Heywood Hale Broun still has an old record of Paul Robeson--a family friend and sometimes a surrogate parent--singing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." The record, he informs readers of his memoir, has "a little paper label pasted on it that says, 'For Woodie, hoping he will never feel so.' "

The great actor's and singer's hopes were in vain. Heywood Hale Broun spent a good part of his childhood feeling motherless, fatherless, pointless and hopeless. Today, at an age that neither of his distinguished parents managed to reach, he seems to be struggling still with such feelings--at least occasionally. His book is largely a record of such feelings, a tribute to them, an attempt to exorcise them.

It makes absorbing reading not only as an account of life with two notable Americans but, more generally, as a record of a soul's struggle (several souls' struggle) to communicate with those who were nearest and dearest. Broun might be surprised to discover how many of his fellow citizens with more ordinary parents have suffered from the same problem.

It was a media event when Heywood Broun married Ruth Hale on June 7, 1917. Both had returned to America from distinguished service in Europe, where World War I was raging.

Broun had been a war correspondent who infuriated the military authorities by wearing an aggressively civilian fedora with his uniform.

He would go on to become one of the most distinguished journalists in American history, a columnist with whom readers felt the kind of intimacy that is now reserved for the hosts of television talk shows. His funeral was attended by 10,000 people, his son reports in awe, and he is reverently remembered as the first president of the American Newspaper Guild, a role that may have stunted his writing career to some extent.

Hale, who became Broun's wife without taking his name or promising to "obey" him, was one of America's best-known early feminists, a founder of the Lucy Stone League, the first woman to serve as film critic for an American newspaper, a drama critic for Vogue, a reporter for The New York Times.

She also was, most remarkably, the editor of a Paris-based edition of the Chicago Tribune during World War I, a time, as her son notes, "when the only apparent jobs for the 'fair sex' were patting white pillows in a hospital or distributing white feathers in the streets." Apparently, she wrote many things that carried her husband's byline.

Her decision to marry Broun, according to the story she used to tell later, came while they were sitting on a bench in Central Park and a squirrel came begging: " 'He wants a peanut,' I said. 'Why don't you go and get some?' Sitting there, big and lazy in the sunshine, Heywood smiled and said, 'I tell you what. I'll give him a nickel and he can go buy his own.' At that moment I decided he was the kind of person I wanted to marry."

True or not, the anecdote characterizes them. She was an activist and perfectly willing to get the action from someone else. He was clever but passive, "substituting charm for effort," as his son remarks. Part of his passivity reflects an elaborate and intense set of phobias, which included almost everything except putting words on paper. "Heywood at the typewriter was out of reach of the phobias that, like a ring of wolves, surrounded the campfire of his keyboard . . . As soon as he was allowed a printed opinion he was demonstrating that he didn't care who got mad at his written words."

The best man at their wedding, Franklin P. Adams, called them "the clinging oak and the sturdy vine." It would be hard to find a couple who seemed, at least in the abstract, less suited for parenthood. The father, a magnificent communicator on paper, had severe problems communicating face to face. The mother was more of an integrated personality--in private as in public, "better at bugle calls than lullabies," pushing her son "toward an ideal made magnificent by the fact that it was unattainable.

"She wanted me to be a free soul who never broke any rules," he sums up.

To compound the problem, Heywood Hale Broun's parents were members of the first generation in which children were raised according to psychological theories, the first generation in which a father could calmly analyze the Oedipal content of his son's dreams. It was a family in which "emotion had better uses than the personal . . . emotion was for big things like causes." When his parents were proud of him (apparently quite often) he found out only indirectly, through third parties and years later.

The basic approach to child-rearing in this tempestuous menage (where the husband and wife spent years in separate apartments and finally divorced without ending their special kind of intimacy) was to treat the child as a small adult--a technique that involved considerable friction and strain.

According to Ring Lardner Jr., other children found little Woodie "eerie, a little kid talking like some kind of old man." His own recollection is that "Freedom was a cheat's word for responsibility. I was free only to do the right thing and rightness was not to be defined by me."

As a child, awed and angered by his parents, he decided "that a boy would be lucky if his father were the second-best shoemaker in a medium-sized town."

His adult judgment on his parents is more nuanced but not much more positive: "They weren't happy but they were devoted. They tried to live apart as much as possible and needed each other very much. They disagreed about a great many important things and supported each other's beliefs. They probably shouldn't have gotten married; they probably should never have had a child; and they probably shouldn't, after seventeen years of marriage, have gotten divorced."

Still, looking back on his life, this actor, writer and television commentator is able to pronounce himself a reasonable success: "I have been married but once and am happy in that marriage. I have a son with whom, I think, I get on very well. I may have been a long time getting there, but I am, in wordly terms, a success. I have given up smoking, don't drink all that much, and all in all seem a credit to what for lack of a better word we'll call 'The System.' "

But part of the reason may be that he escaped from the system set up by his parents. His basic role models, for example, seem to have been friends of the family, particularly actors, rather than either parent.

His final comment on his rearing may be a statement that he makes in a totally different context, discussing a theatrical venture by his father: "I am probably the only living human being who can sing all the words of 'I'm Just a Doorstep Baby' ('People point at me with scorn, why don't they seem to realize that I didn't ask to be born?')"