Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years

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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 ...

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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 how he made the fortune that became the foundation of his empire.

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Editorial Reviews

Thomas Mallon
Cari Beauchamp's smart…new book, suggests that nothing in Kennedy's long career of banking, stock manipulation and New Dealing prepared him for presidential politics the way his time in the picture business did.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The legendary financier and Kennedy-clan patriarch impressed even Hollywood with his heartlessness, according to this meticulous but chilly narrative of his stint as a movie mogul. Entertainment journalist Beauchamp (Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood) follows Kennedy's 1926-1931 sojourn in the movie industry, when he amassed several studios and theater chains that became the nucleus of RKO Studios. Beauchamp's Kennedy is a charming, ruthless snake with a " 'dollar sign implanted in his heart,' " who used, betrayed and discarded a string of investors, stockholders, friends, employees and stars, including his longtime mistress, Gloria Swanson. That's Hollywood, but Kennedy, in Beauchamp's portrayal, lacked a crucial redeeming feature-the eye for talent and feel for moviemaking that led other studio chiefs to nurture great films along with great fortunes. Caring more about the biz than the show, he gutted his studios' creative potential through ruthless cost cutting and layoffs; the author's styling of him as a "visionary" empire builder rings hollow given how casually he disposed of his squeezed-dry holdings. Beauchamp adds a touch of Tinseltown glamour to her account of Kennedy's byzantine deal making and financial schemes, but he's not a lead that audiences will warm to. Photos. (Feb. 3)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Joseph P. Kennedy, father of JFK, was also a fascinating businessman: in the late 1920s, having already established himself in Boston as a banker and entrepreneur, he sought and found success as a Hollywood producer. Here, Beauchamp (Without Lying Down) draws on contracts, letters, and memos to tell the story of Kennedy's career, projects, and relationships during this time. Pam Ward's (The Sky Took Him) narration is clear and expressive; the reedy Boston accent she employs when voicing Kennedy is dead-on hilarious. Recommended for those interested in the Kennedys and for movie history and popular culture buffs. [Audio clip available through; the review of the Knopf hc deemed this "the first in-depth look at [Kennedy's] years in Hollywood," LJ 1/09.—Ed.]—Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., TX
Kirkus Reviews
Beauchamp (Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, 1998, etc.) uncovers the largely untold story of the Kennedy patriarch's adventures in the early days of Hollywood. Kennedy demonstrated preternatural business instincts, ambition and self-promotional flair in his hometown of Boston, winning fame as "America's youngest bank president" by the age 25 before being seduced by the spectacular profits to be made in the movie business. Employing his enormous personal charm, financial acumen and public-relations savvy, he quickly moved to the head of three movie studios and began amassing a personal fortune that would help establish him as one of the richest men in the country. Beauchamp's exhaustive research details Kennedy's every stock manipulation and cost-cutting measure, but the meat of the story is in the tyro's ruthlessness and single-minded pursuit of the bottom line. This approach led to, among other things, the death of vaudeville, as Kennedy's purchase of the K-A-O theater chain left that medium's performers without a venue for their art; the ruined career of cowboy star and Kennedy friend Fred Thomson, who represented competition for Kennedy's new hire Tom Mix; and the spectacular career flameout of Gloria Swanson, superstar and Kennedy paramour. The section dealing with Swanson's epic, uncompleted fiasco Queen Kelly, hemorrhaging money as out-of-control director Erich von Stroheim descended into autocratic perversity, is a riveting account of filmmaking in the nascent sound era. It also provides a welcome bit of color in a narrative that, owing to Kennedy's relative lack of interest in the creative side of the business, tends toward adryness in its dogged reportage of wheeling and dealing. Beauchamp doesn't attempt a psychological investigation of Kennedy; he appears simply as a predatory animal, a grinning shark instinctively improving his position without sentiment for those suffering in his wake. An engrossing, important forgotten chapter in the history of Hollywood and America's premiere political dynasty. First printing of 40,000. Author tour to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.
From the Publisher
“An exceptional work of film scholarship, packed with information no one had uncovered before that reads like a juicy novel.” —Vanity Fair 

“Beauchamp serves up with gusto many measures of gossipy history and historical gossip. . . . One hell of a story.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Fascinating. . . . The intellect, the intuition, the gumption, the gall, the vision, and the restless ambition of the founding father are meticulously documented.” —The Boston Globe 

“Cari Beauchamp deserves great credit for bringing Joseph P. Kennedy into sharp focus with a wealth of detail. . . . Beauchamp has succeeded not only in finding a new way of telling the story, but one which adds to it much we didn’t know before. ” —Michael Korda, The Daily Beast

“Smart. . . . Beauchamp suggests that nothing in Kennedy’s long career of banking, stock manipulation, and New Dealing prepared him for presidential politics the way his time in the picture business did.” —New York Times Book Review
“[A] crackling page-turner. . . . Beauchamp demonstrates again and again, that apart from [Kennedy’s] abiding love and concern for his nine children (and perhaps a few others including Marion Davies), the bottom line was everything.” —Los Angeles Times
“Rarely has [Kennedy’s Hollywood years] been documented in such meticulous detail. . . . Well-written and researched, Beauchamp’s book is a probing examination of the man in the industry during perhaps its most fascinating period.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Beauchamp’s research is phenomenal and would have daunted any other author. . . . A masterpiece of backstage capitalism.” —Cineaste
“Cari Beauchamp has dug deep into my mother’s files and records and emerged to finally tell the true story of Gloria Swanson’s relationship with Joe Kennedy. No one else has ever been as honest or as thorough.” —Michelle Farmer Amon, daughter of Gloria Swanson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594005988
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/3/2009
  • Pages: 506
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

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.
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Read an Excerpt

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Preface xv

1 "America's Youngest Bank President" 3

2 "This Is Another Telephone" 21

3 "I Have Just Reorganized the Company" 33

4 "Fight like Hell to Win" 43

5 "We Have Valued Your Advice and Assistance" 54

6 "I'm Beginning to Think I'm a 'Picture Man' " 66

7 "I Never Needed a Vacation Less" 75

8 "The Inner Cabinet of the Film Industry" 93

9 "All Records Have Been Broken" 100

10 "The Reigning Queen of the Movies" 107

11 "Together We Could Make Millions" 120

12 "Like a Roped Horse" 136

13 "Industry Wide Influence and Respect" 149

14 "I Have Gone into the Vaudeville Game" 169

15 "Another Big Deal in Prospect" 178

16 "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet" 186

17 "Swinging the Axe"

18 "Now He's Back and Almost Anything May Happen"|211

19 "The Dollar Sign Implanted in His Heart" 222

20 "Gilding the Manure Pile" 237

21 "Give Our Love to Gloria" 256

22 "Having Tea with His Wife and My Husband and the Vicar" 272

23 "Things Are Bad Enough Here" 286

24 "A Good Trick If You Can Do It" 300

25 "I Am Now Definitely Out of the Motion Picture Industry" 309

26 "The Richest Irish American in the World" 324

27 "Wall Street Awaits Kennedy's Findings" 334

28"The Embers of Terror, Isolationism, and Racism" 350

Epilogue: "The First and Only Outsider to Fleece Hollywood" 372

Author's Note 405

Notes 413

Bibliography 475

Index 483

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