Joseph P. Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria Swanson

Business tycoon Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of future U.S. president John F. Kennedy, met film star Gloria Swanson during a business venture. Though both were married to others at the time, they embarked on an affair that was an open secret in Hollywood. Kennedy also financed several of Swanson’s films. The two broke up amid personal accusations.

Summary of Event

By 1927, Joseph P. Kennedy, nearly forty years old, had been married to Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of a former mayor of Boston, for thirteen years; the couple had seven children. Kennedy had amassed a fortune through stock manipulation, and he was looking to invest in Hollywood, believing money could be made through mergers of the production and distribution of films. Also by 1927, Gloria Swanson was at the height of her career as a silent-film star. In 1925, she had married her third husband, Henri de la Falaise, in France and returned to the United States in triumph. She opted to forgo her studio contract and join United Artists, a group of actors producing their own films independently. While her self-produced films were successes (especially Sadie Thompson, 1928), she was in debt and unsure of her financial footing. [kw]Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria Swanson, Joseph P. (Early 1928)
[kw]Swanson, Joseph P. Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria (Early 1928)
Kennedy, Joseph P.
Swanson, Gloria
Kennedy, Joseph P.
Swanson, Gloria
[g]United States;Early 1928: Joseph P. Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria Swanson[00420]
[c]Sex;Early 1928: Joseph P. Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria Swanson[00420]
[c]Hollywood;Early 1928: Joseph P. Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria Swanson[00420]
[c]Film;Early 1928: Joseph P. Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria Swanson[00420]
[c]Public morals;Early 1928: Joseph P. Kennedy Begins an Affair with Gloria Swanson[00420]
Kennedy, Rose Fitzgerald
La Falaise, Henri de

Joseph P. Kennedy in 1934.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

When Kennedy and Swanson met in New York to discuss Swanson’s business affairs, Kennedy seemed the answer to her prayers: confident, ebullient, and a person who knew money. Swanson seemed the answer to his dreams: petite, sensual, and a star. Soon, she had given him power of attorney over her business affairs. He reorganized her estate into Gloria Productions, replacing virtually all of her advisers with his own team. To reduce her costs, he recommended economies; to reduce her debt, he advised she sell her rights to Sadie Thompson.

By early 1928, Swanson and Kennedy were lovers. Kennedy solved the problem of Swanson’s husband by employing him as director of his holdings in Pathé Studio, Europe, and he solved the problem of his wife by spending long periods away from home.

Gloria Swanson in 1927.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While Kennedy was wheeling and dealing, creating mergers that would become RKO Studios and making associations with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA)—an association that led to the success of talking films—he also wanted to produce serious cinema, starring Swanson. He hired Erich von Stroheim, a director known for high-art but over-budget films, to create an artistic vehicle for Swanson. That story, to be known as Queen Kelly, was made as a silent film just as talkies were becoming the rage. After miles of shot film and hundreds of dollars of Swanson’s money, the project would be shelved. Kennedy also appeared as producer on The Trespasser (1929) and the much less successful What a Widow (1930).

Hollywood knew of the Swanson-Kennedy affair but did not tell, though gossip columnist Hedda Hopper hinted. The two lovers never cohabited. For reasons that can only be imagined, Kennedy decided that Swanson would visit his family in the East and that they—not the triangle of Joseph and Rose Kennedy and Swanson but the full quadrangle of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Swanson, and la Falaise—ought to travel together to the European premieres of The Trespasser. The events, many recorded in the memoirs of both Swanson and Rose Kennedy, were surreal.

While in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, Kennedy arranged a tryst with Swanson aboard a sailboat at anchor, only to have his impressionable son, John, who was twelve years old, surprise the two lovers. Shocked and distressed, John jumped overboard and tried to swim to shore. He had to be saved from the water by his father. On the ship to Europe, Kennedy fawned over Swanson in Rose’s presence while the women tried to pretend the situation was not what it was. Rose was the more successful at this, leading Swanson to wonder if she was a fool, a saint, or the better actor.

Perhaps Rose was not as unaware as she pretended to be. In the fall of 1929, while in New York, Swanson was called into the presence of Boston’s Roman Catholic cardinal O’Connell, William Henry William Henry O’Connell. He had been asked—by whom he would not say—to tell her that her relationship with Kennedy was an “occasion for sin” and that she should end the affair. Swanson, a non-Catholic, was livid.

By December, 1930, Kennedy’s ardor for Hollywood mergers and for Swanson was cooling. After a dinner at which she questioned him (jokingly, she claims) about an expenditure from her personal accounts, he left her and Hollywood without a goodbye. As the affair ended, Swanson discovered that the trust she had granted him had been betrayed. He had indeed misused her personal funds, giving her extravagant “gifts” that she actually paid for herself.

The aftermath of the affair seemed minimal. Kennedy may have had a significant impact on the way Hollywood did business, but his affair did not play a major role in his business decisions. He got in, he made money, he got out. His status as a family man and patriarch also did not suffer, and he entered politics as an adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt untarnished. Likewise, Rose Kennedy’s choice to ignore the affair meant her relations with her husband could return to a chilly normalcy after 1930. The ninth and final Kennedy child, Ted, was born in 1932.

Swanson’s husband did not ignore the goings-on. He opted for an amicable divorce, which was finalized in 1931. Almost immediately he married actor Constance Bennett, herself an heir. He later married a third time. The position at Pathé in Europe arranged for him by Kennedy paid long-term dividends. La Falaise and Swanson remained friends until his death.


The three years of Swanson’s liaison with Kennedy were critical ones for the film industry. Those years were critical for Swanson as well. Twenty-eight years old when the relationship began, she was thirty-one years old when it ended. In the life of a screen actor, these were important years. Furthermore, the work that she did under Kennedy’s tutelage (if it could be called that for a woman who had star status when they met) was not her best. The Trespasser was a great success, but that film was the least influenced by Kennedy. Queen Kelly was a fiasco and never released in the United States; What a Widow (1930) was coolly received. Her career was fading. A series of flops during the 1930’s confirmed that she was finished. Years later, her appearance in the Hollywood classic Sunset Boulevard in 1950 was a final success. In it, as the aging actor Norma Desmond, she played a ruthless caricature of herself.

Financially, too, Swanson suffered from the affair. When she followed Kennedy’s advice to sell the rights to Sadie Thompson, she lost one of her most profitable properties. Most of the production costs (and losses) for Queen Kelly and What a Widow were hers, not Kennedy’s.

Beyond the effects on the immediate players, historians have argued that Kennedy’s open secret had a deep and negative impact on the attitudes of his sons. The Kennedy men learned to marry up (in class) but sleep down. For the Kennedy politicians of the next generation, Marriage;and Kennedy family[Kennedy family] marriage was important for its public face and dynastic implications; fidelity in marriage was not. Though John F. Kennedy’s womanizing was quietly ignored while he was in the White House, he appears to have followed in his father’s footsteps where Hollywood affairs were concerned. Senator Ted Kennedy’s longer political career, too, was marred by scandal. Kennedy, Joseph P.
Swanson, Gloria

Further Reading

  • Kennedy, Rose Fitzgerald. Times to Remember. New York: Doubleday, 1974. Rose Kennedy’s memoirs, written to solidify the family’s place in the national memory.
  • Leamer, Laurence. The Kennedy Men, 1901-1963: The Laws of the Father. New York: William Morrow, 2001. One of several revisionist histories on the rise of the Kennedy clan. Explores the effects of Joseph Kennedy’s behavior on his sons, especially John F. Kennedy.
  • _______. The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. Leamer examines the Kennedy women, including Joseph Kennedy’s wife, Rose, who was deeply troubled by his affair with Gloria Swanson.
  • _______. Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Leamer continues his examination of the Kennedy family.
  • Madsen, Axel. Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy. New York: William Morrow, 1988. A popular account of the affair with greater focus on Swanson. Good background on all figures and their lives after the end of the affair.
  • Schwartz, Ted. Joseph P. Kennedy: The Mogul, the Mob, the Statesman, and the Making of an American Myth. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Carefully researched biography that portrays Kennedy as calculating and ruthless.
  • Swanson, Gloria. Swanson on Swanson. New York: Random House, 1980. Swanson’s memoirs. Interesting to read in conjunction with and contrast to the memoirs of Rose Kennedy.

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