COLUMN SEVENTY-THREE, JULY 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
WITH THE LOSS of Pier Angeli, James Dean found himself very much
in limbo. East of Eden was
in the final editing stage, but Warners had not yet decided on another vehicle
for him. MGM wanted to borrow Dean
for The Cobweb, a movie about a deranged artist that Vincente Minnelli
was to direct, but Warners balked at the idea of their future matinee idol
playing an inmate in a mental institution.
To keep Dean busy the studio lined up several
interviews, and the press got its first real look at him.
"I'm a serious-minded and intense little
devil," he told Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times, "terribly
gauche and so tense I don't see how people stay in the same room with me. I know
I wouldn't tolerate myself."
East of Eden, he informed the reporter, was "a study in
dualities---that it is necessary to arrive at goodness through a sense of the
satanic rather than the puritanic .... I considered it a great challenge to
reveal honestly the things in [my] part that were of myself as well as the
Dean went on to say: "I hate anything that
limits progress or growth. I hate
institutions that do this; a way of acting ... a way of thinking.
I hope this doesn't make me sound like a communist.
Communism is the most limiting factor of all today."
This was one of only two political statements Dean
ever made; in the other he said simply that he "dug Gandhi the most."
"He never talked of politics," a roommate, Bill Stevens, later
remembered, "and I don't know if he voted or not."
The studio had no control over Dean's TV work, and
he was signed to appear with Eddie Albert and Natalie Wood on the General
Electric Theater. The show, I'm
a Fool, was an adaptation of the Sherwood Anderson story about the folly of
a young man in love.
Rehearsals were held in an old theater in downtown Los
Angeles, and Dean came late to work the first day. Dressed in a torn sports shirt and pants held together by a
safety pin, he made his entrance by climbing through a large window.
"I thought he was totally weird---until I began
working with him," Natalie Wood later said.
Former president Ronald Reagan, the program's host,
remembers: "I was struck by how very much James Dean off camera resembled
the James Dean you saw on camera. He
worked very hard at his craft, rehearsed with very much the same intensity that
he gave the part on camera.... Most of us, after a while in pictures, hold back
somewhat in rehearsals and save our punch for the take .... Jimmy did not do
this. He seemed to go almost all
out any time that he read his lines."
Dean also began to regularly attend an acting class
given in Hollywood by Jeff Corey, a stage actor who was then blacklisted by the
studios for his political views. Dean
participated in class exercises, Corey recalled, trying to achieve more form and
control in his own work, and generously gave advice to any young actor who
sought it. Later, Corey remembered:
"My last conversation with him after class one evening concerned his
vexation with a lack of physical specificity in his work.
He was certainly aware of his abundance of intuitive qualities but wanted
to shape it more. I offered to do some work with him in that area and we agreed
to do so as soon as his time would permit.
That, alas, along with other things, was not to be."
Dean's social life, too, was far from empty; since
losing Pier, he had taken to dating a new girl almost every night, usually
starting out the evening with a movie or dinner, and later going to a friend's
apartment for coffee. He went out
with Lori Nelson, Susan Strasberg, and Terry Moore, to name just a few.
But no girl replaced Pier Angeli in his affection; none ever would.
One shapely actress Dean dated was Mamie Van Doren,
a fellow Midwesterner who was being touted as a rival to Marilyn Monroe.
In her autobiography, Playing the Field, Mamie recalled that she
met Dean one afternoon in a noisy Hollywood bistro, and the actor took her for a
spin on his motorcycle through Coldwater Canyon.
They pulled off the road and parked in a small clearing, overlooking the
city. Dean smoked a cigarette,
kissed her, and cupped his hands over her breasts.
Then they talked for a while and Jimmy drove her home.
She never saw him again; this, no doubt, was a typical encounter for
Around this time, Dean also had a few dates with
Terry Moore, another young starlet. Terry
was studying with a well "known voice teacher and Jimmy badgered her to
convince the teacher to take him on as a pupil.
The teacher demurred, claiming she was too busy.
Dean persisted, and finally Terry persuaded the teacher to fit him into
her schedule. Later, Terry was surprised to learn that Jimmy failed to show
up for his first lesson. This also
was standard operating behavior.
When the studio finally asked Dean to vacate his
dressing room so it could be used for another film, Dean refused.
But after he was denied admittance to the gate one night, he was forced
to give in. In moving his
belongings, it was discovered that Dean kept three thousand dollars tucked away
in a desk drawer. He had been
meaning to bank the money, he explained casually, but had not gotten around to
it; as the story circulated around Hollywood, the amount grew in the telling,
adding to the mystique that was starting to spring up around the young actor.
Perhaps Dean's eccentricities were a way of defining
his own personality---of leaving behind a trail of stories and anecdotes.
"To me, the only success, the only greatness
for a man, is in immortality," he is supposed to have told his friend Bill
Bast. In Hollywood, no one ever
sculptured his own legend better.
By December, Warners had finally edited Eden
and decided to show a preview at a small theater in Huntington Park.
Hollywood was abuzz with the news; for months the town had been hearing
of Warners' great new find in James Dean, and at last they could judge for
Dean invited a number of people to attend the
preview, including Connie Ford and her husband, producer Shelly Hull, Bast, and
Lew Bracker, a young insurance agent and racing enthusiast he had met during the
filming of Eden. Two years
older than Dean, Bracker was to become one of his closest friends.
He was from Arizona originally and had recently been discharged from the
army after serving in Japan.
Studio executives had expected the reaction to be good, but even they were unprepared for the reception the movie received. Elia Kazan, who was there that evening, remembered:
"The balcony was full of kids who had never seen [Dean] before, [but] the moment he came on screen they began to screech, they began to holler and
started getting interested
yell, and the balcony was coming down like a
waterfall. Every time he made a
move it was like ... a landslide." Although the director admitted that he
never really liked Dean, he later said, "He made the movie"; and
despite his initial misgivings about Dean, John Steinbeck thought his
performance was "Just right."
Afterward, Dean and his friends crowded together on
the sidewalk outside the theater. "Pretty
good, wasn't I?" Dean said slyly to one friend.
"You're fucking right you were pretty good," the friend
Interest in Dean began to billow.
A number of magazines planned stories on him, and Hollywood columnists,
who previously had thought of him only as Pier Angeli's boyfriend, requested
Dean kept Louella Parsons, then the doyenne of the
"I can't divert into being a social human
being," Dean explained, "when I've been working on a hero, like Cal,
who's essentially demonic."
"He's a natural, or a 'primitive,' if you
prefer," Louella told her readers in an article entitled, "James
Dean---New Face With a Future." "Like the great discoveries before
him, he's what makes life in Hollywood exciting." Writer Dorothy Kilgallen
prophesied: "He's bound to become a big star---and a big headache."
Although he professed to dislike the press, Dean
knew how to manipulate a reporter. According
to Joe Hyams, Jimmy would ask the studio press agents to brief him on an
interviewer's background so he could tailor his responses to what the reporter
wanted to hear. He used this
technique to win over Hedda Hopper, then an influential figure in the movie
colony who could make or break a career.
Several weeks earlier, Hedda had seen Dean slouching
in the Warner's commissary and had dismissed him as another dirty-shirttailed
actor from New York. At Clifton
Webb's suggestion, however, she saw a preview of East of Eden and was
captivated by his screen charm.
When Dean showed up at her home for an interview, he
appeared as clean-cut and respectful as the boy next door.
The middle-aged dowager was favorably impressed.
"I want to do Hamlet soon," Dean told her.
"Only a young man can play him as he was with the naivet"." He
added gratuitously, "Laurence Olivier played it safe.
Something is lost when older men play him.
They anticipate his answers .... This isn't the stumbling, searching boy
that he really was."
Hedda urged that some Broadway producer give Dean
the opportunity, and thereafter she became his constant champion.
"I loved that boy and I always will," she later said.
Dean diplomatically referred to her as "my friend at court."
As the new year approached, Warners still had not
decided what Dean's next picture should be.
One project under consideration was a film biography of Charles
Lindbergh; another was a topical movie on troublesome adolescents to be directed
by Nicholas Ray. Juvenile delinquency, then on the verge of becoming a national
problem, was very much on the public's mind, and the studio recognized the
appeal of a movie on the subject. But
Ray had only a rough outline of the film he wanted to do and a title, borrowed
from a book Warners owned the rights to: Robert Lindner's clinical study of a
teenage criminal, Rebel Without a Cause.
Until Warners assigned him to another picture, Dean
decided to return to New York to do a TV show and then visit his aunt and uncle
in Fairmount. He had been
approached by a young photographer named Dennis Stock, who wanted to do a story
on him for Life, and he invited Stock to come along on the trip. At first, Jimmy tried to hold out for a cover story, but
Stock convinced him the Life editors would not go for it.
Dean and Stock flew to New York, where Dean was
scheduled to appear on the United States Steel Hour on January 4. The
show, The Thief, was a routine drama, but the cast was a fine one and
included Mary Astor, Paul Lukas, and Diana Lynn.
In his TV roles, at least, Jimmy was moving up socially: He played a
wealthy young man accused of robbing his family.
Nehemiah Persoff, who was also in the show,
remembers Dean was nervous and remote during rehearsals.
"Paul Lukas could not stand the way Dean took so much time to do his
bit," recalls Persoff. "At
one point, Lukas had to face Diana Lynn and say, 'Excuse me, but my son [Dean]
is a little peculiar.' At dress rehearsal Dean took a great deal of time, and
when Lukas's turn came he said nothing. The
director asked what was wrong. Lukas
answered: 'I can't say my boy is peculiar; he is not peculiar.
That son of a bitch is crazy.""
Shortly after doing the show, Dean and Stock took
the train to Indiana.
Dean was invited to speak at his old high school,
and he gladly accepted the invitation. For
an hour and a half he addressed the students as he paced back and forth,
reciting Shakespeare, philosophizing, even demonstrating his bullfighting
technique, enjoying himself completely.
"He was just a kid showing off for the hometown
folks," his mentor, Adeline Nall later said, adding with perhaps more
insight than malice, "In a way, that's about all he ever was."
The one-time outcast was now king, and he savored
every moment of his triumph.
As ever, the Winslows were glad to have Jimmy home
once again. Aunt Ortense cooked his
favorite meatloaf dinner, and each night there were extra helpings of mashed
potatoes and stacks of fresh cornbread. Among
the people he loved and trusted, Dean was open and relaxed.
He had recently bought a small tape recorder, and now he secretly
recorded family conversations and delighted everyone by playing them back.
For over a week, Stock followed Dean around
Fairmount, photographing him against the backdrop of his boyhood haunts, trying
to depict the influences and environment that had helped shape the young actor.
Dean had brought his drums along---"to see the
farm animals' reactions to a primitive instrument"---and Stock photographed
him sitting in a field, surrounded by a herd of cattle as he played the conga
"It was a strange time for Jimmy," Stock
later said. "I think
Stock's many photographs bear out this impression; in them Dean appears
was Jimmy's idea
for Stock to take a picture
of him in a coffin
almost a stranger, sitting in an empty classroom in
his old high school, walking alone across a frozen field, the threat of snow
looming in the distance. Even in
one picture, taken in the family attic, where he often spent afternoons by
himself as a boy, Dean has a blank look on his face, as though the surroundings
had become unfamiliar.
On their last afternoon in Fairmount, Dean and Stock
paid a visit to Wilber Hunt's general store, a small establishment that doubled
as the town's funeral parlor. On a
whim, Dean climbed in one of Hunt's coffins and cajoled Stock into taking a
"It was the kind of joke Jimmy loved to
play," a friend said. "The
town thought he was nuts, but to him it was just a prank."
To Dean's mild annoyance, Life refused to run
the shot (Stock's photographic essay Moody New Star was published March
7, 1955), but after Dean's death the picture was printed in magazines around the
world, a macabre foreshadowing of what had come to pass.
From Fairmount, Dean and Stock returned to New York.
Almost from the moment he arrived, Jimmy's spirits seemed to lift.
Within a day he was enrolled in a class in modern dance taught by Eartha
Kitt and had arranged to take chess lessons.
He was, as ever, the young man in a hurry: one book he read was Learn
Already, too, Dean was looking to the future,
telling friends that he hoped to someday make a bullfight movie and do a film
biography of Woody Guthrie, the dustbowl singer, whose songs he had recently
discovered. Ironically, Lon Chapman
recalled, Jimmy's favorite Guthrie ballad was So Long, It's Been Good to Know
Eventually, if Hollywood gave him the chance, Dean
hoped to one day direct. He bought
a Bolex 16mm camera at Dumont's on 34th Street and began to make his own home
movies, using buddies like Marty Landau and Bill Gunn as actors.
Naturally, he worked without a script: His muse was the inspiration of
"Nothing Jimmy ever did was just a
sideline," said Roy Schatt, in whose small courtyard Dean made a number of
movies. "He put everything he
was into everything he did. In his
filmmaking, he was constantly searching for the unusual, even the odd camera
angle. Sometimes the results were
bizarre. But they were always
Geraldine Page, who had appeared with Dean in The
Immoralist, regretted that he died before he could direct any formal
productions. Although most of the
cast had shunned him, the actress had adopted some of his suggestions in shaping
"He would have made a phenomenal
director," she later said, "because of [his] ... specific kind of
ability to excite your imagination without giving you anything that would bind
Dean had kept his apartment while in Hollywood, and,
as in the past, the small walk-up became a gathering place for his friends.
There were long sessions at which Dean played his drums as the New York
night wound into dawn through a blue cigarette haze.
Conversations ranged from new movies to literature and philosophy. People read stories and plays aloud, once going right through
Tennessee Williams's Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton while taking
During his stay in town, Dean was interviewed by
Howard Thompson, then a young New York Times reporter.
The interview took place in Jane Deacy's apartment.
Jimmy arrived late and stretched out on the floor to field questions---a
fact that Thompson omitted for the readers of the good Gray Lady.
"I got the impression that he liked to act and
had made up his mind not to be pushed around by anybody," Thompson
"New York is vital," Dean told the
reporter. "I fit to cadence
and pace better here. They're a
little harder to find, maybe, but out there in Hollywood, behind all that brick
and mortar, there are human beings just as sensitive to fertility.
The problem for this cat is not to get lost."
Later Dean indirectly sent word to the reporter that
he "liked the article."
But despite this sudden rush of activity, Dean
seemed unable to find real satisfaction in anything he did; the project of the
moment might absorb him completely, but he soon grew bored and restless and
moved on to something else. His old
troubles and anxieties remained, and, if anything, success intensified rather
than diminished them.
He was difficult and mistrustful; he quarreled with
those around him.
"They bum meals from me," he complained.
One day in a restaurant he grew sullen.
"Where are my friends?" he asked.
Four of his closest friends were sitting at the table with him, but
before anyone could answer he got up and walked out.
A little thing like a hitch on a telephone he was
using could send him into a deep depression, but the mood might lift as
completely and mysteriously as it arrived.
Once, his friend Tony Ray remembered, his moodiness was cured by going to
see Jacques Tati in The Big Day. Tati,
a Russian-French actor, was known for his comic body gestures and humbling
Unshaven, hair uncombed, wrapped in his old trench
coat, Dean was morose as he entered the theater. Within ten minutes he was laughing so wildly that others
complained. Dean ignored them; the
spell of laughter grew more and more irresistible. But before the film was over he had to leave, making his
departure a series of hurdles over the silver ashtrays in the aisle.
While he was in town, Dean also dropped in on sessions at the Actors Studio. Arnold Sundgaard, who had known Dean since See the Jaguar, recalled one such occasion:
"Jimmy was a name by now," Sundgaard said, "and it was impossible not to glance in his direction. He almost demanded it. He took a seat up front, slouched in his chair with his jacket collar pulled up around his neck. just like
refused to go
New York premiere of 'East of Eden'
Brando, I thought.
He watched the scene being played just in front of him with great
concentration---so much so that the collar fell down into its natural place.
Moments later, he noticed this and jerked it back to its more sloppy and
casual position. And then he
resumed the look of concentration."
Sundgaard added: "I have seen this a hundred
times with other actors in similar situations.
They are never 'off."'
For a time Dean went to an analyst, but when the
sessions seemed unable to provide the relief he sought, he stopped going.
Frank Corsaro tried to convince him to return, but without success.
"He was never in one spot long enough," Corsaro claimed,
"and he just seemed to be getting crazier by the minute."
Through a friend, Dean heard that Dizzy Sheridan was
in town, and when he got in touch with her, she invited him to a party.
Their reunion was a happy one. Jimmy
appeared overjoyed to see her and didn't even seem to mind when Dizzy kidded him
about the way he was dressed, claiming he looked "so Hollywood" in his
black turtleneck sweater.
Later Dizzy recalled: "Wherever I went at that
party---if I would go into the kitchen to get food---he would follow me out
there and stand and talk. Never
anything about Hollywood or what he was doing but what I was doing, or how the
old gang was. It seemed that he had
just been away from home and all of a sudden he returned again and seemed jovial
on top---but very unhappy underneath, somehow."
Dizzy also recalled that the newly minted star
didn't mingle well with some of her friends.
"He wasn't terribly nice," Dizzy said, "and a lot of
people left early." He and Dizzy later shared a cab to Grand Central
Station, where Dizzy took the train to Larchmont.
"Just before I left," she said, "he
squeezed my hand in the cab and asked me if I was happy.
I told him that I would be as soon as I could get back to the islands,
and he said, 'I know what you mean,' as if more or less he wished he had found a
place to go where he could be happy."
Dizzy never saw him again; soon she left for Puerto
Rico to take a job with another dance troupe and was living there when Dean
died. The night she learned of his
death she had just come out of a movie theater and heard a newsboy shout in the
streets that James Dean had been killed in a car accident.
The movie that was playing had seen was one that had opened in San Juan a
few days earlier, East of Eden.
In New York, Dean met another old friend whom he had
not seen for some time, but their reunion was less pleasant.
Rogers Brackett, who had lost his job at Foote, Cone, & Belding as a
result of a cutback at the agency, saw Dean and, over a drink, asked him to loan
him some money until things got better. According
to Brackett, Dean refused, saying simply, "Sorry, Pops." According to
another version, Dean is supposed to have added: "I didn't know it was the
whore who had to pay." Dean also told Brackett that he felt he had
"outgrown" him and Alec Wilder and no longer wished to be friends. To this, Brackett replied, "You might outgrow me, but I
don't think you can ever outgrow Alec Wilder."
Brackett was equally philosophical about the end of
their relationship. Later, he
explained that he had "other fish to fry." After Dean, and the legend,
became famous, rumors about the actor's friendship with Brackett circulated.
These were not, of course, the only rumors about Dean's homosexuality.
Dennis Stock, one Hollywood friend, claimed that it was a Fairmount
cleric who "had first brought Jimmy out." According to another story,
a bit player in Rebel Without a Cause was Dean's boyfriend.
But, even after forty years, only the relationship with Rogers Brackett
has been substantiated.
Brackett was always discreet, and after Dean's
death, regularly refused press interviews.
However, Dean's agent arranged for the studio to pay Brackett a
"finder's fee" to allay any bad feeling toward his prot?g? and
safeguard the cornpany's property. After
he disappeared from Dean's life, Brackett went on to hold several important
advertising positions. Later, he
devoted himself to travel, a wealthy, reclusive man who died of throat cancer in
1979. For his part, Alec Wilder
never forgave Dean, ostensibly because of his rejection of Brackett.
"He was a neurotic, mixed-up kid," the
composer claimed. "He
bullshitted everybody to death."
By late February 1955, New York was beginning to
pale for Dean; the winter had been an unusually harsh one, and he now began to
talk of returning to the warmth of California.
The studio, however, was anxious for him to remain
in New York to attend the world premiere of East of Eden at the Astor
Theater on Broadway. The evening
was to be a benefit for the Actors Studio.
Tickets were priced at fifty dollars a head, and Margaret Truman and
Marilyn Monroe were among the many celebrities who had agreed to serve as
But Dean refused to attend.
The studio tried to get him to change his mind, but to no avail.
"I can't make this scene," he told his agent, "I can't
East of Eden opened March 9, to much attendant fanfare; over
seven hundred guests filled the theater and throngs of spectators lined the
police barricades outside to glimpse the event.
But the young star of the evening was nowhere
around. Several days earlier Dean
had quietly boarded a plane and flown back to California. ##
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