COLUMN SIXTY-SEVEN, JANUARY 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
DURING BILL BAST'S first week in New York, Dean gave him what amounted
to an orientation program. He took
him on his acting rounds, showed him the sights of the city, and introduced
him to people.
Bast was struck by the poise and self-assurance Dean
had acquired; no longer was he the frightened young man, unsure of his future
that Bast remembered. He now seemed
confident and more determined, and Bast could feel it.
"I've discovered a whole new world here,"
Dean told him, "A whole new way of thinking.... This town's the end.
It's talent that counts here. You've
got to stay with it or get lost. I
Because of his past experiences, Bast easily found a
job with CBS, working in the communications department.
He had already given up the idea of becoming an actor and, instead, hoped
to write, either novels or short stories. Until
he became more firmly settled, he took a room at the Iroquois.
Dizzy was offered a job in stock in Ocean City, New
Jersey, as an assistant choreographer, and decided to take it.
Dean left Brackett's apartment and moved in with Bast.
Jimmy now decided to do something he had long
planned on: audition for the Actors Studio, the famed workshop conducted by Lee
Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Dean had
first heard of the school through James Whitmore, who encouraged him to seek
admittance, but until now, he had not felt he was ready.
Then at the height of its prestige, the Studio had
helped train such actors as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Geraldine Page, and
Ben Gazzara. It had a mystique that
no other acting school would ever equal. As
one observer put it, the Studio served as "a home, a school," and a
"psychoanalytic couch" all rolled into one.
For his audition Dean decided to team up with
Christine White, a young actress who was also a client of Jane Deacy's.
Jimmy met her one afternoon when he stopped by the office.
In fact, Archer King had encouraged him to hang out at the place as much
as he liked "since he was less apt to get in trouble."
Blonde and petite, Chris was from Washington, D.C.,
and had studied English literature at the University of North Carolina.
She was then sharing a cramped apartment on 92nd Street and Madison
Avenue with several college friends.
Before coming to New York, Chris had acted in summer
stock on Cape Cod, and she had arrived in the city only a few weeks earlier.
She had come by seaplane, a fact that intrigued Dean immediately.
"Jimmy was an impulsive, immediate
creature," remembers Chris, who later won acclaim in A Hat Full of Rain
on Broadway. "He could look at
a delicatessen window and suddenly start waving at a bowl of prunes like they
were alive. He was childish in a
The scene they chose was one that Chris had written.
It ran for seven pages and involved an encounter on a beach between an
intellectual drifter and an aristocratic Southern girl.
In order to get the proper outdoors feeling, Dean
insisted they rehearse in the open, either in Central Park or on the sunroof of
Chris's apartment building.
Over a period of several months they shaped and molded the scene. Whenever inspiration
see a thing
without his glasses
struck, Jimmy jotted down notes or comments on the
original typescript until, according to Chris, it "resembled an instruction
sheet on how to make a sofa."
They tried out the scene in front of Bast and
Chris's roommates, and to get the reactions of others Jimmy would stop strangers
in the park and ask them to watch.
Despite their preparation, on audition day Dean was
understandably nervous. They had
brought along a bottle of beer as a prop, but in his excitement Dean drank the
bottle and had to run out for another.
Finally their turn came. As the scene opened, Dean was supposed to be gazing at the
stars, speculating about a coming hurricane.
"Well," Chris remembers, 'Jimmy couldn't
see a thing without his glasses. He
couldn't even find center stage. And
he couldn't even find me when I made my entrance.
But every line came out clear."
Usually Studio auditions are limited to five
minutes, at the end of which time the judges ring a bell.
But when Chris and Dean ran several minutes over the allotted time, they
were not interrupted. Strasberg found the simple scene "natural and very
believable." Dean made "a wonderful impression" on him.
Out of the 150 who auditioned only fifteen were
accepted; both Dean and Christine White were among them.
At twenty-one, Jimmy was one of the youngest members ever to be
That night he elatedly took Chris to Jerry's for
dinner, and, as an encore, they did their scene for Jerry Lucce.
Encouraged by his achievement, Dean got to work at
once on Studio projects. He and
Chris improvised a scene about a young married couple planning a trip; as they
looked over a map, their chatter revealed their relationship.
Jimmy had recently read and liked a novel by Barnaby
Conrad, Matador, and decided to dramatize a chapter from it.
The book is about an aging matador whose pride forces him to accept a
challenge from a young rival even though it means almost certain death.
Dean wanted to convey the man's emotions as he
prepares for the final fight. The
acting was to be an internal monologue, done without words, and using only a few
props: a statue of the Virgin, a candle, and the matador cape.
Once again, Dean worked hard to get his work ready.
"When he prepared an acting job," Bast
said, "he put his heart and soul into it."
The performance was done in front of a full session
of the Studio, presided over by Lee Strasberg.
A small, catlike man, Strasberg was then already a
living legend, known as the founder of the so-called Method school of acting,
based on the theories of the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski.
According to the Method, actors were encouraged to draw on their own
past experiences to project themselves emotionally in a role.
As a teacher, Strasberg's criticisms were often
sharp and abrasive, his manner rather formal.
Students called him "the Archbishop." Some at the Studio
compared his technique of taking apart an actor's performance to that of a
surgeon cutting away bad tissue; others said the whole process was more like
being raked over hot coals.
Always sensitive to criticism, Dean was not ready
for the sharp critique Strasberg launched into. "What are you trying to show us?" the director
asked, telling Dean that he had performed "an exercise---not a
scene." Supposedly Eli Wallach and Marilyn Monroe were in the audience.
Dean was very embarrassed. As
Chris White recalled, "Jimmy's face turned ashen," and when Strasberg
finished speaking, Dean threw his bullfight cape over his shoulder and walked
out without saying a word.
"I don't know what's inside of me," he
told Bill Bast. "I don't know
what happens when I act.... But if I let them dissect me like a rabbit in a
laboratory I might not be able to produce again.
"That man had no right to tear me down like
that. You keep knocking a guy down
like that and you take the guts away from him.
And what's an actor without guts?"
Angered and hurt, for a long time Dean swore he
would never return to the Studio.
As summer crept upon the city, so did the annual
show business hiatus, the time when television programs went off the air and
theaters closed their doors, leaving actors to sweat out the muggy New York
In July the Hallmark show suspended its programming
until the fall, and Dean's sinecure came to an abrupt end.
"Like a variation on an old theme," Bast
wrote, "money soon became a major problem again. It was a common occurrence for us to divide the sixty or
seventy cents we might have between us to buy a slim dinner at the
Automat." Lunch, he added, became a "forgotten social pastime."
At loose ends, with no prospect of work in sight,
Jimmy seemed unable to orient himself. He
drifted along, sleeping late, rarely leaving his hotel room before noon, and
then not to go very far. He would
sit for hours on the steps of the hotel barbershop, until Louis, the proprietor,
chased him for blocking the entrance. Alec Wilder, who lived down the block at the Algonquin,
recalled, "I don't know how many hundreds of times I'd come into the lobby
and find Dean sprawled on the bellboys' bench." After Dean's death, the
composer was unable to fathom the attention focused on the actor.
"He was a kid," Wilder said, "with a
kid's mind. He had no theories
about politics. He liked comfort.
He liked wine. He liked to tell jokes.
He just hung around."
One weekend Dizzy came into town for a visit.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, the movie Dean had done the summer
before, had opened at the Mayfair Theater, and he, Dizzy, and Bast went to see
it. When Dean came on screen, the
three of them stood up and cheered. Dizzy
convinced Jimmy to return to Ocean City with her, feeling the change might do
him good. Dean went, but after several days of hanging around the
sleepy resort he grew restless and was anxious to return to New York and try
again for work.
He auditioned without success for a lead in a
forthcoming television series, Life With Father, based on Clarence Day's
bestselling book about life in turn-of-the-century America.
He also tried to land the part of Curly in Oklahoma!, which Mike
Todd was planning to bring to the screen. For his audition, Dean chose the song, I Could Write a
His enthusiasm, however, was stronger than his
voice, and the Todd people passed him over.
At the casting office Dean met a young actor named Paul Newman, whom he
had seen at other auditions.
"We were like the Bobbsey twins," Newman
claimed. "Every place I went,
But, like Dean, Newman was not signed for the movie
In August, as summer reached its peak and the city
turned into a drab desert of concrete, another opportunity shimmered on the
horizon like an oasis, and with that strange combination of luck and guile
that had propelled him through life thus far, Dean was quick to reach for it.
He was offered a job as a deckhand aboard a yacht
chartered by Lemuel Ayers, a friend of Rogers Brackett.
A charming and talented Princeton graduate, Ayers was a well known set
designer and had co-produced Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate. He
was then preparing a new play for Broadway, See the Jaguar, by N. Richard
Although Ayers was part of the homosexual circle
that swirled around Brackett and his friends, the producer lived with his wife
and two children in an old Victorian house near Nyack, New York.
Brackett and Dean sometimes spent weekends there, where Jimmy enjoyed
himself entertaining Ayers's young children, Sarah and Jonathan.
Although Brackett had already suggested Dean for a
part in Ayers's new play, the producer felt he lacked experience.
But the job as deckhand was open.
Dean joined the crew and the sloop sailed for
Martha's Vineyard. Aboard were
Ayers, his wife, Shirley, and several guests.
The trip lasted almost two weeks; the first day out the weather was bad
and the sea turned rough. When the
sloop reached New London, several people, including Alec Wilder, decided to get
off and return by train. But Dean
stayed, enjoying himself, quickly learning about lines and spars, sheets and
shrouds---a farmboy turned deckhand. A
young Gatsby in the making.
By the time the sloop returned to port, Ayers had
been impressed enough by Dean to reconsider his earlier decision.
He promised that when See the Jaguar was cast, Dean would be given
a reading. Whether he got the part
would depend on how well he did.
Before Dean left for the trip, he and Bast had
decided to give up their hotel room. Apparently
unconcerned about where he would live when he returned---after all, Bast noted,
it “was a whole ten days off"---Dean left the problem of finding new
quarters to his friend. Around this
time, Jimmy briefly saw his old pal Jim Bellah.
When Bellah asked what he was up to, Dean replied casually:
"I've been a professional house guest on Fire
Island for the summer."
Bast found a temporary solution by moving in with an old girlfriend from UCLA, and Jimmy
It was as if they were back in the days of hansom cabs and horseless carriages, and Lillian Russell
joined them. Shortly after Labor Day, however, the girl's lease was up and
they were all forced to move again. Along
with Dizzy, who had returned to the city and was now working as an usher at the
Paris Theater, they found a small apartment at 13 West 89th Street in an old
brownstone right off Central Park.
The new apartment proved
something of an adventure at first. A
brick street ran in front of the building, and every evening they could hear the
sound of horses' hooves as the police cavalry returned to the stables down the
block. The whole atmosphere, Bast
wrote, suggested a quainter era, as though they were all back in the days of
hansom cabs and horseless carriages, and Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady
were the talk of the town.
As the weeks rolled by, Dean kept in touch with
Ayers's office, checking on the show's progress. Each time he called, though, Dean's disappointment grew:
Plans were lagging; problems had arisen that no one had counted on.
From Brackett, Dean learned the producer was having
problems rounding up potential backers. See
the Jaguar was Ayers's first dramatic venture, and investors were wary.
Furthermore, there were difficulties casting the show’s leads.
One actor was waiting to see if he might be signed for Arthur Miller's The
Crucible before committing himself to Ayers.
Privately, Brackett wondered if the show would get
off the ground, but he urged Dean to be patient.
At this time, too, Dean's newest living arrangements
were proving less than perfect.
"After the novelty wore off," Bast wrote,
"community living ceased to be an adventure and became a problem.... If we
weren't battling over the maze of bras, panties, and stockings that were making
access to the bathroom impossible, we were haggling over the unwashed dishes ...
the selection of radio programs, etc., etc."
One evening after a skimpy meal of chili and beans,
Dean announced he was going home to Indiana for a couple of weeks.
He was tired of the delays on the show and wanted time to think about his
future. He invited the others to go
"We'll hitchhike out there," he told them.
"It's only eight hundred miles."
Dizzy accepted at once, and after some persuasion
Bast decided to make the trip, too. Toni,
their other roommate, promised to phone CBS every day and tell them Bast was
With ten dollars to sustain them, and one battered
suitcase, the three took a bus the next morning to the New Jersey Turnpike and
By nightfall they found themselves still in
Pennsylvania, weary, hungry, and a long way from Fairmount.
After having ice cream at a small roadside place, they got a ride with a
man driving an old Nash Rambler. His
name was Clyde McCullough and he was a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
(McCullough later became a catching instructor for the New York Mets.) He was on
his way to Des Moines, Iowa, to play a game with a team that was barnstorming
across the country.
When they stopped for coffee, and McCullough
discovered his companions had hardly eaten, he insisted on buying them dinner.
They drove with him the rest of the way to Indiana,
passing the cold night singing and telling stories, Jimmy and Dizzy huddled in
the backseat to keep warm.
Just before dawn, they reached Fairmount and parted
on the highway, all good friends.
On the farm, the three quickly entered into a new
tempo and pace of life. They were
up and about bright and early. Dean
taught Dizzy how to shoot a rifle, using tin cans as targets.
At the first opportunity, Dean got his old motorcycle out of the workshed
and put on a daring exhibit of stunt riding.
"I'll never sell it," he told Bast.
"It's like a friend and brother to me. And friends are hard to find
in the theater."
The Winslows were glad to have Jimmy home and made
his two friends feel welcome. There
were clean, warm beds and plenty to eat, and every night after supper everyone
sat around talking.
"After all the years of seeing Jimmy alone and
without a family," Bast commented, "it was a wonderful thing to watch
him touch again the gentle roots of his early years. He was back in his element and he loved it."
"Someday when I make it," Dean vowed,
"I'm going to see to it that they sell this place and move to a drier
climate where Mom's arthritis won't bother her so much.
Someday they're going to have the kind of life they deserve, without all
the work and worry."
Dean revisited his high school and took Bast and
Dizzy around town, showing them his boyhood haunts. He and Dizzy also went horseback riding, enjoying the Indiana
countryside that had turned golden now in the early autumn.
"I wish everybody could have been with us in
Indiana," Dizzy later said, "and seen how good and simple Jimmy really
was. I can remember his love for
animals, how close he could get to them, and even the tender way he treated the
soil around the farm."
After a week, there was an unexpected phone call
from New York. It was Lemuel
Ayers's office, telling Dean Jaguar was finally set to go into production
and they wanted him to audition.
next morning, Dean and his two friends were driven by Uncle Marcus to the main
highway and started to thumb their way back.
All were silent and sorry to be leaving, but at least luck was with them: The first driver who stopped turned out to be going to New York. He was a wealthy oilman from Texas who suffered from ulcers. Every time they stopped for something to eat he would go outside and become violently ill. Finally Dean took the wheel, and as night fell, drove toward the city. ##
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN SIXTY-SEVEN
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