IS NOT DEAD
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'Send me anything Jimmy touched. If he touched a wall, send me a piece of the wallpaper.'
James Dean would not have been recognised in his final role - that of a corpse slumped over the wheel of his wrecked Porsche Spyder. Hollywood's new apostle of beauty - reduced to an obscene mess, aged 24.
He had spent only sixteen months in Hollywood where he had made three films, one of which had been released at the time of his death. Three years after his death Warner Brothers were receiving thousands of letters per week addressed to James Dean. His films had such an intense affect upon teenage America that fan mail addressed to the corpse outnumbered that of any living Hollywood star. Twenty-five years after his death Dean is considered the symbolic figure of the 1950's. He who was perhaps so unlike period had come to represent it.
James Dean would be the definitive 'rebel-hero' of the cinema, yet there had been others before him. John Garfield's embittered Depression-era characters evolved in the late 1930's (and he played the same role until his death in 1952). Garfield's rebel heroes would nearly always drop dead in Big Momma's big arms, just as James Cagney's cliche-ridden gangster toughs would meet their fate regularly on what must have proved to be the most popular church steps in Chicago.
Cagney's characters, with a step ladder at hand for when it came to kissing the girl, were almost never believable. It seemed that both were feasibly in liaison with the much celebrated white-hatted hero. Rebellious as Garfield and Cagney were, it seemed that at the end of the day both were still dedicated to mom and flag, and would end up with the girl (preferably blond and brainless), or in a shroud. Either way they'd be reformed or punished for their impertinence.
Brando, wrapped in black leather and propped on a motorcycle, became an acceptable rebel, but his career would include non-rebel roles (Johnny from The Wild One as Marc Anthony?). Bogart's tough cynicism personified the 'film noir' mood, the postwar archcriminal - nervous, sad, balding and fifty. He would shoot first and ask questions later, a hop and a skip away from the caveman logic of John Wayne's superhumans. Wayne with his 'real men' obsessions, Boy's Own heroics, and a welter of witless chat, used suspect machismo - a mask for his hatred of women (debatable? Editor.) in his exclusively male world. He was not a rebel hero, but a war hero, re-shaping the universe with bluff, bravado, and Tarzan-of-the-Apes intellect. Dean, strong enough to be gentle, became a reaction against Wayne's maniacal toughness. The new alternative hero could make good tea, grow geraniums, and keep his house spotless without losing any of his obvious masculinity.
Another reason why Dean became the screen's archetypal rebel-hero was perhaps because his own personality and lifestyle were not unlike that of those he portrayed. His spasms of animal frenzy (onscreen and off), his turbulent and ill-disciplined life, gained him the reputation of a modern misfit. Those that knew him well (and few did) claimed he was engulfed in insecurities. His disturbing childhood was never over-dramatized. He most certainly had an obsession with death, and of it said: "It's the only thing left to respect."
In Hollywood, where young actors were picked, plucked and packed away, Dean was determined to make it on his own terms. When cross-examined by tell-all gossips of his bisexuality, he told them: "Well I'm certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back!" It was rumoured far too frequently that he had worked his way up trousers down. Had Warners, on signing Dean, bought and destroyed the porn movies which showed their precious protege stripped for action?
Still, the silent generation of the 50's adopted Dean as their prototype. When he died two German girls killed themselves saying that life without him was unbearable. A New York shopgirl claimed to be conversing with the dead star from the grave, and sold half-million copies of her book Jimmy Dean Returns. A London post office worker claimed to have seen Rebel Without a Cause 400 times and had changed his name by deed poll to James Byron Dean. Dean's family would be persecuted endlessly by irate fans begging to sleep in Jimmy's bed. There would, at times, be up to seventy cars parked outside their house. Fan magazines littered the newsstands from I Almost Married Jimmy Dean to Jimmy Dean's Christmas in Heaven.
Souvenirs suddenly appeared everywhere including rings supposedly containing chips from his gravestone. The public, never satisfied until they're sickened, wanted more. Dean's wrecked Porsche was put on public display, and fans were invited, for a fee, to sit in the seat where he had died. For a little extra they were allowed to touch the dried blood on the steering wheel. Screw magazine, in a fitting gesture, proudly published pictures of the dead star naked.
There were rumours that Dean had not even died in the accident, but was terribly disfigured and locked away in a monastery. Many believed the grave in his home town to be empty. As late as 1973, the National Examiner headlined an article: JAMES DEAN DID NOT DIE IN 'FATAL' AUTO ACCIDENT. Paralized And Mutilated, He's Hidden in a Sanitorium.
In 1969, the New Yorker interviewed the founder member of America's
James Dean Club, a 57 year old widow, Mrs. Therese Brandes, who said: "I
always tell people that James Dean will be alive until I die." She died
in the early 1970's. Dean lives on. Another generation has discovered him
for the same reason. Into the 1980's and people are still interested. People
still want to know.
James Byron Dean. Born February 8th, 1931.
Died September 30th, 1955.
It is perhaps the normality of Dean's background which in its uneventfulness, becomes most fascinating. There would be no intermission between swift transgression from boyhood to Hollywood.
That almost traditional Hollywood storyline - of pale country yokels, more than usually plain, accidentally transformed overnight into a sensational superstar, is hardly unlike James Dean's own story. But there is little, if anything at all, in Dean's beginnings which could be exaggerated.
He was born at 2 a.m. on February 8th, 1931, at Green Gables, East Fourth Street, Marion, Indiana. He is the first and only child to Winton and Mildred Dean. The baby would be christened James after James Amick, a man of dentistry, the field in which Winton worked. Mildred to give the child the middle name Byron after the poet Lord Byron. This would be the first indication of her intention of making her child slightly more cultured than those around him in the farming town. James Byron Dean would be an artistic child. Because of this, he grew up sheltered and over-indulged. He would find himself set apart from other children and found great difficulty in making friends. Mildred bought her son a violin and sent him off for lessons regularly. She read him a great deal of poetry, and as they spent so much time together, the boy developed a particularly strong sense of attachment to his mother. Winton Dean on the other hand, seemed quite detached from his son.
In 1936, Winton was transferred to Los Angeles, where he would continue his work as a dental technician. The family were uprooted. It was here, four years later, that Mildred was hospitalized and found to have terminal cancer, with only six to eight weeks to live. She died on July 14th, 1940 after terrible suffering.
Winton Dean: "I told Jimmy straight one evening: 'Your mother's never coming home again', all he did was stare at me."
Jimmy withdrew after his mother's death. It would have an overwhelming effect on the boy as his mother had been his only real companion. Much later he recalled: "My mother died when I was eight. The violin was buried too."
From the time of his mother's death, Jimmy was 'adopted' by his grandparents, the Winslows, on their 440 acre farm in Fairmount. Winton Dean remained in Los Angeles, breaking a tie that would never be repaired. His funds had been exhausted after Mildred's death, and he would find himself drafted in 1942 into the Army Medical Corp. Meanwhile, Jimmy (who had really lost both parents) began life with the Winslows.
He was by now a very introverted child, given to unnerving moods of complete silence. He was a complicated and obsessive child whose grades at school were too high. One day he burst into tears during a class. When asked by the teacher why he was upset he explained: "I miss my mother."
Jimmy was given his first motorcycle in his early teens. He drove erratically about the farm, and soon found himself with three front teeth missing. His eyesight was so bad he could scarcely see ten inch in front of him. During his athletic and cycling stints, he broke fifteen pairs of glasses.
At Fairmount High School Jimmy met and impressed two people who would play an important part in his life. Adeline Nall taught Speech and Drama at the school and noticed within Jimmy a special quality. She herself had wanted desperately to become an actress, and would have great influence over Dean.
At sixteen he won first place in a Dramatic Speaking event for which he recited Dicken's The Madman so realistically that he frightened the judges. The win made him eligible to enter the National Speaking Tournament in Colorado. Adeline Nall was his companion on this trip becoming his private tutor. Her experience told her that Jimmy's speech was too long, and she urged him to shorten it. Jimmy, perhaps for the first time, decided to act against her advice. As a result, he neither won nor gained a healthy position in the tournament. The judge explained, as had Adeline Nall, that his speech was far too long.
Another influential person at this time was the Rev. James de Weerd (who would later finance Dean's first trip to New York). De Weerd was an unconventional preacher in his early thirties. Very often Jimmy would be his only guest. The two had a certain rapport, and, as with Adeline, de Weerd would remain close to Jimmy throughout his short life.
James de Weerd: "He had no fear of death because he believed, as I do, that death is merely a control of mind over matter."
Jimmy graduated in 1949. He was admitted to Santa Monica City College which would mean close contact with his father. Winton had by now re-married, and relations between them and Jimmy would remain as distant as ever. Jimmy's step-mother would never figure even remotely in his life. He would visit his father, but there would be very little conversation.
In his new surroundings he was required to register with the Santa Monica Draft Board but he warned them: "You can't draft me - I'm homosexual."
A school friend. Paul Weaver, would later recall: "Jimmy WAS different than most boys. He was different in those days because, as I remember, he was often alone. For example, if the baseball team were to practice, often you'd see kids coming together in a car or a pickup, but Jimmy would usually arrive alone. He wasn't the kind of boy, well, in those days a coach would put his arm around a boy, not, well maybe partly in affection, but partly just to get near to talk. And this was common , you know, in baseball. But I'm sure that I felt at the time that Jimmy was uncomfortable. He'd just feel a little bit uncomfortable with you being that close. I don't recall ever seeing him on dates with girls. I always recall Jimmy riding his motorcycle, and I don't ever remember seeing a girl on it."
Whilst in California, Jimmy joined a Summer Stock Company working under the stagename of Byron Dean. In a production of Macbeth his portrayal of Malcolm impressed no one except a local talent spotter, Isabel Dresmer. Dresmer gave Dean a list of casting offices and told him to acquire some good photographs of himself. By this time, he and a fellow drama student Bill Bast had pooled their resources and rented an apartment together. Five years later, Bast would write a biography on Dean following his death.
Jimmy was constantly down at heel and would very often borrow money from Bast's girlfriend Beverly Wills. He lived entirely on dry oatmeal, and would mix the cereal with jam for variation.
Through art student James Bellulah, Dean landed a part in a two minute Pepsi commercial. In passing bottles of Pepsi to squealing children, he earned himself ten dollars and his first television appearance. The slot was enough for Jerry Fairbanks to contact Isabel Dresmer telling her that he wanted Dean for his television production of Hill Number One. As John the Baptist, Jimmy had only a handful of lines, and his acting was not very impressive. Still, he endeared pupils at the Immaculate Heart School enough for them to begin the first James Dean Appreciation Society.
Despite the adulation, Dean lacked funds and a job. He found himself taking a position as a car attendant at CBS studios. It would be brief employment as he couldn't quite manage to look presentable in his uniform. Depressed, he joined street hustlers and young 'actors' who found success via studio couches. By now, Bast was supporting Dean and this strained what been Dean's only lasting relationship. Jimmy decided to leave the apartment and moved in with Ted Avery, an usher at CBS, whilst Avery's wife was on holiday. But his wife soon returned and ejected Dean without a moment's hesitation.
Deans' poverty subsided slightly as he managed over the next few months to get bit parts in three movies. In Fixed Bayonets he managed one line: "It's a rear guard coming back!", which was eventually cut. As a sultry sailor in Sailor Beware his face filled the screen for a tenth of a second. In Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (a very successful witty comedy) he made an appearance as a difficult customer in an ice cream parlour. The latter would star Rock Hudson, whom Dean would late meet and upstage on the set of Giant.
At this time there were fleeting radio parts for Dean, but nothing very outstanding. He still frequented the leather and chain bars, where he was immensely popular. After being hurled from the Avery household, he moved in with Rogers Brackett and a young CBS director, and thus the Hollywood cocktail circuit. His role at Brackett's lavish 'scene' parties is uncertain, but he told friends: "If I can't make it on my own talent, then I don't want to make it at all." He often confessed that he had 'done a little dancing', but found that it didn't pay. He also talked of 'meal-tickets', and perhaps Roger Brackett was one of them? Of Brackett, Dean told Isabel Dresmer: "He said we could have twin beds."
Isabel Dresmer: "It was a case of marrying Joan Davis' daughter, or going off to live with a studio director."
Beverly Wills was the daughter in question and there is little to suggest that she and Dean were very serious about each other. At a party given by Beverly, Jimmy popped an apple on his head and invited an archery champ who was amongst the guests to take aim, but Joan Davis stepped forward and curbed Dean's zest for excitement.
It is known that at this time Dean read Henry Miller, Colette and Cocteau, or rather, that he carried their works about with him. Friends often presumed that the books remained unread by Dean, and it was also suggested the boy who was never seen without a dictionary under his arm had great difficulty in reading. Brackett had nicknamed Dean 'Hamlet' with some affection, but others had agreed on 'Human Ashtray' as Dean's fitting title. His psychotic animalism endeared as many as it appalled.
Brackett advised Jimmy to go to New York where the theatre was alive. He acted upon the advice at once.
Dean: "Have you every had the feeling that it's not in your hands? Do you ever just know that you've got something to do and you have no control over it?"