Pat Kingsley Finally Talks: Tom Cruise, Scientology and What She's Doing Now
This story first appeared in Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Drive up to Pat Kingsley's house in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and you'll be in for a bit of a shock. Amid the elegant homes and manicured mansions, it seems incongruously small, a modest, single-story place built in the early 1950s, its blandness almost studied, with little to set it apart except, perhaps, for the blinds drawn closed, as if to keep the world out.
This is where you'll find the woman who ruled Hollywood for years, dispensing favors to a few and fearsomeness to many more, terrifying reporters and editors alike -- and even several of the studio executives who paid her bills -- a woman who, before her 2009 retirement, held sway at the nexus of Hollywood and the media, as authoritative as she was authoritarian, as strategic as others were tactical, a giant in a land of dwarfs.
She defined modern publicity, creating long-term road maps for her unparalleled roster of stars, issuing edicts on their behalf like no flak had done before and limiting their exposure strictly to the essential. She gave them an aura of mystery, a steel wall against inquiring minds. "I never had anybody who made me think everything would be OK like her," says longtime client Jodie Foster. "It's just the safety she conveys of somebody who is going to take charge."
Kingsley's dominance allowed her to earn seven figures a year, and she made even more from the sale of her company, PMK (which had billings of about $12 million a year). And yet she chooses to live with a modesty that by Hollywood standards seems almost austere. As if she no longer has anything to prove -- as if she ever did.
All of which gives me pause as I walk toward the house on a warm afternoon the day before Thanksgiving and ring the bell. Silence. Then the door cracks opens and a poodle mix scurries out, yapping, followed by the lady herself. She's tall, and surprisingly gracious, with silver hair and large, plain glasses that give her an almost schoolmarmish air. She smiles with unexpected warmth.
"Don't worry," she says, introducing me to her daughter's dog, Clara, with her distinctive Southern accent undimmed, before leading me inside. "She's all bark and no bite."
At 81, Pat Kingsley, for the first time in years, has agreed to talk about her life and work, and over the next two and a half hours, she will do precisely that, without hesitation or doubt, only once raising an index finger to warn something is off the record. She talks about everything from her time with Joan Crawford and Charlie Chaplin ("He had this heavy coat he never took off; he thought he was going to die of pneumonia"); to her bitter split with partner Leslee Dart; to her last days at PMK; and even to her relationship with, and eventual firing by, Tom Cruise.
On Dart: "She felt it was her time. She felt she was ready to run the company. But that wasn't the case. And since her contract was coming up, [I thought] it was the best time [for her to go]. That was sad."
On exiting PMK: "I was having more and more trouble dealing with the issues. I wanted less and less to do with the outside world. I just wanted to work with the staff and let them be conduits [to journalists] and clients, pretty much everybody else. They said, 'What if you take a buyout?' I said, 'I'm all for it.' "
On Cruise: "His assistant called and made an appointment for Tom to come into my office. He had never been to my office before. And he came in, had a few minutes of chitchat, and he said, 'I want you to know I've decided to make a change.' I said: 'I knew that was going to happen today. I guess I'll probably take a pretty big hit with the media.' And he said, 'Well, we've all had those hits, haven't we?' I said, 'Yeah. I'll be OK.' And then I said, 'A lot of people have worked on your behalf that you're not aware of, and I'd like to have you say hello to them.' So I took him around, and he saw everybody and even went to see the mailman, just as cordial as could be."