Peter Lawford may be the least well-known member of the Frank Sinatra “Rat Pack.” Lawford is sometimes called “The Man Who Kept The Secrets” because of his clandestine efforts to connect his brother-in-law,
John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe and his work as a liaison between Kennedy and his purported involvement in the death of Marilyn Monroe.
You may remember that Peter Lawford was a suave and handsome British movie star. But, off the top of your head, can you name any movie he was in other than “Ocean’s 11”? In the years just before he joined the Rat Pack, however, his career had stalled. He actually made a lot of movies and some of them were pretty good. His best titles include “Little Women,” “Advise And Consent,” “Exodus,” and “It Should Happen to You.” However, in most of these he was merely a competent supporting actor and not truly a leading man. That’s not to say that he was a bad actor. But I believe that if it wasn’t for his involvement in the Rat Pack and his connection to John F. Kennedy, he would be a pretty obscure figure in the history of American film.
Origins of the Rat Pack
When the Rat Pack was first formed under Humphrey Bogart, its members were a diverse group of superstars. It included the top actors of the day, such as Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, David Niven and Errol Flynn. Iconic singers Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Nat “King” Cole joined as well. After Humphrey Bogart’s death the original group disbanded. Frank Sinatra informally joined together a group of his pals to form what they called The Clan.
Dean Martin was a top-selling singer and occasionally effective actor. Sammy Davis Jr.’s talents were off the chart. Why did Peter Lawford become a member? He was a middling movie actor at best. The answer is that he had married John F. Kennedy’s sister.
JFK was the glamorous, rising star of the Democratic Party. He embodied political cool in the way that Sinatra embodied cool on stage.
Peter Lawford at the Intersection of Politics, Show Business and Scandal
Lawford knew his place. His association with Sinatra, Martin, and Davis made him seem much more prominent in Hollywood than he actually was. Sinatra never let him forget that, either. His nickname became “Brother-in-Lawford.” Kennedy and the Sinatra Clan genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. However, they also used each other to increase their visibility and glamour. Lawford became a key member as he connected JFK to the Hollywood community. It was through Lawford that JFK met Marilyn Monroe. Lawford also arranged trysts for JFK with other Hollywood beauties. It was through Lawford that Sinatra endorsed and campaigned for Senator Kennedy as he ran for President. It was through Lawford that many members of the entertainment community gained access to Kennedy. Lawford coached JFK before his historic debate with Richard Nixon. JFK learned how to present on camera, what gestures to use, and even took advice on what suit to wear. In fact, students of the debate claim that Lawford’s preparation of his brother-in-law was a key factor in JFK’s dazzling performance.
Peter Lawford – From a Perch at the Summit to an Outcast in the Wilderness
JFK’s election in 1960 was a joyful moment for the Rat Pack. Lawford became a citizen just in time to vote. Suddenly, a man whose career had stalled just a few years before was brother-in-law to the President. Sinatra’s influence and prestige had never been greater. The Rat Pack was seen as glamorous, raking in millions for films, concerts and personal appearances. The future looked bright.
Robert Kennedy, among others, was very concerned about Frank Sinatra’s deep ties with the Mafia. The Mob had long interfered in the careers of Italian-American performers. Among Sinatra’s many Mafia friends was Sam Giancana. “Momo” Giancana was the undisputed leader of the Chicago Mafia and had intricate involvement with the Kennedy family. Lawford rubbed elbows with mobsters and movie stars and managed clandestine meetings between Marilyn Monroe and JFK. We can only speculate about how many secrets he kept. Gossip mongers have published scurrilous accounts of Lawford arranging orgies for Sinatra, Monroe and JFK. Others have linked him to the death of Marilyn. His biographer details many scandalous details of Lawford’s role.
In 1962 Peter Lawford arranged for President Kennedy to stay at Frank Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs. Sinatra made extensive preparations for this singular honor. He even had a helipad built just for JFK. At the last moment, Robert Kennedy convinced his brother not to stay with Sinatra. The public reason was a question of security. The real reason was RFK’s deep concern over Sinatra’s ties to Giancana and the Mafia. He had Lawford break the news to a bitter and humiliated Sinatra. JFK wound up staying at the home of longtime Republican Bing Crosby. Sinatra had Lawford’s role written out of the next Rat Pack movies. He never spoke to Lawford again.
After JFK’s murder, Lawford lost all influence in Washington. His career evaporated and his life entered a downward spiral of drug addiction, divorces and drinking. He died at the age of 61. And a lot of secrets went to the grave with him.