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Books > Lit Up

Lit Up

Old Joe Kennedy's dirty Hollywood, eagle-eyed tales of trailer-court Michigan and Nazi art thieves

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Published 7/29/2009

Joseph P. Kennedy Presents His Hollywood Years
by Cari Beauchamp
Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 506 pp.

For Joseph P. Kennedy, success meant just one thing: More.

More money, more power, more press, more sexual conquests, more brilliantly orchestrated yet shady business deals, and more respect and fame for himself and his family. Kennedy was continually crafting new, carefully planned schemes to bolster his agenda. 

In author Cari Beauchamp's semi-biographic novel of his life, Joseph P. Kennedy Presents his Hollywood Years, Joe Kennedy is portrayed as having an almost superhuman ability to charm the pants off the ladies and strip the assets from the fellas, greedily seeking and sucking up more money and power under the pretense of "helping" others.

"The first and only outsider to fleece Hollywood," Kennedy, with his uncanny ability to predict the right timing for new ventures, relied on his charm, wit, extensive contacts, self-promoted financial genius and his personally selected "gang" of trusted minions to carry out some of the most merciless (and profitable) profiteering rackets to ever hit Hollywood.

Kennedy befriended, nay targeted, those of great talent — writers, directors, actors, Wall Street and media moguls — who had fallen on hard times, offering his financial expertise so that "together they could make millions." In the end, Kennedy did make millions — along with a string of low-budget B-movies  — but his "friends" and the movie production companies he directed were often left penniless. His malignant actions left him a wake of enemies, including famed silent-movie cowboy actor Fred Thomson and the "Reining Queen of Hollywood," Gloria Swanson, whose deep-seeded hatred was imbedded in generations to come. 

If Kennedy were alive to read Beauchamp's version of his "Hollywood Years," he would likely first briefly revel in the attention, at once devising a plan to capitalize on, before sending it back to her rewritten with a proposal that would "surely be of mutual benefit."

Kennedy Presents is a fascinating look into capitalism at its worst, of a time, place and country ruled by greed, by making a profit by destroying others — a scenario playing out on Wall Street yet once again with the notorious Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff and Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo's "timely sale" of $130 million in company stock, among countless other CEOs, investors and stockbrokers that seemingly made money the "Joe Kennedy way." 

Kennedy was likely an inspiration for the current generation of money-mongering financiers. The only difference is that Kennedy made sure to downplay his involvement in, and disentangle himself from, his financial ventures, escaping the ensuing scandal virtually unscathed, albeit much richer. Ironically, Kennedy — who made his fortune using other people's money on Wall Street practicing shifty insider trades and selling off his Hollywood stocks just before the market crash of 1929 — moved on to politics and helped establish the very same Securities and Exchange Commission that's investigating the current crop of greedy America capitalists. 

Joseph P. Kennedy Presents his Hollywood Years is a must-read for those interested in learning more about the inner workings of both the American financial and political systems, as well as an in-depth look into the rise and fall of some of old Hollywood's most elite. His is a story made for the movies. —Christa Buchanan


American Salvage
by Bonnie Jo Campbell 
Wayne State University Press – Made in Michigan Writers Series, $18.95, 184 pp. 

Kalamazoo-based author Bonnie Jo Campbell reveals a rural Michigan that we normally read about in papers: Petty thefts and burned-out drug houses. Blue-collar workers who rely on meth to catch up and cheap beer to slow down. Homes on wheels and militia men in ill-fitting camo. These are the props and characters that inhabit her gritty short stories, which tell truths that couldn't be told in articles or essays; the gray desperation couldn't be seen, the profound sadness couldn't be felt. But in Campbell's stories they are. 

Her writing is raw, precise and unflinching, breaking down our picture of the human condition and throwing it back onto the scattered pile of puzzle pieces that best represent it. Take, for instance, the guy who fantasizes about buying groceries and eardrops for his girlfriend's kids as he kills an old man with a lead pipe and steals his money. 

As brutal as the details are, Campbell's tales feel like prayers that float upward, those for for the poor, the addicted, the lost, and the forgotten. Stunning stuff.   

She's also the author of the short story collection Women and Other Animals and the novel Q Road. —Norene Smith


Pictures at an Exhibition 
by Sara Houghteling
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 253 pp.

The Nazis' crimes of World War II included their seldom-mentioned grand theft of European artworks (100,000 paintings stolen from France alone). It's amid this larceny that first-time novelist Sara Houghteling sets her narrator, Max, and his art-dealer family, in 1940s Paris. Intrigue, danger and madness are detailed in their attempts to recover their artworks and livelihoods. 

Houghteling's pace is measured, not excited, her tone somewhat distant, perhaps to better convey a wistful, fatalistic mood. The pre-war evacuation of the Louvre's treasures amid fear of German invasion is understated and slow in depiction. It's a mood like a dark sky at dawn, with its certainty of the lengthy storm to come.

Brighter in the gloom is good "local color" of early 1900s Paris art districts, sketching worthies from the impressionists to Picasso. 

Max's long-term pseudo-romance (one-way) is shown old-timey stiffly, in language that suits the age.

The war creates mysteries for Max: Where are our friends, our artworks? Where is Mother? His search involves tangled bureaucracies, imbecilic temporary (i.e., Russian or American) overlords, and paternal confrontations.

And Max goes a little nuts. He follows names in his father's old address book, and bangs on strange doors to find lost art. Hatbands of associates are thought to hold clues. The conditions of an uncertain time promote imbalance.

Paris art traders negotiating with foreigners for their goods after the war shrewdly assessed that "a bad agreement is better than a good lawsuit." The Author's Note explains the confusion, then and now, in recovering works. An estimated 40,000 French artworks remain unfound.

This rewarding book of certain integrity fills, at least a bit, the hole of confusion. —Dennis Shea

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