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How Brooke Hayward's marriage to Dennis Hopper helped ignite the 1960s' art explosion

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For many who lived through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, it was magical and surreal. Writer Mark Rozzo wanted to explore one intersection of the cultural shifts - how new waves in contemporary art, pop music and Hollywood films evolved. Many people suggested the person he should speak with was actress and writer Brooke Hayward. Her eight-year marriage to actor and photographer Dennis Hopper during the 1960s was a creative epicenter for some of the defining art, music and films of the decade.

Rozzo met with Hayward frequently at a little tavern around the corner from her house in Connecticut. They talked about her past over BLTs and iced teas.

MARK ROZZO: It took a while to get her to come around to the idea that what we were talking about trying to do is a story that was really a cultural history and was a celebration of her role in all of this in '60s LA and that these crazy old stories of throwing a huge party for Warhol, going to the Sunset Strip to see the Byrds, Jane Fonda's crazy 4th of July party in Malibu - that these were events that actually had resonance still and illuminate an era that we're all still making sense of.

CHANG: In his book "Everybody Thought We Were Crazy," Rozzo collected these memories of the unlikely relationship between Hayward and Hopper, and he traced the way they redefined what we think of as art, both then and now.

ROZZO: Dennis and Brooke meet each other in the spring of 1961 when they were both cast in this bomb of a Broadway production called "Mandingo." And Brooke immediately loathes Dennis Hopper on sight, thinks he's too cool for school. But, of course, this being a classic case of opposites attract, Brooke falls in love with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOSSIN' AND TURNIN'")

BOBBY LEWIS: (Singing) I couldn't sleep at all last night. Got to thinkin' of you.

ROZZO: And very quickly, an electric romance blossoms between them. They run off to LA together, and off they go. They were different. Their tastes were unusual. There were only two people who worked in Hollywood who would regularly show up for Ferus gallery openings and for these Monday night art walks that they had on La Cienega Boulevard, and they were Brooke Hayward and Dennis Hopper.

Brooke and Dennis bought these early works by Warhol and Ruscha and Lichtenstein, and they put them into this house - 1712 North Crescent Heights, up in the Hollywood Hills - where you literally had no idea who was going to show up night to night. It could be Jane and Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, maybe even Joan Didion or Tina Turner or Miles Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "JOSHUA")

ROZZO: These people show up. They see the art in this very intimate setting. And so in this very intimate way, this art begins to be exposed to more and more people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "JOSHUA")

ROZZO: If Dennis was kind of taking the lead on the art as much as Brooke had to sign off on every piece they bought - and often these pieces were bought care of her checkbook - Brooke had this larger vision of what this place could be. And she was the one rolling up her sleeves, throwing on the paint, putting on the tiles and really turning it into something memorable.

There weren't so many people sticking their necks out to buy this kind of art that was lampooned by newspaper art critics. It's incredible to think that they were able to offer early and decisive support to so many artists whose work for decades now has lined the walls of museums and galleries all over the world and the pages of art history textbooks.

And then on the Sunset Strip, you get that youthquake scene rolling with The Byrds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. TAMBOURINE MAN")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play your song for me.

ROZZO: The spring of 1965 they took the stage at Ciro's, a moribund nightclub, and suddenly it was dance, dance, dance in Hollywood. Everybody came to those shows, from the Ferus artists to the young actors like Dennis and Brooke and their friends, such as Peter Fonda. And night after night, Ciro's would be a gathering place for this odd jumble of people living in Los Angeles who might not otherwise have encountered each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. TAMBOURINE MAN")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) I'm ready to go anywhere. I'm ready for to fade.

ROZZO: Dennis was something of a holy fool for art. And being that was not always easy in Hollywood in the '60s, when that industry was still very much about "Dr. Doolittle" and "The Sound Of Music." And Dennis had dreamed for a long time of bringing art into filmmaking and was struggling to figure out how he could make that happen being a guy who didn't always have the best reputation for being the most reliable character.

In '65-'66, he was developing a project called "The Last Movie," and Brooke was very excited about this. She thought the treatment and the script were brilliant. But it hit a wall. It didn't get made. And Brooke said, you know, if he had been able to get that movie made, then he wouldn't have fallen into the abyss.

His career frustrations mounted. He began to become more self-destructive, more violent in the relationship. But in the meantime, this other idea comes out of the blue from his good friend and would-be collaborator, Peter Fonda.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO BE WILD")

STEPPENWOLF: (Singing) Get your motor running.

ROZZO: When "Easy Rider" comes along, he feels like he can take a genre movie and feed into it all these things he's learned as a patron and supporter of pop art and a fan of rock 'n' roll and bring this new point of view to filmmaking and make a movie about the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EASY RIDER")

JACK NICHOLSON: (As George Hanson) They're not scared of you, they scared of what you represent to 'em.

DENNIS HOPPER: (As Billy) Hey, man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.

NICHOLSON: (As George Hanson) Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.

HOPPER: (As Billy) What the hell is wrong with freedom, man? That's what it's all about.

ROZZO: The movie propelled the new Hollywood into the '70s, the decade of Scorsese and Coppola and Altman and Spielberg.

Getting to that point was not easy. His relationship with Peter Fonda frayed. The production was chaotic. And then the biggest upshot for him personally was that his relationship and marriage with Brooke Hayward blew up.

Brooke looked back on that time with Dennis in the '60s as being the most wonderful and awful years of her life. When she did see the screening of "Easy Rider," she thought it was the best acting that Dennis had ever done in his life, and she said she knew it would be good, and she knew he would be good because even though their relationship was over, she knew how talented he was. And she was glad for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN! TURN! TURN! (TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON)")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) A time to be born, a time to die.

CHANG: Mark Rozzo on Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward and 1960s LA in his new book "Everybody Thought We Were Crazy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN! TURN! TURN! (TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON)")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) A time to laugh, a time to weep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.