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Pain and privilege

Christopher Lawford's memoir is a tale of addiction, recovery, and life as a Kennedy

Months ago, a writer working on a book about the Kennedys approached Christopher Lawford for an interview. Lawford -- the 50-year-old son of movie star Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy, sister to Jack, Bobby, and Teddy -- asked what possible value another book about his family could have.

The writer responded with a long anecdote concerning one of Lawford's cousins and argued that humanizing stories such as this needed to be made public. Lawford wasn't buying a word of it.

''I called him up and said, 'First of all, if that story needs telling, my cousin should be the one telling it,' " recalls Lawford during a luncheon interview in Cambridge, one stop on a current tour to promote his new book, ''Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption" (William Morrow).

Then, Lawford continues, ''I said, 'If you had told me you needed the money or wanted to meet girls, I might have talked to you.' I hung up and thought, all these people are writing my story? You're screwed if you talk to them and screwed if you don't. So I made the difficult decision to write my own."

And it was difficult, according to Lawford, whose memoir reads more like ''The Basketball Diaries" than ''A Thousand Days." No matter how pitilessly he portrayed his struggles with drug addiction, or the burden of being what he calls ''a second-class Kennedy," Lawford reasoned, his motives would be questioned and his judgment second-guessed. The worst thing any young Kennedy could contemplate doing, he says, was publishing a tell-all book.

Not binge drinking or drugging. Not pulling strings to get into law school or getting busted for heroin, both of which Lawford did. Not being implicated in a headline-making sex scandal. No, the worse crime was publishing family secrets.

Yet here is Lawford today -- middle-aged, divorced, and tackling sobriety one day at a time -- having done just that, producing a memoir The New York Times calls ''riveting" and ''sunlit," yet one whose candor may cause some Kennedys to wince. Especially any who feel that what happens in Camelot ought to stay in Camelot.

If Lawford is worried about a backlash, though, he's putting on a brave face.

''To be honest, I haven't heard yet from many relatives who've read the book," he says during a lengthy conversation touching upon everything from his failures as a husband and father to his Uncle Ted's legacy as politician and patriarch. ''Either they're slow readers," Lawford quips, ''or they're waiting for the movie."

Back when he first told relatives he was working on an autobiography, he says, family members asked nervously what he was up to. Though uncertain at the time, he now says that 20 years of sobriety, plus a couple of near-death experiences, have liberated him from worrying much about what any Kennedy thinks should be made public.

''The truth is, this book sold because of where I come from," says Lawford. ''I know that. But it is my life. And as much as it's a story of addiction and Hollywood, it's also about being a Kennedy. I don't pull any punches, either, which may not be smart of me -- " he smiles knowingly -- ''but I can't live any other way."

At the heart of Lawford's story, and life, is privilege juxtaposed with pain -- a sometimes twisted sense of entitlement balanced against a feeling of failure so acute that no amount of power or wealth could dull it.

His first eight years were spent in Southern California, in a vortex of glamour and fame. Even before JFK's election, Lawford writes, family life resembled a Tinseltown fantasy. Among his father's closest friends were Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, and Rat Pack costar Frank Sinatra.

As Camelot flowered, the family's stock soared higher. For Lawford, who inherited his father's darkly handsome looks, this meant touch football with Rafer Johnson, mountain climbing with Jim Whittaker, a summer job with Cesar Chavez, and, as adolescence blossomed, Sunday nights with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. One night in the '70s, he walked into a party at his father's pad and found Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger there. Celebrity came with the territory.

''Even for a Kennedy," says Lawford, sipping an iced tea and winking, ''strolling into a cocktail party when you're 19 years old and escorting Liz Taylor is pretty impressive."

But as the Kennedy saga darkened, he writes -- particularly after his uncles were assassinated, leaving many cousins emotionally rudderless -- Lawford's nuclear family also began disintegrating. After his parents separated in the mid-'60s, Lawford and his sisters moved to Manhattan, whereupon their father largely disappeared.

Already vulnerable, Lawford started down a path toward self-destruction. At 13, he took LSD, beginning years of addiction to drugs such as PCP and heroin. Scraping through prep school, he eked out a degree from Tufts University yet was far too dysfunctional to gain traction in the working world. Competition among cousins, once confined to sailboat races and football, took a darker turn as well. His closest relatives, Bobby and David Kennedy, vied with Lawford in their self-destructive behavior. It was David who would pay the heaviest price, dying of a drug overdose in 1984. Lawford later named his first-born child David in honor of his best friend.

''We . . . tried to be good little Kennedys and demonstrate that stoic grace that everybody seemed to admire so much," he writes at one point. ''But the mythic proportions somehow dehumanized the actual events and prevented any real human association."

Meanwhile, influential family friends like Lem Billings were on call whenever trouble loomed. But bailing out young Kennedys may not have been wise, Lawford says today. While managing a law degree from Boston College, he was never forced to quit taking drugs or face the full legal consequences of addiction.

''A lot of people got sober sooner, but because I was enabled, I got at least six more years of hell," Lawford says grimly.

None of it ended terribly well. His father, with whom Lawford reunited in the mid-'70s, spiraled steadily downward from Rat Pack fame to drug abuse and worse. (For Chris's 21st birthday, Peter Lawford gave him a vial of cocaine.) He died on Christmas Eve in 1984. Lawford's own problems persisted, meanwhile. Rehab, a pair of drug arrests, and a near overdose on methadone finally put him on the road to recovery in 1986, helped by Joan Kennedy, whose own battles with alcoholism have been well documented.

Just as hard to kick, if not as deadly, has been what Lawford calls ''the narcotic of attention." Marriage and fatherhood -- Lawford has three children -- have helped reorganize his priorities, though. Modeling and acting, including a recurring role on the soap ''All My Children," helped reinvent him professionally. His resume now boasts three dozen film and TV credits, with another film, ''The World's Fastest Indian," starring Anthony Hopkins, due out later this year. Also on the drawing board are a novel and TV sitcom pilot. Lawford left his wife in 2001. For the past two years, he has been in a stable relationship with actress Lana Antonova, sharing a pad in Venice, Calif.

His life turnaround aside, does he still feel like a second-class Kennedy?

''Absolutely not," says Lawford without hesitating. ''For years, the Kennedy currency was huge for me. So I used that. I don't use it so much today. Not because I'm a good guy, but because I feel more rooted in my own life and don't care so much."

About Ted Kennedy, whom he credits with holding the family together through difficult times, Lawford has mostly kind words.

''As in any family," he says, ''I had issues with Teddy growing up. What I've realized, now having kids of my own, is that most of it was my stuff. Teddy was doing the best he could with the life he was given. I'm not sure he wanted this life, but he took it. And knowing how hard that is to do, I can't judge him. Lifestyle issues? As far as I'm concerned, he can do whatever he wants."

If Lawford sounds regretful about anything -- not the years wasted on addiction, or the opportunities handed to him and then squandered -- it's his father's final years.

Because of biographies, made-for-TV movies, and Steven Soderbergh's remake of ''Ocean's 11," the Rat Pack era has been remythologized as the apotheosis of Hollywood cool. Lawford, who once sought the rights to ''Ocean's 11" himself, knows the hard, cold truths behind the myth.

''We can re-create the days when Frank, Dean [Martin], Sammy [Davis Jr.], and my dad were together," Lawford says. ''But they all ended up dysfunctional, messed-up guys. And they once had everything. Money. Good looks. Success. Yet at the end, they were miserable, miserable men -- alone, angry, drinking. So what's that all about?"

As if answering his own question, Lawford adds, ''I loved my dad for all he was, and I do mean all of it. Still, he never got to meet his grandkids, which to me is such a waste. I got another chance and found myself. I wish he had, too."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached by email at jkahn@globe.com.

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