Celluloid Style: Peter Lawford

Peter and Pat Lawford
Image credit: kate gabrielle / CC BY 2.0

The trajectory of Peter Lawford’s life traced a bold and tragic arc. 

He was born in London on September 7th, 1923, the son of a knighted Lieutenant General, and, after cutting his teeth at Elstree Studios, moved to Hollywood where he flourished in the studio system as an actor and all-round man about town. While under contract with MGM in the 1940s and ’50s, he had become one of the highest-paid actors in movies while still in his twenties. This meteoric rise reached its apex when he married socialite Patricia Kennedy, sister to then-Senator John F. Kennedy, and shortly thereafter became a card-carrying member of the fabled Rat Pack, alongside Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and the self-styled ‘Rat Master’ himself, Frank Sinatra. 

Lawford’s seemed to be a charmed life. Things couldn’t have gone better for him if they had been scripted — for a while, anyhow.

President John F. Kennedy and Peter Lawford aboard the yacht Manitou
Peter Lawford with his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy on the US Coast Guard yacht Manitou
Image credit: Robert L. Knudsen / Public domain

His wardrobe changed and evolved right alongside his fortunes. In those early Hollywood years, he dressed every bit like the mini Cary Grant he was often styled to be. It was all roomy suits with wide lapels and even wider trouser legs, always accompanied by a glossy head of hair and a thousand-dollar smile. Then came the Rat Pack years, defined by slimmer silhouettes, sharkskin suits, and a healthy dose of flashy jewellery (more on this presently). And, once that particular dream had come to an end, on to the next thing: wide collars, flared trousers, double denim, abundant turtlenecks, a pair of greying mutton chops, and even a rhinestone or two. All of which — it must be said— was worn damn near flawlessly by a man who was known for his sense of style on and off screen. 

The Rat Pack years, however, were by far the best-known and most prolifically documented. The whole gang was mostly outfitted in those years by ‘tailor to the stars’ Sy Devore. The legendary outfitter’s Rolodex was chock full of the biggest names of the day: Jerry Lewis, Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Nat King Cole, Sidney Poitier, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, and Elvis Presley. Even Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson bought clothes from him. The jewel in his crown, however, was unquestionably the Rat Pack, who had become regulars at his store on Vine Street near Sunset Boulevard, just around the corner from the famed Brown Derby restaurant. 

Devore was devoted to his most famous quintet of clients. He kept their suit patterns locked in strong boxes to protect them against fire and even opened a store in the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to service the gang when they flew to Sin City.

His services didn’t come cheaply, though. Devore charged $285 for a custom suit, $200 for a sport coat, $25 for a shirt, and $85 for pants. These were hefty enough prices at the time to prompt Bob Hope to joke: ‘In a very good year, I have my choice between a Rolls-Royce, a new house in Beverly Hills, or a suit from Sy Devore.’ In 1961, it was reported that he grossed more than $1 million per annum. Sammy Davis Jr. alone once placed a $30 000 order for 84 suits to be worn on his TV variety show.

Devore was no flash in the pan either. While men’s fashion inevitably moved on from the slim suits, narrow lapels, uncuffed pants, and skinny ties that were his métier, the L.A. Times points out that ‘some Devore clothing enthusiasts […] insist that Devore did more than any other designer to influence men’s styles.’ 

Ocean's 11 1960 film poster
Image credit: Warner Bros. / Public domain

Among the best platforms for Devore’s cinematic work — he provided the costumes for more than a hundred films — is the Rat Pack classic, Ocean’s 11 (1960), in which the crisp midnight blue New Year’s Eve lounge suit that Peter Lawford wears is one of the standouts (You can read BAMF Style unpacking all the details of this particular outfit here.) 

Ocean’s 11, as it happens, also marked the official start of Lawford’s tenure with the Pack. He was the one who first brought the script to Sinatra. The two had known each other since 1946 when they were both working at MGM but had fallen out in 1951 over ‘some hokey misunderstanding’, as Lawford put it, involving a woman at a dinner party. In the intervening years, Lawford had married Patricia Kennedy and Sinatra, always drawn to those in power, was intrigued by Lawford’s new political connections and agreed to take on the Ocean’s 11 gig. The two stars quickly made amends, set about populating the film with some of their closest friends, and even opened a restaurant together in Beverly Hills called Puccini’s. Sinatra went as far as dubbing his new pal ‘Brother-in-Lawford’.

Depending on who you ask, Lawford was either a perfect fit for the Rat Pack or something of an odd man out. On the one hand, he was the debonair Englishman who looked the part and had the rakish reputation the role required (A well-thumbed anecdote about him holds that he was the first man to kiss Elizabeth Taylor on screen and the last to speak to Marilyn Monroe before her death). On the other hand, he wasn’t much of a singer or a dancer and so wasn’t as central to the group’s stage act as were Sammy Davis, Jr. or Dean Martin. As if foreshadowing the fall to come, Lawford, when he is pictured at all, is often peripheral or partially obscured in photos from his heyday as part of Sinatra and Co. 

Tony Curtis, Nat King Cole, Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra
Peter Lawford bringing up the rear alongside Tony Curtis, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra
Image credit: kate gabrielle / CC BY 2.0

Those halcyon days were in part precipitated by Lawford’s involvement with JFK and certainly came to an end because of it. The Rat Pack had worked hard campaigning to get Kennedy elected, but when the President slighted Sinatra by not staying at his house while in Palm Springs the singer was furious. Kennedy had been advised to distance himself from Sinatra because of the latter’s alleged mob ties and, to make matters worse, chose to stay with Sinatra’s arch-rival, Bing Crosby, instead. In anticipation of the visit, Sinatra had spent a fortune renovating the estate, adding a new wing of suites and even installing a purpose-built helicopter pad. It was Lawford who was tasked with delivering the message at the last minute. Sinatra was apoplectic and apparently responded by destroying the helipad and throwing Lawford down some stairs. Blaming Lawford for the incident, Sinatra vowed never to speak to him again (He only did so once, briefly, on 8 December 1963 after Frank Sinatra Jr. was kidnapped. ‘There was no hello, no apology, nothing like that,’ Lawford recalled. ‘He just said for me to call Bobby [Robert Kennedy] and get the FBI in on the case’).

Lawford’s life was never the same after his exile from the Rat Pack. After the fallout with Frank, he was once again cast in the role of middleman when he was dispatched to Marilyn Monroe’s apartment after her death to make sure there was no evidence to be found of her relationship with JFK. Lawford and Patricia Kennedy divorced in 1966 after years of infidelity, drinking, and drug abuse on his part. After being cast out by the Kennedy clan too and facing the collapse of his career, he dived even deeper into his vices. He got married three more times. The first lasted two years, the second about two months, and he passed away in 1984 shortly after the third. He died of cardiac arrest after suffering from kidney and liver failure from his years of substance abuse. By this point, his creditors had also caught up to him, so much so that no one would fit the bill for his cremation, leading to his ashes being removed from the cemetery where they had been kept to be scattered in the Pacific Ocean. This was done from the window of a boat paid for by the National Enquirer on the promise that they would get the scoop on the story — A bathetic and tragic end to that high, Icarus-like arc of Lawford’s life.