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Joseph P. Kennedy's conquest of Hollywood helped to create his fortune and transformed films

Joseph P. Kennedy with cowboy star Tom Mix, 1928. Kennedy ran three movie studios simultaneously during the 1920s. Joseph P. Kennedy with cowboy star Tom Mix, 1928. Kennedy ran three movie studios simultaneously during the 1920s. (JFK Library)
By Martin F. Nolan
February 8, 2009
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The handsome two-story house stood "at 801 Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, complete with a clay tennis court that ran parallel to the swimming pool." Its five bedrooms could have comfortably housed Joseph P. Kennedy's growing young family in 1928. Would history have been different had the Kennedy dynasty landed on the Left Coast?

But only Joe and his assistant Eddie Moore lived in the leased house, because Joe Kennedy was all business in his Hollywood years, except when he wasn't. The house "soon took on the aura of a well-appointed clubhouse" and "had the added advantage of being down the block and around the corner" from the house of Gloria Swanson, then the world's most famous film star and the object of the Boston banker's professional and personal attention.

Unveiling a trove of newly revealed documents, Cari Beauchamp makes fiduciary details fascinating and Hollywood gossip substantive. "Joseph P. Kennedy Presents" is an essential guide to understanding the role of this family in American life. If anyone who is somehow new to the Kennedy saga needs a primer, here it is. The intellect, the intuition, the gumption, the gall, the vision, and the restless ambition of the founding father are meticulously documented.

After becoming the nation's youngest bank president at 25, the recent Harvard graduate looked westward to make money, saying in 1919 that the motion picture "is another telephone." Hollywood was dominated by former furriers, tailors, and glovemakers, nearly all of them Jewish. They were unprepared for the Boston Irish cyclone who bought failing studios, restored them, and usually made a profit. Kennedy's financial wizardry affected RKO, Warner Bros., and Paramount. He "cleared a profit of at least $4,250,000 on the RKO deal alone," the author notes. In 1928, that was serious money.

He didn't do it alone. Accompanying Kennedy was "the gang," a posse of bookkeepers, auditors, and aides-de-camp, cheerful Bob Cratchits to Kennedy's Scrooge. Their clerical work let the spotlight shine on the boss. Chief among them was Eddie Moore, to whom Kennedy remained loyal, naming his ninth child Edward Moore Kennedy in 1932. To Moore, Hollywood may have seemed tame compared with Boston City Hall. As Kennedy said, he "served as secretary to three former mayors of Boston, no one of whom talks to the others, but each speaks affectionately to Eddie."

One of the mayors was John F. Fitzgerald, Kennedy's father-in-law, whose showmanship was helpful to Joe's career, though not as much as his father's bank, Columbia Trust of East Boston, founded by Patrick J. Kennedy. Whatever family values Joe Kennedy learned in his youth, paternal presence was not one of them. He was absent for weeks and months at a time, traveling to New York, Hollywood, Palm Beach, and Europe. He was a prodigious letter-writer, in touch with all nine of his children.

Philandering is hardly the major topic of this book, but it is a titillating part of the saga. In 1929, one of "the gang" instructed Gloria Swanson to go to a suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York. There she encountered "in full clerical garb" Cardinal William O'Connell. "I am here to ask you to stop seeing Joe Kennedy," the archbishop of Boston said, saying the movie star was "an occasion of sin for him." Gloria told the cardinal to take it up with Joe. That Kennedy was bedazzled by her is evident in the chapters devoted to Kennedy's most unbusinesslike decision, his attempt to make a seriously artistic movie starring Swanson. "Queen Kelly" was a notorious flop.

The book is more about business than bedrooms, but the author dishes with details of its subject's pursuit of Marlene Dietrich, Joan Fontaine, and others. In 1947, Joe also tried to marry off actress Arlene Dahl to his son Jack. The patriarch thought she was Catholic, but Arlene was a Lutheran.

Any project steeped in Hollywood and politics contains clichés. In this book, a fine-tooth comb examines a contract, and opportunity arrives on a silver platter. The precision of a cliché also suggests the size of the author's task. "When I initially contacted the John F. Kennedy Library, which houses Joe Kennedy's papers, in the mid-1990s to inquire how I could see documents, they reacted as if they were guarding Fort Knox and I had asked for a few bricks of gold," she writes. Eventually, the scholarship of Kennedy's granddaughter Amanda Smith, in her book of letters, "Hostage to Fortune," helped make the library recognize candor's value.

Others have written incisively on Joe Kennedy: Doris Kearns Goodwin on his relationship with his in-laws, and Michael Beschloss on the shared spotlight with Franklin D. Roosevelt. But this book is Joe's alone, evoking the famous line from Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." The film features three film icons with whom Kennedy ferociously tangled: Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, and, as the fading star, Gloria Swanson. Vamping toward the camera in the final scene, she says, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

This volume is hefty, but the narrative moves as fast as any shoot-'em-up. The author's special effects include hard work and a diligent curiosity. As audacious Kennedy ideas swiftly fly across the pages, Beauchamp's tale evokes the first words uttered in a major talking picture. As Al Jolson, in the title role of "The Jazz Singer," says, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!"

Martin F. Nolan often covered the Kennedys for the Globe from 1961 to 2001.

JOSEPH P. KENNEDY PRESENTS: His Hollywood Years By Cari Beauchamp

Knopf, 506 pp., illustrated, $35

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