April 29, 1991 12:00 PM

by Mickey Rooney

At 18 months, Joe Yule Jr. sang in his parents’ vaudeville act; at 10 years he was a film star, “Mickey McGuire,” in more than 60 two-reelers based on the Toonerville Trolley comic strip. (Looking up from a drawing board one day, Walt Disney told him, “I’m going to call this mouse Mickey—after you.”) He kept the Mickey; his mom chose Rooney later.

Rooney is now 70, and while his later years aren’t without interest, it is the first 20, when he and Judy Garland were MGM’s big-money babies, that provide the best of this breezy, raunchy, often startling autobiography.

By 1939, the teen Rooney’s success—as Andy Hardy and in such films as Boys Town—had made him the nation’s top box office attraction. By 21, he also achieved several off-screen distinctions, such as satisfying Norma Shearer’s desire to provide him with oral sex and making Ava Gardner the first of his eight wives.

His escapades were famous: On a war-bond tour in the ’40s, Rooney woke after a night of boozing to find himself with three other hung-over, naked celebrants: Dick Powell, Jimmy Cagney and Fred Astaire.

The early ’40s brought such hits as Girl Crazy and National Velvet. Then, as he outgrew his boyish appeal, Rooney made bad films and took refuge in alcohol and drugs. By 1956, he writes, “I’d been in show business 33 years. I’d made 152 films. I’d earned more than $600 million, of which I had managed to save $2,345.33.”

One way or another—”I made appearances at cocktail parties in Florida for $500 a pop, pretending to be an old friend of the host”—Rooney kept working, and in 1979 Sugar Babies, a campy stage show, revived him. It ran eight years, on Broadway and on tour; Rooney made up to $50,000 a week.

Life is good now, Rooney reports; he lives in California’s Conejo Valley with Jan, wife No. 8, enjoying “my bunch of loving children—all nine of them—and our menagerie of pets.”

Is his book a good buy? For those interested in child stars, yes. For those put off by goofy philosophizing (“What is an orgasm, after all, except laughter of the loins?”) or clichés (Gardner had “a bosom that rose like two snowy, mountain peaks”), maybe not.

And Rooney’s self-absorption is hard to take. On tour in London, he phones ex-wife Ava, retired there. She has had two strokes, she tells him, and is considering suicide. But come to dinner, please. Rooney accepts. “But I stood her up,” he says. “I just couldn’t go—I was afraid…. I might fall in love with her again, and she with me.” (Villard, $22.50)

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