The Omnivore: February

Mr. Kennedy Goes to Hollywood

New York book editors must get a memo along with their hire letter: a Kennedy bio in every pot! How else to explain the annual glut of freshly rewarmed takes on America’s vaunted royals? Clearly there’s a market, especially locally, for this dog-eared family saga, but one hardly expects revelations.

Chalk it up to the surprise factor, then, that Cari Beauchamp’s new life of Joe Kennedy (Joseph P. Kennedy Presents, Knopf, $35, out 2/3) feels so satisfying. Beauchamp, a film historian, focuses on the early years, when JPK was a young, vigorous "picture man" in Hollywood, running three major movie studios. He slashed Cecil B. De Mille’s budgets, produced some of the first talkies, downed a legion of highballs, and indulged in plenty of rabbity action with Gloria Swanson. In the end, he was savvy enough to sell high, raking in millions just before the 1929 crash.

The book is packed with fascinating—often juicy—anecdotes. Boston’s Cardinal O’Connell, for example, visits Swanson and beseeches her to break it off with her movie-mogul beau; after all, Kennedy has a wife and kids at home. Throughout, Beauchamp’s evenhanded, exhaustive approach provides new insights into the man who would go on to become a successful liquor importer and breeder of powerful progeny. One particularly well-worn chestnut, too, gets meticulously corroborated: Old Joe was a ruthless bastard, even back then.