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Hopper was known to tool around with a the ONLY ISM FOR ME IS ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM
Irving Blum, the impresario of the Ferus Gallery, the epicenter of L.A.’s emergent art scene, said of the trail the couple blazed, “They were virtually unique, you know? There was nobody else doing it in the way that they were doing it.”
In Hayward and Hopper’s living room, the drama of an entire era would play out: the artistic upheaval, the social jumble, the radical politics, and, ultimately, the instability and danger that Hopper would reflect in the project, launched 50 years ago, that made his career and undid this inspired, and ultimately combustible, partnership—Easy Rider. Looking back now, Hayward shakes her head at it all: “It was a great time to be in Los Angeles. I miss those days. I even miss Dennis.”
When I went to visit Hayward at her house in rural Connecticut, she handed me the draft of an unpublished essay she wrote about that time. It contains this line: “Those years in the ’60’s when I was married to Dennis were the most wonderful and awful of my life.”
Hayward became an octogenarian last summer, not that you would know it. The coltish aura is intact. She is mischievous, conspiratorial, lissome, with a movie star’s charm she nudges to incandescent levels when the mood strikes. She is, after all, the oldest child of the actress Margaret Sullavan. Her father was Leland Hayward, the Hollywood superagent, Broadway producer, aviation pioneer, and serial husband to a succession of women who each achieved icon status: Sullavan, Slim Keith, Pamela Churchill (later Harriman). There’s also her trademark steeliness and pinpoint wit, qualities Hayward put to work in her best-selling 1977 memoir, Haywire, which documented her coming-of-age amid show-business glory and family tragedy: a peripatetic bi-coastal life, her parents’ broken marriage, and, horrifically, the twin deaths—overdoses that were presumptive suicides—of her mother and her younger sister, Bridget, in a single annus horribilis, 1960. All of 23, Hayward was the mother of two toddler boys, Jeffrey and Willie, from her then unraveling first marriage, to curator Michael M. Thomas (later a best-selling novelist). “I wept for my family, all of us, my beautiful, idyllic, lost family,” Hayward wrote, equal parts heartache and sheer guts. “I wept for our excesses, our delusions and inconsistencies.” Hayward’s brother, William, known as Bill, would take his life in 2008.
Hayward lives in a converted 19th-century schoolhouse on the outskirts of a tiny Connecticut village. In contrast to the famous house she kept in Los Angeles in the 1960s, here reigns simplicity, order, and quiet, along with self-sufficient, self-imposed solitude. (She was married for 23 years to the society bandleader Peter Duchin; they divorced in 2008.) There are overstuffed chairs and a vast coffee table piled high with books. Framed photographs of times past—a party with David Hockney, a visit with Blum—are tucked here and there. The broad fireplace remains resolutely unused. Having survived the cataclysmic Bel Air fire of 1961, why would she want to experience another conflagration? One potential bonfire she avoided was writing a follow-up to Haywire, which would have chronicled her years with Hopper. Hayward’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, urged her to go for it, but Hopper threatened legal action. Hayward respected his wishes and got on with life.
“We got married in ’61,” Hayward says. “It was probably in September. I believe it was September. Yes. September.” It is curious that nobody seems to know exactly when Hayward and Hopper were married, but Hayward does recall her father’s fury: “He called me that morning at six and said, ‘There’s no reason to go through with this!’ ” Actors, Leland Hayward felt, were not for marrying, and certainly not this one, who had notoriously knocked heads with director Henry Hathaway on the 1958 Western From Hell to Texas, effectively getting himself blackballed from the film business. (Hopper would bump along with roles on such television shows as The Twilight Zone and The Rifleman and in the occasional B movie.) The wedding was a sparsely attended rite, held in the massive Christ Church, at 60th and Park, in Manhattan. The couple hadn’t bothered with a reception, so, Hayward says, they shuffled over to Jane Fonda’s apartment for sandwiches afterward.
Hayward had met Hopper that spring during rehearsals for the Broadway production of Mandingo, an overheated, libidinous drama set on an antebellum Alabama plantation. She instantly loathed the guy—unwashed, unprepared, too cool for school. She had been a debutante, a Vassar undergrad, a Vogue cover girl. He had been a wide-eyed boy (nicknamed Clodhopper) from Dodge City, Kansas, with a talent for dramatic monologues and trouble. Naturally, she soon found herself crazy for the handsome 24-year-old with what she calls “the profile of a classic Greek statue.” They shared an ardor for everything visual. “Dennis had the greatest eye of anybody I’ve ever known,” Hayward says. With her help, Hopper soon began taking photographs. The aesthetic bond between them was conspicuous. “He was the very essence of avant-garde,” Jane Fonda says. “And Brooke, to the marrow of her bone, is an artist.”
“It was like walking into a carnival, with a candy-store energy,” the artist Ed Ruscha says of 1712 North Crescent Heights Boulevard, the Spanish-style, circa-1927 house that Hayward and Hopper bought in April 1963, after the Bel Air fire destroyed 484 homes, including their own. In the months after the fire, the uprooted family had bounced around, staying, for a time, at David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones’s estate, on Tower Grove Road, where silent-screen idol John Gilbert had once lived with Greta Garbo. As they scouted for a new house, an insurance agent told them the safest investments would be in art and antiques. Hopper was known to tool around with a the ONLY ISM FOR ME IS ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM bumper sticker on his Plymouth. Now he and Hayward went into aesthetic overdrive.
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