Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Peter and Brooke Duchin

Peter and Brooke Duchin are a perfect blend of Broadway, Hollywood and New York society. I can’t think of another individual who possesses a comparable connection to those three glamorous worlds (especially when they were glamorous). Brooke, born Brooke Hayward, the daughter of film star Margaret Sullavan and agent-producer Leland Hayward, despite her very strong Hollywood connections (because her mother was once married to Henry Fonda and her father was married to Slim Hawks Hayward Keith, she is stepsister to Peter and Jane Fonda as well as Kitty Hawks, as well as, although we don’t go into that – Winston Churchill II, son of Brooke’s last stepmother, the (to her) notorious Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman).

Peter Duchin’s father Eddy Duchin was one of the most famous American bandleaders of the 1930s’ and 40’s. His mother, Marjorie Oelrichs was a famous society beauty, whose ancestors were a major shipping family (the American agents for North German Lloyd) in the 19th century in New York. A great-aunt, Blanche Oelrichs, wrote plays under the name of Michael Strange and was married to John Barrymore with whom she had a daughter, the famously infamous Diana Barrymore.

A century ago, the Oelrichs’ social standing in New York society attracted a very rich and ambitious young woman from San Francisco named Tessie Fair, whose rough-hewn father, James Graham Fair was one of the partners in the discovery of the Comstock Lode. Miss Fair married Duchin’s great-great-uncle Herman Oelrichs, and built Rosecliff, the famous Newport mansion. The Rosecliff that was featured in the Robert Redford film version of The Great Gatsby. Tessie’s sister Virginia, (always known as Birdie) married Willie K. Vanderbilt Jr. (she was his first wife).

The marriage of Peter’s father and mother was cut short tragically when his mother died in the hospital five days after giving birth to Peter. Their story was portrayed in the 1956 now classic film The Eddy Duchin story, starring Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, playing his mother and father.

Peter grew up under the care and surrogate parenting of Marie and Averell Harriman, close friends of his parents. After school and a few years living in Paris, he followed in his father's footsteps, in his mid-twenties, in the 1960s, as a pianist/bandleader. His first memorable gig to New Yorkers was in the old Maisonette nightclub in the St. Regis Hotel. Young and handsome with patent-leather dark hair, all the debutantes and young female movie stars would show up every night to dance in the presence of the new (up very late) matinee idol. His popularity grew steadily during an era when most of the famous society bandleaders like Meyer Davis, Lester Lanin and Emil Coleman were retiring, opening up a new and lucrative field that has supported him and his scores of musicians ever since.

He first married Cheray Zauderer, a New York socialite, and they raised a family of three children here in New York and in Bedford. In those years the Zauderer-Duchins were very much a part of the social scene of Jackie Kennedy (later Onassis) and were frequent guests of Aristotle Onassis on his famous yacht the Christina. Peter was the main attraction on the stage of the Plaza ballroom the night Truman Capote held his famous Black and White Ball in 1966, as he had a few years earlier during the John F. Kennedy inaugural evening in Washington. The memories of all this were put down in his autobiography published a few years ago A Ghost of A Chance.

Inside the Duchin loft.
Brooke Hayward started an acting career in her late teens, and was sidetracked when she married Michael Thomas, the writer who at the time of his marriage to Brooke was an investment banker. The couple had two sons. After her divorce from Thomas, she married Dennis Hopper, then considered one of the leading bad boy actors both in Hollywood and on Broadway. During the 1960s, the Hoppers were the toast of the Hollywood hipsters which included her stepbrother Peter Fonda and the upcoming, then unknown Jack Nicholson. The stars of all three men rose to the heights with the Fonda-Hopper film Easy Rider, the seminal film which by its expression tracked the transition of young Americans of those Viet Nam wartime years into what became known as the Hippie Generation — as well as making the stars and producers establishment rich.

In 1977 Brooke wrote a family biography, her very moving autobiography, called Haywire was the first book of its kind, recording the real life nitty-gritty of what the world theretofore knew and saw as a completely privileged and glamorous existence. Both her mother and her younger sister were suicides, which drove Brooke to come to terms with it on paper. The book was an enormous success.

It was after that the couple, who had known each other and had all kinds of connections to each other for years – including the infamous connection of “stepmother” Pamela – got together. For the past two decades, they’ve been a popular force in the social and musical life of New York. They share a love for opera and classical music and work to actively promote it with the New York City Opera, the Glimmerglass Opera Company, and the Gotham Chamber Opera.

The waterfall at their house in the Litchfield County.
They are a very popular host and hostess (when they entertain their myriad friends from all walks of life) at their loft in New York and their house in Litchfield County. Peter basically still lives the show-biz life that Brooke has been used to all her life – playing the one-night stands for all kinds of occasions, weddings, debutante parties, charity galas, private parties, all over America. Brooke was contracted to write another book (about Hollywood) after the success of Haywire but the desire and drive to achieve that has not ever been high on her must-do list. She is, however, currently at work on a new book project covering those years in Hollywood when she was married to Dennis Hopper. If you haven’t had the compelling experience of reading Haywire, you can still find it in your local library or at times on Amazon.

They’re a very laid-back couple in their bearing, despite the ultra-glamorous backgrounds and growing up. They’re the kind of people who can be described as “knowing everybody” because the worlds they’ve inhabited are so eclectic and sophisticated.

However, all that aside, having seen it all, met them all, known them all, Brooke and Peter, to their friends, are something like “just folks,” zero pretense, dwelling in fascinating living environments which reflect a highly refined aesthetic, a sense of comfort and ease. Beauty abounds, and music of course, and dogs, and friends, and lots and lots of conversation and good food. Ideal? Of course, nothing is ideal that lives. Idyllic? Close, or at least closeby most of the time. The master bedroom of their house in the country sits by a waterfall, with nature’s very own music lulling them to sleep every night, and they are the kind of people who you could even think planned it that way. Always a pleasure to be in their company.