My mother told me three things, axioms to guide my life. I refer to them as the Three Big Ones. They were (1) you’re handsomer than Jimmy Stewart; (2) people are watching us; and (3) we will always live in Beverly Hills.
She didn’t tell me these things all at once but scattered them across the landscape of my young life, little seeds that eventually sprouted into full-blown attitudes. Riddled with a curious combination of arrogance and profound self-doubt, I simply waited. While other people went out and made places for themselves in the world, I waited for something to happen. Just what this would actually be was vague, but it had to do with being like other members of my family: famous, rich, loved. Like my great-grandfather Frank Keenan, my grandfather Ed Wynn, my father, Keenan Wynn, and my stepfather, Van Johnson, I figured I was in line for a job in the family business.
There was only one problem: I didn’t know how to get that job. It was beyond me. I guess I thought it would be conferred upon me, much like a title upon a child of the British royal family. After all, according to my mother, father and grandfather, we were a royal family of sorts. My grandfather was a Broadway superstar before the term was coined. In the Twenties and Thirties he was as famous as Chaplin and Fields. In his later years he starred in movies and TV and made his mark as a serious actor in the TV production of Requiem for a Heavyweight and the feature film The Diary of Anne Frank. My father was under contract to MGM during its golden era. His film and TV career lasted for forty-five years. Van Johnson was a big heartthrob in the Forties. He was the boy next door, the bobby-soxers’ idol. When I lived with him in the Fifties, he was considered a star of major magnitude. And Frank Keenan, my great-grandfather, was a Shakespearean actor at the turn of the century. A ”furniture actor,” my father called him, because he was usually so drunk onstage that he had to move from one piece of furniture to another in order not to fall down. Maybe not as grand as the Barrymores, but pretty goddamn grand.
So all I had to do was wait. I think now that what I was waiting for was someone to pay me for being me. I remember discussing it as far back as high school with my friend Doug, whose father had written the Woody Woodpecker song. We decided then that our real job in life was simply being us. We’d punched in the day we were born, and we were always on the clock.
You’re handsomer than Jimmy Stewart. My mother meant well, but I could look in a mirror and see that it was a flat-out lie. I was too skinny, my ears stuck out, and I had zits, real zits. Fifties zits. Big conflict here, but I was always powerless over this kind of wishful thinking. Another thing was, I’ve always had this problem about process and result. If I was so handsome and Jimmy Stewart was this huge star, then what else did I need to do? Act? Big deal. My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all actors. It would just come to me. It would be the result of genes and my mother’s affirmations. I was an early victim of positive thinking.
It wasn’t that I had self-confidence; I had none. It was that I bought result as process. Here’s how it would be: I would walk into an office of a producer some day, and he would shout, ”That’s the guy! Sign him!” What could be simpler?
I’m watching old home movies. I’m two or three. Betty Grable loves me. Marlene Dietrich loves me. They fondle me, squeeze me. Marlene kisses me on the neck, blows in my ear and feeds me meatballs with colored toothpicks. This is a real memory. Ava Gardner comes to a party at our house. She walks by me and I can feel the breeze. I can hear the swish of her stockings. I am on the floor and I see up her dress. The most beautiful woman in the world, and I can see her thighs and underwear. She sees me and stops, then squats down by me. Up close her face is more beautiful than I can stand. She reaches out and touches my face. My skin jumps. Ten years from puberty, and I’m already horny. Her new husband, Mickey Rooney, walks over. I look at him, then at her. Then I speak: ”He’s too short for you.” Everybody laughs. Later, when they get divorced, I know it’s because of me. Another notch on my sandbox.
People are watching us. This was to warn me: Whatever you do, it will be seen. It will be reported in the tabloids. God save us from the pages of Confidential magazine. My mother is right, of course. People watch our house. They drive by in buses and stare. One day my father and two pals from MGM, Gene Kelly and Van Johnson, are on the front lawn of our home in Brentwood playing with me when a tour bus stops. The three actors begin jumping around like monkeys. The tourists are utterly entranced; they crawl over each other taking pictures. I sit on the lawn and wave. People are watching us in this silly, happy, endless afternoon. How wonderful we must be.
This is a real memory. I’m six. I’m in the kitchen eating dinner with the cook and the maid. My baby brother, Tracy, is upstairs, asleep. For some reason my mother is gone. She has been for a long time. I have stopped asking where. My father comes into the kitchen. He’s drunk. He’s carrying a radio. He puts the radio on the kitchen table, plugs it in and turns it on. A voice I have always heard, an important, edgy, race-track voice, speaks: ”Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.” This is Walter Winchell, and he’s talking to me. I’m sure of it. He mentions my mother, Eve. He tells me that she has left my father and married his best friend, Van Johnson. Mommy married Uncle Van. I start to cry. I turn to my father for an explanation. He gives me a dollar bill, unplugs the radio and leaves the room. The governess puts me to bed.
We will always live in Beverly Hills. I accepted this one entirely. After all, everyone knew where we lived. My friends were always over. My mother and stepfather’s friends were always over. I tended bar. I fixed drinks for James Mason, Jack Hawkins, Tyrone Power and Judy Garland. Beverly Hills was the center of the known universe. If you moved from Beverly Hills, it was to go live in Bel Air. There could be no other reason. Bel Air was cool. Brentwood was also cool. Malibu was cool. Some places were not. Hollywood was not. Orange County was not. The San Fernando Valley was a slow, grinding death.
I spent the years from ages nine to twenty-two in a huge Spanish-style house on Foothill Drive in Beverly Hills. I did what I thought all kids did: set fires, threw knives into all the walls and doors in the house, stole money from my parents, tortured animals, drove my brother and baby sister, Schuyler, to tears on a daily basis. It was kind of idyllic. I was an innocent there. I took my first pills in Beverly Hills, Dexamyls stolen from my mother’s medicine cabinet. I did most of my early drinking in Beverly Hills. I was lucky in Beverly Hills. Stoned and naked, I rode a friend’s Harley-Davidson through the streets there and didn’t get busted. As long as I was in Beverly Hills, I was in a charmed land. Cliff, the BHPD motorcycle cop, dropped by our parties and had a Coca-Cola while the guests chatted with him and admired his boots. We were protected, loved. And as far as I could see, it was simply because we were … us. Ned and his father for a 1944 publicity is still with the Wynn’s French poodle, Cocoa.
This is a real memory. Cole Porter playing the piano in the bar, Judy Garland singing ”Night and Day,” Roz Russell in black tie and shorts dancing on the table. Ronald Colman, still handsome, with kind, soft eyes, sitting quietly, impeccably in a chair. Later, when I’m in bed, someone comes into my room. It’s Judy, and she’s very stoned. Her husband, Sid, the sonuvabitch, won’t let her in the house. Earlier she was laughing and singing, now she’s crying and cursing. I try to feel sad for her, to work up some resentment for Sid, the sonuvabitch, but it’s late, and besides, I know Sid’s got reasons. Judy’s a bad drunk. But she’s Judy. I’m in love with her. Sid’s in love with her. Everyone is in love with her. Next morning, the maids are tiptoeing around because Miss Garland is still sleeping on the couch. The whole house is tiptoeing. No vacuums are running. Sid has called fifteen times. We are all whispering. Judy is running our home from her stupor. I don’t forget this lesson: Royalty is forgiven.
But I make a major error in my observation. I fail to get one essential difference. People love Judy in spite of her excesses. I think they love her because of them. This kind of thinking has its drawbacks.
Hanging is nothing but the natural consequence of waiting. While I waited for this magic thing to happen to me, I became one of the better hangers. I hung at the beach with the surfers and volleyball players, who taught me to smoke dope in 1960, when only black musicians and white surf Nazis smoked dope. I managed to bring marijuana into the homes of my Beverly Hills friends, most of whom had never seen it before. We would go out in the back yard and smoke, then show up at parties glassy eyed and friendly, licking our lips and tossing back screwdrivers and whiskey sours by the hour.
The best house for hanging in those days was the Martin home. Dean and Jeanne Martin lived in a huge place just north of Sunset, and I made it my headquarters. There were half a dozen Martin kids, cygnets like myself, so I felt right at home. Jeanne was a constant and unflaggingly good-natured hostess. Like my mother, she adored her kids and their friends. We could do no wrong. The only rule was that you didn’t bring strange people over. We knew the rules. Outsiders would make everyone uncomfortable. They’d talk about the wrong things. They’d use the occasion. The art of hanging demanded that, no matter what, you didn’t use the occasion. You didn’t beg for a job, even though you needed one. You didn’t borrow money, even though you were broke. You didn’t talk business. You played tennis. You drank. If you smoked dope, you did it out by the pool, without ostentation. Basically, you hung. I worked as a movie extra, was often broke, didn’t understand business, hated tennis, loved drugs and alcohol and hung out with a vengeance.
My job at the Martin’s house was to make witty conversation. Along with several other friends, the Martin kids and I kept a continuous, hilarious patter going. For me, it seemed like a continuation of that long afternoon with my father and his friends on the lawn in Brentwood. We were here, behind the hedged walls and ivied terraces. Out there the tour buses brought the people by to admire us. I felt admired, but inside, I had begun to wonder why.
My mother had taught me to be polite and told me not to wear out my welcome. But the art of hanging demands that you do so from time to time.
Eventually, people just tire of you. I was still young, in my early twenties, and full of that most damaging of ingredients, unrealized potential, but I was becoming less acceptable at the Martin house. You get to know the signs: where you once could walk straight in and make yourself a drink, now a maid met you at the door and asked who it was that you had come to see. Call first, will you, darling? In case we’re not in.
I don’t know when that transition happened. I know that one day I returned home to the house on Foothill Drive and couldn’t get in because the doors were locked; the house had been sold. Van had walked out on my mother and, incidentally, had run into some problems with the IRS. I looked around at the palm trees, the sloping lawns, the white walls, the Spanish tile roofs. Ty Power had taken me for rides in his Duesenberg on these streets. Walt Disney had lent us Fantasia to show for my twelfth birthday in this house. Judy Garland hard run our lives from the couch in the living room. And now I’d been locked out. Um, Toto…… Toto?
Where once I had hung with my mother’s friends, my father’s friends and the children of the people they knew, I was now out in the world. I worked at 20th Century-Fox as a script analyst, and it was at that time that I began to drift into a new circle of fashion and celebrity, rock & roll. Rock was less sure of itself in the mid-Sixties than it is now; movie stars were old money, rock stars the arrivistes. My name, my family’s name, had some currency in this society. People in rock & roll were still awed by the mystique of movies and movie stars, and so I found myself accorded a place at a new table. I was tolerated here, a curiosity, a novelty.
For the first time I really began consciously to use my background as my ticket. I could never maintain anything like the life I wanted on the money I made at Fox. It was possible, however, for me to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, without being either one, by trading on my origins. Displaced and impoverished European royalty did it all the time. I was granted an immunity from reality. When the bill came, I let someone else pay it. After all, it was little enough to ask for the pleasure of having me drop by.
The center of my hanging in those days was at the home of John and Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas. We stayed up all night, went to parties and concerts, rode in limos to Beverly Hills, to private clubs like the Factory and the Daisy. Everything was on John and Michelle. I never paid for anything. It was the Martin’s house all over again. Whenever a nagging sense of guilt told me I ought at least to offer to buy a drink once in a while, or to bring over a bottle or a bag of dope, it seemed another part of me felt as if that were somehow unnecessary, possibly inappropriate. I had taken on a function, and being an eternal guest was part of that function. To pay for anything would have been gauche. Today I look upon my behavior then as that of a child. As a child nothing was required of me except that I behave. I was the token Beverly Hills brat. It had become my job.
The behavior requirements were simple: drink and use to excess, but always remain in control. In an era when alcohol was considered unfashionable and establishmentarian, we kept the faith. Crown Royal straight from the bottle. Marijuana, cocaine and pills filled in the rest of the blanks. There was a huge jar of pills in the dressing room upstairs. It was filled with Ritalin, Doriden, Percodan, Valium, Placidyl, Tuinal. The pills, the dope and the alcohol were supposed to tune us all in, to help us maintain our creativity.
In the Sixties it was considered a badge of hipness to get very stoned very often. I worked hard at being hip and very hard at hanging. It took more and more of everything to get me to that level. A lot had to be put off, like life. I had to avoid the questions about my own state, my own phantom writing career. I hated questions about myself, as I had no answers. And I bristled when I was asked anything about my family. I was accepted, I believed, only because of them, and yet I wanted to hear nothing about them. You’ve already seen my ticket, do I have to show it to you again?
I became more and more insular and smug. I was hanging at parties with people like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Mama Cass Elliott, David Crosby, Brian Jones. I took an attitude of condescension toward the people from my parents’ world, movie people. If I saw Peter Lawford or Rod Steiger loosening up at a party, I looked down on them for trying to be hip. I was merciless. I acted as if somehow it were my turf and they were intruding. A case in point was a party at the Phillipses’ where Steve McQueen, looking a little nervous and out of place, spotted me. His face lit up at seeing someone familiar. He rode motorcycles a lot with my dad, and so when he shook my hand, the first thing he asked was, ”How’s Keenan?” I turned to him with cold contempt. ”I don’t know,” I said. ”I hardly ever see the asshole.” Steve just stood there. What could he say? I walked away feeling self-righteous and totally justified.
It got worse. I was throwing people away with both hands. Once again I found myself slipping from the who’s-hip list. Call first, will you, Ned? Just to make sure we’re home. As my superstar friends receded from my life, I receded from the world. My self-esteem, already low, hit rock bottom.
I ended up living in a garage in back of a house belonging to a singer named Scott McKenzie, in a place called Vogel Flat. We lived on the royalties Scott made from a John Phillips song about San Francisco (”If you’re goin’ to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”). There must have been a dozen people staying there on a regular basis.
Most of my days were spent drunk and stoned with Tom, an actor friend of mine who lived in an adjacent shack. We worked up these characters, these two coyotes, Ruben and Hector, who spoke with Mexican accents. We tried for weeks, always through these characters, to get two girls, Alana and Pepper, to go to bed with us. We were fanatical about their being aware that we were really Ruben and Hector, these two Mexican coyotes, and would they please, you know, do it with us.
At first everyone laughed. It was a joke, right? But we wouldn’t stop. We never broke character. Night and day, day after day, we skulked around speaking in Mexican accents, discussing the idea of eating kitty cats and maybe even some children. We took to running, bent kneed, along a concrete culvert, only our heads and shoulders visible to the others. There were several families living there, and at night, instead of sitting down to dinner with everyone else, Tom and I would hang out on the veranda, in the shadows on all fours, and watch them through the window. Occasionally we would glance at each other, then at one of the small kids at the table, then lick our chops.
People actually got scared. They started yelling at us, shooing us off the porch, away from the house. They begged us to stop. We wouldn’t. They finally began throwing things at us. Hurt and bewildered by their attitude, we would lope off to the garage to smoke a joint and drink more wine. It got so we wouldn’t break character even with each other. Late at night we would trot around the property urinating on trees and buildings to mark the territory. Then I started getting up early in the morning to do it. That’s when Scott asked me to leave. I looked at Ruben, but Ruben was now Tom again. Only problem was, I was still a coyote.
I made it back to my mother’s house. I was twenty-eight years old. For the next year I lived on a sofa bed in my mother’s dining room, smoking dope, drinking ouzo and thinking about life. It came to me that I was in deep, deep shit. The walls of my ego were collapsing. I needed something, someone, to give me direction.
His name was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He was probably the most famous guru of the late Sixties and early Seventies. He taught a technique of self-discovery called Transcendental Meditation. Once again I hooked myself to someone powerful, famous, rich. The difference here was that he didn’t know who my family was, or care. What he saw was a raw recruit, someone to carry his message. I gloried in my new identity; here was a man who accepted me for myself. I could actually be of use. I was broke, unemployed, alcoholic. So I did the logical thing: I became a teacher of TM.
For three years I hung with the guru. I became a spiritual monster. I spent four months at his ashram in India learning to be a teacher. Ultimately, I went with him to Europe to run a series of teacher-training courses. I drove him around in his Mercedes, carried the deerskin he sat on, came running when he pushed a button. He clothed, housed and fed me.
My father always said Maharishi saved my life, and to an extent that was true. For a while, I got straight. For a while. At one point, I didn’t use drugs or drink alcohol for nearly a year. I was a vegetarian. I was even celibate for nine months.
But the strain of maintaining this kind of life was tremendous. Once again I was playing a character. We were holding a training course in Majorca, and I was placed in charge of a hotel filled with 250 student-teachers. They were all meditating about eight hours a day, and some of them were simply coming unraveled. One guy developed anorexia nervosa, thought that he was getting enlightened and nearly starved to death. Another guy started walking around sewing up his face with an imaginary needle and thread. Still another guy, a teacher, found out his girlfriend was cheating on him, so he cut the crotches out of all her panties and made a necklace out of them. He placed the necklace of multicolored crotches around the neck of the guru’s likeness on a poster. I found that kind of inventive. But then the asshole set fire to the hotel. That was it. I began to hide out.
I hid at first from the other meditators. Then I hid from Maharishi. He would send people to find me. I began stealing bottles of Guinness stout from the hotel bar and hunkering on my balcony at three in the morning, drinking and wondering if the master could see me with his third eye. I was sure he could read my aura and see that I had lowered my vibration.
Although Maharishi covered all my most basic needs, I never had any cash. Without cash, my mobility was severely limited. There were about four of us living together in a small town in Italy called Fiuggi Fonte, just outside of Rome, where another training course was being held. We were all former golden boys who had become dispensable. No longer in the inner circle, we were in a situation that reminded me of the end of Orwell’s 1984, when Winston is released to spend his days under a tree playing chess with other beat-out cases. Maharishi lived on new blood; he needed people filled with the fervor of new spiritual discovery, people who believed that they were going to be enlightened at any moment. We knew goddamn well that wasn’t going to happen. Older and possibly wiser, we had come across a little-known fact: spiritual life was just a longer way of saying “life.”
Since we had no money, we ate in the dining room, where everything, including the students, seemed to be made of wheat. Imagine the joy in my heart the day Mike Love of the Beach Boys showed up at our door. He was beaming, cleareyed, a rock & roll singin’ savior. We fell on him like wolves on a bunny.
We set him straight real quick. The program, we said, had been changed. Now it was all about meat. We grabbed him and hauled him off to a local shop, where he bought us four bottles of wine and two whole roasted chickens. Then, behind locked doors, we trashed our auras with grease and alcohol. Not long after that, before MMY could get a clear bead on my vibe, I slouched toward Rome. My hanging days with the guru were effectively over.
In the late Seventies, I turned my hand to screenwriting and found that it was actually possible to get paid to hang. Married and enjoying a somewhat stable and responsible existence, I wrote a movie called California Dreaming. I had originally titled it State Beach, after my early hanging days in Santa Monica, but the executives at American International Pictures said no one would be able to relate.
We shot the film in Avila Beach, in Central California. I was the writer, and as such, I got to hang daily at $1500 a week. It seemed that I had a kind of legitimate situation going. I also played a role in the movie for even more money, and I didn’t feel guilty. In fact, I found that people were kind of hanging with me. Incredible.
It’s 1981 and I’m in aspen, writing a screenplay with my brother, Tracy, who has a home there. Aspen is hangers’ heaven. Hanging in Aspen is effortless, like getting drunk or falling in love; you’re there, it happens. And now I have this dubious air of legitimacy about me, like, well, Ned’s working on something with his brother. He’s not just here to hang. My cover is working.
In the ski-lift line on Aspen Mountain one day, I find myself standing with Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson. I am to ski with them and then have lunch. This is hangers’ samadhi, the sat-chit-ananda of hanging. I ride up the lift with Jack.
I do some of my best skiing coming down the unloading track from the lift. I yank at my gloves, adjust my goggles. This is me at my peak, gold-medal stuff. I glide casually over to the start of the run. Jack grins and kind of hunkers over his skis. I make a mental note: Jack doesn’t look as good as I do on skis. This thought fills me with an odd sense of well-being. Rafelson looks over at me. ”I’ll ski with Ned,” he says. Now what the hell does that mean? Aren’t we all skiing together?
I have often wondered at the size of Nicholson’s legs. His thighs are like beer barrels. I always thought of them as kind of short. What they are is kind of strong. Jack gets into a bent-kneed semiracing tuck, which, it turns out, he can hold for two hours without getting tired. He takes off down the hill, and I, ignoring Bob’s offer, take off after him. Then I find out why Rafelson doesn’t ski with Jack: Jack never turns. Ingemar Stenmark turns. Pirmin Zubriggen turns. Jack Nicholson goes straight.
It dawns on me after about forty-five seconds or so that Jack is never going to turn. Ever. He is going to ski straight down the mountain. Then he’s going to get back on the lift and do it again. I have now lost all interest in hanging with Jack Nicholson. I am completely out of control; trees are whipping past me like telephone poles in a Road Runner cartoon. I feel like Wile E. Coyote riding an Acme-rocket sled to oblivion, and Jack keeps getting smaller and smaller in front of me. In his black ski clothes he is a pinprick of darkness, a black hole, a flying, flapping bat out of hell, and I…… I am so unhappy about how fast I’m going that I start crying. The tears freeze instantly to my ears. I have been lured by my own ego toward the certain compound fracture of my entire life.
Then a miracle occurs: I see a way out. To the left there’s a kind of escape road, like the ones trucks have on steep downgrades. Great! I slip off the main run and through a stand of trees. Out of the corner of my eye I see Bob Rafelson standing on a small rise. He waves. It’s a curiously reassuring gesture. Later I find out that he wasn’t waving but putting up his hand to try to get me to stop. Then I see that this is not an escape road. I perform a feat that skiers call catching some air. I catch a good cubic acre of the shit. For a moment I am actually weightless. This feeling doesn’t last. I do a full face plant into the side of a deep snowbank. By the grace of a higher power there is no huge boulder beneath it. I live.
When I manage to pull myself out of the snow, Rafelson is standing over me. He grins. ”Lose Jack?” Uh, yeah. Bob nods pleasantly: ”The guy never turns.”
Later, when asked if I had fun skiing with Jack, I nod, smile cryptically. Jack’s a private person.
While a lot of the good times were genuine, it was getting harder and harder for me to function. A skiing holiday in Aspen, which should have been fun, was really a painful exercise in keeping up an appearance. I had to look good. But inside, it wasn’t working. I was hung over almost every day, drunk almost every night. Drinking had become a major problem. More than that, it had become a necessity. It was as if I had crossed an invisible line. The alcohol and the drugs didn’t do what they had done for me all those years. I found I needed more alcohol more often — not to get high, just to get even.
I wasn’t hanging with glamorous people in glamorous places anymore. I was alone. Divorced and unemployed, I sat in my apartment drinking straight tequila and watching the 1984 football season with a friend. The weird thing about this arrangement was that although we watched the games together, we never saw each other. Instead, we phoned it in. At the start of each game I’d call him or he’d call me, then we’d drink and stay on the phone for the whole game. We never ventured out to each other’s homes. We held on desperately through the long pauses. We strained to hear each other’s TV sets in the background, to hear the ice cubes bumping against the glasses. Finally even these phone conversations stopped. Drinking had become a solitary pursuit. The wheels had come off.
I had always had this vague idea that I would drink myself into some mellow, Norman Rockwell-style old age, getting quietly shit-faced on good dark bourbon. It had never been a part of my master plan to quit drinking, but my master plan wasn’t shit anyway. I don’t need to add to the plethora of recovery stories around today. Suffice it to say, in early 1985 I got sober. The fact that I couldn’t drink anymore pissed me off at first, but there it is. I was sick, and I had to try to do something about it. Concomitant with sobriety was a cessation of hanging. The compulsion to hang, like the compulsion to drink and use, seems to have disappeared.
Today, a social event doesn’t have to have a payoff. It wasn’t the free lunch I was after anyway; it was the recognition, the approval I needed. Like the comedian says, I’m happy to be here tonight. Hell, I’m happy to be anywhere tonight.