For someone who speaks about the vital importance of “emancipating himself” from his family and who doesn’t even speak to many family members these days, author Christopher Kennedy Lawford sure has a lot to say about the benefits of being part of Camelot.
Lawford, the only son of actor Peter Lawford and Patricia “Pat” Kennedy, showed up to the Georgetown Ritz today to be interviewed by Washingtonian Editor-at-Large Carol Joynt, who moderates Q & A Café apart from her magazine duties. The lunches are typically loaded with old school socialites, women who lunch and retirees looking for something to do. Sometimes the room is sparse. Today it was bustling. A Kennedy — even a socially removed one — can still draw a decent crowd.
Joynt begins by razzing Lawford for showing up at the wrong Ritz. Hey, it happens. Talking to Lawford is like talking to someone loaded up on an enthusiasm steroid. Whatever project he has worked on, he’s off to the next and wants to tell you his plans and thoughts for the next decade. Thankfully he’s not stiff about it. For instance, he speaks of a book he’s working on about understanding women: “And then I read Lolita and thought, what’s the use?”
Joynt, in her own subtle way, knows how to go for the jugular, at least the jugular for a room full of socialites who don’t want to see anything get too uncomfortable. She drops a big name and tells Lawford she ran into Maryland’s former Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend the other night, who told her, “It’s one thing to write things about yourself, it’s another to write about your family.” The interviewer wants to know how the Kennedy clan reacted to his writing so many books over the years, the clincher being his memoir, Symptoms of Withdrawal. His next book was Moments of Clarity, which chronicled a variety of addicts. His current book, Symptoms to Live is a day at the beach compared to the memoir.
“It’s the last thing I intended to do, quite frankly,” Lawford tells Joynt of being an author. But Lawford is a little like V.P. Joe Biden in that he’s “frank” about everything, so it isn’t saying much.
Lawford’s first anecdote of the afternoon is one that shouldn’t make patrons fall sleep in their gazpacho and encrusted salmon adorned with fried crisps. In 2005 when the memoir came out, he recalled, he had plenty of recovery. But it was also the year he separated from his wife and the year he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. His career was also taking a nosedive.
“I was 15 years sober and was like, this is it?” he told a rapt audience. “I was wandering around ranting in my bathrobe wondering what had happened to my life.”
Chuckles all around the room.
He went on, addressing Joynt’s question. “The worst thing you could do in my family was write a book unless it was Profiles in Courage or about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nobody thought I deserved to write a memoir. I didn’t realize how cathartic it would be. Nobody knew what to do with me.”
Aunt Jean (i.e. Jean Kennedy Smith, daughter of Joseph and Rose) had a teensy problem with him writing his memoir, namely that he was writing it at all. “After I got the contract, I got a call and I knew why she was calling. Everyone tiptoed around it.” He said a cousin called and asked if he was writing a book. “There was a long pause … and he said, about what?”
Jean wasn’t thrilled about it. “She said, ‘We’re all really nervous.’” Lawford asked, “Who is ‘we all?’” She replied, “Well, Teddy is very nervous. He’s nervous you’re going to create a culture of alcohol.” Lawford didn’t try to ease her mind. “I said, he doesn’t have to worry about that. That was in Ireland 2000 years ago.”
When Joynt asked about his family, Lawford replied, candidly, “I don’t talk to most of my family. And that’s not that different for a lot of writers. Family is a lot nicer to you when you’re weak, you noticed that? I’ve seen it a lot though and not just in my family. When you claim part of your legacy and when you use the currency for your own benefit, people – their hackles go up. When you’re on the bus going rah rah rah, it’s all good.”
Maria Shriver, whose mother, Eunice, was a sister to John, Robert and Ted Kennedy, phoned Lawford after the memoir came out. She said, ”I read your book, I liked it a lot, a lot of it made me wince. I wish we could have talked about it.’ Nobody talked about anything.”
Lawford says these days he hangs out in a lot of recovery rooms. “So I deal with a lot of people who are dealing with drug and alcohol addiction,” he said.
And then he says it. The thing for which he is most grateful concerning his family: “The greatest gift I got from writing my book was my legacy, my emancipation from my family. “
Lawford says he feels privileged to have had a variety of addictions. “They actually helped me until they actually almost killed me.” Joynt interjects, “There are parts of it [the memoir) Chris where you almost want to go get a drink.” The audience laughs appreciatively.
Joynt brings up the mixed blessing that Washington has been for the Kennedys. She brings up his heroin-addicted neighbors and the fact that Lawford was an addict at age 13. “I was drawn to them because they had heroin,” he says of the neighbors, quickly reminding the bug-eyed audience that he has been clean and sober now for 27 years. “I had a big and interesting life and I wasted so much of what I was given. If I think about my life today – I had this big sexy life -- [but] I do more in a day today than I did in a month back then.”
Lawford has three kids – two of whom he says don’t seem to have a problem with drugs or alcohol and a third who has been sober for three years. He opens up about family life and says, “When I get mad at my daughter, I say, Savannah I really don’t like you right now but you’re doing a hell of a lot better than I was. “
Lawford has no interest in being a politician, but he seems to know he can talk like one and has an impressive knack for public speaking. “Today I couldn’t tolerate it for a second,” he said. “I’d be a better dictator than a legislator. I wanted to become Cruise when I got sober. I don’t want to be Tom Cruise today god bless him.
Joynt returns to his family again and again. “Can you recall your happiest or proudest or most defining moment as a Kennedy as being a part of that big brood?” Lawford waxes nostalgic, giving the audience the Camelot red meat they came for. “Before President Kennedy was killed, that whole period to me was full of fun and sun and life and just promise and happiness,” he said. “Everything about it was fantastic. Nov. 22 came and everything changed. It went from light to dark. That’s exactly what happened. It was a transitional thing that happened over a period of months. It went dark. I loved going to Hyannis Port. I loved the congregation of my family.”
It was time to broach family strains. “Was the door shut on you?” Joynt asked. “No. I have my own life,” Lawford replied. “I go to Hawaii. I live on the north shore of Maui.”
No interview is complete without asking about the media. Have they been fair to Lawford and his family? “Yeah,” he says immediately. “Absolutely. I’ve gotten enormous benefits from what happened to us. There is so much good will in the world directed to me because of my family it’s monumental.”
Joynt once again returns to her conversation from the other night with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and ends the interview by paying Lawford a whopping compliment. Kennedy Townsend told her, she tells him, “Of all the members of my family he’s been the best to my daughter.”
Lawford smiles, unsurprised. “Yeah, she wrote me a really sweet note.”
Notables in the crowd: Publicist and Hollywood on the Potomac blogger Janet Donovan, Tandy Dickerson and her husband, Wyatt, father of CBS Political Director and Slate writer John Dickerson. Tandy is John’s stepmom. Kitty Kelly once asked her to write a book with her. Tandy turned her down. “It’s not in my blood,” she told FishbowlDC. Wyatt was close with Christopher Kennedy Lawford’s father, Peter Lawford, back in Los Angeles and a number of other Hollywood actors like Van Johnson. Until today, he had never met Christopher.
Tandy and Wyatt Dickerson.
The scene at the Georgetown Ritz.