Out of Luck: The Rise and Fall of Peter Lawford

On the surface, Peter Lawford lived a charmed life. He enjoyed a successful career as an entertainer and leading man, married into one of the most high-profile families in American history, and was a member of the famed Rat Pack. Yet despite his success Lawford ultimately died a tragic figure.

From the beginning, English-born Lawford was destined for debonair roles, landing his first major part in 1942 opposite Mickey Rooney in “A Yank At Eton.” By the late ‘40s Lawford became a bonafide star, garnering critical acclaim for several roles, including his turn as quarterback Tommy Marlowe in the 1947 collegiate film “Good News,” set in the Roaring Twenties at the fictitious Tait College. The musical also features Mel Tormé, and includes the standards “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “The Varsity Drag.”

In 1953 the actor struck up a romance with Patricia Kennedy, sister of then-senator John F. Kennedy, and the two were married a year later. Lawford would go on to campaign for his brother-in-law during the 1960 Presidential Election, and his newly gained American citizenship allowed him to vote for JFK.

The Lawford-Kennedy marriage produced four children, but ended in 1966 amid numerous reports of Lawford’s alcoholism and extramarital affairs.

Lawford continued to work steadily, with roles in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Sergeants 3” alongside his Rat Pack brethren. He would also marry three more times. He sunk heavily into drug and alcohol abuse during his later years; attempts at treatment were unsuccessful.

Despite his vices Lawford continued to enjoy his reputation as a dashing playboy. It’s said he was the first to kiss Elizabeth Taylor onscreen, and the last to speak with Marilyn Monroe before her death.

Although Lawford displayed charm and elegance throughout his career, hard living ultimately cost him his life. He died in 1984, heavily in debt, from cardiac arrest complicated by kidney and liver failure. — TOM RYAN

35 Comments on "Out of Luck: The Rise and Fall of Peter Lawford"

  1. Richard M | May 31, 2009 at 12:36 pm |

    Later in life, he switched from Chipp to a Beatles haircut, jean jackets etc.; a clear example of dissipation.

  2. He also had a supporting role in the Fred Astaire flick “Royal Wedding,” which he played well (the film is noted for its Astaire dancing on the ceiling scene). So sad that his addictions cost him everything.

  3. And he pimped his friend Marilyn Monroe out to all his buddies. The guy was a loser, who wanted more than anything to play with the talented celebrities in Hollywood. He was a “B” grade actor, and if it wasn’t for marrying a Kennedy, he would be a piss hole in the snow

  4. It’s been said he advised Jack Kennedy on looking his best for the camera, and steered him away from his button down/repp stripe tie look, saying it was too “schoolboy” for public consumption.

  5. Vern Trotter | December 21, 2016 at 3:07 pm |

    He also claimed that JFK once stole $700 off his bureau top while he (Lawford) was in the shower, leading to a falling out between them. I hate when that happens.

  6. Have only read a few things about Lawford over the years, but the boy doesn’t seem to have a lot of defenders. What I saw of him onscreen, he was an attractive-enough supporting character type.

  7. I always thought that Lawford, along with his Rat Pack brethren, were all a bunch of jerks.

    Nuff said.

  8. Artists (actors, musicians, painters, etc.) have a long history of bad behavior. I guess it comes with the territory. Singling him out seems a bit odd and perhaps unfair with so many other examples of dissolution.

    That said, I always regarded Lawford as a poor man’s Cary Grant. A lot of the style, but little of the substance. He was the classic lightweight.

  9. Charlottesville | January 18, 2018 at 2:01 pm |

    I think my first exposure to Peter Lawford was watching syndicated reruns of his portrayal of Nick Charles in a TV version of The Thin Man which had been produced in the late 1950s. I was only a kid, but was very much impressed by what looked to me to be a handsome, sophisticated, well-dressed man with an English accent. Then I saw him in a TV interview during his turtleneck and necklace period, with long, bushy, gray sideburns. He seemed to be a very sad man, chain-smoking cigarettes and looking distracted. Too bad. However, not long ago I came across a photo shoot of him with his wife Pat circa 1958 or thereabouts illustrating the appropriate wardrobe for a trip to San Francisco. His clothes were by Brooks Brothers and he looked great. I prefer to remember him in that incarnation.

  10. A Trad Confused | January 18, 2018 at 3:16 pm |

    His wife left him because of his extramarital affairs! The difference between being married to a Kennedy, and being one.

  11. Peter Lawford never got over being held responsible by Frank Sinatra for JFK changing his plans to stay in Sinatra’s specially-built guest quarters at his house in Palm Springs for a weekend in March 1962 and switching to stay at Bing Crosby’s house in Ranch Mirage instead. Banishment from the Rat Pack swiftly followed.

  12. He added color to our drab lives.

  13. First screen appearance, I believe, came in the first five minutes of “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (one of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce series). An inauspicious start.

  14. Anthony Thompson | April 26, 2018 at 9:34 am |

    @SFSteve – Sherlock Holmes Faces Death’ is a very good film. So that would have been an auspicious start. Except that he wasn’t in it. His first movie was ‘Poor Old Bill’ (1931). try to get your facts straight next time, homeboy.

    • whiskeydent | June 10, 2018 at 9:38 pm |

      @Tony and Harry

      I’ve found that Prilosec provides rapid relief from this sort of acid.

  15. Harry Kinney | June 9, 2018 at 4:13 pm |

    His relative lack of any redeeming qualities can be understood more readily by a perusal of the biography of his mother, Bitch!, a title so succinct in its indication of content that a glance at the cover photo is sufficient perusal. Giving new meaning to ersatz, “Lady”Lawford (a spurious title for which she gives several rationales) spews vindictive narratives about everyone she ever met, saving the most scurrilous gossip for the Kennedys, and her utmost disdain for her wayward son, for whom she acted as a kind of procuress through most of his life. At the end of things, which didn’t go well, she heaped her scorn on the feckless parvenu, primarily, one deduces, for not having been a big enough star to keep her in Rollses and Chateau d’Yquem in her poisonous dotage.

  16. I can’t help but feel sorry for such a lonely soul who was in search of true love and a true friend. He was used by JFK and the Kennedy clan to campaign to the people of Hollywood to vote for JFK. The Rat Pack founder Frank Sinatra used Peter to try to get in good with JFK so Frank could become somewhat of an Ambassador of Italy. Don’t believe it? If you can,find recordings of the Rat Pack shows, watch them, and then ask yourself why is Peter pushed into the background doing nothing really, while Frank, Dean and Sammy are always at the front. You’ll probably answer with, because he couldn’t sing or dance. Somewhat, so why did Frank even hire Peter to be part of the Rat Pack? Aha. Even Joey Bishop knew Frank was using Peter. As soon as JFK wouldn’t stay at Frank’s remodeled home (just for JFK), which JFK told Frank he would, Frank takes it out on Peter by throwing Peter down the stairs, nearly breaking Peter’s back. Why? It wasn’t Peter’s fault that Robert Kennedy told his brother JFK not to be involved with Frank. What I like best, is JFK was too chicken shit to tell Frank himself and told Peter to tell Frank. Again JFK used Peter to do his dirty work. Shall I even mention the same dirty work when it came to Marilyn?. Hmmmmm. Once JFK was assasinated isn’t it odd that Pat Kennedy-Lawford would file for divorce from Peter within a couple years. Extramarital affairs my ass. JFK was gone and there was no longer any need for Peter. After all, she was nothing until she married Peter and it was then that she was even recognized as Senator JFK’s sister. Look at the facts. Pat’s upbringing, why would she even be involved with a movie star? To further her brother, JFK, into the Whitehouse that’s why. Her father, Joseph didn’t like Peter, so why didn’t ole Joe stop the wedding? Everybody listened to datty. He knew his son needed a campaign person within the Hollywood scene who was respected, and Peter was, until Sinatra blacklisted him. Peter trusted Sinatra, The Kennedy’s, the members of the Rat Pack and they all turned their backs on him. He realized he had been used by people he cared for. That would be enough to drive a person like Peter, trusting everyone he met and so easily hurt, to heavy drinking and then to drugs. Even Sammy Davis used Peter to better his show, Hollywood Palace. As soon as the show was canceled, Sammy never spoke to Peter again. None of the members of the Rat Pack even showed up at Peter’s funeral. I’d be surprised if any of the Kennedy’s did, including Peter’s own children. With all the money the Kennedy’s have, they wouldn’t even pay the Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, the $10,000 to keep Peter’s ashes in their cemetery after rites had already taken place. The Kennedy’s knew he had nothing when he died. His young widowed wife, Patty Seaton-Lawford, wouldn’t have had that kind of money. Everything he did campaigning for JFK’s election and they turned their back’s on him even in death. His ashes had to be removed and his widowed wife Patty, placed his ashes where she knew he loved to be, the Pacific ocean. Even his son Christopher Lawford, can be found on the internet as Christopher Kennedy-Lawford. He has been taught well. Make sure to put that Kennedy in your name to make yourself look good. So make it look like you were born out of wedlock and Peter adopted you. Sort of makes Pat Kennedy look bad, doesn’t it? While making Peter look like a loving person that was willing to adopt another man’s brat. In 2018, I phoned the cemetery where Peter’s ashes were removed, to see if a memorial marker or memorial marble bench had ever been placed in his name, since the removal of his ashes in the ’80s. Sadly, I was told, no. I was willing to pay for such a memorial and was told that his next of kin, this now being his children, (Patty Seaton-Lawford has since remarried), would have to give that permission. They, being children of the Kennedy clan, one of the riches families in the USA, could have placed a memorial at that cemetery for their father, for over the past 28 years, and have not. Great kids. Just like the Kennedy’s. All about the money. Christopher travels for hire to do lectures on drug and alcohol recovery, charging $5,000-$10,000 per lecture (per his website) and he can’t afford a marble bench for his father Peter, who without him, wouldn’t be here today. Not to mention that he too has been an addict. Yeah, your dad gave you drugs and you cleaned up, wrote books about recovery and made alot of money. You owe your fame to your father. Without him handing you drugs, which you took willingly, you would never have wrote those books. You would think Chris would have understood his father’s pain and would have been the first to have a memorial put into place. You and your sister’s should be ashamed of yourselves. Peter was a charming, loving human being that unfortunately, trusted the worst of the worst. He doesn’t deserve to be criticized from those that have no faults. We all know your all so perfect. I wish he could see after 25+ years how many people remember him with kind loving thoughts, miss him and still love him dearly. He left us too soon. Rest in Peace Peter. ❤

  17. Phil Fremont | September 6, 2018 at 7:17 pm |

    This guy was a trainwreck a ton of money fame had it all and died with nothing he never had anything he thought he did he is a product of the cesspool that is Hollywood and the entertainment industry as whole heres a guy who from is pampered upbringing never did a days work in his miserable life pitiful as you look back on a dolt like this guy I wouldn’t let him walk my dog a big star how about a self destructive friggin looser he was such an asswhole his own family couldn’t care less in the end about him and it was well deserved

    • “Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.”

  18. My father found him in bed with first wife beat the crap out of him. What a surprise to find on your leave from 8 months at sea. This was in the 50s when ever something of his came on TV he turned it off. My dad always thought he would get bumped off because of what he did.

  19. Thank you, Anonymous, August 12, 4.57 am for your kind words for Peter. I didn’t know a lot of what you wrote. I join you in wishing that he rest in peace. He had a tough life from the monster mother to the treatment by the Rat Pack. I had seen him in a TV interview later in life, where he was hawking some type of vegetable wash. It was so sad. He didn’t deserve this treatment. He’s in a better place now.

  20. He deserves some sympathy as any poor soul should get. He was his own worst enemy, but then, aren’t we all??

  21. I have read everything on the Kennedys,the rat pack and marilyn monroe, he was the last to speck to her before her death, think about she did not commit suicide, why she had it all. He didn’t won’t any shame to the Kennedys, well he already done that. You live hard and fast and you die young. We all know that, i am notin show business. Thank you

  22. Interesting content and quite the learning experience for me, born in the late ’60s and previously unaware of a lot of what I have read here about the life and times of Peter Lawford. Also interesting: that the quality of the writing of these comments gets worse and worse as the days pass, and even as several singular posts progress. Example: “Kennedys”, “backs” and “sisters”, as plurals, not possessives, do not correctly have the apostrophes as posted here by Anonymous. Then there are the comments with no punctuation or even capitalized first letters of sentences, so the entire multi-sentence post is presented as one annoying and frankly stupid, nonsensical sentence. I wish that morons who cannot seem to correctly write anything, no matter how brief, in their likely-native language, would be confronted about and forced to examine their sheer stupidity once in a while.

  23. sandra mitchell | February 16, 2020 at 8:58 pm |

    everyone should rest in peace, after they enter the “the afterlife.”

  24. poor peter lawford he deserves peace not judged.

  25. Anonymous, thank you so much for your comments. Very enlightening. I guess unlike most of the people on this board, not all of us can be perfect, and not all of us can tolerate betrayal by friends and family. It was a huge waste of a life of a charming and talented man, who certainly had a place in film and television.

  26. IMHO the lives of ALL of the Rat-Packers were “object lessons” in despair, and, to a person, lived very tragic existences. Seemingly on “top-of-the-world,” with every single trapping which evoked envy from every male in the world….money, women, booze, drugs, fame, adulation, power, etc. Yet even with “having it all” by the world’s standards, delve deeply into the biographies of each one, and the tales exude unhappiness, loneliness, depression, longing, and the aforementioned despair. Very, very sad, indeed.

  27. Mark Spears | March 14, 2021 at 10:47 pm |

    I just saw Lawford on Carol Burnett on a re-run channel. His hair/toupee looked so awful, that I googled and landed here. People sure are rough on him, when he was such a pathetic character of history. Even on Carol Burnett, they ridiculed his choices of clothing, with a “fashion show” of Lyle and Harvey dressed in Lawford type of clothes, and hinted about him being a closet-case.

  28. He’s a murderer, along with Bobby Kennedy. Period. Anyone that argues that hasn’t don’t their research recently. Lookup the book Bombshell, or collateral damage. They took away an amazing person from this world so they are both losers as far as I’m concerned. If you feel sore about anything I said then I welcome you to do some research before commenting.

  29. I agree with the comment about Peter being a kind, loving man. Yes he did get in with the wrong crowed, the Kennedys and Sinatra. they USED him then threw him out. Imagine how that feels when you give your all, who you are to get JFK elected only to be shunned. He was a decent actor. I like the movies he’s in-Dorian Gray, Hour of 13, Easter Parade, LIttle Women. He became an addict after being discarded and after MM death. No one knows what happened that night and Peter never told anyone though his ex wife claims he told her he cleaned up, I dont believe that. Look at his movies and enjoy the actor he was. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

  30. Amazingly what was not stated was Peter Lawford’s funeral had the largest attendance ever recorded at that time. mjc

  31. Karen Vincent | October 11, 2022 at 7:35 pm |

    Thank you Barbee, Dec. 18, 2018 – those are very kind words and I agree with you. He had a horrible mother, was molested several times as a small boy, had an indifferent father, was not allowed to attend school and felt inferior because of that. I know some people can get on with life and not let their past mess them up, but I think it did a lot of psychological damage to him. Being married to Pat Kennedy didn’t help either as she and the rest of the clan didn’t treat him as a man or as someone with intelligence. I wish he had a happy childhood and had married someone else – things would probably have been different for him. I do love his early movies – he was drop dead gorgeous, had a beautiful smile, was a great dancer and was very good in light comedy/romance. He was a great entertainer in that way and still I fall in love with him every time I watch his old movies. He is now in a better place.

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