Christopher Kennedy Lawford, actor who wrote about substance abuse and recovery, dies at 63
On tour in 2005 promoting “Symptoms of Withdrawal,” his memoir of addiction and recovery, Christopher Kennedy Lawford readily conceded that his family names sold the manuscript and guaranteed an audience of readers.
Still, he added, a lifetime spent at the intersection of Hollywood and political royalty did little to ease the emotional heavy lifting of writing the book, or living the life he recounted.
“The truth is, this book sold because of where I come from. I know that. But it is my life. And as much as it’s a story of addiction and Hollywood, it’s also about being a Kennedy,” he told the Globe that October, adding with a smile: “I don’t pull any punches, either, which may not be smart of me, but I can’t live any other way.”
Mr. Lawford, whose middle name flagged him as a nephew of Jack, Bobby, and Ted, and whose last name heralded his ties to the Sinatra-era Rat Pack, died in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday of a heart attack. He was 63 and had homes in Los Angeles and Hawaii.
An actor and an author, Mr. Lawford devoted much of his time to advocating for substance abuse programs and studies.
He had worked with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse and Addiction, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations, which had named him a goodwill ambassador on drug dependence treatment.
Among those he helped personally was his cousin Patrick Kennedy, a former US representative from Rhode Island who had struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol. “He was the absolute cornerstone to my sobriety, along with my wife,” Kennedy told the Associated Press. “He was the one who walked me through all the difficult days of that early period.”
Other books Mr. Lawford wrote about substance abuse and recovery included “Moments of Clarity” (2008), “Recover to Live” (2013), and “What Addicts Know” (2014).
Mr. Lawford landed roles in movies such as “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003). He also appeared on TV shows such as “Frasier,” “The O.C.,” and in the soap operas “All My Children” and “General Hospital.”
Tell-all memoirs from the entertainment world are commonplace, but Mr. Lawford’s had added cachet – and more potential personal liabilities. Though at times he had referred to himself as “a second-class Kennedy,” Mr. Lawford knew well the family aversion to revealing secrets.
“To be honest, I haven’t heard yet from many relatives who’ve read the book,” he told the Globe during the interview in 2005. “Either they’re slow readers,” he joked, “or they’re waiting for the movie.”
Born in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1955, Mr. Lawford was the oldest of four children. His mother was Patricia Kennedy Lawford, the sixth of the nine Kennedy children who included John F. Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Robert F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy. Mr. Lawford’s father, Peter Lawford, was a British actor who was part of the Rat Pack — a quintet of entertainers whose other members were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop.
“I was given wealth, power, and fame when I drew my first breath,” Mr. Lawford wrote in his first bestselling book, whose full title was “Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption.”
The memoir drew praise from New York Times book critic Janet Maslin, who wrote that “perhaps as much to his own surprise as to anyone else’s, Mr. Lawford has a great big ace up his sleeve. As Norman Mailer puts it on this book’s back cover, not one of the Kennedys has been a good writer. Not until this one gave it a try.”
The book had its share of high-wattage recollections. Marilyn Monroe taught Mr. Lawford how to dance “The Twist.” Family friends included Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Rat Pack buddies.
Mr. Lawford was a boy when his parents divorced, and as a teenager he visited the Playboy Mansion. One night, he walked into a party at his father’s residence and found among the guests John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Mick Jagger.
“You can’t get much more fawned over than being a Kennedy male,” Mr. Lawford wrote.
Yet he was able to step back and marvel at his life’s good fortune. “Even for a Kennedy, strolling into a cocktail party when you’re 19 years old and escorting Liz Taylor is pretty impressive,” he said with a wink during the 2005 Globe interview.
Mr. Lawford began taking drugs such as LSD in his early teens, and that evolved into an addiction to heroin and other opioids. His father died in 1984 at age 61, after years of his own struggles with alcohol and drugs. David Kennedy, Mr. Lawford’s close friend and cousin, died that year as well, of a drug overdose.
By then, Mr. Lawford had an arrest record. In interviews and his books, he was unsparing in describing his own misdeeds — everything from binge-drinking to paying for drugs with money he stole or panhandled — before he achieved sobriety.
He still managed to graduate from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree, and from Boston College Law School, according to his website, and he later received a certification in clinical psychology from Harvard Medical School.
“A lot of people got sober sooner,” he told the Globe, “but because I was enabled, I got at least six more years of hell.”
In a 2005 interview with the Associated Press, the year “Symptoms of Withdrawal” was published, Mr. Lawford said there were “many days when I wish I could take back and use my youth more appropriately. 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.”
Mr. Lawford’s mother died the following year. His own three marriages ended in divorce, and he leaves his three children, David, Savannah, and Matthew, and his three sisters, Sydney Lawford McKelvy, Victoria Pender, and Robin Lawford.
Information was not immediately available about other survivors and funeral services.
Mr. Lawford “had the courage to know that he had to find himself, and he wasn’t going to be able to do it while holding on to the old family narrative,” Patrick Kennedy told the Associated Press, adding that during his cousin’s years of recovery “he ended up reconciling with his sisters” and was the “happiest I ever saw him.”
That kind of sobriety remained beyond the reach of Mr. Lawford’s father, Peter, who had starred with his Rat Pack friends in the original “Ocean’s Eleven” movie in 1960. “I got another chance and found myself. I wish he had, too,” Mr. Lawford told the Globe in 2005.
“We can re-create the days when Frank, Dean, Sammy, and my dad were together, but they all ended up dysfunctional, messed-up guys,” he said. “And they once had everything. Money. Good looks. Success. Yet at the end, they were miserable, miserable men alone, angry, drinking. So what’s that all about?”