Culture

Legendary Survivor: Brooke Hayward Was Born to Hollywood Royalty, Married and Divorced Dennis Hopper and Lived to Tell the Tale

Like a chimney rising out of the rubble of a house burned to the ground, Brooke Hayward’s ability to survive devastation is as captivating as it is inspiring. Hayward is the eldest and only living child of a Golden Era Hollywood power couple: Her mother was actress Margaret Sullavan (“The Shop Around the Corner”) and her father, Leland Hayward, was a powerful agent and producer (“The Sound of Music”).  When Hayward was twenty-two-years-old, the family was capsized by tragedy, when her mother and younger sister each committed suicide within the span of one year. Several years later her best friend died when hit by a taxi in New York City. And nearly three decades after the tragic year that claimed her mother and sister, her brother took his own life. Finally, just last year, Hayward’s first husband, Dennis Hopper, lost his life to cancer.

That’s enough untimely death to leave anyone ducking for cover in the crouch position. Instead, Hayward responded with expansiveness and survived to tell the tale in the form of her bestselling memoir, Haywire, first published in 1977, and now due to be reissued after several years out of print, with a new introduction by Buck Henry.

Even though it’s been more than forty years since Hayward’s mother and sister died, revisiting that harrowing period in her life has been no easier than when she first wrote the book. “Everybody said, ‘This is just going to make you feel wonderful at the end of it.’ But it didn’t,” says Hayward, who started writing the book at the encouragement of a journalist to whom she’d confessed her story. “I went into analysis while I was writing it and sometimes hypnosis, which didn’t work. I don’t know how I managed to finish it. It was not a pleasant experience. So after it was published I never really thought about that period of time. But I’ve actually had to in the past few months and it’s exactly the same feeling as when I was writing.

Hayward's astringent honesty and unsentimental emotional insight is what makes Haywire such a compelling read. Though the book is set in the rarefied milieu of mid-century Hollywood jetsetters, at the core is a story of the love, loss, and the excruciating disconnect between parents and children that inflect any family dynamic. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a self-involved parent; hers just happened to be of the famous variety. “Mother was very conflicted. She wanted to be a mother but she was also an actress and felt so ambivalent about that," recalls Hayward. "Whenever someone would come up to her for an autograph, she would never admit to being Margaret Sullavan. She'd always say, 'I'm sorry, you have the wrong person.' What a nightmare!" Hayward adds that her mother’s aversion to exposure made the process of writing about her all the more excruciating, feeling that on some level it was a betrayal. “As I was writing I was nervous about what mother and father would have thought. Mother particularly because she never liked anything public to be stated, particularly about her relationship with her children.”

However, without the specter of her parents’ disapproval looming over her, Hayward was compelled to corroborate her story and started interviewing her parents’ inner circle – friends, family, colleagues, and spouses. It was a groundbreaking (and incredibly effective) storytelling device to weave secondary sources into a memoir, oral history-style. “One of the reasons I did all those interviews with their close friends was I wanted reassurance from their close friends that this wasn’t an insane idea,” she recalls. “I felt I had to. I was living in Hollywood going to David O. Selznick’s parties and it would have been rude of me to ignore them. How could I have possibly written a book about my mother and father without talking to William Wyler [the legendary director of such classics as “Ben Hur” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” among many others], who had been married to my mother and my father’s client? Or how could I not talk to Henry Fonda, who had been married to my mother and was father's client? I wanted their opinions because they could have been quite different from mine. And occasionally they were. And certainly they were insightful.”

After Haywire was released in 1977, Hayward signed a contract to write about another turbulent period in her life – her marriage to Dennis Hopper. However, that book was quickly put on hold. “Dennis threatened to sue me because the story would have been very personal and it’s considered libel if it affects his ability to get a job,” Hayward says. “Even fifteen years later he wouldn’t allow it. Then a couple of years before he died, my daughter got married and we were both at the wedding and, facetiously, I said, ‘Dennis why don’t we both write the book together?’ I thought he’d gone nuts because he agreed to do it. Then about a month later I got a call from my daughter saying, 'Dad has now decided not to do it because his wife doesn’t like the idea of you and he spending that much time together.'”

Hayward is still reluctant to commit to diving back into the dark waters of her past. In fact, she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic when an executive at Random House approached her about the prospect of re-releasing Haywire. “I was contacted out of the blue ten months ago and I thought it was insanity,” she explains. “At the time it was published, all the people who were interviewed in it were alive and they were still people whose names were known. So it made a certain amount of sense to be published at that time. But here we are and they’re all dead now. So I have no idea why anybody would read it.” Suddenly Hayward pauses and laughs at the recollection of a similar conversation with an editor just before the book was published the first time. “He said, ‘Gee, I hope somebody reads it.’ And I thought, ‘Me too!’ And we were all fairly amazed that, lo and behold” -- she laughs -- “a whole lot of people read it.”

  • Deeanndria Henderson

    The reason people keep reading "Haywire" is because it is so well written!

  • joanne

    Just re-reading it, after many years. Fascinating as before, and the story seems more painful now that I'm older.

  • robin

    Dennis Hopper was her second husband, not her first. Her first husband's last name was Thomas.

  • mallory graf

    One of the best-if not the best-hollywood memoirs written. They don't write them like this anymore,folks. It assumes, correctly, that the audience is intelligent and knowledgeable. Wait a minute--I take it back--Best Memoir Ever Written!

  • Javi Mulero

    I am reading it right now! Found it at the library. I remember when it was a bestseller or something in bookstores-- I'd just moved to the states. I am now in the section where Leland Hayward lists (from his hospital bed) the 10 most beautiful women he ever met. And I realize I met and knew (a little bit) one of them: the late Justine Johnson!!

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