wedding (1951). But all that glitters is not gold; Lawford's private demons included a stormy relationship with his (to put it mildly) difficult mother, the impoverished Lady May Somerville Bunny Lawford. Lady Lawford dressed Peter in girls' clothing until he was 11, and exerted a perverse control over her son's life, even going so far as approaching Louis B. Mayer with the demand of being put on MGM payroll as her son's personal assistant; she told Mayer that Peter was "a bummer" who needed to be under "supervision." She and her husband, Sir Sydney Lawford, also denied their son proper formal education, preferring to travel around the world and indulge in a lavish lifestyle, largely provided by their wealthy friends, as the Lawfords' fortune had vanished after the war began in 1939. Following his success in films, Peter Lawford provided his parents with the money and social standing they had previously lost.


A volatile relationship with his mother, an inferiority complex due to his lack of education, and a steadily worsening dependency on alcohol and drugs proved to be Lawford's undoing; ultimately, his ill-advised marriage into The Kennedy clan via Patricia Kennedy was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

His feelings of inferiority fueled by The Kennedys' power and prestige, Lawford's relationship with his brothers-in-law, Jack and Bobby, became dangerously, one-sidedly parasitic: Lawford felt the need to curry their favor by providing them access to the bevy of Hollywood beauties he counted among his friends and co-workers -- including, of course, Marilyn Monroe. According to legend, Lawford was the last person to speak with Monroe on the night of her death; according to many, he felt a sense of guilt for the rest of his life.

Monroe's death was followed quickly by his ostracization from The Rat Pack, of which Lawford had been a "token" member. Frank Sinatra was apparently incensed that Lawford couldn't use his sway to persuade his presidential brother-in-law to stay at Sinatra's house when The Kennedys visited California; Jack and Jackie opted to stay with rival Bing Crosby instead (who was a Republican, to boot!), and Sinatra never spoke to Lawford again.

Lawford's life and career was never the same; he and Patricia Kennedy Lawford divorced in 1966. Lawford stumbled along for the rest of the 1960's making guest appearances on TV series and game shows, and continued to drink himself to death. On Christmas Eve, 1984, his body finally had had enough, and he died from massive liver and kidney failure. His final indignity, perhaps, was not even his third and final wife's trashy, explicit "tell all" biography; but his own mother's memoirs, written on the coattails of her son's fame, appropriately entitled Bitch.

There aren't many Hollywood cases sadder or more pathetic than Peter Lawford, who spent a lifetime squandering his time and talent. But the ease and charm and humor which were his best qualities live on in his film work, and as years slowly fade the memory of the sordidness which pervaded so much of his personal life, perhaps more and more people will come to recognize Peter Lawford as the talented, light comic actor he was. Happy Birthday, Peter Lawford! We hope that you've found peace.


  1. I was watching "That's Entertainment" not just a few weeks ago (on our geriatric focused PBS station here...see my comment much previously about the Lawrence Welk reruns that have been on since I was born).
    Peter was looking very rough around the edges there... as were the backlots.

  2. I never knew about his childhood in drag. Amazing story...

  3. Jason -- Oh yes, I'd forgotten Peter was in That's Entertainment. Yeah, he looked pretty bad -- and the end was still 10 years off.

    Peter -- Sad, sad story.

  4. That photo of him dressed in girl's clothing is very disturbing. I also didn't know all this about his life. Makes me feel sad for him, all the pain that caused his drinking. A nice reminder for me to have compassion for the pain that lies beneath all addicts.

  5. He also had a withered hand that he managed to keep hidden, or rather, unnoticed - no easy feat in Hollywood.

    It's uncanny how much his son Christopher resembles him.

  6. juliannk -- Peter was no saint, and we're all responsible for our own actions, but, yeah, there were a lot of factors which contributed to his sad state. On a brighter note, he really was a marvelous light comedian; he did a short-lived TV series based on "The Thin Man," and coming from a dyed-in-the-wool Thin Man/Powell & Loy fan, this is no faint praise: Peter did the character and Powell proud. (His co-star, Phyllis Kirk, on the other hand...yeesh!)

    Donna -- I'd forgotten about Christopher. I think I've only ever seen him in "Kiss Me, Guido." And didn't he write a book about his own travels through sobriety which got him ostracized from the Kennedy clan?