Family glitz and dysfunction in 'Haywire'

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HAYWIRE, by Brooke Hayward. Vintage, 352 pp., $16 paper.

"I never saw my mother sign an autograph."

It's a wonderfully economical sentence: In one line Brooke Hayward evokes the dizzying combination of glamorous privilege ("autograph") and stringent codes ("never") that marked her Hollywood upbringing. And over all of it hovers the divinity ("my mother"), actress Margaret Sullavan ("The Shop Around the Corner"). The other god in this story is father Leland Hayward, the dashing agent who represented not only his wife but also her ex-husbands Henry Fonda and William Wyler as well as scores of other stars (Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire and Greta Garbo, to name only a few). When he tired of being an agent, Leland turned to Broadway, producing "South Pacific" and "The Sound of Music."

It's hard to believe "Haywire" ever went out of print. Brooke Hayward's memoir was a bestseller when it was first published in 1977, and with all the boldface names, it's easy to see why. Yet the book also functions as a reference guide to California real estate (glimpses of Brentwood when it was mostly avocado trees), aviation history (Leland founded Southwest Airlines) and Hollywood life behind the scenes (social posturing via children's birthday parties).

At its core, though, this is the story of a family: "When we were very young, life seemed like an exciting game, invented, explained, and directed by Mother." "We" is Brooke and her younger siblings, Bridget and Bill, all completely in awe of their glittering, charming parents. The children have servants, a barn all to themselves, a pony, trips to Saint-Malo, France. They share a tribal link with the Fondas, learning to smoke with Peter, starting food fights with Jane. There is an intoxicating sense of freedom and yet, as the author notes, the paradox of being "forbidden to deviate from a strict set of rules." There are spanking sessions for Bill that never seem to end, and at times a devastating psychological warfare. Love in this family is large, fierce and undiminishing, but so is the damage.

When Brooke was 10, her parents divorced. Both remarried soon after. For a time the children lived with their mother, then were sent off to boarding schools. The fissures of early childhood soon wrenched wide open, and while it might be possible to identify pivotal moments, it seems beside the point once the avalanche is really in motion.

At different times, both Bridget and her mother had nervous breakdowns and stints in a psychiatric facility. After various acts of rebellion, Leland had Bill institutionalized. In 1960 Margaret Sullavan died of an overdose. Nine months later, Bridget did, too. After a series of strokes and pancreatitis, Leland died in 1971. In the book's new epilogue, Brooke writes that in 2000 Bill was severely injured in a motorcycle accident, and in 2008 he shot himself. The tragedy is beyond mythic.

Reading "Haywire," I thought of Jean Stein and George Plimpton's "Edie," which came out four years later - not only in terms of subject (so much beauty, so much wreckage), but also in the quoted reminiscences that Brooke weaves in from family friends (Diana Vreeland, Truman Capote). One important difference, though, is that Brooke Hayward is still very much the narrator. Her epilogue is remarkable for its uninflected tone. She offers nothing remotely consoling about redemption or overcoming adversity. And that is one of the most bracing and strangely affirming aspects of this book.

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