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Book Review: Haywire, 2011 Edition by Brooke Hayward

Brooke Hayward starts her childhood memoir of growing up in Hollywood and beyond, Haywire, promising that the book will not be about her famous parents, but about herself and her two siblings. Haywire is written from a child’s-eye view. Maybe no matter how much older you get, you can’t help recounting your childhood memories as a child. When we are young, our parents seem like giants, and Brooke is always drawn back into telling a story about her mother and father — two fascinating, troubled, and larger-than-life people. Brooke’s parents, at least in her eyes, never quite lost their power over the family, even as they all grew up and away from each other.

Brooke’s mother was film and stage actress Margaret Sullavan, best-known for her roles in The Shop Around the Corner and The Good Fairy. Her father was Hollywood and Broadway agent Leland Hayward. Sullavan cultivated a sweet, slightly mannered, screen presence. But looking at the bare facts of her life she was a bit of a siren, even femme fatale. She married Henry Fonda (for two months), director William Wyler (two years), and also had a relationship with Broadway producer Jed Harris before marrying big-shot agent Hayward. While she was simultaneously “dating” Harris and Hayward, so was her acting rival Katherine Hepburn. The two actresses were vying for the same parts and same men, not necessarily in that order. Her affair with Harris apparently broke up her marriage to Fonda, who declared “I couldn’t believe my wife and that son-of-a-bitch were in bed together. But I knew they were. And that just destroyed me, completely destroyed me.”

As much as Brooke’s story is peppered with famous names (family friends were Jimmy Stewart and the Fonda clan — Sullavan and Fonda managed to stay close, no matter what happened between them), you don’t really feel as if she is name-dropping. She’s painting the picture of what it was like to be a Hollywood scion. But Haywire takes the reader beyond the usual growing-up-Hollywood story. Its recounting of the tragic deaths of Sullavan and her two youngest children form the tragic background of Brooke’s life and book. Sullavan died of what is presumed to be an accidental overdose on New Year’s Day, 1960. She had a history of depression, and Haywire outlines in detail her controlling behavior and very conflicted personality. Brooke’s younger sister Bridget died less than a year later than her mother, another drug overdose, classified as suicide. Her brother Bill died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2008.

Haywire at times reads like a mystery story, as Brooke and the reader try to unravel a mystery that is beyond our reach. What brought these people, who seemingly had everything, to feel that life wasn’t worth living? Would medication have helped? All three spent time in mental institutions, and were medicated (and probably poked and prodded). It’s clear from Brooke’s conversations with Bill that she believes that her brother’s problems were directly influenced by his parents’ committing him when he was just a teenager.

CW: Brooke Hayward, Margaret Sullavan, Bridget Hayward

Sullavan was a complex woman, who, no matter how many times she may have said that she wanted to retire or distance herself from Hollywood — “Perhaps I’ll get used to this bizarre place called Hollywood, but I doubt it” — clearly was an actress first and foremost, at home and on the stage and screen. She seemed to teeter back and forth between wanting to be part of “a regular family,” and then disappearing for months at a time from home to appear in a play, with her children raised by a nanny they felt physically and emotionally closer to than either parent.

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