I take it Peter Lawford's death was, as they say, alcohol-related. I say "I take it" because nowhere was it written, although everywhere it was suggested. It was as if a man had died of bullet holes and not, mind you, of being shot. In Lawford's case, the cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest. Before that, though, his liver and kidneys had failed. But even before that he had been admitted to the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol abuse. It was then that Lawford told Daily Variety he had an alcohol problem. Reading the stories is like trying to discern who is about to become the next big shot in the Kremlin; nothing is made easy for you.
Some 13 million Americans suffer from alcoholism and about 205,000 die annually of alcohol-related diseases, but we would rather, thank you, avoid the subject entirely. As a rule, we would rather just talk about the fun side of alcohol and turn alcoholism and drunkenness into a joke. Even drunk driving was, until not very long ago, considered almost permissible, and today it's still macho to cruise the highway, one hand on the wheel, the other wrapped around a can of beer.
Look at the obituaries on Lawford. Is there anything you would want to know? Did you know his parents were English aristocrats, that he came to Hollywood and worked as an usher, that he married a Kennedy, that he became an American citizen in 1960, signed with MGM in 1942, that he acted in "Mrs. Miniver," "A Yank at Eton," "White Cliffs of Dover," "Mrs. Parkington," "Easter Parade," "Advise and Consent" and "Ocean's 11" -- and that he did television, too? All this is nice to know, but it denies the reality of his life -- at least the last part of it. There is something missing: the reason he was admitted to the Betty Ford Center. His life in the newspaper obituaries mirrors his life on the screen. But his life wasn't all an act.
Would it not have been better if we had known also about Lawford's presumed fight against alcoholism, about how it afflicted him and, in the end, maybe helped kill him? Would it not have been good for kids who watch beer commercials that tell them a good day's work deserves a good night's drinking ("Now comes Miller Time") to know that booze can be a humble killer, too modest to be named in the obituaries?
The point, of course, is not that alcohol should be prohibited or even that a beer after work is such a bad thing. The point is that for some people alcohol is an addictive drug and that alcoholism is a reality. Hiding it changes nothing, cures no one, teaches nobody. It just perpetuates the tendency to celebrate what's good about alcohol while ignoring what's bad.
A columnist, writing about a man like Lawford, whom I know only from the movies, has to be careful. There has to be much I don't know, and it may include the reasons why the family has said nothing about what actually led to his death. But contained in that silence is a suggestion not just of privacy, but also of shame. It is almost as if alcoholism, if that's what's being hidden, carries a stigma, like cancer did years ago.
When it comes to Lawford, the silence makes no sense. He was a famous man, and his example could be instructive -- both his death and the fact that he evidently faced up to his problem and sought treatment for it. Maybe his alcohol problem had little to do with his death. But if it did, then it ought to be acknowledged.