COLUMN EIGHTY-SIX, MARCH 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
HAVING LOST THE BATTLE as well as the war at Warners, Dean readily found a
sanctuary in the quiet of his new house. Friends
often dropped by for late-night talks or to drink wine and listen to records on
the new hi-fi system Dean had recently installed.
Two large speakers hung down from the beamed ceiling; neighbors claimed
the music could be heard five blocks away.
The refrigerator was well stocked with hams Uncle
Marcus sent from the farm, and Dean was building a trophy room in the
cellar with the help of Nick Adams. Intense
and ambitious, Adams was very much like Dean, and later went on to a successful
career of his own, playing offbeat parts. He
had hitchhiked to Hollywood at eighteen, determined to make it as an actor.
"Some men bet on horses and dogs," he liked
to say. "I gambled on
After Dean's death, he was always ready to give an
interview about his lost friend; some were quite imaginative.
In one such interview, he quoted Jimmy as saying:
"There are six needs in life: love, security,
self-esteem, recognition, new experience, and last but not least, the need for
Adams also died young, in 1968, of a drug overdose, at
the age of thirty.
Mike Connolly, a magazine reporter who dropped by to interview Dean early in August, was surprised to find him so friendly and relaxed. Jimmy was dressed in a white Mexican shirt and jeans. He put on a pot of coffee and gave the customary tour of the premises, proudly pointing
idea of marriage|
out the apple and lemon trees that bloomed in the
backyard. When the reporter noticed
a hangman's noose strung from the ceiling beam, and a sign----WE ALSO REMOVE BODIES---tacked next to it, Dean chalked them up to
"my macabre sense of humor."
The windows and doors were thrown wide open; Bach's
Toccata in F Major blared on the hi-fi. A
white bearskin rug was thrown across the floor; the bear's ferocious jaw
stretched open. Jimmy was once
photographed playing his drums next to the rug; a careful look at the photo
shows his foot sticking in the bear's rear.
It is a picture (taken by Sanford Roth) that still shows up in novelty
shops. To the end---and beyond---he
was non-Hollywood all the way.
Dean and Connolly had a long talk about music over
coffee. As they talked, Jimmy kept
changing records, going from Bartok to African chants to an old Jimmie Rogers
record he had picked up in a secondhand shop.
Dean explained that Rogers was a great "hillbilly" singer who
died in his early thirties. He
"But folk singers still worship at his
"I collect everything from twelfth- and
thirteenth-century music," he boasted proudly, "to the extreme
moderns---you know, Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky. I also like Sinatra's Song for Young Lovers album."
Among Dean's closest friends
there was now a growing feeling that somehow Jimmy had changed.
One humid night, sitting in his kitchen with Lew Bracker, Dean turned and
"You know, Lew, I think we ought to get
"To each other?" Bracker joked.
Dean replied. "I mean it would
be so right to come home to somebody who understands me, who cares."
Dean was a many-sided figure: manipulative, talented,
even touched by genius. Yet, the
side Bracker saw was that of a friend. Bracker's
cousin was then married to a composer whom Dean was close to.
When the composer began a relationship with another woman, an actress who
had appeared in East Of Eden, Dean voiced his disapproval out of loyalty
to the wife.
Bracker, who later became a Beverly Hills investment
banker, was then living with his parents in Studio City, and to them Dean
practically became one of the family that summer.
"He'd come to the house," Bracker remembers,
"with a bucket of peaches he'd picked from his tree for my mother.
Or he'd bring a couple of pounds of hamburger and insist on cooking
dinner for us.... At first, if we had other people in, he would sit in a corner
of the yard by himself. But toward
the end, he was getting better ... He'd join the other people and joke with
Dean's attitude toward Hollywood had softened, too.
There was not much surprise when Dean began showing up at the
better-known nightspots or was seen around town escorting actresses like Leslie
Caron, whom he took to see the movie Summertime.
singer Ella Logan took over Ciro's to host a party for Sammy Davis Jr., Dean
dropped by and mingled easily with the other guests, one of whom was Humphrey
Bogart. Like Googie's, Ciro's has
since become part of Hollywood folklore---a glamorous nightclub where stars
and stargazers spent enchanted evenings.
Later, Bogart, the old pro, said: "Dean died at
just the right time. He left behind
a legend. If he had lived he'd
never have been able to live up to his publicity."
Yet, underneath it all, the rebellious spirit had not
died. In one of the last interviews
he did, with a writer named Jan Jamison, James Dean summed up his feelings,
striking a note that might have served as an epitaph.
"If a choice is in order---I'd rather have
people hiss than yawn," Dean claimed.
"Nothing can be more deadly than boredom, and this applies if one is
either the cause of it or its victim."
He added: "My purpose in life does not include a
hankering to charm society ... Of course, I am well aware that there are those
who think a net should be dropped over me.
But any public figure
Writing that summer to his old friend, Reverend James
DeWeerd, Dean reached ever deeper inside himself.
"I don't really know who I am, but it doesn't
matter," he admitted. "There
really isn't an opportunity for greatness in this world.
We are impaled on a crock of conditioning.
A fish that is in water has no choice what he is.
Genius would have it that he swim in sand .... We are fish and we
But that summer, Jimmy allowed himself little time for
such melancholy thoughts. He was
involved in a host of new activities, learning tennis at the venerable L.A.
Tennis Club, studying German ("so Ursula and I can fight better"),
laying plans for the future.
In August, Dean told friends that he soon hoped to
form his own production company, working with Warners as an independent
producer. He talked about doing a
short of a Bartok ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, and wanted to film The
had other ideas as well: a life story of Tazio Nuvolari, the Italian racing ace
who had been nicknamed the Devil's Son, and who had been buried in his racing
helmet, a steering wheel beside him. Another
potential project was a film on Billy the Kid.
Dean said he would make the latter movie only "if I can do it
honestly," portraying the outlaw as a cold-blooded killer rather than a
The old spirit and drive had returned---to have
tomorrow today, to live two years for every one.
On the set of Giant, Dean became friendly with Sanford Roth, who had joined the company as still photographer after their return from Marfa. Roth, who died in 1962, was a former
an interest in art
merchandising executive who had given up a successful
business career to become a professional photographer.
He and his wife Beulah had lived in Europe for a number of years, and he
had done a book on Paris with Aldous Huxley.
When Dean learned Roth knew and collected the works of
artists like Miró and Picasso, he asked:
"When can I come and see you?"
That same night he went to the Roths' West Hollywood
home for dinner and stayed till five in the morning.
After that Dean was often in their company.
He took them to the Villa Capri for dinner, and some evenings they would
all go over to Will Wright's for ice cream.
Whenever Mrs. Roth knew Dean was coming over, she liked to make what soon
became his favorite snack: Jewish salami toasted on Italian pizza.
The Roths stimulated Dean's yen to travel and
introduced him to the writings of avant-garde writers they admired: Jean Genet,
Curzio Malaparte, and Gerald Heard, the English scientist, who was then living
Along with Roth, Dean visited a Buddhist temple in
downtown Los Angeles, observing a class of kendo, the Japanese art of
self-defense. Naturally, Jimmy
became enthusiastic about learning the sport and wanted to take lessons.
When Roth mentioned that he knew of an old hotel in
Venice, a local beach community, where Sarah Bernhardt had once stayed, Dean
insisted they drive out to see it at once.
It was late at night, but they managed to rouse the desk clerk to show
them the room. Dean was thrilled to
sit on the bed in which the great Bernhardt had supposedly slept.
"He knew the world was round," Roth said,
"but he never stopped trying to prove it to himself."
Like Dennis Stock and Roy Schatt, Sanford Roth became
one of James Dean's court photographers. He
shot numerous photos of Jimmy---twirling a lariat, caressing his drums, even
sitting with a cat on his shoulder: cool, studied poses that later helped market
the Dean legend.
Since Beulah Roth's brother, Leonard Spiegelgass, was
a close friend of Rogers Brackett, the Roths presumably knew of Dean's
relationship with the director. In
fact, in later years, Spiegelgass told his sister he felt that Dean had behaved
"treacherously" toward his mentor.
But Brackett's name was never mentioned in the books or articles the
Roths did on Dean.
Rogers himself never became a Dean "fan."
With regard to Dean's film work, he was simply noncommittal.
As for the legend, it perplexed him.
He found most articles on Dean filled with "inaccuracies and half
truths." Once he sent a pal a clipping on Dean with a note, "Another
item from the morgue." When Brackett learned that in the 1970s Dean's
autograph had sold for more than one of Lincoln's, he noted wryly:
"I wish I had saved J.D.'s love/hate letter and
poetry and drawings---I'd take a world cruise on the proceeds." The letter
he referred to was one that Dean had written after they said their goodbys.
A few years after Dean's death, Rogers threw it out, along with other
It was Dean, the person that he knew and remembered.
In the 1970s he saw a TV movie about Dean written by Bill Bast.
The sanitized memoir greatly amused him.
"What a fantasy," he told a writer friend.
"It should have been called Mother Cabrini---Girl Saint."
Chris White, who was in the cast, remarked that
actors kept coming up to her saying, "Are you the real Chris White?"
She felt it was "all kind of unreal, being part of a myth." Naturally,
Rogers Brackett was unmentioned in the production.
After Dean's death, magazine articles appeared with
titles like How Should He Be Remembered?" and You Can Make Jimmy
Dean Live Forever. Mike Connolly noted in the Hollywood Reporter:
"A lot of characters who knew [Dean] only
casually---or not at all---are writing articles or even books about him.
After all, who can check?"
in September 1955, Sandy Roth introduced Dean to Pegot Waring, a West Coast
sculptress, and Jimmy asked her to take him on as a student.
"Acting is just interpretation," he told her.
"I want to create myself."
After his third lesson, he wanted her to explain the
technique sculptors used to carve Mount Rushmore.
"He asked a hundred questions," she later
told reporter Aljean Meltsir. "He
always wanted to know why? why? why?"
Dean worked on a bust of Elizabeth Taylor and one of
Edna Ferber, who was in town checking on the progress of the movie.
The frail, elderly novelist was captivated by Dean, calling him
"Your profile resembles that of John Barrymore,"
she told him, adding sadly and prophetically, "but then, your automobile
racing will probably soon take care of that." #
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