COLUMN SIXTY-TWO, AUGUST 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
As SUMMER NEARED, the enchantment of life in the penthouse grew
considerably thinner. The weather
turned hot and sticky. The $150
Dean had received for Hill Number One was long since used up, and money
now became a serious problem.
Girls from the theater department were no longer
invited over for dinner. Meals
sometimes consisted of a bowl of dry oatmeal mixed with jam preserves; there
were days when the larder was completely empty.
Dean managed to overcome his
depression sufficiently to resume looking for work. Each morning he would climb into his old Chevy and head into
Hollywood, only to return at the end of the day with the same discouraging news.
Casting directors told him bluntly he wasn't good-looking enough to make
it in the movies, or claimed he was too short to be an actor.
"How can you measure acting
in inches?" Dean said savagely. "They're
Luckily, at this time Bill Bast's mother decided to
come west for a short visit, and the boys welcomed her presence with open
relief. For a week their
refrigerator was stocked solid with food and the cupboard shelves groaned under
the weight of newly bought groceries.
For the first time the apartment even appeared
orderly, and each night the boys were served a sumptuous meal on the small
After Mrs. Bast departed, Dean decided to find a
part-time job to help meet expenses until work as an actor came along.
"Jimmy... had grown pleasantly accustomed to
the little lux?uries in life, like food," Bast explained, "and wanted
to do something to perpetuate the habits we had formed, like eating."
Bast heartily endorsed his friend's plan and even
arranged an appointment with the head usher at CBS to see about a job.
Dean talked to the man and was hired.
From his first day at work, however, Jimmy found
himself in hot water with his new employers.
He was overheard complaining about the braided uniform he was given to
wear, calling it a "monkey suit," and seemed unable to accord the head
usher the proper respect demanded by his rank.
After a week Dean was fired.
"About your friend...," Bast was later
chided at CBS, "let me tell you..."
As Dean slipped quickly and happily back into the
ranks of the unemployed, the boys' financial situation looked bleaker than ever.
"Times were still hard," Bast wrote,
"and getting harder."
Furthermore, Bast was tired of supporting them both,
and his resentment grew daily. To make matters worse, Dean began to spend much
of his ample leisure time with a pretty girl, Beverly Wills, to whom Bast had
introduced him and whom Bast occasionally dated himself.
The daughter of the popular comedienne Joan Davis, Beverly was seventeen
and the star of her own weekly CBS radio program, Junior Miss.
She lived with her mother in a mansion in fashionable Bel Air.
Unfortunately, Miss Davis did not share her daughter's enthusiasm for Dean.
"He'd walk into our living room," Beverly
recalled in a March 1957 issue of Modern Screen, "and promptly slump
down in my mother's favorite armchair, his foot dangling over the side, and sit
like that for hours without saying a word. The only action we'd see out of him was when he'd reach for
the fruit bowl. He was always
When Beverly learned that pot roast was Dean's
favorite dish, she arranged to have it whenever he stayed for dinner.
They also went on picnics together, or spent days at the beach, where
Jimmy enjoyed racing her small motorboat.
By now, Bast's patience with his friend had all but run
out. Bills continued to pour in
with the speed of an avalanche, and in an effort to keep things going Bast had
been borrowing money from whomever he could.
"I was losing friends by the gross," he
Perhaps hoping to placate his friend, Dean sometimes
invited him along on the frequent outings he and Beverly enjoyed.
When Beverly's mother gave her a large party to celebrate her eighteenth
birthday, Bast was invited to attend.
The party turned out to be one of the social events
of the summer for Hollywood's younger set.
Debbie Reynolds, then a promising ing?nue at MGM, was there, and so was
Lugene Saunders, who was starring in a popular television series.
Apparently young Jimmy didn't make much of an impression on Miss
Reynolds. Although they were
photographed together, Debbie later claimed she "never knew James
Bast arrived at the party late from work, feeling
tired and out of place among the well-dressed guests. Dean appeared to be enjoying himself, mingling freely with
the others. A former national archery champion had been hired to entertain and
was giving a
daring exhibition of marksmanship. Bast sat down alone by the pool, watching as the archer proceeded to break a balloon a volunteer held at arm's length.
The applause no sooner died down than Dean stepped
forward, boldly challenging the man to shoot an apple off his head in the manner
of William Tell. It was a stunt
Miss Davis immediately prohibited as too dangerous. Dean looked disappointed.
Bast's heart sank; for one brief moment he had been hoping the archer
might miss his target and nick his friend, nick him only slightly, but nick him
just the same.
Several days later the inevitable finally occurred:
After another argument over money erupted, Bast decided to move out.
He found a room close to the CBS building and gave his new landlady a
Jimmy was now on his own, left to enjoy alone the
delights of penthouse living, complete with chest-high kitchen sink, Mexican oil
portraits, and the rent that went with them.
To Bast's surprise, Dean managed rather well.
He borrowed enough money from Beverly to pay some of his bills and began
looking for a job, as simple as that.
Through Ted Avery, another disgruntled former usher
at CBS, he found a job parking cars on a lot adjacent to the studio.
The lot was a haven for out-of-work actors, run by a sympathetic man who
allowed his young attendants to take off whenever they needed to go to
auditions. The arrangement was
ideal for Dean: The CBS executives who used the lot tipped well, bringing his
salary almost to that of a full-time job. The
hours were good, the work easy, and there was the ever "present chance that a
producer or director might discover him.
By now, too, Dean's ability to live off newfound
friends was almost a fine art, and before long he was sharing Avery's little
Hollywood apartment rent-free while the latter's wife was out
An excellent horseman, Avery began teaching Dean how
to ride and rope in the hope that Dean could obtain bit parts in cowboy movies
as Avery sometimes did. The two of
them were frequently seen in the staid corridors of CBS, twirling lariats and
cutting up, dressed in full cowboy outfits.
Beverly Wills moved to Paradise Cove, by Malibu, for
the rest of the summer, to be with her father, and she and Dean saw each other
less often. The drive was too far
for Dean to make regularly, and, moreover, he did not get along well with
Beverly's new circle of friends, sensing they regarded him as an intruder in
their exclusive suburban enclave. Dean's unpredictability was also becoming
upsetting to Beverly.
"I learned," she later wrote, "that
it was nothing for Jimmy to run through a whole alphabet of emotions in one
evening, alternating sharply from low to high and back again, and no one could
ever tell what mood would hit him."
At a dance one weekend Dean
became jealous when an?other young man tried to dance with Beverly and almost
started a fight. The incident
embarrassed Beverly; she and Dean did not see each other for the rest of the
summer. This pleased Joan Davis,
"She couldn't think of any
boy who had a less certain future than Jimmy," Beverly said.
Years later, Beverly was killed in a fire, one of Dean's many
friends---Nick Adams, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo---who were to meet sad and tragic
Freed from his ties to Beverly, Dean began to spend
more time at the CBS studio, trying to cultivate whatever contacts he could.
Although nothing came of Avery's plan to get them in westerns, Dean was
introduced through another friend to Ralph Levy, an important TV director at
CBS. The so-called King of
Comedies, Levy was directing both the Allan Young and Ed Wynn shows for the
network, and he used Dean as an extra whenever he could.
Levy claimed that even then Dean had a certain
presence on stage, a magnetism that more than one person remarked upon.
"People in the audience would tell me,"
the director said,
Backstage, Levy gave the young actor encouragement
and advice, and sometimes during a break in rehearsal the two adjourned to an
alley behind the studio to toss around a baseball and talk.
work on the lot Dean also met a number of other producers and directors, but all
failed to lead to any acting jobs.
Then one Saturday morning he parked a car for a man
named Rogers Brackett. When Dean
learned that Brackett directed a weekly CBS radio program, Alias Jane Doe, starring
Lurene Tuttle, he didn't waste any time confessing he was an actor.
Over coffee, the two talked and Brackett casually prom?ised to keep Dean
in mind when casting future shows.
True to his word, he soon called Dean in to read for
a small part. Dean's reading was
melodramatic and his gestures overly theatrical for a radio studio, but Brackett
awarded him the role. It was the
first of six shows he did for Brackett. It
was also the start of a long and invaluable friendship for Dean, but one that
was not without its stormy moments.
"I have often thought," Rogers later said,
"I should have left 'Hamlet' in the parking lot."
A tall, curly-haired bachelor with good looks and an
elegant manner, Brackett was some fifteen years Dean's senior.
He was the son of Robert Brackett, an early Hollywood film producer who
was once in partnership with Lewis J. Selznick.
Born in Culver City, Brackett had literally been raised in Hollywood, and
his connections in the film industry were numerous.
He had served an apprenticeship with David 0. Selznick, Lewis's son, and
had worked at the Walt Disney Studio. He
had left the film business to accept a high-paying position with the advertising
firm of Foote, Cone, and Belding as account supervisor. One of his accounts sponsored Alias Jane Doe, and
Brackett doubled as the show's director, an arrange?ment that was not uncommon.
this time, Brackett was living at the Sunset Plaza, a fashionable apartment
house above Sunset Strip.
When Ted Avery's wife returned to Hollywood, Dean
was suddenly forced to find another place to live, and he accepted Brackett's
invitation to stay with him.
Dean, the Sunset Plaza proved a great improvement over Avery's modest quarters.
Built on a hill, it afforded a majestic view of the city below.
Brackett had a comfortable garden apartment that he was subletting from
William Goetz, a Universal-International executive. The apartment was adja?cent to the swimming pool.
Once again Jimmy had struck it rich at a friend's
expense. Through Brackett, too,
Dean met a large number of people, and there was now glamour and excitement in
his life. Rogers took him to
private studio screenings, and they would dine at La Rue, a chic restaurant,
where Dean liked the vichyssoise, always pronouncing it "swishy-swashy."
During the day, Jimmy hung around the pool and took up photography.
Often, he photographed himself in the mirror, a lifelong passion.
Rogers gave him books to read by writers like Saint?Exup?ry
and Camus, and introduced him to a movie house on Fairfax that showed silent
films. Dean absorbed all this excit?edly,
asking for more.
"He sapped the minds of his friends," Bast
once noted, "like a bloodsucker saps the strength of an unsuspecting
But Dean's intelligence was largely intuitive,
Brackett felt. He amazed Rogers
with his ability to do mime, though he had never seen a performance.
Once Dean surprised him by making a mobile, using wire and some chicken
bones that had been left over from dinner the night before.
When Rogers told him how much he liked the mobile, Jimmy answered,
"What's a mobile?"
Soon Rogers was pretty hung up on his young friend,
and they drifted into an affair.
"My primary interest in Jimmy was as an actor---his talent was so obvious," Brackett said.
"Secondarily, I loved him, and Jimmy loved me.
If it was a father'son relationship, it was also somewhat
One afternoon Jim Bellah dropped by to see Dean.
He was taken aback by his fraternity brother's new living arrange?ments.
Brackett was polished, droll, clever.
Bellah found him "terribly precious." It was definitely not his
scene. When Rogers left the room,
Bellah turned to Jimmy and said:
"This guy's a fairy."
"Yeah, I know."
Was this merely a convenient relationship for Dean?
After all, the casting couch was as much a part of Hollywood as the tall
palms and wide boulevards. Jimmy
would not be the first to use or to be used.
Other legends have their little secrets.
Rogers himself sometimes wondered about the depth of
Dean's emotion. Long after their
friendship ended, he vividly recalled coming home one evening and finding Jimmy
sitting in their bedroom crying. When
he asked what was the matter, Dean said cryptically:
"I can't love and I can't be loved."
But Rogers maintained their sex life was not
one-sided. In an interview in the
1970s, he said he believed their physical relationship had been mutually
A brilliant stage director, Brackett had had the
first Equity company in California, and he began to coach Dean in plays and
readings. They rehearsed Hamlet on
the grand staircase of the Sunset Plaza, overlooking the pool.
"Elsinor with room service," Rogers
Then, for contrast, Dean would recite some poems by
James Whitcomb Riley he had learned as a boy.
"Little Orphant Annie was quite one of his favorites,"
Brackett remembered. "It was
very funny and very touching......"
As the war in Korea heated up and Uncle Sam needed
soldiers, Dean was called for induction. Deploring that and any other war,
Brackett advised Dean to get out of the draft.
"Better the funeral pyre in his Porsche than
Korea," Brackett later said. "With
his quasi-jock predilections he'd never have made it back... I feel."
Through a doctor friend, Brackett set up an
appointment with a psychiatrist for Dean. After
a viable number of sessions, the shrink came up with a document "that
cooled the draft board." Years later, in 1974, Rogers wrote frankly in a
"As Jimmy was 'living' with me, there was no question
that his unsuitability for military service was valid, or so they were led to
believe. It's one thing in the
relationship he never regretted." When Dean saw Bellah and broke the news
of his deferment, he told him, "I kissed the doctor."
Dean's contact with his family had been minimal
since leaving UCLA. When he and
Rogers visited them in their home in the Valley to pick up some clothes, Dean
discovered that to earn extra cash his father was raising chinchillas in a spare
bedroom. Rogers thought the scene
was something out of The Day of the Locust.
Conversation was strained all the way around.
Along with David Wayne, the actor, and his wife,
Dean and Rogers went to Tijuana for a weekend to see a bullfight, first staying
overnight in Laguna. Another time,
Dean traveled with Brackett to Mexicali where they saw the matador Arruza in the
ring. In Mexicali, Jimmy met Budd
Boetticher, a movie director and bullfight aficionado who had served as
technical adviser for the film Blood and Sand. Boetticher gave Dean a blood'stained cape that had once
belonged to Sidney Franklin, the Brooklyn-bred matador who had achieved fame in
the rings of Spain and about whom Hemingway had written. The cape became Dean's
prize possession and, thereafter, wherever he traveled, the cape traveled with
Because of Brackett's many friends in the movie
business, Jimmy easily found work as an extra.
He made his film debut in Paramount's Sailor Beware, a Dean
Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy. In a
boxing sequence, Dean acted as a second for Jerry Lewis's opponent.
A white towel draped around his neck, Dean spoke his first words on the
"That guy's a professional."
He next appeared in a Korean War movie, Fixed
Bayonets, starring Richard Basehart, and directed by Samuel Fuller, a friend
of Brackett's. Again, Dean had one
line of dialogue:
"It could be the rear guard coming back."
"What a part!" he later said.
At Universal-International he had two days' work
playing a teenager in another comedy, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, starring
Rock Hudson and Piper Laurie. In
the film, Dean comes into an ice cream parlor and orders an elaborate ice cream
sundae. The counterman, played by
Charles Coburn, asks him to come back the next day for a fitting.
Dean described the film as "family-type" entertainment.
It was not until years later, when the film was shown on
television, that Piper Laurie learned she had once made a movie with James Dean.
Not all of Brackett's friends liked Dean, however,
or were anxious to advance his career. A
meeting Rogers arranged with Leonard Spiegelgass, a story editor at MGM and an
important man in the studio hierarchy, ended in disaster when Spiegelgass
ordered Dean from his house.
"His manners were terrible," Spiegelgass
said. "He flicked ashes on the
rug and behaved like an animal. The
boy was absolute poison."
Spiegelgass warned Brackett that he was
"ruining his reputation" by pushing Dean so hard, but Brackett paid
At the Zuma Beach home of George Bradshaw, the short
story writer, Dean accidentally set fire to one of Bradshaw's favorite armchairs
and Brackett had to pay for its repair.
"Jimmy was like a child," Brackett said.
"He behaved badly just to get attention." But he added,
"He was a kid I loved, sometimes parentally, sometimes not
Like a child, too, Dean seemed to be forever testing
the affection of those closest to him.
"The only way he could be sure you really loved
him," another friend, Stewart Stern, later said, "was if you loved him
when he was truly at his worst."
By the fall Dean was becoming slightly bored with
the life he was leading. He sought
out his old friend Bill Bast, whom he had hardly seen since the penthouse fiasco
in midsummer. Bast was now working
as a pageboy on several shows at CBS and preparing to start his senior year at
"You know," Dean confided to him, "it gets sickening. The other day we were sitting at
in Jimmy's mind
the pool and I made a bet with Rogers that the names
of La Rue or the Mocambo would be dropped at least fifteen times within the next
hour. We kept count and I won.
What a pile of..."
As always, whatever the state of his personal life,
Dean's career was foremost in his mind, and he again was worried about his
future as an actor.
"A guy could go on knocking his brains out, getting
nothing but bit parts for years," he told Bast over a bowl of chili at
Barney's Beanery. "There's got
to be more."
To another struggling actor, Dean confessed the same
"They'll never give me a real chance out
here," he said. "I'm not
the bobby-sox type, and I'm not the romantic leading-man type either.
Can you imagine me making love to Lana Turner?"
Although he was attending James Whitmore's class
less regularly, his respect for the actor remained as great as ever.
When Whitmore took him aside after class one evening and spoke to him
sharply, Dean listened.
"Stop dissipating your energy and talent,"
Whitmore urged. He told him to
"quit just hanging around Hollywood" and go to New York where he would
be able to study and master his craft. "Learn to be an actor.
It doesn't take anything if all you want to be is just another ham."
Later, in press interviews with Hedda Hopper and
others, Dean would credit Whitmore with stimulating his interest in serious
acting and encouraging him to go to New York.
Although Whitmore no doubt did influence him, Dean never publicly
mentioned his real mentor, Rogers Brackett, or ac?knowledged the help Brackett
had generously given. But if Dean
had any lingering doubts about leaving, they were dispelled when Rogers was
called to Chicago, the home office of Foote, Cone, & Belding, on an
important assignment. Eventually,
Brackett hoped to be transferred to New York, but he had no idea how many months
he might have to remain in Chicago. For
the third time in three short months Dean was about to literally lose the roof
over his head. It proved to be too
"I can't stomach this dung hole anymore,"
he told Bast with finality after a late-night talk session.
Several days later, when Bast returned to his apartment after work, he found a message the landlady had left:
"Mr. Dean called.
Gone to New York." ##
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN SIXTY-TWO
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS
Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ