Born as Peter Sydney Ernest Aylen in London in 1923, the only child of Lieutenant General Sir Sydney Turing Barlow Lawford, (1865-1953) and May Sommerville Bunny (1883-1972). At the time of Peter's birth, however, his mother was married to Capt Dr Ernest Vaughn Aylen, one of Sir Sydney's officers, while his father was married to Muriel Williams. May and Ernest Aylen were living apart. May confessed to Aylen that the child was not his, a revelation that resulted in a double divorce. Sydney and May wed in September 1924 after their divorces were finalized and when their son was one year old. His early childhood he spent in France (his mother's childhood nickname for him was Pierrot) and, owing to his family's travels, was never formally educated. Instead, he was schooled by governesses and tutors, and his education included tennis and ballet lessons. When he was older he had Spanish, German and music added to his studies. He read only selected books: English fairy stories, English and French classics; no crime stories. May proofed an ambivalent mother, alternately uncaring and over possessive. Lady Lawford dressed Peter in girls' clothing until he was 11.
Around 1930, aged seven, he made his acting debut in the English film Poor Old Bill. At the age of 14, Lawford severely injured his right arm in an accident when it went through a glass door. The injury greatly compromised the use of his lower arm and hand with irreversible nerve damage which he later learned to hide. The injury was judged to be serious enough to prevent his entrance into the armed forces, which his parents had planned. Instead, Lawford decided to pursue a career as an actor, a decision that resulted in one of his aunts refusing to leave him her considerable fortune, as originally planned.
His parents prefered to travel around the world and indulge in a lavish lifestyle, largely provided by their wealthy friends. As the Lawfords' fortune had vanished after the war began in 1939 their welcome ran out and Peter had to provided for them by starting to work.
This volatile relationship with his mother, an inferiority complex due to his lack of education led to a steadily worsening dependency on alcohol and drugs.
In 1938, he made his Hollywood debut in a minor part in the
film Lord Jeff. His first role in a major film production was in A
Yank At Eton (1942),
starring Mickey Rooney, in which Lawford played a snobbish bully. His
performance was widely praised. During this time, Lawford started to get more
leads when major MGM stars Clark Gable & James Stewart were drafted into the war. Later, it was
Good News (1947),
co-starring June Allyson that became Lawford's greatest claim to fame.
Following his success in films, Peter Lawford provided his parents with the
money and social standing they had previously lost.
In 1949 Lawford first met Patricia Kennedy, a younger sister of then-U.S. member of the House of Representatives, John F. Kennedy
Suffered second degree burns on his right hand and arm during a 1950 Jimmy Durante television show skit. Titanium tetrachloride was being used in the making of a smoking concoction and it accidentally spilled on him. Durante and Lawford were close friends and later performed frequently on stage in a song-and-dance nightclub act.
Probably Lawford's most controversial affair, amongst many, was with African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge. These two almost went public with their relationship at a Cole Porter party, but at the last minute both agreed that it would be a bad move for both of their careers. Thus the two arrived at the party separately (1953).
Lawford made his television debut in 1953 in a guest-starring role on Ronald Reagan's anthology series General Electric Theater. In 1954, he starred as a newspaper advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist named Bill Hastings in the short-lived NBC series Dear Phoebe with Marcia Henderson and Charles Lane.
His first marriage, in 1954, was to socialite Pat Kennedy. Peter admitted that his love for Pat was not instantaneous but “one that grew over a couple of years of running into her at different places.” His proposal occurred during one romantic dinner when he casually suggested, “One day I would like to marry you.” To his surprise, she replied, “How about April?” And April it was.
Became a United States citizen in early 1960 so that he could
vote for his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy in the presidential election later
As Peter also appeared to be a mysterious figure in the cover-up of Marilyn Monroe's death in 1962. She allegedly said to him: “Say goodbye to Pat [Kennedy], say goodbye to the President and say goodbye to yourself because you’re a nice guy.” Close friend Lawford and the other members of the Rat Pack were banned from Marilyn Monroe's funeral by Joe DiMaggio.
Met his second wife, Mary Rowan (daughter of Dan Rowan), in December 1970 while he was appearing on her father's television show, Laugh-In (1967). Lawford married her in October 1971 when she was one day shy of 22 years of age; Lawford was 48.
In 1971 when
Universal Pictures prepared a 2 hour pilot for a new series
Ellery Queen, Don't Look Behind You
Lawford played Ellery Queen
as an over aged, mod "Swinging London" hipster... The series was never to
He had a recurring role on The Doris Day Show from 1971 to 1973 as the love interest to Day's character.
He also appeared on screen as a co- host of the 1974 M-G-M hit That's Entertainment, in which musical highlights from the studio's first decades were woven into a feature film.
In 1972, Lawford had surgery to remove a pancreatic tumor. By that time, he was in ill health as a result of long-time alcoholism.
Rowan and Lawford seperated in 1973 and divorced in January 1975. In June 1976, at age 52,
he married aspiring actress Deborah Gould, 25, whom he had known for only three
weeks. They separated only two months after marrying and
divorced in 1977. During his separation from Gould, Lawford met 18-year-old
His last role was as Montague Chippendale in Where Is Parsifal? (1983)
Patricia became his fourth and final wife in July 1984, two months before his death.
In his last years, he would write letters to JFK as if he had an audience to
heaven. He struggled with alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitutes and kinky sex, all
through his life. In the end, he spent much of his time in the Betty Ford clinic
trying to recover.
Lawford died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve 1984, aged 61, from cardiac arrest. He had suffered from kidney and liver failure after years of substance abuse.
His body was cremated, and his ashes were interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. Allegedly owing to a dispute between his widow and the cemetery, Lawford's ashes were removed from the cemetery in 1988 and scattered into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California by his widow, Patricia Seaton Lawford, the National Enquirer provided the boat in exchange for the scoop.
A plaque bearing Lawford's name was erected at Westwood Village Memorial Park.
(3) Peter Lawford editoral at Craig's Big Bands & Big Names
(4) Obituary New York Times by Eric Pace, Dec 25, 1984
(5) 'They're bullies and they treat their women like crap': One former Kennedy
wife tells of Robert Kennedy's come-ons, JFK's stealing, and the family's
philandering Mail Online by Daily Mail Reporter, May 27. 2012
(6) Book Review: Peter Lawford: The Man Who Kept the Secrets by Laura
Grande, Jun 25. 2013
(7) Marilyn and the Lawfords by Tara Hanks at Immortal Marilyn, 2015
(8) The Passing of Peter Lawford Rekindles Memories of the Joys and
Sadness of a Camelot Lost at People.com by Malcolm Boyes, Jan 14. 1985
(9) Peter, Peter, Peter article by TJB on Stirred, Straight Up with a twist,
published Sep 7, 2008
Additional video & audio sources
(1) Old Time Radio Downloads
(2) The Peter Lawford & Patricia Kennedy Wedding, Youtube, HelmerReenberg
(3) Peter Lawford & Patricia Kennedy - Wedding Party April 24, 1954 Youtube
(4) Lawford-Kennedy Wedding (1954) Youtube, British Pathé
(5) Easter Parade Youtube Clip Peter Lawford and Judy Garland
Page first published on Aug 6. 2017
Last updated Aug 6, 2017
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