Joe Kennedy first met Gloria Swanson in the Renaissance Room of the elegant new Savoy Plaza Hotel on Nov. 11, 1927. Swanson was Hollywood's reigning sex goddess. Kennedy was a Hollywood mogul who had been asked by a mutual friend, Robert Kane, to help Swanson solve her serious financial problems. Their meeting would alter the lives of both Kennedy and Swanson. Part one of a four-part excerpt from "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga."
For Joe Kennedy, Gloria Swanson must have been, on first meeting, an enigma. To a man who defined himself mainly in terms of his increasing financial stability and his growing family, Gloria's headstrong spirit, her careless disregard for money and her three marriages must have seemed strangely out of place for a woman. At the time they met, Swanson was 28 years old, with more than a decade of successful films behind her. Radiant with a passion to take from life every opportunity brought to her by her looks, her charm and her intelligence, she was a deceptively small woman, with bright eyes, high cheekbones and a large sensuous mouth. Her skin was pale, her cheeks were painted red and her hair was dark. The excessive contrasts were a little too odd, a little too striking to be considered natural beauty, but she had a gift for throwing a romantic glamor over herself that produced a remarkable effect upon everyone she met.
Having risen to the top in the mad, lush years of the '20s, Gloria Swanson had decided early on that while she was a star she would be "every inch and every moment a star" so that everyone "from the studio gateman to the highest executive will know it."
"Gloria's home is the home of a great lady," proclaimed Adela Rogers St. John in the September 1927 issue of Photoplay. Swanson argued later: "In those days the public wanted us to live like kings and queens. So we did -- why not? We were in love with life. We were making more money than we ever dreamed existed and there was no reason to believe it would ever stop."
For her part, Gloria knew almost nothing about the attractive-looking man with sandy hair and bright blue eyes who was now seated across the table from her. Advised by First National's Robert Kane that he was a banker who could help her solve her financial problems, she found that he "didn't resemble any banker" she had ever known. There was a bluster and a boyishness in him that most successful bankers had long since shed. Moreover, with his solid build kept in good shape by regular exercise, his winning smile and his tendency to break into peals of laughter and whack his thigh when something funny was said, he proved himself, from the start, a most pleasing companion. Apart from his manner and his accent, Swanson recalled, his hands were the most noticeable thing about him. "They looked unused to work," she recorded in her memoirs, "and there were wide spaces between his fingers. He gestured often and animatedly with them when he talked."
Finally, Swanson recalled, he "even dared to ask" if she minded telling him why she had turned down $1 million a year from studio mogul Jesse Lasky, and "his enthusiasm was so direct and open" that she had no qualms talking about it, even to the point of admitting that since that day she had passed many an anxious moment. But, she bravely concluded, she would do it again tomorrow. "I would have been the second or third person in movie history to sign a million-dollar contract, but I was the very first to turn one down." At this remark, Joe laughed so merrily and so unaffectedly that Swanson found herself deliberately saying more clever things just to entertain him.
As for Joe, his new relationship with Gloria, who was considered by many to be Hollywood's reigning sex goddess, must have served to swell the triumphant intoxication of days when he was flush with his own success and was more and more conscious of being admired and respected. In the weeks that followed their first meeting, their acquaintance ripened fast. With Rose safely ensconced in Boston awaiting the birth of their eighth child, Joe felt free to spend as much time with his new client as he wanted.
In her memoirs, the only eyewitness account history possesses, Gloria tells the story of their first intimate encounter. Having arrived at her hotel room just as the maid was leaving, Kennedy stood silently in the open door, staring at her for a full minute or more before he entered the room and closed the door behind him. "He moved so quickly," Gloria recounted as she journeyed back 50 years in her memory, "that his mouth was on mine before either of us could speak. With one hand he held the back of my head, with the other he stroked my body and pulled at my kimono. He kept insisting in a drawn-out moan, 'No longer, no longer. Now.' He was like a roped horse, rough, arduous, racing to be free. After a hasty climax he lay beside me, stroking my hair. Apart from his guilty, passionate mutterings, he had still said nothing cogent."
For the 38-year-old Kennedy, the affair with Gloria was a relentless pursuit of more, a quest to have it all, to live beyond the rules in a world of his own making, a world filled with excitement, stimulation and novelty. For the most part, he and Rose still had a strong and satisfying relationship, better indeed than many of the couples they knew. There was true intimacy in their long talks about their children and their future, and there was comfort and tradition in the many rituals they shared. From all accounts, neither partner had any complaint, or at least any they gave voice to. The marriage was stable and traditional.
Yet, from everything we hear about Joe's frequent involvements with other women, it is clear that his sexual drives were not satisfied within his marriage. There is a story told by Rose's life-long friend Marie Greene that strongly suggests that Rose held a very circumscribed view of what constituted proper sexual behavior for a practicing Catholic. With her husband Vinnie, Marie spent many Friday nights playing cards with Joe and Rose. As she tells the story, Joe often would take these Friday-night gatherings as occasions to tease Rose about the narrowness of her views about sex. "Now, listen, Rosie," he would say to her, his blue eyes twinkling. "This idea of yours that there is no romance outside of procreation is simply wrong. It was not part of our contract at the altar, the priest never said that and the books don't argue that. And if you don't open your mind on this, I'm going to tell the priest on you." But, according to Marie Greene, Rose remained firm in her beliefs and years later, after her last child was born, she simply said, "No more sex." From then on, she and Joe had separate bedrooms.
Rose seemed to have accepted an earlier and outdated Catholic code at face value. According to the strictest interpretations set forth by Saint Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great, pleasure was not a fit purpose for intercourse. In contrast, Gloria Swanson was a forerunner of the far more liberated woman who was emerging in the 1920s. An adventurer by nature, determined to live her life as fully as she could, Gloria had early on become an outspoken partisan of the revolution in manners and morals that was promising to bring about fundamental changes in the relationships between men and women.
How much Rose knew about Gloria remains an interesting question. At the age of 90, Rose still was outspoken in her assertion that she never worried, not even for a day, about Joe's relationship with Gloria. Journeying back in memory to discover what she wanted to believe, she recalled simply that Gloria needed Joe desperately to straighten out "the financial morass" she had created for herself; unable to cope anymore on her own, she had reached out to Joe as the one man who could keep her from going bankrupt. Seen from the distance of time, the image of Gloria that Rose called back to her mind was the image of a talented but lonely woman for whom love and marriage were very complicated matters. Indeed, throughout her life Rose spoke about Gloria with a strange solicitude, never publicly giving the slightest hint of jealousy, fear or rage.
Yet it is impossible to believe that Rose did not know. And there is at least one story that gives evidence that she did. According to this story, her father, John Fitzgerald, had come to his own understanding of the situation months earlier but had preferred to take on Joe first before telling Rose. Geraldine Hannon, Rose's niece, vividly recalls overhearing a loud argument one summer afternoon at the Fitzgerald house in which Fitzgerald told Joe straight out that unless he stopped the affair with Gloria immediately, he would tell Rose. Undaunted, Joe threatened in turn that if Fitzgerald did tell Rose he would simply marry Gloria. That's all there was to it.
In the first round Fitzgerald backed down, but apparently some weeks later Rose's mother Josie decided to take the matter into her own hands by forcing Rose to see what everyone else knew. If this is true, it leads one to wonder how much of Josie's telling reflected true concern for her daughter and how much a subliminal desire to retaliate against her for the special love she had always received from her father. There is something about the manner of telling that suggests "You see, you fool, your beloved husband is no different from your beloved father. Now you finally know what men are really like!"
Even supposing Rose was told to her face about the affair, it seems, from all accounts, that she willed the repugnant knowledge out of her mind. After all, Rose seemed to have what she wanted in her marriage: children, wealth and privilege. At the same time, the marriage satisfied what may have been her own desire for sexual distance. Better perhaps to follow the pattern set by her mother long ago: to suffer in silence rather than take the enormous risk of shattering the entire family and bringing public disgrace upon herself and her husband. So long as she felt secure about remaining Mrs. Joseph Kennedy, what did the rest really matter? In this attitude Rose was not alone. According to Cy Howard, if you looked closely at the marriage of almost any Hollywood producer in those days, you'd find a similar story. "No matter what the mistress has," Mrs. Zanuck would say, "she's not Mrs. Zanuck, so why should I worry? So long as I've got the house and the name and the position, that's all that counts."
With all this at stake, it is little wonder that Rose never publicly let on that she knew what everyone around her knew. So long as her marriage remained secure, the pretense allowed her to keep intact the one thing that was sacred to her: the institution of the family. Next: The first tragedy From the book "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga" by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Reprinted by permission of the
publisher, Simon and Schuster Inc., N.Y. All rights
reserved. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate