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The Birth of Cool Politics

When glamorous JFK hit L.A. for the Democratic convention, Hollywood was enamored, and campaigns would never be the same.

August 13, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is Patrick.Goldstein@latimes.com

William Gargan, star of "Martin Kane, Private Eye," a popular early '50s TV detective show, knew who was staying upstairs in the penthouse suite of a three-story apartment building at 522 N. Rossmore Ave. Gargan and his wife, Mary, had been sworn to secrecy not to reveal his identity. But as they sat watching the roll call at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, they had a surprise visit from their surreptitious neighbor.

Sen. John F. Kennedy had been upstairs watching the Alabama delegation cast 20 votes for Lyndon Johnson when the lights blew out and the TV went black. As a pair of LAPD detectives scrambled to replace a blown fuse, Kennedy hurried down to the Gargan apartment and asked if he could watch the balloting with them. When Mary Gargan went to put on a dressing gown, Kennedy stopped her. "Don't worry about your pajamas," he said. "Sit down and be comfortable."

The roll call would go all the way to Wyoming before Kennedy officially won the nomination, but if the brash young candidate had any doubts about the outcome, he didn't let it show. "He was very relaxed and informal," recalls Leslie Gargan, whose parents often told the story of Kennedy's visit. "I remember what really struck my father was how quick Kennedy's mind was. As they went through the roll call, state by state, he didn't even need to write anything down. He did all the tabulations in his head."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 15, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Name misspelled--Washington hostess Perle Mesta gave a party for Democratic Party leaders during the 1960 convention. Her name was misspelled in a story in the Aug. 13 Sunday Calendar.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 20, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Washington hostess Perle Mesta gave a party for Democratic Party leaders during the 1960 convention. Her name was misspelled in a story in the Aug. 13 Sunday Calendar.

Kennedy's cozy evening with the Gargans was just one of the many harmonic convergences of Hollywood and the Democratic Party in the steamy carnival atmosphere of the 1960 Democratic National Convention. In many ways, that year marked the dawn of the Hollywood-ization of American politics. Raised to be a ruler since boyhood, Kennedy was the first politician to project a cool, detached celebrity style.

"You could say that Jack was the first movie star to be president," says actress Shirley MacLaine, a longtime Democratic Party activist and sometime member of the Rat Pack who attended a convention session with Frank Sinatra and Kennedy brother-in-law Peter Lawford. "He was there first, 20 years before Ronald Reagan."

In today's world of meticulously scripted made-for-TV conventions, politicians surround themselves with beaming family members and never dare to make a spontaneous move. But at the 1960 convention, Kennedy lived like a rock star on tour. He left Jackie behind in Hyannis Port, stayed in a secret bachelor pad, hung out with Sinatra and Lawford, and apparently had several trysts, including one abortive rendezvous with Judith Campbell Exner, a girlfriend he'd met through Sinatra, who'd also introduced her to Chicago mobster Sam Giancana.

Norman Mailer, covering the 1960 convention for Esquire magazine, compared Kennedy's appeal to the brooding aura of Marlon Brando, saying that, like Brando, "Kennedy's most characteristic quality is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others."

Kennedy's star appeal struck a responsive chord. At a party at Lawford's beach house, Kennedy took Janet Leigh for a spin on the dance floor. The actress was dazzled: "Imagine a possible president dancing with just a girl like me." By the time Kennedy won election in November, he'd developed a Hollywood aura of his own, marrying movieland glamour with media politics. In an era when politics had been dominated by father figures like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy exuded a Rat Pack cool.

"1960 was the hinge, the beginning of a real political re-energization in Hollywood," says Frank Mankiewicz, Bobby Kennedy's press secretary, co-director of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and son of "Citizen Kane" screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. "Jack Kennedy was vigorous and handsome, and he made it a point to have a connection to the film industry. The young writers and directors and agents liked Jack for the same reason movie people like Bill Clinton. It was an emotional attraction. They were both dynamic and exciting, something that has always had appeal in Hollywood. They had drama."

For Los Angeles, the Democratic convention was a signal cultural event, almost as much of a boost in civic morale as the arrival of the Dodgers in 1958. Aside from its sprawling movie lots, Los Angeles was still a town in search of an identity. City Hall was the tallest building in town. The Music Center and Dodger Stadium were yet to be built. The Sports Arena, which housed the convention, had only been open a year. The Santa Monica Freeway was still in the planning stages. MCA was still a talent agency, not a movie studio. MCA chief Lew Wasserman hadn't yet become a political force: In 1960, he was helping settle a TV writers' strike.

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