Peter Lawford is a polarizing celebrity. He wasn’t the greatest actor and he wasn’t the greatest member of Sinatra’s ‘Rat Pack.’ He’s become a bit of a punchline being known as JFK’s brother-in-Lawford (Peter was married to Kennedy’s sister, Patricia). But what people fail to realize is he was a person. A person, who behind his striking good looks, had a dark and tumultuous life.
James Spada’s biography, “Peter Lawford: The Man Who Kept the Secrets”, is the definitive biography for those who want to learn more about the British actor. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked this up but I was intrigued by Lawford’s life after watching a Mysteries and Scandals episode on YouTube. Lawford’s life is one of the saddest I’ve ever read about a Hollywood celebrity. Each of Lawford’s highs in his life were followed by some very terrible lows.
Lawford was born in the United Kingdom. He was the illegitimate child of Lord Sydney Lawford and Lady May Lawford (aka the mother from hell). Lawford’s mother was an absolutely horrid human being! She dressed him in girl’s clothes when he was young, pimped him out to older women in Palm Beach, and when he got stardom at MGM, she told Louis B. Mayer she thought he was gay because she was jealous of his stardom. If that’s not enough, she even published a book after his death (appropriately titled, “Bitch”) in which she claimed to release secrets of her son that had never been told. Seriously, this woman was disgusting. When Spada writes about her, he just lays down the research but doesn’t write with any slant which is what can be said about the entire tone of this biography. Spada sympathizes with his subject but I felt like I was given a straightforward account of his life.
Lawford made a lot of bad decisions in his life and it could be said that he was used by people he cared deeply for such as Sinatra and the Kennedys. I won’t get into the tawdry details about those aspects of his life such as Marilyn Monroe’s death but I will say that you will walk away feeling very different about Hollywood and celebrity culture.
After the assassination of JFK and the collapse of his marriage, Lawford was never the same again. His downward spiral is heartbreaking and fascinating. How could someone who had everything in the world crumble to the bottle so easily? It was as if Lawford had nothing to live for anymore as he became destitute and drifted completely away from his family. But if one never had a family growing up, how could he know how to create his own?
I found myself having a difficult time finishing this read because it’s very sad and upsetting but the way Spada ends the book is surprisingly uplifting. If you’re a Rat Pack fan, a classic movie fan, or someone just interested in Peter Lawford, you should read this book. You’ll look at Mr. Lawford a lot differently but also the way we view and treat our celebrities as well.