The Combo's a Little Haywire, but Brooke Hayward and Bandleader Peter Duchin Play a Good Duet
The young actress with the high cheekbones and the smile of her mother, Broadway’s golden girl Margaret Sullavan, might have caused Beethoven to miss a beat. But bandleader and pianist Peter Duchin barely looked up from the keyboard when Brooke Hayward arrived at his Manhattan studio with Chinese food and a mutual friend foolish enough to have ventured a fix-up. Hayward ate and attempted chitchat. Duchin played show tunes. “I thought he was arrogant, attractive and trouble,” recalls Hayward, who was then 22, the same age as Duchin. No masochist, she soon departed, prompting her host to look up. “Hey,” he said lamely, “why don’t you give me a ring sometime?”
About two decades later, the phone finally did ring, only it was Duchin doing the calling. “How about dinner?” asked Peter, who had kept track of Brooke over the years through various social and family connections. He had also, like millions of other Americans, read her 1977 autobiographical best-seller, Haywire, and seen the TV miniseries. “You’re married,” she snapped. “I don’t go out with married men.” Duchin hastened to tell her that he was newly separated from his wife. “Lunch, then,” countered a cautious Hayward. They soon progressed to a second lunch, after which Hayward invited Duchin back to see her loft. “I was nervous because I didn’t have any pop music, only classical,” remembers Brooke, whose father, Leland Hayward, produced such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and Call Me Madam. “My dear,” he said, showing some of that old swagger, “surely you must know that I was grounded in classical music, and I know more about it than you do.” He then pointed out that her loft was perfect—almost. “You’ve got to get a piano,” said Duchin, his intention clear.
Now, four years later, a shiny black Bechstein baby grand that once belonged to Peter’s father, bandleader Eddy Duchin, rests in another Manhattan loft, one that Duchin and Hayward share. The woman who once would have been justified in tossing chow mein at Duchin became his wife last Christmas Eve at a friend’s farmhouse in Stowe, Vt.
On the surface these newlyweds, now 48, seem to have little in common. Duchin is an affable, aging preppy in penny loafers and baggy corduroy pants. He presides over Peter Duchin Orchestras, an organization that employs 50 musicians and pulled in around $5 million last year playing at society parties, charity balls, weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate dinners. Duchin himself performs at only 120 engagements annually. He has played for kings (Hussein of Jordan and Juan Carlos of Spain), princes (Britain’s Charles) and for every President since JFK. Duchin seems genuinely to relish his role as the bandleader who knows everyone.
Hayward, on the other hand, is aloof and elusive, happiest when immersed in the New York Review of Books. “Peter is incredibly long suffering with me. I’m thorny, moody and very difficult,” she says. A certain angst haunts Hayward’s features, and her choice of profession doesn’t help. “Writing is very painful IU me,” says BrooKe. For more years than she cares to discuss, she has been working on a book about the ’60s, a period which included her troubled eight-year marriage to actor Dennis Hopper. “It’s nothing like the first book,” she says, adding with a far-off glance: “I may throw it all away.”
Duchin’s domain of breezy parties and easy banter is of little interest to Hayward. “I don’t want to be a part of the society world, though that’s Peter’s bread and butter. I would not go to a Palm Beach society dinner, and he wouldn’t ask me to,” she says. Instead, she joins him whenever possible to wander through Manhattan museums and antique shops. Sitting at a favorite seafood restaurant one day, Hayward and Duchin show their good breeding and adeptness at a kind of Noel Coward repartee.
She: “I’m having a crise du foi [crisis of faith]. It’s been too hedonistic since the wedding. I think I’m going to get more spiritual.”
He: “Oh, sweetie, how will you do that?”
She: “I won’t have an appetizer.”
A little later she is discussing some of her former amours, including writer-actor Buck Henry, with whom she lived for five years.
He: “I love Buck. He’s a good friend.”
She (looking resigned): “You are devoid of jealousy.”
He: “One of the reasons I first called you is because you had a past.”
For Hayward, many painful aspects of her past have become a bittersweet public record. As she tells it in Haywire, her childhood in Los Angeles and later Greenwich, Conn, was a fairy tale that ended badly. Her parents separated when Brooke was 10. Hayward enrolled at Vassar in 1955 and soon met a Yale sophomore named Michael Thomas (who later wrote the best-seller Green Monday). That summer they eloped, and Hayward dropped out of Vassar to raise their two children, Jeffrey, now 29, and William, 28. She also studied acting with Lee Strasberg and embarked on a career as a model and actress.
By 1960 the marriage was over, and Brooke was soon to face two tragedies. In January her mother died in her hotel room, probably a suicide. Nine months later her sister, Bridget, two years Brooke’s junior, was found dead in her New York apartment, also an apparent suicide. “I never thought there was a family curse, that it was genetic,” says Hayward, who forced herself to resume her career.
The next year, while appearing for the first time on Broadway in Mandingo, Hayward slipped off to Tijuana for an abortion. She was unwilling, she says, to marry the new man in her life, co-star Dennis Hopper, who eventually did persuade her to say yes. “My father was opposed to the marriage,” says Hayward. “He saw me as very civilized and Dennis as very uncivilized, and he was right.” They had a daughter, Marin, now 23, and divorced in 1969.
Her acting career put aside, in some measure because of Hopper’s jealousy, Hayward eventually turned to Haywire. Since its publication nine years ago, she has, she explains, “recuperated” from this cathartic telling of her past, finding a balm in travel and her passion for collecting objets d’art.
Like Hayward, Duchin has had his share of turbulent times. His socialite mother, Marjorie Oelrichs, died shortly after his birth. Peter was taken in by her close friend, Marie Harriman, and her husband, Averell, who later became ambassador to Great Britain and governor of New York. Life in the Harriman mansion in upstate New York was duly privileged. “I had a French governess who taught me French,” reports Duchin. “I learned how to play polo and train dogs.”
As befits a product of such American nobility, Peter went to elite boarding schools. At age 13, he was summoned home one day and told by Averell that his father had died of leukemia. Later, he went on to Yale, where he was a friend of Brooke’s first husband, Michael Thomas. Drawing on the piano-playing skills he began cultivating at age 6, Duchin formed a jazz group in college. After graduation he brought his first band to Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel and was on his way to becoming a society bandleader.
An appropriate marriage to pretty and well-connected Cheray Zauderer, daughter of a real estate millionaire, soon followed and produced three children, Jason, now 19, Courtney, 18, and Colin, 15. Then, in 1982, Cheray left Peter and quickly remarried. Flipping through his black book, Duchin came across Brooke’s name.
A couple of weeks after their initial lunch in 1982, Duchin arrived at Hayward’s loft, bags in hand. “I felt he was making an open appeal to me to start something and have the courage to go through with it,” says Brooke. “I was intrigued.” They eventually purchased a new loft, where Brooke now agonizes over her book and writes occasional articles for House & Garden (on subjects like Mike Nichols’ Arabian horses and L.A. swimming pools), while Peter composes and dreams of someday working on a ballet score or an opera.
As bedtime approaches, Hayward and Duchin may argue about whether they should listen to Mozart (her evening favorite) or Bach (his choice), but overall they are a contented pair who joke about those early sour notes. “I should have called you when you asked me to. We would have saved 20 years,” Hayward says in her Noel Coward best. “But, sweetie,” Duchin chides his wife without missing a beat, “we wouldn’t have been ready.”