The “Mommie Dearest” genre of Hollywood literature has been with us for generations — for better or worse.
Who can forget the above title of Christina Crawford’s 1978 tell-all about her adoptive mother Joan Crawford?
It became a best seller, the basis of a tv series and, most notably, the 1981 movie of the same title that starred Faye Dunaway as Joan. Debate about the utility of wire versus wooden hangers may be the movie’s key contribution to American culture.
But Mommie Dearest is hardly alone. Bette Davis was bedeviled in old age by the two books written by her daughter, B.D. Hyman: My Mother’s Keeper in 1985, and Narrow Is The Way in 1987. In 1990, Ned Wynn wrote a tedious book about his father, character actor Keenan Wynn, We Will Always Live In Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood.
Van Johnson, Bing Crosby, Peter Lawford, Tony Curtis, among many others, have one way or another figured in the tell-all book mania on the part of their offspring. A common theme seems to be that high-profile Hollywood stardom and parenting don’t mix very well. (Has there ever been a tell-all tome that reflects well on the parents involved? Just asking.)
Most of this genre of books were published relatively recently. A big exception applies to the case of Edward G. Robinson and his only child, Edward G. Robinson, Jr. The latter was born to Gladys Lloyd (the actor’s first wife) in 1933 when Robinson Sr. was well on his way to classic movie stardom.
There was the big, rambling house in Beverly Hills stocked with the expensive food, liquor and the finest of fine art hanging museum style from its walls. Robinson Jr. had his own suite staffed by teams of servants and nannies. He enjoyed lavish foreign vacations with his parents. He was pampered all the way.
It didn’t turn out well. By early adolescence it was clear that things were not right with Robinson Jr. He was enrolled — and kicked out of — a series of expensive private schools. He started tippling, then drinking heavily. The result was various run-ins with the law, mild at first and far more serious by his early Twenties. A marriage to a model and aspiring actress fell apart. There was a suicide attempt.
We know all this because Robinson Jr. wrote about it in 1958: My Father — My Son with William Dufty.
The book is an unrelentingly grim, detailed account of a clueless alcoholic wannabee actor who drove both his parents way beyond distraction. To his credit, Robinson Jr. plays the victim softly, and his parents are depicted as more self-centered, distracted and neglectful than nasty (although son recounts several physical scuffles with his famous father).
What is mildly interesting is that although Robinson Jr.’s misadventures and many court appearances were widely covered in the Fifties press, there was never any possibility that his book would be made into a movie. At least not while Robinson Sr. was still alive.
Very interesting are Robinson Sr.’s rueful reflections about his parenting in All My Yesterdays, his own memoir (written with Leonard Spigelgass) published in 1973, fifteen years after Robinson Jr.’s tell-all was published. Here’s some of what he wrote:
I wanted everything (for Eddie Jr.)…I was wrong; what was most important was to play catch with him or go fishing with him or try to see things from his point of view. Instead I complained about his marks…and I was cold and disciplinary when he got less (than straight As).
When Robinson Jr. was bullied at school because he was a movie star’s son, the son of Little Caesar, he tried to tell me about some of these happenings. I brushed his agonies aside.
Edward G. Robinson Jr. went on to play bit parts in some 25 movies and tv shows, was married three times and divorced twice, and died in 1974 at age 40 — one year after his famous father died at 79.