BOOK REVIEW : A Memoir That’s as Weird as Hollywood : WE WILL ALWAYS LIVE IN BEVERLY HILLS: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood, <i> by Ned Wynn</i> . William Morrow. $19.95, 284 pages.
Even on the jacket copy for his “We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills,” Ned Wynn is defined, not by his works or by his accomplishments, but by his male relatives.
He is “the son of movie actor Keenan Wynn and the grandson of the immortal . . . comedian Ed Wynn.” Ned is also “the stepson of Van Johnson.”
Ambivalence and weirdness crackle all through this book, this “memoir in the tradition of ‘Haywire.’ ” Ned Wynn’s autobiography swirls with resentments, rowdiness, self-pity, self-centeredness, and an amazingly silly sense of humor. I don’t know how this will sell in the East, but everyone with an investment in what we think of as “Hollywood” should buy this thing.
Ned Wynn grows up as a standard poor-little-rich-boy, complaining about his enemas (although everyone in his generation was imposed upon in that way as a child), and the fact that upstairs in their fashionable mansion, he and his brother could hear their father, Keenan Wynn, bashing their mother from one end of the house to the other.
Then Ned’s mother, Evie, runs off with one of the most popular actors of the day, Van Johnson. In that family, another child is born, a little girl named Schuyler. Back at the other house, Keenan Wynn marries and then marries again, and produces three more daughters.
The Van Johnson household is haute Hollywood, with Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor and plenty of assorted governesses, and Van Johnson throwing tantrums and bashing his wife.
The Keenan Wynn household is low Hollywood, with Keenan taking out his motorcycle with Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. The six kids fend for themselves in this cyclotron, as Keenan soaks up quarts of the hard stuff, and Van, his career in decline, runs off with a lead dancer. The dancer in question is a man.
In this book, more than any other Hollywood document I can remember reading (except for Ludwig Bemelmann’s “Dirty Eddie”), the reader gets a chance to see what really is “Haywire” about Hollywood.
In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, those individuals who catapulted to stardom carried their emotional luggage with them in huge, invisible steamer trunks. By and large, they didn’t come from “good” families; they mostly came from the very depths of America’s underclass, and they tended to carry self-loathing with them. Van Johnson’s own father was a dour plumber, his mother an alcoholic who deserted the family. How could this mind-blowing misery, coupled with millions of essentially unearned dollars add up to a serene, well-ordered household?
Ned grows up alienated, anxious, alcoholic and totally divorced from the work ethic. He can’t finish school, act or hold onto a job. But within that matrix, he seems to have had a pretty good time. Fun among the ruins! Plenty of sex and surfing and skiing and dropping acid and staying up all night with the Mamas and the Papas, and hanging out in ashrams in India, having conversations with the Maharishi.
I would like to say to Ned Wynn: Cheer up! Lots and lots of kids grew up with falling-down-drunk parents, lost brothers and sisters to drugs, knew for sure that nobody loved them, but they never even got to the good-time part.
Next: John Wilkes reviews “Other Origins: The Search for the Giant Ape in Human Prehistory” by Russell Ciochon, John Olsen and Jamie James (Bantam Books).