Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward and the Invention of L.A.’s Contemporary Art Scene

A just-published cultural history reveals how the couple brought together everyone from Andy Warhol to Ed Ruscha to Peter Fonda and the Byrds at their home in the Hollywood Hills
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Vanity Fair contributing editor Mark Rozzo’s Everybody Thought We Were Crazy is built around an intriguing possibility: Had Dennis Hopper, then a promising young actor who’d made his mark in Rebel Without a Cause but was lately relegated to guest appearances in second-tier TV westerns, not met and married Brooke Hayward, the actress and daughter of show-business royalty, when both were cast in a doomed Broadway play, would the world have come to know the L.A. artists Ed Ruscha, Edward Kienholz or even New York-based Andy Warhol? Such was the couple’s influence on the shape-shifting pop-cultural scene in L.A. and beyond at the start of the ’60s. Rozzo makes the argument that without these two—and their eye for beauty, novelty and a Duchamp-like appreciation of the readymade, on display daily and nightly at their house at the gateway to that other juggernaut of ’60s culture, Laurel Canyon—the cultural progression from the ’50s to the ’60s might have been been greatly attenuated.

Los Angeles magazine What made you want to write about Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, and their lives in L.A. in the early 1960s?

Mark Rozzo I had always wanted to write some kind of cultural history of L.A, of that time, and was never really sure how to do it. When I met Marin Hopper about a dozen years ago, when she was bringing out a book of her father’s photographs, I had some of this background of the Ferus Gallery and the Sunset Strip and what Hollywood was like then, so we could speak a similar language. And the more she told me about her parents, the more I became intrigued that the way to do a cultural history of that time was to tell the story of Brooke and Dennis, because of who they were, who they knew, where they went, what they did. I could have this opportunity through them to write about the 1961 Bel-Air fire, the Ferus Gallery, the Human Be-In in San Francisco, the Love-Ins in Griffith Park, the Watts rebellion, and the Sunset Strip riots. And also that I could make this a story, which is to say that this could have narrative shape and compelling characters and emotional resonance.

LAM Dennis’s and Brooke’s relationship had a major impact on the course of modern art in L.A., as well as on pop and rock music and culture.

MR I think Dennis and Brooke for their time were a uniquely collaborative and creative couple, and they were an extremely dynamic combination. They knew all the artists, they went to all the rock shows, they were immersed in Hollywood, they seemed to connect all those dots. They were bound by a mutual passion for all things visual, which is how their courtship unfolded in the spring of 1961 when they met in New York on this play called The Mandingo.

LAM How did that manifest itself?

MR After Brooke got over her initial revulsion to Dennis and decided she was in fact in love with him, they were suddenly skipping around all the galleries in New York, and it was on one of those days that Dennis said, like, Gosh, I wish I had a camera—he thought he could take pictures. And Brooke immediately turns around and basically empties her bank account and buys this Nikon for a guy she has probably known for maybe two weeks and gives it to him as a present for his 25th birthday. Then for basically the rest of their relationship or until Easy Rider gets off the ground in 1968, he’s got this thing around his neck all day long, taking pictures of everything.

LAM He really was an accomplished photographer, it turned out.

MR Dennis shot approximately 18,000 images during that time, which represents an incredible document of that era. He was shooting the Ferus Gallery, the Warhol factory, the March on Washington, the Human Be-In in San Francisco. He was supernaturally present in that time. And I know it would be tempting to think of him as a dilletante, but his photos ran in Artforum and some of his pictures are in the permanent collections of MoMa and the Metropolitan Museum. I mentioned in the book that it was said that if Dennis had only been a photographer, he’d be one of the great photographers of the 20th century.

LAM Dennis and Brooke were important benefactors to L.A. pop artists like Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, along with Andy Warhol, who actually had his first showing of his soup can paintings at the Ferus Galley in 1962.

MR That’s really so enviable, that Brook and Dennis were able to amass one of the most significant collections of contemporary art and do it on a shoe string. At that time, you didn’t need to be a Hollywood mogul to pull it off. It was all about curiosity and enthusiasm. Brooke and Dennis were the only two people from Hollywood at the time who would regularly show up for the Ferus Gallery openings and the Art Walks on La Cienega Blvd. And this was super-exciting for someone like [Ferus’s] Irving Blum to see Brooke and Dennis around the gallery, and not just because of their enthusiasm and glamour or the fact they might bring along Paul Newman, but because they actually bought stuff, the early works of Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein. These are critical purchase that are impacting the early careers of those artists.

LAM Dennis in particular seemed to apprehend that there was a sea change happening at that moment, culturally.

MR The pop culture hierarchy was really shifting, in fact, turning upside down, where suddenly pop musicians are the ones who are the huge icons. In the mid-60s, Hollywood is following a few steps behind everything that’s happening in music, everything that’s happening with the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan and the Byrds and James Brown, who seem to be able to do whatever they want, say whatever they want, make crazy music, and the world is just going to follow them. And Hollywood is still stuck in the era of The Sound of Music and Dr. Doolittle. This is the thing that fires Dennis up, to try to figure out how to make art in Hollywood, which proves not to be the easiest thing to do.

LAM You spend much of the book at 1712 N. Crescent Heights, the home Dennis and Brooke bought in the Hollywood Hills after their first home burned in the Bel-Air fire. What was special about it?

MR It was this incredible, remarkable environment that Brooke and Dennis made there. Brooke being the person who turned it into the design laboratory, this unique, magical environment. They took all the art they bought and put it there, along with these crazy objects and antiques that Brooke was collecting by doing safaris around town to buy this incredibly unfashionable stuff, such as Tiffany lamps. They had all those paintings on the walls and all the antiques, and then by night, you had literally no idea who’s going to be showing up, if it’s Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda or somebody like Jennifer Jones or Terry Southern, or Ike and Tina Turner. And yet, 1712, having all of the parties, the dinners, all those huge, huge personalities, was a family house. It wasn’t a museum. The kids are hanging out watching Get Smart! or setting fires in the backyard. Brooke’s son Jeffrey told me about a piece of toast flying that once left a butter stain on Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas which they had hung in the den. That painting is probably worth more than $60 million today.

LAM Did you visit the house during your research?

MR I was there during the renovation after the new owner took it over, and it was amazing to stand in that space. It was totally empty. And it felt like being on a stage and I could look around and imagine all of this drama. It really had a very haunting feeling. There was one picture on the wall, the picture that Dennis had taken a Brooke on the stairs of the house in ‘63. And so standing there, I could get a sense of the echoes, and yet I could barely believe that it all happened right there.

LAM The latter part of the book explores the comedown from the peak moments in the mid-60s. It all seemed sadly inevitable.

MR I was interested in Dennis and Brooke because the shape of their relationship so totally conformed to the shape of the decade, where it begins in idealism, optimism, excitement, and then it plateaus in this very colorful creativity and freedom and exploration, and then, towards the end, starts getting dark and weird. That Ferus Gallery moment was really a flicker in time. By the end of ’66, Ferus has closed, Artforum has left. In ’67, the Byrds are at Monterey Pop and they don’t sound quite so magical anymore. I was hoping that I could bring this emotional heft to the telling of a decade that we’ve all been thinking about a lot for over 50 years, and hopefully bring some insight and some freshness into the telling of that time as best that I could.


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