Authors: Lorna Luft
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Arts & Literature, #Actors & Entertainers, #Composers & Musicians, #Television Performers, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women, #Humor & Entertainment
When I woke up in the hospital room, I was in a whole lot of pain. My appendix had been wrapped inside a muscle, which was why at first no one had diagnosed the infection, and getting it out hadn’t been easy. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my dad asleep in the chair by my bed. He and my mom had been taking turns sitting with me ever since the surgery. I was hot and miserable and threw up constantly from the effects of the ether. Restless, I would crawl to the foot of the bed in my misery, and every time I
did, the nurses would pick me up and put me back at the other end. Finally my dad lost his temper and said, “For God’s sake leave her alone! Let her sleep at the other end if she wants to!”
Mama and Sid visited me every day, bringing a little record player and my favorite records to listen to. My very favorite record at the time was Georgia Brown singing “Mi’lord,” and I played it over and over until Liza couldn’t stand it anymore. One day she told me the record was gone. First she told me it had accidentally melted by the fireplace, and then she told me she’d dropped it down the elevator shaft at the hospital. I don’t know which story, if either, is true. At any rate, the record was gone. (Years later, Liza recorded the song herself.)
Things started looking up again when I got to come home. My parents had houseguests, Carolyn and Freddie Finklehoffe. Freddie was there to work with Mama on her autobiography, for which Bennett Cerf of Random House had paid her $20,000 as an advance. Carolyn and Freddie made a big sign for me with glue and glitter that read, “Welcome home, Scarbelly,” and hung it on the front door. I did have a scar, a whopping big one that I could show off. My mom and dad put me on the couch with quilts and dolls and warm slippers, and I got to watch TV all day long and be the little queen. I even got to make Joey stay off the couch because “Your sister is sick.” Talk about power. It was great. My mother bought me
to read while I got better. In the book Madeline goes to the hospital and has an appendectomy just like mine. I thought the story was really about me.
The whole adventure reached a climax on Guy Fawkes Night, an annual English holiday similar to the Fourth of July in America. I had just been home from the hospital a few days, and my parents and the Finklehoffes had also gotten sick with food poisoning from a restaurant. Joey had a cold, so the only ones in the house who weren’t sick were Liza and the staff. Since it was Guy Fawkes Night, my mom dragged herself downstairs and asked the cook to
get out the fireworks so we could have at least a small celebration, and the cook came back toting a big box.
The cook’s name was Antonio, and he doubled as a butler. He had an Italian accent you could cut with a knife. He was one of the biggest klutzes I’ve ever seen, and just as nice as he was clumsy. My mom wanted him to light the fireworks for us kids to watch, so Antonio took the whole box of firecrackers outside into the courtyard. It was one of those tiny English courtyards with a garden. We kids sat down on the window ledge to watch, with the grownups all gathered behind us.
Antonio opened the box and took out a little sparkler, the kind that looks like a fairy wand when it’s lit. He lighted the end with a match, and it started to sparkle. We thought it was beautiful, and everyone went, “Wow!” But then one of the sparks hit Antonio’s hand and burned him. He screamed,
and let go of the sparkler, dropping it into the firecracker box. The whole box exploded, and the entire box of fireworks went off at the same time. It was astounding. Poor Antonio was backed up against a wall screaming and carrying on in Italian, with fireworks going off all around him and then sailing over the wall into the neighbors’ yard. Meanwhile, we were all laughing hysterically. My mother said, “There goes the soufflé!” every time another round went off, and kept telling my father, “That’s exactly how he cooks, too!”
Poor Antonio! Nobody tried to help him; we were all laughing too hard. My mom and dad and the Finkelhoffes were all doubled over, roaring with laughter and clutching their sick stomachs. Liza and Joey and I were doing exactly the same thing. Each time a new round exploded, we’d explode with laughter. It hurt terribly to laugh because my wound hadn’t healed yet, but I couldn’t stop. The light show must have gone on for about five minutes before the box finally finished exploding. It’s a wonder poor Antonio wasn’t badly burned. He was pretty well singed around the edges. The poor man had been trapped in the middle of an explosion, and all we could do was laugh.
Life with Mama always meant plenty of fireworks.
It was exciting at our house three days later, too, when John Kennedy was elected president. My mother had campaigned for him personally. I still remember her saying she didn’t vote for Nixon because she could never vote for a grown man who would wear a propeller beanie during a campaign. When Kennedy won the election, he called my mother in England himself to give her the good news. My mother took the call in the living room, where I was still resting on the couch from my surgery, and when she heard the news, she started jumping up and down and screaming with excitement like a little kid. It looked hilarious—she was so tiny, anyway, and there she was, jumping up and down like a six-year-old. I started laughing because she looked so funny, but it hurt when I laughed, so I begged her to stop. “Please don’t do that, oh, please, please.”
She kept on yelling, “He won! He won! He won! He’s the President! He won!” still jumping up and down. Joey started laughing, too, and the more he laughed, the more I laughed. By the time it was all over, my side was killing me, but it was worth it because it was so funny.
I could have stayed in England forever. So could my father. It was the last time we were ever really happy as a family. Eventually, though, we had to return to the U.S. so my mother could work. In 1961, a few months after my eighth birthday, we flew back home.
f you asked my father, he’d tell you that the turning point in my parents’ marriage was the day my mother signed with Freddie Fields and David Begelman as her exclusive managers. One thing is certain: My dad was convinced that signing that contract began a long process in which he was systematically excluded from my mother’s life. In his view, Begelman gradually influenced my mother in the ways she was most vulnerable to: by flattery and fear. And it worked.
First he dissolved my parents’ management team and began to
handle all of my mother’s professional commitments. In no time my mother had given him full power of attorney, including the ability to write checks and otherwise dispose of her money. My father objected to this arrangement, but by then he had been excluded from all contractual agreements and business decisions. Begelman said that must have been how my mother wanted it. But in my father’s eyes, it was Begelman who was trying to remove him from my mother’s life completely, including from their marriage, for “Judy’s own good,” of course. After the Mapleton house was sold (with the proceeds going entirely to debt), Begelman was careful to insist that any new real estate be acquired exclusively in my mother’s name, whether my father lived on the property or not. He later said this was my mother’s idea, but my father was sure Begelman was responsible.
My dad was put on his wife’s payroll—humiliating for any man, much less a “tough guy” like my dad. Dad threw himself into promoting the new stereo system he’d invested in two years before, trying to make some money to pay off the family debts. His plan was to sell the new system to international airlines for in-flight music. Ultimately, the idea failed to catch on, but only after Dad had invested a huge amount of time developing and promoting it. He still has one of the systems sitting on a shelf in his living room. His face is a mixture of pride and regret as he shows visitors the system. For Dad, that stereo has become a symbol of what might have been.
For the first time, our family was beginning to splinter. Looking back on it now, the reasons are much clearer to me than they were at the time. I believe a big factor in the collapse of our family during those years was Begelman’s entry into the picture. Under this management my mother was committed to a grueling concert tour that helped damage her health. Three years later my mother discovered that Begelman had been embezzling from her the whole time. No wonder he wanted to take all financial control away from my dad. After giving a record number of concerts in an eighteen-month
period, my mother ended up with hardly anything to show for it.
The other, more insidious reason for the breakup of our family was also linked to my mom’s grueling schedule. To maintain the energy she needed to perform, my mother’s intake of stimulants skyrocketed. Sometime in 1961 doctors started her on Ritalin, a powerful new stimulant currently given for attention deficit disorder. A normal dose of Ritalin is 20 mg. daily; 30 mg. is considered the maximum safe dosage. By mid-1961 my mother was taking between 50 and 100 mg. of Ritalin a day—two to four times the maximum dosage—along with occasional Benzedrine capsules, and a heavy mix of barbiturates to make her sleep afterward. With this chemical time bomb inside her, she could go onstage night after night and perform at a frantic pace, but the toll on her health was frightening. In the early stages of overdose, Ritalin causes agitation, tremors, sweating, confusion, and paranoia. Within a year of our return from England, my mother had every one of those symptoms.
We lived in the East after our return to America. While my mom traveled and did her concerts, Joey and I stayed in New York with our nanny. Dad was traveling on business a lot of the time, but he saw me and Joe as much as he could. My parents separated repeatedly during this time as my mother’s mood swings worsened. Vern toured with my mom for a while, but as her behavior got more erratic, she became estranged from Vern. Finally Vern said he’d had enough and returned to California to stay. It was years before I saw him again.
It was during this time period that my mother was approached about doing a cameo part in
Judgment at Nuremberg,
a powerful drama about the Nazi war criminal trials. She hadn’t done a film since
A Star Is Born,
and in her state of mind, the prospect of doing a movie again was frightening. She used that fear and vulnerability on camera, and the effect was riveting. When I saw the movie years later, I was proud and deeply moved by her performance.
My mom traveled a lot early in the year, so when summer came, she decided it would be a good thing for us to move to Hyannis Port and have some time together there. Liza had show business ambitions, so my mother arranged for her to work backstage at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, painting scenery for $15 a week. Mama thought it would be good for Liza to see what working in the theater was really like when you were starting out. My dad had gone back to California to deal with the debts they’d left behind, so we moved to Hyannis Port without him. I didn’t think anything of it; after all, he was often away on business. I didn’t yet realize that my parents’ marriage was breaking up.
We settled into Hyannis Port for the summer; Mama, me, Joey, and Liza. The house we rented was right on the beach, just down the road from the Kennedy compound. It seemed as if everybody in Hyannis Port was either a Kennedy or working for the Kennedys. There were several houses on the compound, and a seemingly endless number of kids. Bobby Kennedy alone must have had four or five. Some of them were nice, and some were spoiled brats. John and Caroline were there, but they were very young, not nearly old enough to play with me and Joe.
There were so many Kennedys, they just seemed to multiply as you watched. If you asked them who they were, they’d introduce themselves by saying, “I’m Ted’s kid,” or “I’m Eunice’s child.” It was a given that they were Kennedys. To this day I can’t remember which one was which. There were also lots of mothers and their helpers, and every now and then a couple of dads. Joe and I just sort of blended in with the crowd of kids and enjoyed ourselves. Maria Shriver told me recently that she has a picture of the two of us in a bathtub from that summer. Apparently our mothers bathed us together. The parents just stuck us kids in the tub at the end of the day in groups, and rinsed us off.
Joe had a harder time fitting in on the compound than I did. He was small for his age and still somewhat frail, which was especially hard for a boy. My mother continued to dress him in short
pants like the ones boys wore in England. She also kept his hair very long, while other American boys had crewcuts. The Kennedy kids were a rough-and-tumble crowd, and they gave Joe a really hard time. Sometimes he’d come home in tears because he couldn’t do all the things the Kennedy boys could do. Whenever that happened, my mother would say, “Yeah, but I’ll bet you they can’t conduct
West Side Story,
either, like you can.” Joe liked that idea. He even pointed it out to the other boys one day. Eventually he and Chris Lawford became friends, and since they turned out to have the exact same birthday, they celebrated their birthdays together when we moved back to California (the Lawfords had a house on the Santa Monica beach).
Things did get out of hand at times. I remember that one of the Kennedy boys—I don’t remember which—loved to play with matches. He was always lighting them. It scared my mother to death. One day my mom sat all the kids down and gave us a big safety lecture on why we shouldn’t play with matches. She even lit one to demonstrate and burned herself in the process. She was something of an expert on fire safety by then; she had dozed off and started enough accidental fires of her own over the years to know what she was talking about. Most of the time, though, we kids just went swimming or sailing that summer. There was nothing as exciting as a really big fire.
Some of the Kennedy kids were rough and obnoxious, but their parents were always nice. They spoke kindly to me and Joe and treated us well. Eunice and Ethel were there, and, of course, Jacqueline. I adored Jacqueline. She was wonderful with us children, always gentle and sweet, and careful and strict with her own kids. I remember being especially fascinated by her voice. I’ve never heard another one like it, before or since. It was soft and whispery and gentle, and I loved to listen to her speak. My mother was the one with the amazing singing voice, but Caroline and John’s mother had the most remarkable speaking voice I’d ever
heard. To this day, when I think of Jacqueline Kennedy, I remember that soft, wonderful voice.