Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years

by Cari Beauchamp

I could exhaust a thesaurus finding words to describe this book: riveting…revelatory…succulent… jaw-dropping are all adjectives that come to mind. Beauchamp has put in years of painstaking research in order to tell, for the first time, the full story of Joseph P. Kennedy’s adventures in Hollywood during the 1920s and beyond. Although her account of his various takeovers and maneuvers is detailed it is never dull. As Betty Lasky, the daughter of movie pioneer Jesse Lasky, so aptly puts it, “Joe Kennedy was the first and only outsider to fleece Hollywood.” The man who later became

America’s kingmaker, by putting his son in the White House, was years before a wheeler-dealer in Hollywood whose ability to bamboozle everyone from corporate boards to glamorous movie stars was unparalleled.

To even begin to comprehend his ruthlessness and chicanery in the business world—and his audacious behavior in private life—one must understand his background and the influences that shaped him. To that end, Beauchamp’s book is a full-fledged biography that follows Kennedy from his early years in Boston (where, as a Catholic in a Protestant-dominated city, he always felt like an outsider) through Harvard and then to the world of banking. She also describes his ardent courtship of Rose Fitzgerald (and the disapproval of her father, the fabled mayor of Boston known as Honey Fitz) and how the moment they finally wed he essentially abandoned her. This set a lifelong pattern in his relationships with women, whom he treated as conquests rather than human beings.

The ability to justify his behavior in any and all circumstances served him well in the accumulation of wealth. From the moment he set his sights on Hollywood he made sure to invest with other people’s money, not his own. That philosophy ran true from his dealings with Robertson-Cole (his first studio acquisition), F.B.O., First National, and Pathé, as well as the eventual formation of RKO Radio Pictures. At one time Kennedy had his fingers in four separate movie companies! (Only the self-made David Sarnoff, of RCA, saw Kennedy for what he was.) Even when he became smitten with Gloria Swanson he didn’t allow his libido to interfere with his business sense. He wound up bilking the star of untold thousands of dollars, even though at one point he spoke of marrying her.

Kennedy’s anti-Semitism is well-known, so reading how he was greeted upon his arrival in Hollywood as a “great white hope” by such influential men as Will Hays and trade-magazine editor Martin Quigley—when in fact he was employing business tactics that might have made the established moguls blush—is just one of the many ironies in this fascinating narrative.

It should come as no surprise that Kennedy was also a master of public relations and quite early in life began reinventing his life story, courting important members of the press, and setting the stage for decades of uncritical (if not downright ignorant) news coverage of his activities. Only later, when he was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to England and maintained a fierce isolationist stance in the days leading up to World War II, did any columnists and reporters have the temerity to cast aspersions on him.

If you think you already know the saga of Joe Kennedy, think again. Cari Beauchamp’s exhaustive combing of business files, public records, previously published works has yielded a bumper crop of new information, just as interviews with people who knew and worked for “the Old Man” have produced many rich, eyebrow-raising anecdotes. The beauty of Joseph P. Kennedy Presents is that it reads like the most scandalous fiction—yet it represents a work of imposing scholarship. I would call it a “must-read.”(Knopf)

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June 2024