Fear and loathing in Camelot

In a stunning memoir, JFK's nephew Christopher Kennedy Lawford reveals the darker side of the Kennedy clan -- and bravely attempts to liberate his family from its crushing legacy

Published September 27, 2005 8:42PM (EDT)

Kennedys don't cry -- that was dynasty founder Joe Kennedy's famous dictum. Nor do they spill their guts. For more than four decades, family members have maintained a stoic front through assassinations, scandals, fatal accidents and the other ordeals collectively known as the Kennedy Curse. There was something heroic in the Kennedys' stony embrace of their fate, particularly in this age of compulsive confessionalism. But over the years it has also trapped the family in a bell jar of morbid celebrity. Unable to confront the terrible meaning of the murders of Jack and Bobby -- the two brothers who brought the family to such political heights -- the Kennedys were doomed to live in the shadows of these martyrs. But now comes "Symptoms of Withdrawal," a raw, exposed wound of a memoir by Christopher Kennedy Lawford, one of the baby-boom generation cousins, that tries to liberate the family from its crushing legacy.

It's a book, as Lawford makes plain, that the family desperately did not want published. The son of Patricia Kennedy and actor Peter Lawford, Christopher inherited his father's addictive hungers and his mother's need for emotional anesthesia after the unbearable shocks to the family that occurred on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas and June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles. For the nation and the world, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy were acts of history-changing dimension. But for the family, as Lawford powerfully brings home, they were personal tragedies that ripped out their hearts and led them down into a tunnel of such pitch-black grief that for some, like Christopher, the only escape was through soul-killing intakes of drink and drugs. Written in a style that is both conversational and deeply compelling, humorous as well as harrowing, "Symptoms of Withdrawal" presents what Lawford calls a "fear and loathing in Camelot" version of the Kennedy epic. While Lawford fails to explore the political mysteries that still enshroud the crimes that forever changed his family -- a determined reluctance he shares with the rest of the Kennedy clan -- he eloquently etches the terrible emotional damage these deaths wrought among them.

Lawford offers an idyllic portrait of the first eight years of his life, growing up on the beach in Malibu with his glamorous parents, whom the press dubbed "the Hollywood Branch of the Kennedys," and whose drinking and partying in those early years possessed a Nick and Nora effervescence. His father toasted his birth with Cary Grant at Madame Wu's famous bistro. Young Christopher was taught to twist by Marilyn Monroe. He roamed the casino at the Sands with his little sisters while his father filmed "Ocean's 11" with the rest of the Rat Pack. His mother and her brother -- the future president of the United States -- woke him up in a Los Angeles hotel room the night JFK won the Democratic nomination to tell him the good news. "Christopher, I won. I am going to be running for the president of the United States ... We're all going to have to work very hard. Will you help me?" JFK asked him. The 5-year-old assured his beloved uncle he would, if it could wait until the morning.

Peter Lawford might have belonged to one of the entertainment world's most exclusive clubs, along with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. But Patricia Lawford made it brutally clear to her husband, and even to her own children, that they did not have full membership in an even more restricted clan, the Kennedy family. Christopher Lawford writes that on the climactic summer night that John Kennedy was to climb onto the stage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to accept his party's presidential nomination, flanked by his telegenic family, his mother tried to stop her husband from joining them, telling him, "Peter, you can't come. You're not a Kennedy." A more levelheaded JFK quickly intervened on his brother-in-law's behalf, telling his sister, "Pat, he's your husband. I'd say that qualifies him. Besides, it doesn't hurt having a good-looking movie star around."

Lawford writes that his mother was never happier than she was that night, "standing at the apex between the worlds of politics and Hollywood," where she had the joy, as a California delegate, of voting for her brother as the next president of the United States. And his father, despite his mother's proprietary attitude toward her family, enjoyed an easy and friendly relationship with JFK, with whom he swapped fashion tips and Hollywood dish. Even as his parents' marriage began to hit the rocks and Lawford went to the White House to seek Kennedy's advice, the president reassured him: "Don't worry, Peter. I will always be your friend."

This world ended for young Christopher and the rest of his family on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when his teacher, Sister Agnes, took him out of class to tell him his uncle had been shot and killed. Jack and Bobby had been the sun and moon of the family, the fulfillment of their father's Olympian ambitions and the celestial lights around whom the others orbited. Now the older brother was gone and everything began spinning off its axis.

"The next morning when I woke up," Lawford writes, "I found my father sitting at the flagpole where I used to raise the presidential flag when Uncle Jack came to visit. He was crying like a baby. Strangers held a vigil on the beach outside my parents' house for days after the assassination." Christopher's mother began drinking with a new seriousness. Neither of his parents could muster the will to talk with their children about the cataclysm that had befallen them. "Maybe they thought it was being covered by so many other people they didn't have to. Maybe they were too busy dealing with the aftermath. Maybe it was too painful." His parents left him at home to go to the president's funeral in Washington. That night, Christopher "reached over to turn the light off by the side of the bed and I said goodnight to Uncle Jack for the first time. It was the beginning of my long relationship with the dead."

The Lawfords' marriage broke up shortly after the assassination. Patricia scooped up Christopher and his three sisters and retreated to the East Coast, to the protective embrace of the Kennedy family, settling in Manhattan, a few blocks from Jackie Kennedy and her children. Peter Lawford never recovered from the assassination and divorce, writes his son, and began a long process of degradation from fashion-plate icon of cool to white-bearded, emaciated addict holed up, through the kindness of Hugh Hefner, in a cottage on the Playboy estate. Spying the fallen actor one evening sitting on Hef's porch with a grown Christopher, Bill Cosby told his female companion, "Look, that's Peter Lawford. Can you believe it? How pathetic is that."

"My grandmother Rose used to say, 'God never gives us more than we can bear,'" writes Christopher. "But my dad's friend Lenny Gershe observed that 'God gave Peter Lawford more than he could bear.'"

In Peter Lawford's boozy and narcotized absence, Bobby Kennedy became Christopher's surrogate father. "Symptoms of Withdrawal" offers a vivid portrait of life at Bobby and Ethel Kennedy's Civil War-era estate Hickory Hill in northern Virginia, so overrun with children and guests that it seemed like "a crazy hotel." "Big E," as he called his Aunt Ethel, tried to impose order with her "desperate and explosive brand of Catholicism," once snapping Christopher's thumb as she was breaking up a fight between him and his cousin David. Only Uncle Bobby could successfully corral his own marauding brood and the Kennedy children, like Christopher, who were left abandoned in the aftermath of JFK's assassination, whenever they gathered at Hickory Hill or the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. "There may have been a lot of important grown-ups walking around the compound, but it felt as if Uncle Bobby's focus was always on the kids," recalls Christopher. "If he was around, you'd better be certain that you were fully engaged in the day. There was no sitting around watching TV when RFK was there." If the ever-watchful Bobby spotted an idle child, he was quickly recruited for a sprawling game of touch football, where pro athletes like Rosie Grier and Rafer Johnson often stood in as "decoys and blockers" for the kids.

This bulwark of family stability vanished the night Bobby Kennedy was cut down in the crowded pantry of a Los Angeles hotel after winning the California primary. The watchful caretaker to the end, Bobby asked, "Is everyone OK?" as he lay bleeding in the arms of a 17-year-old busboy.

History was once again altered by the assassination of a Kennedy. One would have to go back to ancient Rome to find a precedent in the stunning back-to-back assassinations of two brothers at the height of their political glory -- all the way to the second century B.C. when first Tiberius Gracchus and then his younger brother Gaius were viciously hacked to death after being elected tribune of the people and antagonizing the Roman aristocracy with their democratic reforms.

But again, the Kennedy family could not bring itself to confront the deeper meaning of the murder of one of their own. Despite the disturbing evidence of a conspiracy in both murders, the heads of the family seemingly left it to others to explore these monumental crimes.

In public, Bobby Kennedy had stated that he accepted the official version of his brother's public execution in the streets of Dallas. But privately, as I have discovered through research for a book on the Kennedy brothers, RFK nurtured strong suspicions of a high-level plot and recruited several of his closest and most trusted associates to quietly investigate the crime. If he made it back to the White House, RFK confided to these associates, he would reopen his brother's case. However, perhaps out of a desire to protect his family, Bobby did not share his suspicions about Dallas widely among his relatives. Since Bobby publicly accepted the Warren Report, writes Christopher in "Symptoms of Withdrawal," the family was reassured that nothing was rotten in America.

After Bobby's murder, this became harder for the family to accept. But the Kennedys chose once more to suffer in silence. "I never heard any of the grown-ups vent any anger or hatred toward the murderers," writes Christopher. "I never heard anybody question why they did it or how ... We just ate it and tried to be good little Kennedys and demonstrate that stoic grace that everybody seemed to admire so much."

But Bobby's assassination destroyed the Kennedy kids' sense of security. Realizing "there were people in the world who wanted to blow our fucking heads off" definitely messed with their minds, Christopher dryly observes. And it removed from their lives the one adult who always seemed to be watching, who always put them first. This was driven home the summer after Bobby's assassination, when, following his late brother's tradition, Teddy Kennedy packed up the family to take them white-water rafting on Utah's Green River.

"We were looking forward to the trip as a healing ritual," recalls Christopher. "With Uncle Bobby there was no distinction between child and adult; we conquered the river together. On this trip, there was a definite chasm between the adults and the children. The adults floated along with their daiquiris and Pouilly-Fuisse and didn't want to be bothered. They were angry and not in the mood to indulge the high-jinks of the younger generation. On the second day we brought the kids' raft alongside the grown-ups and initiated a water fight, one of the staples of our trips with Uncle Bobby. The grown-ups told us to stop, and when we didn't, sent the mountaineer Jim Whittaker onto our raft to let us know they weren't fucking around by forcefully tossing [RFK sons] Bobby Jr. and David into the river. My cousins and I missed the old days. To me it was clear that Uncle Bobby genuinely liked having kids around. The glory and happiness of the early days were gone."

The rest of Christopher's memoir deals with his plunge -- and that of his best friend, cousin David -- into a whirlpool of addiction, near-fatal overdoses, and, at least in Christopher's case, final resurrection. Uncle Bobby had made the kids feel "that we were going to be okay. He made us feel more like Kennedys than ever -- proud of what Jack had been, determined that our time would come again ... He demanded that we be better than we thought we could be."

But after Bobby's murder, "there was only a sense of splitting apart, and for many in my generation the only safety from here on out would be in escape and not giving a shit."

Christopher began his drug-fueled race from reality by dropping acid every weekend during his 8th-grade year at St. David's prep school in Manhattan, while his mother looked the other way and threw herself into a drug education campaign. "It was a fairly typical family response: solve the problem nationally, and avoid what was going on in your own house." For the next 15 years, he would snort, inject and guzzle every mind-altering substance he could get his hands on, exhausting his family trust fund and his family's forbearance, getting himself thrown into jail while stumping for Uncle Teddy's 1980 presidential campaign, and being hospitalized in nearly flat-line condition on more than one occasion. One of his innumerable low points came in Los Angeles, when he overdosed on a lethal dose of Mexican brown heroin in his bathroom while working as a summer intern for the narcotics division of the L.A. District Attorney's Office -- one of the many unlikely jobs he landed courtesy of his family name.

Not until David Kennedy, RFK's deeply wounded son and Christopher's "best friend to the bitter end," died of an overdose in August 1984 -- followed shortly by the death of Christopher's father, who finally wasted away on Christmas Eve after two decades of self-obliteration -- did the younger Lawford find the inspiration to free himself from his own slavery to drugs. He began by turning to "the one guy on the planet I didn't want to bow to, my cousin Bobby, and asked him what to do." Relying on Bobby, who had kicked his own heroin habit after overdosing on an airplane and being arrested, was his "first experience with humility," since he had aggressively competed with his cousin ever since they were kids.

Today, at age 50, after 20 years of sobriety, Lawford reports that he has reached a serene place in his life -- a divorced but devoted father of three children, an actor with a moderately successful career (his small but effective role as an Air Force pilot in the "Thirteen Days," the 2000 movie version of the Cuba missile crisis, seems one of his proudest Hollywood moments), and, as his new book indicates, a promising future as a writer.

What rescues "Symptoms of Withdrawal" from the tide of addiction literature washing over the bookstores of America is the author's wryly entertaining, no-bullshit voice and, of course, the company he keeps. Among the legendary characters who appear along the way in his odyssey are Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and Elizabeth Taylor -- with whom he helicoptered in for a day of star treatment at Disneyland, while he was flying high on angel dust. The great thing about going to the Magic Kingdom "loaded on PCP," points out Christopher, "is that even It's a Small World is a cool ride."

But it's the Kennedys who come off as the most fascinating characters in Christopher's narrative. If, as he writes, the family lobbied him not to write the book and are now dreading its publication, they should relax. They might not come across as the strong-jawed statuettes dedicated to public service and public mourning that we have seen on TV for the past four decades. But, even through all the drinking and drugging and the other messy grappling with their terrible reversal of fortune, we see a family with enough life force to still cling together, and against all reason, still give something back to the country that had taken so much from them.

Christopher offers admiring snapshots of his cousins Joe and Bobby Jr., the two eldest sons of RFK -- who both managed to crawl from the wreckage of their early lives to become respected public citizens. The late John Kennedy Jr. is also remembered fondly by Lawford as one of the few younger Kennedys who had found a graceful way to deal with The Legacy. "He had the weight of 'the path' on him more than any of us, but somehow managed an aloofness and humanity that allowed him not to get eaten up by it. John was like David in that he understood what a dreadful, dreary burden the legacy had become, but unlike David he was capable of escaping it, creating distance, which allowed him to come to it on his own terms."

Lawford's portraits of Sargent Shriver and his wife, Eunice -- one of JFK's sisters and the mother-in-law of California's muscle-bound governor -- are particularly warm and appreciative. The Shrivers stuck with Christopher throughout his tribulations when others had long given up on him. He recalls sitting with Eunice in his lawyer's office one day, during yet another low point in his life, and the normally irrepressible Kennedy sister -- the one everyone said would have been president if she had been a man -- muttered sadly, "We're so goddamned good at taking care of everybody else's problems, but absolutely lousy at looking after our own."

Then there's Uncle Teddy, the Kennedy brother who became family patriarch through tragedy. He was no Bobby Kennedy when it came to caring for the kids and keeping the family united around a grand mission. But he clearly did his best under Job-like travails. Christopher tells the story of a family ski trip to Saint-Moritz in the Swiss Alps, when after being driven to his limits by the 27-year-old Lawford, Teddy jumped to his feet with fists raised: "Come on, Chris Lawford, I'm gonna fight you here and now. I've had enough of your crap. Come on."

"I looked at my uncle and I had one of those brief moments of clarity," recalls Christopher. "I caught a glimpse of just how infuriating carrying the entire weight of the Kennedy legacy could be. If I had sacrificed my life for a bunch of bratty kids who didn't give a shit, I'd want to punch me in the face too."

That legacy still means something, even now, after all the humiliations and conservative counterassaults. They were not really even a dynasty, like the Bushes -- their enemies made short work of that ambition. But at least for those of us in blue-precinct America, the Kennedy name is a distant trumpet that still sounds out the best of what our country stands for. When white-maned Teddy again takes the lead in confronting a Manchurian Supreme Court nominee, when Caroline Kennedy invokes her father's legacy in her books, when Bobby Jr. rallies a crowd to stand up against the poisonous pillaging of corporate polluters, we're reminded once more of why principled progressive leadership matters. By painfully detailing the human costs of this leadership, Christopher Lawford performs a valuable service, giving us a portrait of the Kennedy family's complex humanity not seen in either the stacks of Camelot hagiography or the equally voluminous Kennedy scandal literature. The fact that it is also stuffed with bold-lettered names and juicy anecdotes will probably ensure it immediate bestseller status.

But while Lawford provides a wealth of psychological insight into his family's rise and fall and survival, he is unable to give us any political understanding of the twin traumas that befell his family in the 1960s. After Bobby's 1968 assassination, the remaining Kennedy elders apparently decided not to push for a full and honest investigation of what happened in Dallas and Los Angeles, as Martin Luther King Jr.'s family has done (but so far failed to accomplish). In this regard, Lawford continues to stick with the family program. His book does not ponder why the lone gunman theory has never been accepted by a wide majority of the American people and why the JFK assassination has deeply troubled the nation's unconscious for over 40 years.

The family's decision to stay quiet has proved deeply tragic. It clearly did not serve the country, which following the two assassinations entered a long, dark period whose politics were characterized by imperial overreach and a cult of official secrecy, reaching its zenith in the Bush administration. And, as Lawford's book strongly demonstrates, the Kennedys' silent stoicism also had ruinous emotional effects on the family.

Fortunately, for those seeking a fuller understanding of the murders of the Kennedy brothers, there is a wave of new scholarship on the subject, from Gerald McKnight's brilliant dissection of the Warren Report, "Breach of Trust" (University of Kansas Press), to Gareth Porter's "Perils of Dominance" (University of California Press), a fascinating revisionist history of Kennedy's foreign policy that documents how JFK artfully deflected the relentless pressures from his national security apparatus to escalate the war in Vietnam. Upcoming books on both Kennedy's Cuba policy and Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney lionized by filmmaker Oliver Stone for his lonely battle to crack the JFK case, also promise to shed further light on what historian Douglas Brinkley has called "the 20th century's great murder mystery." The historical portrait that is slowly emerging of JFK and his closest confidant Bobby is of an administration whose inner circle was at sharp odds with the government's national security hard-liners -- from Cuba to Laos to Vietnam to nuclear arms control and peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union.

Perhaps it is too much to expect the family that was victimized by these monumental crimes to lead the charge for justice. As Bobby said during his darkest days of mourning for his brother, "Nothing will bring back Jack." But there is a peace that comes from knowing the truth. And, though he kept his quest secret even from his own family, Bobby could not help pursuing it.

Last year, during an interview with President Kennedy's close advisor Theodore Sorensen, the man who helped give JFK's speeches their poetic vision, I delicately raised the subject of the president's assassination, which Sorensen immediately alerted me was, after all these years, still a "terribly painful" topic for him. Before he cut the discussion short, Sorensen told me in a voice heavy with melancholy that if he could "know that my friend of 11 years died as a martyr to a cause, that there was some reason, some purpose why he was killed -- and not just a totally senseless, lucky sharpshooter -- then I think the whole world would feel better. That brave John F. Kennedy, with all these courageous positions, went into Texas knowing that it was hostile territory, and he ended up dead."

This new wave of scholarly and journalistic investigation promises to finally do just that: show that President John F. Kennedy died for a cause. Perhaps this realization, once it fully sinks into the national consciousness, will bring a measure of solace to the Kennedy family and New Frontier survivors like Sorensen.

"Death is not the greatest loss in life," Christopher Lawford quotes Norman Cousins in "Symptoms of Withdrawal." "The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live." Lawford's vigorously honest book tells the story of a family in the tortuous process of coming back to life. Hopefully they -- and the rest of the nation -- will someday complete this task by coming fully to terms with what happened to the Kennedy family, and why.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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