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How a Young ‘Rolling Stone’ Writer Sparred With Dennis Hopper — And Won

In an excerpt from her memoir, ‘The Only Girl,’ Robin Green writes of turning a disastrous encounter into a classic feature

robin green dennis hopper excerpt

The author at work

David Leach

Long before Robin Green was an Emmy-winning writer and producer for The Sopranos, she was a young post-grad living in Berkeley, California. In 1971, she got a job interview with Jann Wenner, co-founder of an upstart magazine called Rolling Stone. She thought she was interviewing for a clerical position; instead, she walked out with an assignment — to write about Marvel Comics, where she had worked for Stan Lee himself — and soon became the only female writer on the Rolling Stone masthead. The next few years would include some great stories, some bad acid trips, memorable encounters with David Cassidy and Hunter S. Thompson, and flings with both her co-workers and a Kennedy. Those heady, sometimes heartbreaking years are documented in Green’s new memoir, The Only Girl (due August 21 on Little, Brown). Green’s Marvel piece became a cover story (featuring The Hulk) in November, 1971, though it wasn’t her first Rolling Stone byline. That came a little earlier, after she interviewed Dennis Hopper at his New Mexico compound for a legendarily contentious feature (originally titled “Confessions of a Lesbian Chick,” May 13, 1971) that Movieline would later name one of “10 Interviews That Shook Hollywood.” Here’s the story behind that story: a young journalist battling a surly movie star with Annie Leibovitz in tow, thinking she’d failed to get the story, and then finding a way to turn it all into a classic piece (and win praise from a famous colleague).

The Marvel story was my first cover, true. But before that there were many more assignments, my byline in print for the first time, a pay hike to the princely sum of ten cents a word, and now Rolling Stone was paying my expenses—taxi, car rental, hotel, flight, per diem, you name it. These were my first real jobs as a journalist, and they took me into new and unfamiliar territory, unlike the story about Marvel, where I already knew and liked everybody and they knew me and I wouldn’t have my boyfriend since childhood David Leach by my side taking pictures.

I would have, instead, the magazine’s recently hired staff photographer, a big-footed and taciturn galumph of a girl in aviator glasses and baggy clothes, a Jewish air force brat (though my father had served in World War II, I’d had no idea there was even such a thing as a Jewish career soldier) who’d become accustomed as a child to moving from base to base, to adjusting to and toughing out any and all strange environments. Not a cold person, exactly, but Annie Leibovitz didn’t seem like the kind of gal you’d, say, confide in about how apprehensive you were.

It wasn’t so much anything she said that made her intimidating; it was more that she didn’t seem to find it necessary to say anything at all. She could wither you with a look, shaking her head sadly at the uncoolness of you, as she did at my twenty-seventh-birthday party when she gave me a twenty-dollar coupon for a Lyle Tuttle tattoo and I said thanks but no chance. And I wasn’t the only one intimidated— her subjects were too. I was there when she talked David Cassidy into taking his clothes off for the shoot; he wanted to be cool, didn’t he?

Annie and I would work together many times in the two or three years to come and, mostly due to her friendship with my editor, David Felton, hang out some, but our paths would diverge. Even as Annie’s star rose and rose at the magazine and in the public eye, she’d find herself sinking into a near-deadly drug addiction, and I’d drift off into my own less dramatic and decidedly less public miasma.

On this particular spring morning, April 1, 1971, however, Annie and I were flying from SFO into an unknown future. We were on a press junket to attend a private premiere of The American Dreamer, a documentary about Dennis Hopper, who had become a countercultural icon after making Easy Rider and who was now living in Taos editing his latest effort, The Last Movie, which would in fact turn out to be his last film for a good long while.

“The cream of the underground press,” the invitation had called us, we would be flown in from all over the country for the event—though Felton had made it clear to me that Rolling Stone, unlike the other hippie rags, would be paying my and Annie’s expenses. We would owe nobody nothing; the magazine’s services as a PR tool could not be bought!

We landed at the Albuquerque airport and met up with the other journalists, a ragtag group, us included, sleepy from the morning flight but primed for whatever lay ahead, and then all of us were greeted by two men in suits from Universal Studios—young and eager Steve from Publicity and jaded Eddie from the executive suite.

While Steve ushered the other journalists to vans that would drive them the hundred and twenty miles to Taos, Eddie culled Annie and me from the herd. If those scribes were the cream of the underground press, he let us know, Rolling Stone was the fucking crème de la crème, and he led us onto the tarmac, Annie with her camera bags and no-nonsense giant’s stride, me in faded Levi’s with leather patches I’d sewn on the ass where I’d worn the denim through, to a plane that looked like a VW Bug with wings. We climbed inside and buckled in; the pilot fired up the engine and we bumped down the runway, then finally wobbled into the sky to fly jarringly and low over miles and miles of bumpy mesa air.

This was my first time in a private plane, my first time in a Cessna, my first press junket. I was at once puffed up by the special treatment, terrified of the turbulence, and awed by the beauty of the terrain over which we flew—raw mesa cliffs looking like some behemoth had chewed them out of the harsh red earth, hazy mountain ranges to the distance on each side, the blue gash of the Rio Grande winding through it all.

I didn’t know it yet but I was flying into a nightmare—not quite up there with a Michael Herr–touching-down-in-a-Vietnamese-jungle type of nightmare, but my own personal nightmare. I was afraid that strangers would be nasty, competitive, posturing, or drunk and drug-addled and ass-kissing, and I’d find it all here: an underground press trying to be cool while they jockeyed for Dennis Hopper’s attention; Eddie, sent by Universal to keep an eye on Hopper’s movie editing, instead bragging about his bag of real organic mescaline, beautiful stuff, that was going to keep him blasted till Sunday; and Dennis Hopper himself. At this particular low point in his life, he was a complete and major asshole—loaded to the gills, feeling put-upon by our presence and cruelly resentful of both journalists and Universal flaks, and an absolute and complete pig to the groupies with whom he’d stocked his house. Though I would one day get to know Hollywood some, I had never encountered it before, and now here it was in New Mexico.

The two who’d made the documentary we’d been flown there to see—Lawrence Schiller and L. M. Kit Carson—seemed like pinnacles of dignity and maturity in this setting. This should give you an idea of the environment, since Schiller was a known, if not sleazebag, then certainly a kind of ambulance chaser, having made his name chronicling the death of Lenny Bruce and, in collaboration with Susan Atkins, the killing of Sharon Tate. (He’d later go on to apply his ghoulish pen to Marilyn, O.J., and JonBenét.)

Kit was a different story. A Texas cowboy dressed head to toe in black (Schiller was all in black too, actually), he had impeccable hipster credentials. What could have made him—and Larry Schiller too—think a documentary about Dennis Hopper’s making of his (incomprehensible and all-but-unreleasable) film The Last Movie was a good idea? Not a hint of irony or humor here, nothing but Hopper-worship, with Hopper philosophizing to camera for the ninety very long minutes we press were trapped in a theater watching him say things in Kit and Larry’s film like “I’d rather give head to a beautiful woman than fuck her, really…I’m just another chick, a lesbian chick” and “I don’t believe in reading…by using your eyes and ears you’ll find everything that there is” and “We could drop our clothes as little children and be a lot closer to the truth of life…Wanna look at my ass? Okay, here’s my ass. Ass, to the world.” We got to see Hopper’s ass onscreen four times.

After the movie, there was a Q and A with Dennis Hopper, which was more of the same sophomoric babble, then dinner at a Mexican restaurant, where I was seated with Larry and Kit and heard them talk about their documentary, then we went out of Taos proper to Dennis Hopper’s desert compound, a few of us chosen to be in Dennis Hopper’s Jeep, driven by Dennis Hopper himself. Somewhere in the middle of this ride, it occurred to me that I was going to have to interview Dennis Hopper. At that moment, I probably would have preferred a Vietnamese jungle.

At the house, tequila and scotch were poured; joints, pills, and powdered peyote were passed around in baggies. Kit reminded Dennis he’d agreed to sit down with Rolling Stone, gesturing in my direction. Dennis was fried but shrugged and sighed and said he’d do it. We headed into the living room, a few of the other journalists close on Dennis Hopper’s heels.

I set my clunky Panasonic cassette recorder and microphone on the Native American carpet and pressed Record. Dennis looked at the Panasonic.

“Oh, it’s one of those,” he said. “First a tape recorder, then an ashtray,” he said. “What we need is a roach clip.”

Hopper was considering the carpet. “Now, this is very strange to all you readers out there,” he said, “but dig this. Is that balls and a cock on the rug? What is going on here? Readers, we’ll never be able to explain this but they’re all exposed here.” He grabbed the microphone. “They’re trying to drug me. Help, Panthers. Black Panthers listening to me, listen, brothers, help me.”

It went on like that. Village Voice reporter Art Kunkin fetched an empty Campbell’s soup can to serve as an ashtray and Hopper mused about Andy Warhol, Goodwin chiming in, until Eddie, Hopper’s Universal watchdog, between pinches of powdered peyote from his baggie and slugs of scotch to wash it down, asked Dennis if he’d done what he had to do. Dennis seemed puzzled.

“Did I do what I had to do?” Dennis said. “I don’t have to pee and I don’t have to shit. I ate today. I drank enough. I smoked. What did I have to do?”

Eddie pointed at Steve, the young publicity guy, and gave Dennis a big stage wink. Dennis finally realized what Eddie was talking about, thanked him for reminding him, said no, he hadn’t done it, and asked Eddie if he’d like to do it for him. Eddie said no, so Dennis said, “Well, okay.” Then, to the group, “Watch how cool this is.”

Dennis started saying something to young Steve but broke up laughing until finally, after a couple tries, he managed to get it out. “Would you leave your secretary with me tonight?” he said. “Of course, this is unreasonable, but if you would…”

We all looked to Steve, who, struggling to adopt a cool attitude, said, “Well, yeah, I’ll leave her here. If I forget her.”

Now Eddie and Dennis were both fighting to restrain laughter that came from knowing what was coming next.

Steve was looking around. “Where did she go anyway?” he asked.

And now, the punch line he and Eddie had been waiting for. “To get her clothes from the car!” Dennis blurted out.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” Eddie said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

And it was terrible. Steve looked stricken and everyone else had gone quiet, just watching and waiting. Dennis was quiet now too, studying Eddie.

“Can I tell you something, Eddie?” he said. “You’re common trash, Eddie. Common trash super-pig.”

“Right, Dennis,” Eddie said, serious now.

“I can certainly see your point of view,” Dennis said, laughing again. “But you can be used, Eddie.”

“Scotch and water!” Eddie shouted, pushing a glass at Hopper. “Have some scotch and water!”

I couldn’t sit there anymore. What was the point? I wasn’t going to get an interview. I hadn’t asked one question and, truthfully, hadn’t prepared any to ask and, for all I knew, I could be Hopper’s next target. I had to get out of there. Shamefaced and self-conscious, imagining the eyes of the other journalists on me, all of them knowing I’d failed, I gathered up my things—my tape recorder, microphone, notepad, and pencil—and without a word to anyone blindly found a door and was gone—not such a swift move, I now realized, because, though I could at least breathe out here, it began to dawn on me that I was alone in the chilly and dark desert night, miles from anywhere, from my motel certainly, with no jacket and no ride. Annie would have known what to do, but she had gotten her pictures and left the scene to go back to the motel hours before.

I was fucked and freaked out, but I’d walk if I had to. Even if I got run down by drunks on the highway or lost and died of exposure or thirst in a ditch in the desert, it would be better than going back inside. Just then, the door to the house opened and I watched a figure come toward me, backlit by the lights inside. It was L. M. Kit Carson with his kind eyes and black clothes, blond eyelashes and cleft chin. “You okay?” he said in his aw-shucks Texas drawl. “That was quite a scene in there.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Do you need a ride?” he asked. I nodded gratefully. He went inside and came back with the keys to someone’s car and drove me to the motel.

“Take care,” he said. I thanked him and he waited there behind the wheel until I’d unlocked my door, turned, and waved.

I hadn’t researched Dennis Hopper before going to New Mexico. If I had, I might have learned that he wasn’t everybody’s iconic hero—he wasn’t a hero to his ex-wives, for instance, or pretty much anyone involved in making Easy Rider—that neither Peter Fonda nor anyone at the studio could stand him, that he was a paranoid and violent egomaniac who felt he deserved full writing credit, that he’d aced Terry Southern out of points in the profits, and that, most disillusioning of all, he hated motorcycles.

Director-actor Dennis Hopper poses in Hollywood, Ca. Hopper, the Hollywood actor-director whose memorable career included the 1969 smash "Easy Rider," died at his Venice, Calif. home. He was 74Obit Dennis Hopper, LOS ANGELES, USA - 1 Oct 1971

Dennis Hopper, 1971

I’m not sure even now if it was laziness in these pre-Google days or a lack of real curiosity or interest in my subjects that led me into their midst without research. Or maybe it was some innate New Journalism sense that I’d experience a scene more fully if I had no preconceptions. Whatever it was, I’d experienced Dennis Hopper and Hollywood-in-Taos on that junket with an open/empty mind and now, at home in my Berkeley aerie, I had to write something.

I typed up my notes and transcribed my tapes. It helped that I’d been blessed (and cursed) with the genetic ability, inherited from my mother, to remember every word of every incident, especially if it involved some insult and/or the hypocrisy of a rival or enemy. As a girl, I’d hear her on the phone for hours saying Lila said this and Pearl said that. And like my mother, I remembered every real or imagined injustice.

I’d suffered some humiliation in New Mexico, as well as boredom and revulsion, but what do they say? He who laughs last laughs best? They also say the pen is mightier than the sword, something I’d heard when I was a kid and thought, Aha. The concept landed in my psyche and stuck there. My brother was older and stronger than me, even as the undersized pipsqueak that he was then, but I could cut him with my words if I wanted. Writers who say that they don’t, and that writers shouldn’t, write for revenge are lying to themselves.

I decided to relate everything I’d experienced, from the Albuquerque airport to the screening of the documentary to dinner and the drive through the desert to Hopper’s compound, in the third person, casting a cold eye on events as an observer, calling myself “the journalist,” Annie “the photographer” (something my writing teacher John Hawkes, when I sent him the article, referred to as “my amusing anonymity”).

I wrote partly to avenge my scorched feelings (and maybe young Steve the publicity guy’s too) and partly, literature major that I’d been, on behalf of D. H. Lawrence, who had lived in that very desert compound, had written there, and was in fact buried on its grounds and whose tenure seemed denigrated by the dopey Hollywood freaks defiling the landscape, driving raucously through the neighboring sleeping Native American pueblos at night (with me in the car), hanging the walls of the former Dodge house with Andy Warhol posters declaring the worthlessness of reading, plus stocking the place with art like Hopper’s own sculpture, the Spontaneous Erection Machine, an ugly white and chrome contraption that looked like an arcade game and had huge chrome balls and a phallus that rose and fell when he flipped the switch.

The last third of the article included a verbatim transcription of the “interview” on the living-room carpet, which I’d taped. It was a valuable lesson for future work: if I thought a scene might get so hairy or intimidating I wouldn’t be able to remember what was said, a recorded backup was a necessity.

Using carbon paper for my copy, I wrote the article, then counted the words. This time there were only five thousand and some, half the length of the Marvel article, but since I’d been given a raise to ten cents a word, I’d still be paid five hundred dollars—that is, if the article was accepted.

Now I had a new old car, a black 1951 Chevy coupe with better rings, and I drove it across the bridge to the office, a sick feeling in my stomach—the same feeling I still have whenever I hand anything in. Writers put their kishkes on the table, as my journalist friend Margy says, for everyone to judge. And as my novelist/TV producer friend Barbara says, any writer who doesn’t throw her stuff outside the door, ring the doorbell, and run like hell probably isn’t any good.

Again, the call back came mercifully fast. David Felton loved the article; everyone at the office did. It was soon published. Not a cover this time, Peter Fonda had the cover, but it was still a game-changer for me. The editor from Esquire called to ask, “Who’s the new bitch?” And my name was added as contributing editor on the masthead, where, among all those guys, I was the only girl.

Where were the other Rolling Stone girl writers? Susan Lydon, wife of one of the magazine’s founders, had written an occasional short piece, but her byline disappeared early in 1968. Judith Sims had appeared for a time on the masthead as LA bureau chief but, though she filed an occasional short piece, she was gone from the masthead by the time I landed there.

And all the other girl writers in 1971? Back in New York, there were a lot of them writing for women’s magazines, a few for the New Yorker. Nora Ephron was a reporter on the Daily News then, but it wouldn’t be until 1972 that she’d be given a column in Esquire. As for New Journalists, at the very end of 1971, Kate Coleman would publish an article in Ramparts about prostitution, a piece for which she herself turned a trick so she would know what it was like (talk about embedded journalism!).

Years before, in the early 1960s, Gloria Steinem had donned a bunny suit to go undercover in a Playboy Club and written about it in a magazine called   but it wouldn’t be until the end of 1971 that New York magazine would test the first, tentative issue of Ms., written and edited by women, as an insert in its pages.

Of course, there was Joan Didion, who all through the 1960s had been proving that New Journalism could be literature—and that a woman could write it. There wasn’t a new journalist, male or female, who didn’t have a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem on his or her shelf. As I did, there in my room on Tamalpais Road, which was where I was the night that I got that crazy-great phone call.

“Howdy,” a familiar voice said. “It’s Kit Carson.”

I stood there with the phone at my ear, my heart pounding. I didn’t know what to expect, despite his kindness in Taos, since my article hadn’t been all that kind to his documentary.

“Well, listen,” he said in his slow Texas drawl in which I could hear only a smile and pleasure as he went on. “I’m down here in Malibu at my friend’s Joan Didion’s house. She just read your piece in Rolling Stone and she asked me to call you up and tell you how much she liked it.”

“She did?” I managed.

“I liked it too,” he said. “She’s right here in the room with me now. She asked me to call you. She thought it was really good. I thought you’d want to hear that.”

I must have thanked him. He must have said good-bye. He might even have said that he’d like to look me up if he was ever in the neighborhood. I truly can’t remember. What I do know is that it was one of the best moments of my life and still is.

 

From The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone by Robin Green © Robin Green, 2018. Published by Little, Brown and Co. Reprinted with the permission of the author, all rights reserved.

In This Article: Dennis Hopper

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