COLUMN SIXTY-THREE, SEPTEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
BEFORE ARRIVING IN NEW YORK, Jimmy stopped
off in Chicago to see Rogers Brackett, who was staying at the Ambassador East.
Brackett remembers Dean made quite a stir striding through the lobby of
the expensive hotel dressed in blue jeans, and carrying his bullfighter's cape
slung over his shoulder. After
about a week in the Windy City, Dean visited the Reverend DeWeerd for a few days
at his new home in Indianapolis and paid a visit to the farm to see his aunt
and uncle. Then he proceeded on his
In New York, Dean took a room at the Iroquois Hotel
on West 44th Street, several blocks from Times Square.
It was October 195 1.
"New York frightened and overwhelmed me,"
Dean said afterward. "For the
first few weeks I barely strayed from my hotel. I would see three movies a day to ease the loneliness I
Gradually, as his fears subsided, he began to
explore the city around him. He
took his first subway ride and went on long walks, once wandering as far as
South Ferry, near the Battery. There
were nights, he later said, when he walked up and down Broadway alone, wondering
if he would ever make it.
He made a friend, Harry Drake, a young would-be
artist who had grown up on a wheat farm in Kansas. The two delved into the big city together, visiting libraries
and museums. They searched
secondhand bookstores along Eighth Avenue, looking for old bullfight posters,
and discovered Hector's, an inexpensive Times Square cafeteria, known for its
glazed cakes. Drake was an amateur
photographer and Dean sometimes borrowed his equipment and spent the day
photographing sights around the city.
In a very real way, Dean was completing his
education, learning from all that lay around him.
"New York is generous," he once said,
"and above all fertile......
Jimmy had been given money by the Reverend DeWeerd,
Brackett, and the Winslows for his trip. He
had also saved up a few dollars from his movie work and had sold his car; but
even so, his resources probably amounted to no more than five hundred dollars.
When this was nearly gone, Dean got a job washing dishes in a tavern on
West 45th Street. To economize he
took a small room at the YMCA on West 63rd Street, just a short block from
Before leaving Los Angeles, Dean had been given the
names of several people to look up, and he now decided to get in touch with
them. He called James Sheldon, an
advertising executive who was a friend of Ralph Levy's, and made an appointment
to see him. He also phoned one of
Brackett's friends, Alec Wilder, the composer who had written such popular tunes
as I'll Be Around and Who Can I Turn To? and Wilder invited him
over to the Algonquin Hotel, where he then lived.
"Rogers had already warned me," Wilder
"to be on the lookout for 'this real wild kid,' but Dean was polite at
our initial meeting. I suppose he
was so new in town he had to be well behaved."
Dean's first meeting with Sheldon turned out well,
too. A big, friendly man, then in
his late twenties, Sheldon was working as account supervisor at Young &
Rubican, hoping to eventually break into television as a director.
Through his contacts at the agency, Sheldon had
heard that the young actor (Dick Van Patten) who played Nels on the popular TV
series Mama was about to be drafted into the army, and the network was
worried about a replacement. Sheldon
thought Dean would be perfect; he had seen the Broadway play I Remember Mama,
on which the series was based, and Dean reminded him very much of the actor
who had played Nels on the stage, a young Midwesterner named Marion Brando.
contacted Doris Quinlain, the show's coproducer, and sent Dean over to read. Years
later, the director, Ralph Nelson, recalled:
"Since the series was a very successful one, we
naturally wanted to replace [Van Patten] with the best possible young actor we
could find. It proved more
difficult than expected. Those
actors with talent were homosexuals of such a degree that we did not dare use
them on the air, or they were young and manly, [but] lacked the talent that was
required. Finally, Miss Quinlain
came up with a young man who was not only handsome and talented, but seemed very
sincere about his work---although a little bit strange in his approach to it.
His name was James Dean."
decided to ease Dean into the role. He
was first used in a number of bit parts---walk-on roles.
At first it appeared Dean would be an excellent choice to play the
teenage son in the saga about an immigrant family in early twentieth century San
Francisco. But during the brief
trial period, Dean became increasingly uncooperative.
"His surliness mounted," the director
explained, and "the roles seemed beneath him."
The director was also surprised that "the money
was not important" to the young actor. As Nelson recalled, Dean actually played the part of Nels for
a couple of weeks. Perhaps the role
of the dutiful young son just did not appeal to him. But the director's dilemma was suddenly swept away when Van
Patten failed his army physical and returned to the show.
"I welcomed him with open arms," Nelson
remembered, "and released Dean from any more involvement with the
anxious to help, Sheldon then introduced Dean to Jane Deacy, a theatrical agent
at the Louis Shurr office. An able
and intelligent woman, Miss Deacy had started as a switchboard operator at Shurr
and worked her way up, becoming one of the office's top agents.
Her clients included Gower Champion, the dancer, and Priscilla Gillette,
who had played the lead in Brigadoon on Broadway. Later, she would guide the career of George C. Scott.
To this day, Miss Deacy steadfastly refuses to
publicly discuss either her first meeting with Dean or their subsequent
relationship. But another employee
of the Shurr office recalled:
"Jimmy appealed enormously to Jane's maternal
instinct. He had that lonely-boy
quality which women find irresistible. And,
of course, she believed he had talent. Like all good agents, she almost has a sixth sense when it
comes to finding actors .... From the very beginning her faith in Jimmy was
utter and complete."
While Miss Deacy set about the task of finding him
work, Dean did his best to keep body and soul together on his own. Through
another young actor he found part-time employment on the television game show Beat
the Clock. Dean was paid five
dollars an hour as a stand-in to test lighting and camera angles.
He also tried out the show's stunts during rehearsals, in front of a live
audience. Dean liked the work and
always showed up for rehearsals on time. Unfortunately,
his agility was such that he was able to do stunts that contestants later found
impossible, and, after a while, producer Jean Hollander was forced to find
another actor with less coordination.
When winter came, Dean still had not found any
steady work as an actor, but his days were far from empty.
He avidly followed the trade papers, hoping to come across parts he might
audition for. Along with a young
actress named Jeanne, whom he had met in the Astor drugstore, a favorite haunt
of aspiring actors, Dean informally rehearsed scenes from a wide variety of
"He'd phone my apartment at the strangest
times," Jeanne remembered, "and ask if it was okay to come by.
It might be midnight or four in the afternoon, but when I said yes, he'd
come right over, and we'd work together on a scene he had brought."
study," James Whitmore had told him. "Learn
to be an actor."
In his own way Dean was doing just that. In January,
Dean learned that Joan Davis and her daughter Beverly were in town.
Miss Davis had come east to do a radio show with Tallulah Bankhead, and
she and her daughter were staying at the Plaza.
Forgetting the bad feeling of the summer before, Dean phoned Beverly and
made a date for dinner.
Beverly was alarmed when she saw Dean: Despite the
cold he was wearing the same thin blue jacket she remembered from the summer and
a pair of dirty gray slacks. In his
lapel he had a small matador's sword that he was especially proud of.
They ate in an Italian restaurant, and over dinner
Dean sheepishly admitted he had been living largely on milkshakes since leaving
Hollywood. Yet, throughout the
evening he did his best to maintain an aura of bravado. When he took Beverly back to her hotel and they said good
night, Dean promised her, "I'll show them."
Then he left, walking across the park to the little
room he had at the Y.
On evenings when he was alone, Dean often dropped by
the Rehearsal Club, looking for companionship. The club had been built in 1913 to serve as a residence for
girls who came to New York seeking careers in show business.
Residents were well chaperoned, and male visitors were only permitted in
the lounge until the midnight curfew.
"Jimmy was always hanging around," a former resident said, "whether he had a date or
girl said Jimmy
'looked like a straggly, hungry kid
who needed a friend'
not. The girls at the club all kind of adopted him.
One girl I knew even gave him an old camel-hair coat she had worn in
college. It was too small on him
but he wore it anyway."
One rainy day Dean borrowed an umbrella from a girl
sitting across from him in the lounge. It
turned out she was a dancer named Elizabeth Sheridan, who had been living at the
club for several months.
A couple of days later, Dean returned her umbrella.
She was on her way to a dance rehearsal nearby and Dean went along to
"When I first met Jimmy," she later said,
"he looked like a straggly, hungry kid who needed a friend.
After, I found he always looked that way."
Of mixed Irish-Jewish ancestry, Dizzy, as everyone
called her, was the daughter of Frank Sheridan, the classical pianist, and had
grown up in Westchester. Another
friend at the time described her as "a long, lithe, supple beauty with a
pixie humor that came across in everything she said and did."
In her, Jimmy found a kindred spirit---almost a mirror
image of himself. Lively and
inquisitive, she wanted to be a dancer, a cowboy, a matador.
Like Dean, she had left school against her family's wishes to pursue her
career. Also like her newfound
friend, she was very broke.
"We would sit and talk for hours and
hours," Dizzy remembers, "getting to know each other better all the
time." Sometimes Dean would call and play records for her over the phone.
"It was a desperate feeling we had toward needing each other,"
Dizzy said, "and pretty soon we got to be inseparable."
They spent much of their time at Jerry's, a small
Italian place on 54th Street, not far from the Rehearsal Club.
There was a new drink called Champale they both liked, and the
restaurant's proprietor, Jerry Lucce, allowed them to stay as long as they
wanted over a single bottle. Sometimes,
when Dean was broke, an easygoing waiter named Louie loaned him a few dollars or
sneaked him a plate of spaghetti.
After Jerry's closed, Dean would take Dizzy to an
Automat on Broadway that was open all night.
"We'd sit there till the wee hours," Dizzy
recalled, "talking about scripts or trees or bugs or anything and
Dean told her his philosophy as an actor.
"I don't care what sort of part they give me.
If I get a part, even if it's washing dishes, I'll get a dishpan and wash
and wash until my hands peel and I know exactly how it feels to wash dishes.
That's the only way I can act."
"Lots of times," Dizzy remembers, "we
used to walk along Fifth Avenue and look in store windows.
Mostly it was cars. He was
fascinated by cars. He always
wanted a Jaguar and I always wanted a Jaguar and there was a place on Broadway
up around the sixties, a great big store window that had all sorts of cars in
it. We used to hang around and took in the window and dream about the Jaguar we
were someday going to get. It
turned out he got a Porsche, or it got him."
Dean copied a passage from his favorite book, The
Little Prince, and pasted it in his actor's portfolio to comfort him as he
made his rounds. His faith in
himself remained as firm as ever.
"He never for one instant doubted he would make
it," Dizzy claimed. "I
mean, he always knew that he would one day be a star, and there was no question
in his mind about it at all."
Even with Dizzy, Jimmy indulged in his penchant for
stories. All his life he flirted
with fantasy, later telling a producer he had run with the bulls at Pamplona,
bragging to a fellow actor he had been in jail. Once, he confided to Dizzy that he had met his hero, Saint-Exup?ry,
and that he was an "ugly old man who loved flying." It didn't matter
that the dashing author was killed in 1944, missing on a wartime flight over the
African desert while Dean was still a boy in Indiana.
When Dizzy and her new friend realized how much time
they were spending in each other's company, they decided it would probably be
just as easy to move in together. They
found a room at the Hargrave Hotel on West 72nd Street, off Columbus Avenue.
Their room was the size of a broom closet, Dizzy recalled, and the
wallpaper was peeling off in layers. But
they hung up a few drawings Dean had done in his sketchbook and called the place
Dean brought along a hotplate he had used to cook on
at the Y, and he and Dizzy prepared simple meals on it.
"He was always talking about steaks,"
Dizzy said, "how he loved good steaks ... but in the early part of our
relationship we didn't do much eating." Shredded wheat and milk dinners
were a big part of their diet.
To avoid buying any new clothes they wore each
other's spare blue jeans. On cold
nights when the old radiator broke down, Dean's bullfighter's cape served as an
extra blanket to keep them warm. Jimmy taught Dizzy to sketch, telling her to
look out the window and draw what she saw.
One morning Dean had an early appointment with a casting agent, but
before he left he made a hardboiled egg and left it on a table for Dizzy when
she awakened. He drew a face on the
egg and wrote a cheerful note.
"What I remember most about Jimmy was his
gentleness," recalls Dizzy, a television and stage actress today, who is
married to a composer. "Ours
was a very private relationship. During
the time we were together we saw as few other people as possible.
It was the way both of us wanted it."
Early in February, Dean turned twenty-one.
He and Dizzy celebrated at Jerry's, along with a few friends of hers from
the Rehearsal Club. Dean told her it was the "best birthday he had in
A week later, Dean received a fitting, if belated,
birthday present. Archer King, a
young agent at the Shurr Office who worked closely with Jane Deacy, sent him to
read for a part on The Web, a half-hour television mystery program.
The role was that of a bellhop who helps solve his brother's murder at a
plush mountain resort.
"The minute he started reading," said Lela
Swift, the director, "I knew that boy had something special."
Along with Anne Jackson, E. G. Marshall, and Robert
Simon, Dean was cast in the show. As soon as rehearsals began, however, Dean's
temperament got him in trouble. Producer
Franklin Heller found him " moody," "unresponsive to suggestions,"
"very difficult," "not on time," and "generally
a pain in the ass." Had it not been for Miss Swift, who insisted on having
him in the part, Dean probably would have been fired.
After a four-day rehearsal, the show (Sleeping
Dogs) was done live on February 20, 1952, a Wednesday.
Even those who had been most skeptical were impressed by Dean's
"He gave us all a terrible time in
rehearsal," Anne Jackson commented, "but on the air he was just
Franklin Heller went out of his way to tell Dean how
good he had been. Dean murmured his
"He was as gracious," Heller said later,
"as Jimmy Dean could be."
Following his success, Dean was quickly signed to
appear on another television show, Martin Kane, a private-eye
series. In the show, Dean was to
play a student who becomes mixed up in a homicide; the director selected him
because he "seemed like a typical college kid." Once again, rehearsals
had no sooner started than Dean was at odds with the rest of the cast, and this
time with the show's director, Frank Burns, as well.
"No one knew what was coming up next,"
Burns complained. To steady Dean in
rehearsal, Burns told him, "Be yourself," but in retrospect, the
director recalled this was probably unsound advice, since he "didn't know
what "yourself? meant to Dean at that time."
"Dean was a very inventive actor,"
explained Edgar Kahn, another director at the studio. "But in those days television shows were 'shot tight.'
The emphasis was on getting the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible.
There wasn't enough time for the constant probing of a part Dean
After several warnings, Dean was fired by director
Burns; the show had been in rehearsal only two days. When Dean returned to the
Shurr office and Archer King asked for an explanation, Dean told him curtly:
"I was trying to get a characterization.
I couldn't worry about going to some damn chalk mark."
The novice was proud of his independence. Later,
in Hollywood, Dean told another actor how he had stood up to the director.
"Don't be afraid to keep them waiting,?
His television career temporarily sidetracked, Dean turned to Dizzy, relying on her to get him through the blue periods he fell prey to. Since their hotel was close to Central Park, they would go there in the afternoons when the weather was mild. Dean liked to take along his sketchbook and bullfighter's cape. To take his mind off everything, he practiced
one show, Jimmy played a bellhop whose single line of dialogue
was, 'Yes, sir'
his capework by the hour while Dizzy watched, or
sketched, or read; his audience of one. Sometimes
they rode on the park's carousel, like any kid and his special girl.
When their money finally ran out, Dizzy went to work
as a retoucher for the American Photograph Corporation, and Dean took whatever
jobs he could. He worked as an
extra on Tales of Tomorrow, a science fiction show, and landed a bit part
on Studio One. Once again,
Dean played a bellhop. The show, Ten
Thousand Horses Singing, starred John Forsythe and a lovely actress named
Catherine McLeod. The future screen
legend had one line of dialogue:
"Yes, sir," crisply spoken in the hotel
During this time, Dean grew closer to Jane Deacy,
his agent, frequently visiting the Yorkville apartment where she lived with her
husband, a radio engineer, and their young son. To help Jimmy out, Miss Deacy would slip him five dollars or
so, telling him when he became a star he could pay her back.
Dean now called her Mom.
Dean introduced Dizzy to Alec Wilder, and the
composer of While We're Young entertained them at the Algonquin over tea.
Wilder liked Dizzy at once.
"She was a wonderful girl," Wilder said,
"and an extremely good influence for Dean. He needed her. Whenever
she was with him, he was calmer and more stable than usual."
Toward the end of the winter Dizzy took Jimmy to
Larchmont to meet her family, and then the two of them drove to Connecticut
for a day, visiting Daycroft, Dizzy's old school.
In late March their funds ran out again, and they
were forced to move out of their hotel. Dizzy
found a tiny room on Eighth Avenue, and Dean went to live with Rogers Brackett,
who had come to New York several months earlier.
In fact, he and Jimmy had spent Christmas together at an inn in Garrison,
New York. Rogers later remembered
it as an "old fashioned country Christmas." Still working for Foote,
Cone, & Belding, he was now with their Madison Avenue office and had a loft
apartment on West 38th Street, just off Fifth Avenue near Lord & Taylor, the
fashionable department store.
As in the past, Brackett was only too glad to help
his young prot?g". One of the
accounts he handled was the Hallmark Company, which sponsored the Hallmark
Hall of Fame, and by pulling a few strings he got them to hire Dean.
his paycheck each week, Dean was required to do little more than show up at the
studio; the only actual duty he had was to stand at a blackboard and list the
show's credits as the program went off the air. This was done live and in close-up, showing only Dean's hand
on camera. But even to this Jimmy
was able to bring a flair that was all his own: invariably as he got to the
final words "devised and directed by Albert McCleery," he would either
break the chalk or scrape it in such a way as to make an unpleasant noise.
Albert McCleery was never sure whether this was
accidental or not, but because of Brackett he was forced to put up with Dean
For Dean, life now seemed curiously happy.
He and Dizzy were still together much of the time, but there were again
gay times with Rogers too: evenings spent at the ballet or dining in expensive
restaurants. One night, Rogers
remembered, he and Jimmy saw William Faulkner hanging around the Algonquin
lobby. But, for a change, Jimmy was
too tongue-tied to introduce himself to the great author.
Dizzy knew of Dean's relationship with Brackett and
it caused her great pain. Over
twenty years later, she was reluctant to talk about it out of loyalty to her
dead friend. In a way, Dizzy
rationalized Brackett's presence by believing Jimmy's claim that he had
originally come to New York "to get away from Brackett," but that the
director had "pursued" him. On
one occasion she met Brackett and was noticeably cold, if not outright rude, to
him. Later, Jimmy gave her a hug
and thanked her for "standing up to Rogers."
On Sunday nights, after the Hallmark telecast, Sarah
Churchill, the show's hostess, held open house for the cast at her penthouse on
Central Park South, and Dean and Brackett always went.
To entertain her guests Miss Churchill did imitations of her father,
Sir Winston, and told amusing stories of what it had been like being the prime
Dean seemed almost star struck by these gatherings
and was fond of Miss Churchill, who would take him aside and lecture him
good-naturedly about his behavior, especially the tricks he played on Albert
As if to underscore his present good fortune, Dean
got a lead on the U.S. Steel Radio Hour, playing a friend of Abe
Lincoln---one of Jimmy's own heroes---in Prologue to Glory. He worked
with John Lund and Wanda Hendrix, both already well-established actors.
Lund was taken both by Dean's "exceptional
talent" and his casual manner. Decades later, he remembered how Jimmy
"always addressed me as 'Abe'---on or away from the micro?phone." He
also recalled that the young thespian "had a way of sitting apart and
smiling a secret smile as though in response to some droll story that only he
If Dean was pleased with himself, no one could blame
him: After all, appearing on national radio was not a bad way for an Indiana
farmboy to mark his first six months in New York City.
Then, as winter finally ended and spring filled the
air, Dean heard some more good news: Another old friend was coming to New York.
William Bast had written, saying that as soon as he graduated, he planned to come east to live, and he promised to look Dean up the very moment he got to town. ##
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