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The Patriarch and the Show Girl
How Joseph P. Kennedy made his fortune in Hollywood.

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, January 25, 2009

JOSEPH P. KENNEDY PRESENTS

His Hollywood Years

By Cari Beauchamp

Knopf. 506 pp. $35

Cari Beauchamp mentions in these pages that she considered writing a life of Gloria Swanson but thought better of it because she didn't want to spend all that time with such a colossal egotist. Instead, Beauchamp devoted years to researching and writing about Swanson's paramour Joseph P. Kennedy -- who, as portrayed in her new book, was a near-complete bastard. Aside from his brilliance as a financier, the patriarch of the political dynasty gets only one plus mark: for having been a loving, if frequently absent, father.

Joseph P. Kennedy Presents zooms in on the late-1920s period when Kennedy almost became a big-time film mogul. Though married and already a dad several times over, he left his family in Boston to wheel, deal and fornicate out West for months on end. There he saw and conquered Swanson, a glamourpuss film star on a par with such other 1920s celebrities as Valentino, Chaplin, Houdini and Babe Ruth. Swanson's spendthrift ways had driven her into debt, and she entrusted her finances and career to Kennedy, who was otherwise busy buying, consolidating and selling minor studios.

Soon, however, he made a monumental blunder: hiring a grandiose perfectionist, Erich von Stroheim, to direct "Queen Kelly," the movie that was meant to be Kennedy's and Swanson's apotheosis. Their affair didn't survive the resulting debacle: Stroheim was fired after pouring at least $600,000 into a film that defied reigning standards of good taste and ultimately was left unfinished. In Gloria's version, laid out in her shrewd autobiography, Swanson on Swanson (1980), Kennedy fled Hollywood having failed to demonstrate any artistic judgment and leaving her even deeper in debt.

Although Beauchamp's take doesn't differ markedly from Swanson's, Beauchamp has dug through archives, interviewed some of those who knew Kennedy, and shown how his ability to read a balance sheet and size up market trends dazzled New York financiers and Hollywood producers alike. She has also demolished some myths, including Kennedy's boast of being self-made. By the time he graduated from Harvard in 1912, his father was vice-president of a Boston bank; a couple of years later, at age 25, the son was president of that same bank -- at once a tribute to his acumen and a classic case of nepotism.

Similarly, Beauchamp calls into question the rumor that the bulk of Kennedy's wealth came from bootlegging liquor during Prohibition. There isn't much evidence that he was involved in bootlegging at all, she contends, although before Prohibition went into effect, he did stockpile a large supply of whiskey. No, it was the movie business that made Kennedy a plutocrat: not so much turning out films as sensing with remarkable accuracy when to acquire companies and when to divest. As Swanson knew well, Kennedy's Hollywood dealing made him a fortune -- about $10 million, which in those days was a lot of clams -- and he escaped with it intact, becoming, as one observer put it, "the first and only outsider to fleece Hollywood." His impeccable timing extended even to exiting the stock market ahead of the 1929 crash. "If shoeshine boys were giving him tips," Beauchamp explains his reasoning, "clearly everyone was an expert and he should give up."

In Beauchamp's telling, Kennedy was indifferent and sometimes cruel to his wife, Rose, and almost inhumanly callous to some of the film people with whom he crossed paths. One of his "properties," the cowboy movie actor Fred Thomson, was a big star in the silent era but thanks to Kennedy is virtually unknown today. Kennedy owned Thomson's contract but wanted to push another of his stars, Tom Mix, instead, so he not only refused to let Thomson perform but also ended up selling all his films for their scrap value, a move that, in Beauchamp's words, "destroyed . . . Fred Thomson's life work."

She meant to say "life's work," and that brings up one of the book's chief defects. The writing is sloppy throughout, marred by wrong word-choices (among many others: "accoutrements" where she means something like "duties" ); the overuse of "literally" and "proverbial"; and clichés, sometimes used to unintentionally comic effect ("the box office [receipts for a movie] went through the roof"). The other problem is that Beauchamp recounts her subject's financial maneuvers in such detail that at times Joseph P. Kennedy Presents reads like a biz-school text. Overall, it's a fitfully interesting book that cries out to have been edited more carefully.

P.S. The garish remains of "Queen Kelly" are out on DVD; if you're up for an evening of Roaring Twenties decadence, check it out. ·

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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