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.
Sullavan and Hayward probably never should have become parents. They virtually ignored the day-to-day lives of their children, using nannies as buffers. When Sullavan “retired” and started really spending time with the family, all hell broke loose. Brooke traces the dissolution of her family to her parents’ divorce, but it’s clear there were already serious issues. These people didn’t really know each other, even like each other, very much. A child only sees problems in a family after a certain age. Brooke’s parents divorced when she was 10. That’s about the age when a kid’s memories become more linear. I can remember isolated events or even images from a much younger age, but I didn’t have a good sense of my parents and their personalities, other than “Mommy” and “Daddy” until I was 10. That’s when I started noticing things weren’t perfect in our family, too.
It’s actually more awful to me to think that Brooke felt her family started to fall apart after the divorce — that the good times in their lives were the hazy memories she has of her childhood when her parents were still together — and completely wound up in their careers and each other and ignoring their children. She has nostalgia for a family that never really existed, except in Life magazine publicity photos.
Was Margaret Sullavan any nuttier than the rest of us? There are definitely Mommy Dearest moments. Sullavan and her eldest daughter would battle frequently. Sullavan never raised her voice, but instead gave Brooke the silent treatment, not speaking to her, sometime for days, until she got what she considered a proper apology. When Brooke’s sister Bridget turned up her nose at her breakfast of runny eggs, the nanny wouldn’t let her leave the table until she finished them. The horrible eggs dried up and became progressively more disgusting as the day wore on, but the child sat at the table, silent, until the nanny finally gave up and sent her to bed without eating anything that day.
Brooke may not have completely succeeded in telling her brother’s and sister’s stories. They still seem pale shadows compared to Sullavan and Hayward and herself. But Haywire is a heartbreaking and fascinating read. It raises so many questions about the neuroses of actors and the incestuous careers and love lives of everyone in Hollywood. Brooke’s great friendship with the Fonda children — Jane and Peter — did they stay friends as they grew older? Did she ever speak to them about their own mother’s suicide? One would think they might have tried to puzzle out their individual tragedies together. What about Brooke’s life with Dennis Hopper (they were married 1961-9)? And her own children? They are briefly mentioned as having existed, and then nothing more. What about Bill’s children? I wish she would write another book, about her life post-Haywire. I’m sure it would be a good read, too.
Life at home with the Haywards: Leland, Brooke, Bridget and Margaret Sullavan (in an apron!)