September 7, 1923 – Peter Lawford :
“I was a halfway-decent-looking English boy who looked nice in a drawing-room standing by a piano.”
Yes, it’s true, I have had an obsession with the Rat Pack since early childhood. And the Kennedys too. And MGM. So here is a tale where all three interests intersect.
In 1954, movie star Peter Lawford married Patricia Kennedy, younger sister of then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Lawford was born in London and in 1960 he became an American citizen, just in time to vote for his brother-in-law in the upcoming presidential election. Lawford, along with other members of the “Rat Pack” helped campaign for Kennedy and raise money for the Democratic Party.
The Rat Pack was an informal club of performers centered around the Las Vegas casino scene. It started with parties at the home of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but in the 1960s the group consisted mostly of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. There was sometimes a girl like Angie Dickinson, Shirley MacLaine, or later, Liza. They appeared together on stage and in films.
They weren’t always chummy. In 1951, Lawford was on the outs with Sinatra after he was spotted out and about with Ava Gardner. They reconciled in 1959, but not in the spirit of friendship and not because Lawford had impressive connections to the Democratic party. Sinatra was crazy for spec script for a crime caper film titled Oceans 11 and Lawford owned the rights.
After they made up, Lawford and Sinatra made movies, and became partners in a Beverley Hills restaurant Puccini. Becoming a member of the Rat Pack gave Lawford an entrée into a group of performers he admired, which had been off limits to him when he and Sinatra were on the outs. His closeness to Sinatra made him a more important figure in the biz. It also helped him to find his own identity within the Kennedy family. He was called “Charlie the Seal” because of his cigarette cough, and “Brother in-Lawford”.
Lawford, Sinatra, and JFK would get together and get high on something and talk about Lana Turner‘s bust, Judy Garland‘s blow jobs, and Judy Holliday‘s ass. They bonded over women. No one felt constrained by marriage vows. Lawford would help JFK on Hollywood hunting expeditions. He brought amyl nitrate to the White House. JFK was drawn to Lawford’s heavy partying and through him, JFK met the most unsavory characters when he became The Kennedy family’s connection to gangsters, prostitutes and showgirls. The new president became an honorary member of the Rat Pack; his nickname was ”Chicky Baby”. Lawford helped JFK find many of the women with whom he had affairs, often offering JFK the use of his home in Santa Monica, previously owned by Louis B. Mayer (Lawford bought it out of spite for Mayer).
Lawford aped Sinatra’s mannerisms, gambling, boozing and his lexicon. Lawford was recruited to the Rat Pack because of his Kennedy connection, later he was dumped for that same connection.
Lawford was born as Peter Sydney Ernest Aylen in London, the only child of Lieutenant General Sir Sydney Turing Barlow Lawford and May Sommerville Bunny. At the time of his birth, his mother was married to Dr. Ernest Vaughn Aylen, one of his father’s officers, and his father was married to Muriel Williams. His mother confessed to Aylen that the child was not his, a revelation that resulted in a double divorce. After their divorces were finalized their son was just one year old. Lawford spent his early childhood traveling with his family and he was never formally educated. Lady Lawford dressed young Peter in girls’ clothing until he was 11 years old.
At 14, Lawford severely injured his right arm in an accident when it went through a glass door. The injury left his lower arm and hand with irreversible nerve damage which he later learned to hide. The injury prevented his serving in the armed forces, and Lawford decided to pursue a career as an actor, a decision that resulted in one of his aunts refusing to leave him her considerable fortune, as originally planned.
His parents indulged in a lavish lifestyle, largely provided by their wealthy friends. The Lawfords’ friends fortunes vanished after the war began in 1939, and Peter had to provide for his family by starting to work at 16 years old.
Lawford moved to Los Angeles and found work as an usher at the Westwood Village Theatre. Just before World War II began, Lawford signed with MGM. His mother insisted that Mayer pay her a salary as her son’s personal assistant, which Mayer declined. She then claimed that her son was “homosexual” and needed to be “supervised”. This damaged the relationship between her and her son and their volatile relationship, along with an inferiority complex due to his lack of education led to a steadily worsening dependency on alcohol and drugs.
His first major role was in A Yank At Eton (1942), starring Mickey Rooney, in which Lawford played a snobbish bully. His performance was widely praised. During this time, Lawford started to get more leads when MGM stars Clark Gable and James Stewart joined the military. The musical Good News (1947) with June Allyson made Lawford a star. Following his success, Lawford provided his parents with money and the social standing they had previously lost.
In 1950, he suffered second degree burns on his right hand and arm, when during a sketch on the Jimmy Durante Show, titanium tetrachloride, used in the making of smoke accidentally spilled on him. Durante and Lawford were close friends and later performed frequently on stage in a nightclub act.
He was the last person to speak to Marilyn Monroe before her death, and in a cruel twist, he was the man who introduced Monroe at the 1960 Democratic Convention when she sang “Happy Birthday Mister President.” He introduced her on stage as “the late Marilyn Monroe”, a joke regarding her unpunctuality, which seemed a lot less funny two years later.
Lawford was probably involved in the cover-up of Monroe’s death in 1962. She allegedly said to him: ”Say goodbye to Pat, say goodbye to the President and say goodbye to yourself because you’re a nice guy.” Lawford and the other members of the Rat Pack were banned from Monroe’s funeral by her husband Joe DiMaggio.
During a 1963 West Coast trip there was to be a scheduled Kennedy visit to Sinatra’s house, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was long concerned about Sinatra’s ties with underworld figures, encouraged the President to change his plans and stay at Bing Crosby‘s home, The change came at the last minute, after Sinatra had made extensive arrangements for the promised and eagerly awaited presidential visit, including the construction of a helipad. Lawford was ordered by JFK to deliver the bad news to Sinatra. Sinatra blamed Lawford and severed their friendship permanently. Lawford was broken by the Kennedys, his spirit crushed. The Sinatra thing sent him into a deep depression with bouts of drinking. He felt diminished by the loss of his friendships, plus his financial security was undermined by the career roadblocks Sinatra had already set up against him and felt his safety threatened by the mob’s ire against the Kennedys and the Rat Pack. Lawford was supposed to appear in the Rat Pack movie Robin And The Seven Hoods (1964). Shunned by Sinatra, Lawford never starred in another major motion picture again. He spent the remainder of his career guest-starring on television game shows.
Many people I knew in the biz, told me that Lawford was bi, but I don’t know; I never blew him. He was romantically linked in the press to Turner, Gardner, Allyson, Rita Hayworth, Lee Remick, Kim Novak, and Evelyn Keyes.
Lawford did pick up the Kennedys’ frequent drug and alcohol abuse. In 1966, his Kennedy wife filed for divorce, a first of the Catholic Kennedys. Lawford accepted blame, admitting to extramarital affairs. The once-professional Lawford began being late to work, made enemies of the brass at MGM and drank himself into a stupor daily and film work dried up.
In 1971, Universal Pictures prepared a two-hour pilot for a new series Ellery Queen, withLawford playing the private dick Ellery Queen as an over aged, mod Swinging London hippy. The series was never to be.
He had a recurring role on The Doris Day Show (1971-1973) as Day’s love interest.
In his last years, he would write letters to JFK as if he had an audience to heaven. He struggled with booze and drug abuse and spent plenty of time in the Betty Ford Clinic.
Lawford left this world on Christmas Eve 1984, taken by heart, kidney and liver failure after years of substance abuse. He was 61.