Today he might best be remembered as a Kennedy son-in-law, or a member of Frank Sinatra’s rat pack, but in the 1940s and 50s, Peter Lawford was a genuine movie star.
Often teamed with June Allyson in MGM musicals or comedies, he also starred opposite Judy Garland, Esther Williams, Jane Powell, and Judy Holliday. He was slick, handsome, British-accented and for the most part totally forgettable. He was best cast as that smoothie outlier, one to keep an eye on.
The son of a knighted World War I military officer, Lawford (ne Peter Aylen) was privately educated by tutors, and made his British movie debut at age eight in 1931’s comedy, Poor Old Bill. His Hollywood career didn’t begin until roughly a decade later, at MGM, which groomed him into the breezy romantic star he became.
Much like Franchot Tone, another of our recent Stars of the Week, Lawford’s hyperactive private life eclipsed his movie career. He was a renowned roue in his Twenties, making the rounds with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner among many others.
The actor’s manager recalled that Peter never went into detail about (his) past…(but) some didn’t like him: He had a thing with this one star and afterwards she hated his guts and wouldn’t even say hello to him.
This was not, apparently, a reference to Gardner, who got on quite well with Lawford, something that bugged an agitated Sinatra as his marriage to the actress collapsed.
By 1954, Lawford had contracted his first and most famous marriage to Patricia Kennedy, JFK’s sister, which produced four children over a dozen years including son Christopher, now in his late Fifties, who has written extensively about his drug addictions — his current book is titled, What Addicts Know — begun in early adolescence.
Wife number two was Mary Rowan, the daughter of tv comedian Dan Rowan (paired with Dick Martin in the marvelous Rowan and Martin Laugh-In tv series). She was 22; Lawford was 48. The union last four years.
In 1976, Lawford took wife No. 3, aspiring actress Deborah Gould, who was 25 to Lawford’s 52. It lasted a year. Months before his death at age 61 on Christmas Eve 1984, Lawford was married for the fourth time to Patricia Seaton, who was still a teenager.
The actor’s most complicated professional and personal relationship was with Sinatra. Although a certified member of The Rat Pack (see our blogs on the group of Jan. 27-28), and a costar in 1960’s Ocean’s Eleven, which starred Rat Pack members, Lawford’s eventual falling out with Sinatra was nasty and long lasting.
It may have had to do with politics (Sinatra in subsequent years became something of a Reaganite). Or, Sinatra’s belief that JFK had personally snubbed him. Or, perhaps it was more personal, something to do with the past and Ava Gardner.