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Joseph P. Kennedy’s reputation as a savvy businessman, diplomat, and sly political patriarch is well-documented. But his years as a Hollywood mogul have never been fully explored until now.
In Joseph P. Kennedy Presents, Cari Beauchamp brilliantly explores this unknown chapter in Kennedy’s biography. Between 1926 and 1930, Kennedy positioned himself as a major Hollywood player. In two short years, he was running three studios simultaneously and then, in a bold move, he merged his studios with David Sarnoff to form the legendary RKO Studio. Beauchamp also tells the story of Kennedy’s affair with Gloria Swanson; how he masterminded the mergers that created the blueprint for contemporary Hollywood; and made the fortune that became the foundation of his empire.
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Cari Beauchamp is the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood and other film histories. She has written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Variety and lives in Los Angeles, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Mention the name Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of America’s royal family, and it evokes a mental picture: an older man smiling out from a photograph surrounded by numerous family members, or perhaps he is gaunt and wheelchair-bound, felled by a stroke. Erase those images.
Visualize, instead, a young man in his mid-thirties, a “wickedly handsome six footer, exuding vitality and roguish charm.” He strides confidently into a room wearing “the most wonderful smile that seemed to light up his entire face,” impressing everyone he met with “his warm handshake and his friendly volubility.” His vibrant energy fuels a headturning charisma that commands attention. “You felt not just that you were the only one in the room that mattered,” recalls Joan Fontaine, “but the only one in the world.” With bright blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, a frequent laugh, and a tendency to slap his thigh when amused, he is strikingly different from the typical Wall Street banker or studio mogul.
This is the man who took Hollywood by storm, at one point running four companies simultaneously when no one before or since ran more than one. He was profiled in national magazines and newspapers as a brilliant financial wunderkind, “the most intriguing personality in the motion picture world” and “the person who now monopolizes conversation in the studios and on location.” Kennedy was “the blonde Moses” leading film companies into profitable territory as they faced the pivotal years of converting from silent films to sound. In the process he was instrumental in killing vaudeville. The mystique around him grew so thick that Fortune magazine warned “the legends are so luxuriant that when you see Joe Kennedy you are likely to be startled to find him as plain and matter of fact as he is—a healthy hardy good natured sandy haired Irish family man—athletic, unperplexed, easily pleased, hot tempered, independent and restless as they come.”
Louella Parsons hailed Joe Kennedy as “the coming Napoleon” of the movies, the white knight with the wherewithal to save film studios by bringing bankers and corporate representatives onto their boards of directors. He was the architect of the mergers that laid the groundwork for today’s Hollywood. While even he might be surprised to find that United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Columbia are now all partially owned by the same multinational conglomerate, he was the one who designed that very blueprint.
Kennedy was the first financier to simply buy a studio. Fortune used the metaphor of a chess game to describe his Hollywood climb: taking “small pawns” such as Robertson-Cole and FBO and methodically knocking down the knights and bishops of Pathé and Keith-Albee- Orpheum to create “the queen of R-K-O” in less than four years. They concluded that “Kennedy moved so fast that opinions still differ as to whether he left a string of reorganized companies or a heap of wreckage behind him.”
Over one hundred films were released under the banner of “Joseph P. Kennedy Presents” during which time he influenced the careers and personal lives of Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, and the cowboy stars Fred Thomson and Tom Mix, as well as dozens of other investors, executives, and underlings. Kennedy was a multifaceted, magnetic charmer, a devious visionary with exquisite timing and more than a flash of genius. And nothing, including the destruction of other people’s careers, deterred his consuming passion to increase his personal bank accounts.
“Not a half dozen men have been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads,” F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in his final novel, The Last Tycoon. Joe Kennedy was not one of those men, for he had no appreciation of the nuances of storytelling or an ability to spark true creative collaboration. However, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, Kennedy may have been the only one to have the whole economic equation in his head and that is a key to understanding him. He saw everything and everyone, from Gloria Swanson to Adolf Hitler, through a lens of dollars and cents.
When he first arrived in Hollywood in 1926, no one knew Joe Kennedy as the man he would become; he wasn’t that man yet. He was already more than well off, always meticulously dressed and chauffeured in his Rolls-Royce, but he had yet to accumulate his fortune. His wealth was estimated at a little over a million dollars and he would increase that tenfold over the five years he was immersed in the film industry. When Kennedy left Hollywood, “he already had so much money that making the rest of it, which must have been many many millions, was almost a routine affair.”
He caught the wave at exactly the right moment, and, perhaps more important, the timing of his departure was perfect. By 1932, he was “the richest Irish American in the world,” and while he would continue to build capital through other ventures, it was Hollywood that provided the foundation of his wealth. It was also Hollywood where he learned how to perform as a public personality and where he came to believe that how you were perceived was more important than who you were. The skills and knowledge he gained would affect everything he did and influenced from then on, from how he presented his family to the world to his son’s election to the presidency.
This is the story of those Hollywood years.
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