Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Haywire By Brooke Hayward

(Click here for information on the 2017 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the July selection, Brooke Hayward’s Haywire.)

Brooke Hayward is the daughter of agent-turned producer Leland Hayward (whose Broadway and film credits include South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Mister Roberts and The Spirit of St. Louis, as well as the founding of Southwest Airways) and celebrated Broadway and Hollywood star Margaret Sullavan (best remembered for starring in four films opposite Jimmy Stewart, including The Shop Around the Corner).

While her 1977 memoir is packed with details of a charmed life in Beverly Hills and Brookfield, CT., tales from generations of colorful and eccentric landed-gentry ancestors, teenage tales of hell-raising with Jane and Peter Fonda (Henry Fonda was Sullavan’s first husband and the families remained close), and a chic, cosmopolitan life as sometimes-actress and full-time socialite (and marriage to Dennis Hopper)… as well as inexorable sadness, as Brooke becomes the last person standing in a family that died almost entirely by their own hands.

Episodically structured, the chapters skip around chronologically, opening with the suicide of her younger sister, Bridget, revealed to have come less than a year after the fatal overdose of their mother.

The book is the anti-Mommie Dearest: there is no anger or bitterness, only love and sadness and regret on Brooke’s part (there is also a Christina Crawford cameo). If anything, she comes across as taking it too easy on her parents, who were absent from their children’s lives for long stretches due to their respective careers, leaving Brooke, Bridget and youngest brother Bill in the care of assorted (and beloved) nannies and governesses.

Largely because of that fact, there is a palpable closeness between the siblings, and rivalries are mostly glossed over: Bridget is secretive and mercurial (at the time of her death, Brooke was the only one who knew that she had recently been diagnosed with epilepsy), with a contentious relationship with her mother, and stays on-and-off at the Austin-Riggs psychiatric hospital throughout her life; Bill is treated like the baby by his sisters, until he rebels and ends up committed by his parents to the Menninger Clinic, from which he enacts a variety of colorful escapes. Brooke is the peacekeeper, constantly running interference between her siblings and parents, all the while accepting everyone’s shortcomings.

Things start coming apart in 1946, when Leland leaves his wife for socialite Nancy (Slim) Keith, ex-wife of Howard Hawks and inspiration for Lauren Bacall’s character in To Have and Have Not; it was his fourth marriage (to three women), and while Keith is written about in glowing terms, Leland would leave her for Pamela Churchill (who is written about in far less glowing terms). Sullavan would also remarry (for the fourth time) to Kenneth Wagg, who was divorced from the Horlick’s Malted Milk heiress (her parents set him up to run Horlick’s American concerns).

While both parents have moments of being truly awful to both each other and their children (Leland decides to marry Slim before informing his wife that he’s divorcing her, a decade later he proposes to Churchill before leaving Slim; emotionally needy Sullavan constantly passive-aggressively tells her children to “leave her” and go live with their father- eventually Bill and Bridget call her bluff and do so), but Brooke is endlessly understanding, and accepting, of her parents.

In addition to being emotionally affecting, there is a lot of structurally solid writing on display. A childhood anecdote about constantly pestering their Grandmother to tell stories neatly brings the reader up to speed on the (epic) history of the Hayward side of the family. The slim next-to-last chapter, devoted to her brother Bill takes place over a single conversation in a taxi as they tend to their father on his deathbed (at which point even Pamela catches a break), focusing on Bill ruminating on his reasons for not committing suicide.

While the chapters devoted to Bridget and Margaret focused on the lives of the respective subjects, the final chapter, devoted to Leland Hayward, focuses on death and dying, after he his incapacitated by a series of strokes and even Pamela is horrified at the lengths the doctors are going to keep him alive without considering the quality of that life:

“Most people,” the doctor tried again, “would be grateful to be able to take their fathers home at all. Even if his mind isn’t as acute as it was, things won’t be as bad as you anticipate. It’s like having a pet- a cat or a dog- around the house. I’ve known cases where the woman of the house told me she was happy to have someone to take care of…”

There is also a last visit from Jimmy Stewart that could ring tears from a stone.

In 1981 a two-part made-for-TV movie based on the book, and produced by Bill Hayward, appeared, starring Lee Remick as Margaret Sullavan and Jason Robards as Leland Hayward.

The movie plays more to Hollywood Biopic tropes, including putting Bridget and Bill’s envy of Brooke (unhospitalized, parents’ favorite) front and center. Unsurprisingly, the focus also shifts to Margaret and Leland’s marriage, whereas the vast majority of the book is about the relationship between the siblings.

Robards is (expectedly) marvelous, and Remick does manage to capture something of Sullavan’s look and mannerisms. Linda Grey appears as Slim, playing a much smaller role than she does in the book. It unfortunately suffers a bit from that chintzy, 1980s, TV Mini-Series-About-Classic-Hollywood Look, starting with the opening scene, set in 1960, when Deborah Raffin (as Brooke) strolls through a VERY 1980 subway station.

A new edition of Haywire appeared in 2011, with an introduction by long-time family friend Buck Henry, and a new epilogue by Brooke, ruminating on the three decades since the original’s publication, including her brother Bill’s suicide in 2008. The conclusion includes this simple and sad epitaph:

Though I’m still alive and well, not a single day or night, not twenty-four hours, goes by since the death of my mother, my sister, my father, and my brother that I do not think of them.

Availability: The new edition of the book is in print and available through Amazon, as is the TV-Movie, at Amazon or Warner Archive.

Further Listening: The podcast You Must Remember This just completed a nine-episode season focusing on Jane Fonda (and Jean Seberg), which is a must-listen for anyone who wants to learn more about the tangled history of the Fonda-Sullvan-Hayward families.

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2 Responses to Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Haywire By Brooke Hayward

  1. Shawn Cullen says:

    I’m due to re-read this. I remember the book as interesting and touching. The TV movie probably does suffer from that “Cheesetastic ’80s” look that was not noticeable at the time but really sticks out now (I recently re-watched “Doing Time On Maple Drive” from 1992. That one actually LOOKS pretty good, production value wise, but it suffers from that rushed/compressed narrative feeling of old TV movies. You get the sense it would be better paced and the story more fully expressed today on HBO or somewhere. Probably “Haywire” , if remade, would benefit from the same treatment). I agree that Robards and Remick are very good in the TV movie, though.

    • mondomolly says:

      I did love the variation on “six degrees of separation” you can play with the movie: Jason Robards was married to Lauren Bacall, who played the character inspired by Slim Keith 😉

      It seems like there was a whole rash of TV-movies about Classic Hollywood made in the 1980s- I especially liked The Scarlett O’Hara War with Tony Curtis as David O. Selznick doing preproduction on Gone With the Wind. I also remember Ann Jillian as Mae West being pretty good.

      I like d the book very much, but it was kind of an emotionally brutal read, especially knowing that Bill would also commit suicide 30 year later.

      Thanks for commenting!

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