Joseph P Kennedy's Hollywood Years

When John F Kennedy ran for US president in 1960, to many his greatest liability was being Catholic; it was said that electing him meant the pope would be running the country. What worried those who knew politics, however, was that his father might be pulling the strings. A smiling thief, a liar and a bully, Joseph P Kennedy built up a fortune ($2bn in today's terms) to buy power for his family in Washington. Using previously unseen papers and archives in this book, Cari Beauchamp shows how he twisted arms, bent laws and broke lives in Hollywood as well.

Unlike Bobby, Teddy and Jack, Kennedy wielded power behind the scenes. He specialised in manoeuvres that before the post-1929 tightening of financial regulations were - if not actually illegal - unethical, such as secretly working to lower the price of a stock he had agreed to sell short. Taking over one studio, then another, then a cinema chain, he incorporated them into RKO and nearly gobbled up Paramount as well. At one point he ran both a studio and an "independent" production company that it employed.

Some men might have been satisfied with having a movie star for a mistress. Kennedy made Gloria Swanson unknowingly pay him for the privilege, becoming her financial adviser and billing her company for his expenses. Another woman who believed for years that she and her actor husband were Kennedy's friends discovered her mistake too late: when the actor suddenly died, his widow learned that the insurance policy Kennedy had taken out paid all benefits to his own company. While he was appealing an order to instal sprinklers in the studio, it caught fire and ten people were killed.

By the mid-1930s, Kennedy was no longer active in Hollywood but he retained ties to it all his life, though he disliked some of its products (Citizen Kane was, he said, "communist propaganda") and most of its executives. In 1940, arguing that it was bad for business to annoy Hitler, he lectured the mostly Jewish studio heads to stop making anti-Nazi pictures using Jewish actors and praising democracy - a form of government that he said was "finished in England". Twenty years later he persuaded Frank Sinatra to involve the Mafia in JFK's presidential campaign, with disturbing consequences we know about - and perhaps others we don't.

Why does any of this matter now? Because the contempt for everything but money that Kennedy exemplified did not die with him. He was the first to conceive feature films as marketing opportunities, having them shot in ways that would help self-promotion. His merged companies, he said, could cut their total operating costs in half with "no sacrifice in quality". Sound familiar? It's received wisdom that when money is tight, dispensing with morals is not only sensible, but necessary. As Beauchamp's book makes clear, such advice is always given by people who have never thought any differently.

Joseph P Kennedy's Hollywood Years
Cari Beauchamp
Faber & Faber, 506pp, £25

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This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?