Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood

By Ned Wynn

Morrow. 285 pp. $19.95

Ned Wynn is the descendant of two actors I grew up liking: His grandfather was Ed Wynn, the legendary old comedian whom we post-Sputnik kids knew from Walt Disney's show; his father was Keenan Wynn, an actor who, in my book, stands beside William Demarest as one of the funniest grouches in movie history. To be honest, I didn't want to find out they were ogres. This book's publicity material promises just that, billing what's inside as "a memoir in the tradition of" "Haywire" and "Mommie Dearest," so I opened it with a shudder.

Fortunately, that was misleading. Ed's major fault, by the time Ned knew him, was a serious but tolerable case of blowhardism. Keenan had problems with alcohol -- as a result, Ned's mother, Evie, left him, taking the kids, and married the prickly actor Van Johnson -- but he was no Joan Crawford. Yes, Ned gets spanked, but it happens in grade school, and he asks for it by getting on the bad side of his principal, "an angry, jowly woman dressed in sepulchral bombazine." What's noteworthy aren't the spankings Ned receives from Keenan -- they are described as humane, normal, dad-lad punishment -- but his crimes. Like many Neddian adventures to come, they're incredibly pointless.

"I am sitting in class. My desk is across from Debbie Daves whose scuffed, bony knees put wings in my stomach. ... Right now she is paying attention to a boy on the other side of her. ... Agitated, I begin jumping around in my seat, alternately grinning and scowling like a primate, a chittering gibbon whose lips and eyebrows fly up and down like window shades. ... I drop out of my seat to the floor flapping like a fruit bat."

Most of this memoir isn't about the famous Wynns; it's about why Ned's life proceeded as smoothly as a tea service rolling downhill on cobblestones. This might be difficult to care about if not for a couple of mitigating factors.

One, Ned's a funny writer. He's especially good at capping descriptions with fun, easy-to-visualize hyperbole. In a chapter about his college career, Ned rues the fact that he'll be mired in summer stock in Washington, D.C. (under the tutelage of Davey Marlin-Jones!), while his friends are partying at Lake Arrowhead. He writes: "They had a speedboat. There were rooms all over the place. I could see it all: drinking, water-skiing, cadres of teenage wonder kittens like so many bikini-clad guerrillas slipping out of the woods. ..."

Two, he doesn't whine much (a` la Patti Davis in her novelized account of similar subject matter). Wynn has a lot to say about the pressures of being raised in a famous family, but every time he approaches moping overload -- the point at which people who didn't grow up in Beverly Hills might sail his book into the fireplace -- he stops and admits that nobody forced him to screw up. At one point late in the book, looking back with a wince on his life, and especially on his skid through the '60s, he says, "I suddenly saw that the whole generation I was attached to was just like me: furious at being asked to consider any alternatives to whatever we had already decided, when we were six, that the world should be like."

It's not fair of Wynn to pull his entire generation into the sandbox like that. As for his own dissipation credentials, they're solid. He spends the pre-Beatles '60s fitfully working as an extra in beach movies. "We showed up, skateboarded, played volleyball, pretended to play instruments and said, 'Awww, c'mon, we're not doing anything' a lot in the background in response to someone's assertion that we were noisy, disruptive youths."

The psychedelic '60s roll into his life like an Electric Kool-Aid tsunami. Grandpa Ed dies, without Ned taking much notice (his "death passed through me like water. ... I was stoned at his funeral"), and he begins a quasi-career as "professional pal" of West Coast rockers such as the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds. From there he starts the familiar slide, aided by a cornucopia of mood helpers and the teachings of that ersatz holy man, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

In one scene, Ned visits Keenan in an attempt to convert him to the ways of transcendental meditation: "Here I come, Popsie ... eyes all dewy and bright with truth and love." Keenan flees to the garage and mounts a patently bogus search for his ball peen hammer. "He was now fumbling frantically in every drawer and cabinet in the garage. ... Finally, he reached into one drawer and came out with a half pint of Smirnoff vodka. 'Well, whaddaya know,' he said, slapping his skull, 'how do you suppose ...' He uncapped the bottle and raised it to his lips and drained half of it ... 'Yaaaahhhhhggggaaaahhhhdd ...' Then he turned to me and let out a low, appreciative whistle. 'That,' he said, 'is what I call a ball peen ... HAMMER!' " Alcoholism, we all know, is wrong. But in this case it seems momentarily right.

As you've probably guessed, things gets a lot less funny before it's over. But Ned does straighten up, and at book's end, he handles his father's death (in October 1986) with considerably more grace than he showed when Ed died. He also wrote this book. Not much by the standards of a Hollywood rise-fall-and-rise-again saga. But for real life, not bad.

The reviewer is a Washington writer.