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Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward: Unlikely couple and artistic force

Mark Rozzo’s ‘Everybody Thought We Were Crazy’ examines an impactful moment in cultural history

At the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard, Melrose Avenue and North Doheny Drive, Dennis Hopper shot his famous photograph — “Double Standard” — from the driver’s seat of his ’64 Corvair. (Dennis Hopper/Hopper Art Trust)
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On our 10th anniversary, Los Angeles and I are more in love than ever. Since fate brought us together in 2012, I’ve been enamored, entranced, obsessed with grokking the city’s essence — not only its vibrant now but its storied Technicolor past. Cruising Sunset at sunset, that blazing orange orb setting the city’s spires afire, feels like moving through time, peeling back the palimpsest of the movies, music and movements that have shaped what we’ve watched, what we’ve thought, who we’ve been.

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I was in love with where I lived only once before: magical Taos, N.M., in the 1960s, when I, and people like me, stumbled around the communes that dotted the mesa-tops, dizzied by homegrown pot, the thin, high-altitude air, the pure, painterly light. That’s where I was in ’68 when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda roared into town on their choppers, Fonda’s the iconic, flag-draped Captain America Harley, both dudes stoned on grass and acid, filming Hopper’s directorial debut. Made for a measly $400,000, its dialogue mostly ad-libbed, with real drugs imbibed wherever the script said inhale, “Easy Rider” stunned the world, scoring two Oscar nominations and becoming the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 1969.

“Easy Rider,” writes Vanity Fair contributing editor Mark Rozzo in his wonderful first book, “Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles,” was “the first movie that looked the counterculture in the eye, spoke its dialect, articulated its hopes and fears, and even critiqued it from the inside. … Dennis had promised to ‘bury’ Old Hollywood, and it looked as though he might well have succeeded.”

Rozzo’s book is ostensibly the story of the eight-year, roiling romance between “the coolest kids in Hollywood”: outlaw artist Dennis Hopper, who’d acted in “Rebel Without a Cause, and debutante Brooke Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan. Hopper and Hayward “were the prime catalysts and connectors during a brief, kaleidoscopic cultural moment when Hollywood upstarts, art-world superstars, and the emerging shaggy aristocracy of rock rubbed up against one another and threw off sparks,” Rozzo writes. “They embodied the collision of Old Hollywood and New, of chic bohemia and the burgeoning counterculture. They were as implausible a couple as ever existed.”

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Hopper and Hayward, co-stars of the controversial anti-slavery film “Mandingo, fell in love on set in 1961 and married shortly thereafter. They filled their Hollywood Hills home with fresh works by their friends and dinner guests, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha. Other regulars included Hells Angels and Black Panthers, rock stars and mod fashionistas. Brooke’s bestie, Jane Fonda, called 1712 North Crescent Heights “magical.” Frequent visitor Joan Didion called it a place of “gaiety and wit.” There, Hayward raised three kids — two from her first marriage, her third with Hopper — while watching her husband devolve into an alcoholic maniac with a single burning desire: to make a movie called “Easy Rider.”

“In 1968 [Brooke] found herself subjected to the mounting stresses of her husband’s — and the decade’s — accelerating weirdness,” Rozzo writes. “Something was going very awry with the man she had fallen in love with in 1961.” As a result, “ Brooke and Dennis’s idyllic Pop Art house — so full of color, hope, and love — was turning into a lurid marital drama stage set: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with an acid rock soundtrack.”

The marriage ended in 1969, but Rozzo follows their continued hold on the public imagination. After the breakup, Hayward retreated to the bedroom she’d shared with Hopper to write the exposé “Haywire, a runaway bestseller. Hopper returned to Taos and bought the legendary Mabel Dodge Luhan House, former gathering place of Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams and Martha Graham. “He envisioned reconstituting the bohemian glory of an earlier era in a rugged outback town that, with its sacred mountain and Native American pueblo, was imbued with cosmic feeling,” Rozzo writes. His house became “a way station for artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and the era’s robust supply of freaks.”

Hopper married four more women, including Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. “The marriage lasted all of eight days,” Rozzo writes. “ ‘The first seven days were pretty good,’ Dennis reportedly said.”

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Rozzo ends his rollicking tale with a final reunion, back in L.A., in 2009, at Hopper’s deathbed. “Brooke found her former husband, now seventy-three and with only a few months left to live, in bed. He sat up the moment Brooke entered and began apologizing for everything he had put her through.

“HE: Brooke, do you still love me?

SHE: Yes, Dennis, of course.

HE: You’re the only woman I ever loved.”

That was insanity, the reader thinks, not love.

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Which brings us to Rozzo’s greatest authorial gift. By centering his book on the juxtaposition of opposing worlds — of Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward; of 1960s Los Angeles and 1960s Taos; of an America seemingly poised to run on flower power and an America that can’t quite manage a civil Thanksgiving meal — Rozzo makes each world, each character and each reality both shocking and believable, both ridiculous and sublime.

As, I can attest, they were, in 1960s mythology and in real life.

Meredith Maran is a journalist, a critic and the author of “The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention,” among other books.

Everybody Thought We Were Crazy

Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles

By Mark Rozzo

Ecco. 464 pp. $29.99

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