'Symptoms of Withdrawal': Kennedy Clan's Darker Side

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Symptoms of Withdrawal, a new memoir by Christopher Kennedy Lawford, sheds further light on the private lives of one of America's premier political dynasties. Lawford, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the son of "Rat Pack" actor Peter Lawford, discusses his family's struggles with fame and tragedy with Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

On a May evening in 1962, Marilyn Monroe sang her famous `Happy Birthday, Mr. President' to John F. Kennedy. Introducing Monroe, who missed her cue to arrive on stage, was Kennedy's brother-in-law, the English actor Peter Lawford.

(Soundbite of May 1962 recording)

Mr. PETER LAWFORD (Actor): Mr. President, the late Marilyn Monroe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Jack Kennedy introduced his sister, Patricia, to Peter Lawford, and the couple were married in 1954. One year later, they had their first child, Christopher, who would grow up surrounded by the elite of Washington and Hollywood. Christopher Kennedy Lawford has just published a memoir about his experience at the intersection of politics and film. It's called "Symptoms of Withdrawal." He came to our studios recently to talk about his battle with drug addiction, life as a Lawford and a Kennedy and his parents, Peter and Patricia.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KENNEDY LAWFORD (Author, "Symptoms of Withdrawal"): My parents. The funny thing--they were both 30 when they met, which was kind of old. My mom was very willful, very independent; my dad was more of a beach guy. You know, there were people hanging around my house. There was, like--you know, Frank Sinatra came around. He was my sister Victoria's godfather, and he would show up, you know, once a week with these very inappropriate presents for a four-year-old. I mean, I spent a lot of time as a kid running around some pretty cool places, the Sands, you know, in Vegas, and the ...(unintelligible).

BRAND: Because your father was a member of the Rat Pack.

Mr. LAWFORD: My dad was a member of the Rat Pack, yeah. And they used to do a show up there at the Sands--Frank, my father, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and Joey Bishop. And I was five years old when I walked on the set and I saw my father dressed up as a cowboy and I thought, `How do I do that for the rest of my life?'

BRAND: Did you adore him?

Mr. LAWFORD: Yeah. My dad was, like--had the heart of a kid. He got a really big life and a very complicated life. And, you know, it's hard to manage that kind of stuff sometimes, especially if all you really want to do is surf. My dad and I, you know, did a lot of nonsense together in the '70s. I came out here when I was 20 and spent time with him and it was a different time and, you know, we got high together. So my dad didn't have a whole lot of skills in the parenting department, you know.

BRAND: And your mother, what was she like?

Mr. LAWFORD: My mom was strong, independent, formidable. She was the one who taught me how to play football, you know. She was tough, my mom.

BRAND: So when did you realize what exactly you were born into, basically, American royalty? You've got the Kennedys on one side, Hollywood on the other. When did you realize, `Oh, my gosh, this is what I'm part of'?

Mr. LAWFORD: You know, my family was the only family I knew. It was a big, crazy, wonderful family that had its good and its bad. And it was--the only difference, really, was it seemed that a lot of people were paying attention to what we were doing, you know. The major point in my life where I realized there was something different about my family was the day my uncle, President Kennedy, was killed, and I--and it was because of the enormity of that situation in people's lives, that their attention on my family and, by association, me, was much more profound than it ever had been.

BRAND: Did you feel enormous pressure to follow in your famous family's footsteps, to become a senator or the president or a big movie star?

Mr. LAWFORD: I think like any family, you know, what you know is what you aspire to. And I saw these men in my life--my uncles and my father--who had achieved greatly in their fields and were adored for it, and that is something that's very attractive. My father never pushed me in--you know, I think, also, he understood better than anybody having been a child actor that the acting business is a nightmare. It's a grind and it's tough and it's unforgiving and you have it. And if you're lucky enough to get it, you lose it, and then, you know, you spend the rest of your life trying to get it back. and so I don't think he ever wanted me to go in it. With my uncle's side of the family, my mom's side of the family, there was always an ethic towards public service and trying to aspire to make a difference the way they made a difference.

BRAND: Did you ever try? I mean, did you ever try to go down that road?

Mr. LAWFORD: It was never a path suited to me. I remember going--I spent some time in Washington working for my Uncle Teddy in the United States Senate. And I say, you know, if making a movie is like watching paint dry, watching a bill go through the legislative process is like watching paint dry in slow motion. It's, like, I felt claustrophobic and in need of air most of the time I was in Washington.

BRAND: Much of this book is about your descent into drug abuse. What happened to spark your involvement in drugs and hard-core drugs like heroin?

Mr. LAWFORD: Well, in 1969, basically the year after my Uncle Bobby was killed, some of my friends had found LSD and they would get together on the weekend and take this stuff, and they kept trying to get me to do it. And I knew--something told me that I shouldn't do it. There was something inside of me that told me I shouldn't do it.

One day I was walking down a road in Westchester County, it was a fall day and they asked me again, and I said yes. It was that simple; I just said yes. And from the moment I did that, for the next 17 years, the only thing that mattered to me was where I was going to get my next drink or my next drug. Now I was a functional drug addict ...(unintelligible) together, but it was--my primary purpose was to get out of here, to find oblivion. It took me, you know, 17 years to get sober, basically, and not till I was 30 years old.

BRAND: So, you know, looking back on this, was it a good life? Was it something you regret?

Mr. LAWFORD: No. All of that experience, all of that pain got me to where I am today. So that there are no regrets.

BRAND: I wonder, though, you talk about this wealth, power and fame you were born with. Do you feel in any way that you squandered that?

Mr. LAWFORD: I don't know. My father died at 60 of alcoholism. And, you know, my kids have never seen me drunk or stoned, which is, you know, a miracle. My kids have had a much more ordinary life, and yet they still get the benefit of being proud of where they come from. Have I squandered my life? I don't think so. I don't think so.

BRAND: The book is called "Symptoms of Withdrawal." We've been speaking with Christopher Kennedy Lawford.

Thanks for coming in and joining us.

Mr. LAWFORD: Thank you so much.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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