He was ""a force of nature with the personality of a gangster,"" and she was the screen goddess he coveted--and won. Together they were like a torrid team out of Screen Romances. And yet Axel Madsen shows Gloria Swanson and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., in such a satisfyingly full-blown way that few readers--even Kennedys--win carp about invasion of privacy or mud on the idol. The third figure in this unstoppable read is Erich von Stroheim, the toweringly artistic director with whom Joe and Gloria are making ""Von's"" personally written silent boudoir epic, Queen Kelly. Stroheim is captured here with great sympathy, while Rose Kennedy is limned in full as a wounded wife who purposefully walls herself off from reality. Said JFK: ""My mother was either at some Paris fashion house or else on her knees in some church. She was never there when we really needed her. . .My mother never really held me and hugged me. Never. . .My mother is a nobody."" One of the most mysterious scenes in this book is with Rose and Joe and houseguest Gloria at Hyannisport: skinny, sickly 12-year-old Jack Kennedy secretly stows away on his father's yacht when Joe is taking Gloria out for a lay at sea, sees something that shocks him so deeply that he jumps overboard, and swims out to sea to drown himself and his guilty knowledge. Meanwhile, Madsen draws deeply on the business side of the movies, which banker Joe tries to master. To justify his seduction of the married Gloria, whose business manager he becomes, he must produce for her a more monstrously successful artistic vehicle than any she has starred in before. Joe has never failed at anything in his life. It takes three years of preparation and production before Stroheim's wildly over-budget, kinkily erotic show brings powerhouse Joe to his knees, 30 pounds underweight, his stomach full of ulcers, and makes him shut down production. He fails Gloria. Reckless love, seen big.