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Lawford tells tale of privilege and pain


Christopher Kennedy Lawford
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Christopher Kennedy Lawford (The Spokesman-Review)

He started with LSD when he was 14. For the next 17 years, he was addicted to alcohol, cocaine, uppers, downers and any other drugs he could buy.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford was not an ordinary junkie. His father was movie star Peter Lawford. His mother was the sister of John, Robert and Edward Kennedy. The boy grew up in two vastly different milieus: the libertine world of Hollywood and the competitive family compound at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod, Mass.

Lawford, 50, writes about his double life in “Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption” (William Morrow, 416 pages, $25.95).

He tells of getting a lesson in dancing the twist from Marilyn Monroe, watching Judy Garland play poker with the boys, and hanging out with the Rat Pack, which included his father (until Frank Sinatra gave him the boot), Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and Joey Bishop.

After Peter Lawford’s stardom dimmed, he descended into alcohol and drugs, some of which he shared with his son. Lawford also took his young son to parties at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion.

Pat Lawford grew tired of her husband’s transgressions and divorced him in 1966. She moved her son and three daughters from Santa Monica to New York, and Christopher’s Kennedy period began. He writes of being a big brother to John Kennedy Jr., of touch football games at Hyannis Port.

Christopher was in boarding school when he discovered LSD. It was the start of a long, destructive path that took him to mugging women for money, panhandling in New York’s Grand Central Station and two well-publicized arrests for drug possession. After a severe illness, he went into rehab and finally kicked the habit at 30.

Lawford is tall and sturdily built, with abundant dark hair graying at the temples and a face that hauntingly resembles his father’s.

Does he regret his misspent youth?

“There are many days when I wish I could take back and use (my youth) more appropriately,” he answers calmly. “But all of that got me here. I can’t ask for some of my life to be changed and still extract the understanding and the life that I have today, with my children, with my friends, with my lover. All of those relationships are the result of all that I have gone through with my life.”

He is divorced from his wife, Jeannie, but frequently sees his children. Savannah, 15, and Matthew, 10, live near his Playa del Rey home; David, 18, is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. Lawford currently lives with actress Lana Antonova.

He has two major pursuits: anti-drug activism and acting. With a master’s certificate in clinical psychiatry from Harvard Medical School, he lectures about drug abuse recovery. During his drugged-out period he somehow earned a law degree at Boston College but never took the bar exam. His ever-helpful uncle Ted used his pull to get him into the school.

His acting career has been sporadic, but productive enough to support his family, he said. His biggest break comes in January with “The World’s Fastest Indian,” starring Anthony Hopkins. Also in the works is a TV sitcom.

Does having two famous names help him get acting jobs?

“The names give you entree, absolutely, but it’s a kind of a double-edged sword,” he says. “People do pay attention to you, but nobody gets ahead in Hollywood unless they are really lucky or they deserve it.”

The cover of “Symptoms of Withdrawal” features a photograph of a young Christopher beside a swimming pool peering quizzically at the camera. In the background, John F. Kennedy, in a bathing suit, glances down at his nephew.

“I remember when I was 5 years old, my uncle Jack came into my bedroom and he looked down at me and he said, ‘Christopher, I’ve been nominated to be president of the United States; will you help me run for president?’ ” Lawford says.

Asked when he realized that being a Kennedy was something special, Lawford thinks for a moment and replies: “I think it was when my uncle Jack was killed. That changed the way the world looked at the Kennedys. I never felt any kind of specialness until that time.”

 

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