The first Hollywood party I ever attended, high in the hills, was at the rented house of an actress who belonged to the Actor’s Studio, a hot ticket at the time, because the young, beautiful, and ragingly sexual Marlon Brando was a member of that exclusive and gifted club, and was supposed to be coming to the party. He never showed up, but Ben Gazzara was there, as was the attractively gangling Anthony Perkins, slated by studio publicists to be the replacement for the recently vanished James Dean, whose shadow loomed over the industry, dead, almost as imposingly as did Marlon’s alive. Awkward and very young, as was almost everyone there, longing for connection, I went down the stairs outside the kitchen into the garden.
A stocky young man, (big little boy he more accurately seemed to me,) came out of the bushes. “I crashed this party,” he said. “Fuck everyone!”
So it was I first encountered Dennis Hopper.
You need to understand that this was the late Fifties, when people still apologized even for the sloppily dropped ‘Jesus.’ Language was not yet a weapon to fell an opponent, or paralyze with shock, though it already was for the seventeen year old blond kid, with his short legs and even shorter fuse.
“Hi,” I said, trying to conceal my Inner Priss.
“I come from Kansas, which is nowhere,” he said, I would imagine already into the characterization he would assume for somebody’s novel. “And I hate my parents, who are no one.”
Writer that I already was, and novelist that I was soon to be, I knew I had found what they were to label not long afterwards “a keeper,” though the truth is you can’t keep anyone for more than a limited span, as I was to learn from the news that Dennis died. But for that moment, and a long number of colorful moments afterwards, we were friends. But then, with both of us still jauntily into our youths, Dennis' was visibly more jaunty than mine. We went directly from the party to Googie’s, a hamburger joint on Sunset Boulevard, where Dennis, to hear him tell it, had spent numberless hours with Jimmy Dean, who had been his “best friend.”
Another “best friend” of Dean’s, Nick Adams, lived across from me on Rothdell Trail, a short, winding side road off Laurel Canyon where Jim Morrison was to live a few years later, a street that got its name, according to Tony Perkins, who was infinitely cleverer than people knew or imagined, from “where Roth first broke through the underbrush.” Dennis and Nick had both been minor players in ‘Rebel Without a Cause,” so both of them claimed to have been Dean’s most prized buddy, which he was no longer alive to validate or deny. Dennis would come to my house, and taking a long length of rope, attaching it to my porch guard-rail, would swing across the narrow lane and land on Nick’s porch, crying “Fuck Errol Flynn!”
I found it both comic and endearing, though my father, then about to run for mayor of Tucson, Arizona, as a Republican, yet, on reading my first novel, Naked in Babylon, in which Dennis was a featured character, fictionally named Linus Archer, said “Couldn’t he say ‘Screw Errol Flynn?’” But the answer was no, he couldn’t, and I couldn’t bowdlerize what seemed to me one of the most original, deliberately offensive and unintentionally funny people I’d ever known. Annoyed by my crush on Tony Perkins, in a world and industry that still kept its sexually ambivalent leading men in the closet, Dennis stole the big cutout of Tony in ‘Friendly Persuasion’ from the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese and put it in my back yard.
I awakened that morning to find Dennis sitting on a rock beside that bigger than life-sized depiction that caused my heart to skip several beats (not out of longing, at least not just then,) grinning and saying “You’d still rather have him?” When the answer was ‘Yes,’ he drove off angrily, for an assignation with the teenaged Natalie Wood, but that is another story.
After bringing him into the home of my mentor and guide, a kind man who thought I should write a novel, and was, though an esteemed literary critic in the community, himself infatuated with the whole Hollywood scene, I found out, to my very young and inexperienced horror, that Dennis bedded the critic’s wife. (“Do you think less of me?” she asked. “Well, yeah,” I didn’t say aloud.) It was one thing my writing lurid sex scenes; quite another finding out they took place in real life. My God, I was young, but bear in mind that Dennis was even younger.
I let him read the finished novel, and he was pleased. Besides my teacher’s wife and Natalie and an uncounted number of eager women, he was also a deep admirer of Ernest Hemingway, quoting him all the time, or, more accurately, misquoting, though that, too, worked for fine comic effect. He liked to think of himself as the hero in The Sun Also Rises, his balls having been cut off by an insensitive society, failing to recognize his genius.
“This is my friend, Gwen,” he said, introducing me to an older relative. “She’s written the best fuck…. the best damned book about Hollywood, ever.”
It was, I would venture, most likely the last time he thought to watch his language.
He was proud of getting into fights with directors, getting fired, and, not too long after, getting high—eventually higher than anyone. I lost track of him for several years, but met his first ex-wife, Brook Hayward, the beautiful daughter of the producer Leland Hayward and the actress Margaret Sullavan at a party in Beverly Hills. She told me sighingly and long of their passionate mismatch and divorce, adding “My luck I divorced him before ‘Easy Rider.’” That movie had, of course, made a fortune, and changed the course of films.
Still, I regarded him as lucky, since there was nothing about his acting that I considered first-rate, his vocal tone being rather monotonous, and his depictions, except when he played villains, seeming uninspired. But his photography was fine, his art collection impressive, as was his own art to a number of people, including the French. I was happy for his success, and glad to run into him at a café in Taos, New Mexico, where he sported a ten-gallon hat and a five-year old named Henry, spawn of his latest (then fourth) marriage.
“Say hello to my old friend Gwen,” he said to Henry.
“Why?” said Henry.
“Because I asked you to,” said Dennis.
“Fuck you,” Henry said.
I could not help thinking that the evil that men speak lives after them, the good language is oft interred with their bones. Still, as many mistakes as he might have made, as many confused children as he might have fathered, I could not help but be sad, that this youngest rebel without a cause (he certainly tried to be)came to a painful end of a very troubled, but surprisingly accomplished road.