(Copyright 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)

A Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
(Copyright 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)


BACK IN HOLLYWOOD, Dean found himself a celebrity almost overnight.

East of Eden had opened to great critical acclaim, with reviewers seemingly trying to outdo each other in praising Dean's performance.  Writing at length in the New York Herald Tribune, William K. Zinnser called Dean's acting "remarkable," claiming:

"Everything about Dean suggests the lonely misunderstood nineteen-year-old .... When he talks, he stammers and pauses, uncertain of what he is trying to say.  When he listens, he is full of restless energy---he stretches, he rolls on the ground, he chins himself on the porch railing, like a small boy impatient of his elder's chatter... He has all the awkwardness of an adolescent who must ask a few tremendous questions and can only blurt them out crudely... You sense the badness in him, but you also like him."

Another reviewer, Kate Cameron of the Daily News, was more succinct: "When the last scene faded from the Astor Theater screen last night a new star appeared... James Dean."

As Eden opened at other first-run theaters across the country, more praise followed.  Herb Lyon of the Chicago Tribune credited Dean with turning in "the performance of the year." There was a rave review in Time, and Newsweek profiled the young actor in its March 7, 1955, issue.

John Steinbeck, who had initially been unhappy with Kazan's decision to use only the latter part of the novel and had absented himself in Europe during the filming, now called East of Eden "probably the best motion picture I have ever seen."

By late March, Eden had broken into Variety's list of the ten top-grossing films in the country, and soon it was number one.  In several cities it set new box-office records.

But despite his newfound fame, James Dean was determined not to become part of the Hollywood scene.  In many ways he had never quite gotten over his bitterness at not taking Hollywood by storm after leaving UCLA, and now he was out to get revenge.

"They gave me a lot of guff out here last time," he had told Bill Bast some months earlier.  "They're not going to do it again.  This time I'm going to make sure of it."

"Jimmy didn't go back to Hollywood with a chip on his shoulder," another friend, Vivian Coleman, once said.  "It was a boulder."

In public, Dean appeared rude and distant, sometimes deliberately so.  He carried around toy automobiles and played with them during interviews while sprawled on the floor.

"You're getting a lot of good publicity these days, all about your wonderful performance in East of Eden," a young actress told him admiringly.  Dean replied: "Most of it is a bunch of shit."

But whatever his outward pose, Jimmy was not oblivious to his fame.  Sometimes he would slip down to the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and stare at his name in lights on the marquee.

At the studio, Dean's behavior became nearly scandalous.  He refused to cooperate any further on publicity for East Of Eden, and began giving out statements saying that acting was not the "be-all end-all" of his existence.  Sports car racing was his new passion, he now proclaimed.  He bought a four-thousand-dollar Porsche Speedster and let it be known he planned to enter it in local meets.

There was never a dull moment.  Lunchtime in the studio commissary could turn into a one-man show, with Dean clowning and banging on the table or sticking a cracker in his eye while eating.

"He'd do anything to attract attention," a studio executive said.  On one occasion, Dean tore his picture off the wall of the commissary, claiming he didn't want it there; another time he was seen shirtless, eating alone at a table.  As if to see how far he could go, he kept a revolver in his dressing room.  "We could see then we had a problem on our hands," a Warner executive said simply.  The gun was quietly confiscated by the nervous studio.

Dean's conduct aroused much unfavorable attention in the film colony.  Hollywood, of course, had always been a split society.  On the surface, there was the shimmering image that bewitched the public: the land of beauty, romance, and glam?our reflected on the screen.  Underneath, there was the dark side, the city of sin and power.  Actors and actresses were expected to maintain the image.  Public misbehavior was frowned on.  One fan magazine bluntly criticized Dean for his "harebrained refusal to recognize the responsibilities that go hand in hand with being a star." In short, newcomers like James Dean and Marlon Brando mocked the golden myth and enraged the guardians of tinseltown.

Hollywood columnists characterized Dean as being everything from "uncouth" to "a bit mad." One wag suggested Warners enroll him in a Dale Carnegie charm course, and a magazine editor told a photographer who had done a story on Dean, "I like the pictures, but I can't stand the subject."

Jimmy ignored his detractors.  "I came to Hollywood to act, not to charm society," he said, and maintained, "the objective artist has always been misunderstood." He told Bob Thomas of the Associated Press: "I probably should have a press agent, but I don't care what people write about me.  I'll talk to [reporters] I like; the others can print whatever they please."

The studio, however, was not averse to cashing in on---even promoting---Dean's offbeat image.  One Warners press release noted Dean's interest in Aztec culture and bullfighting.  Written by the talented Ted Ashton, the release had Jimmy saying, "A neurotic person has the necessity to

Dean described his one-room apartment as 'a wastepaper basket with walls'

express himself and my neuroticism manifests itself in the dramatic.  Why do most act?  To express fantasies in which they have involved themselves." To a new generation of teenagers, attuned to the hip and avant-garde, this jargon was music to the ears.

Since moving out of his studio dressing room, Dean had been living in a one-room apartment above a garage on Sunset Strip, about a block and a half from Schwab's drugstore.  The small apartment was in such disarray that Dean christened it "a wastepaper basket with walls." Friends said they needed a compass to navigate across it, and one bewildered visitor claimed stepping inside was "like arriving at the scene of a hurricane."

In the evenings, Dean could usually be found at the Hamburger Hamlet, located at 8931 Sunset Boulevard, or at its next-door neighbor, Googie's, a low-price restaurant that was frequented by young actors.  Like Dean, Googie's had a personality all its own. With its zigzaggy roof and bright decor, it epitomized a style known as Coffeeshop Modern---one of the all-night oases that dotted the Southern California landscape in the 1950s.  Dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket, Dean slumped in a booth in the rear, surrounded by a faithful group of friends.  "He was like the maypole, and they were all tied to him," Sidney Skolsky claimed.  Since even a few beers made him woozy, Dean drank cup after cup of coffee and chain-smoked (Chesterfields) through the night.

"Regardless of how much money he was making, he'd only pay for his own coffee," a crony recalled. "No tax, no tip, and no treating.  He was a miser and he hung onto [his] money."

Among the regulars in the group, known as the Night Watch, was an attractive brunette actress named Mila Nurmi.  A former exotic dancer and bit player, the lady had a flair for self?promotion that rivaled, and sometimes surpassed, Dean's own.  Under the name Vampira she had become well known playing Charles Addams-like characters on a local television show.

One writer called her "the ghoul who gave people right in their own homes their daily creeps." Dean explained their friend'ship by saying, "I have a fairly adequate knowledge of satanic forces and I was interested to find out if this girl was obsessed with such a force." Vampira put their mutual interests more simply: "We have the same neuroses," she explained.

They had a weird, even macabre, relationship.  At their first meeting, Dean took her to his apartment and gave her a Ray Bradbury story to read about a boy who had hanged himself in a garage.  When he visited her house, he would climb in through the window.  Once he cut up a studio publicity shot of himself, made a montage out of its eyes and ears, and pinned it on her wall as a calling card. (In 1959, Miss Nurmi finally went on to star in a movie, Plan 9 From Outer Space.  The film garnered a cult following of its own---sometimes respectfully referred to as "the worst movie ever made.")

Stories of Dean's eccentricities began to abound, adding to the growing legend.  One evening while dining at the house of actress Terry Moore, Dean put his plate on the floor and began eating "like a cat." This startled Miss Moore, a good Mormon girl, who lived with her mother.  On another date, he shocked Terry by undoing his fly.

Another pretty girl recounted to writer Kathryn Tate her own unusual encounter with James Dean: "I was having a soda at Googie's one evening," the young girl said.  'Jimmy came in and sat down next to me.  I didn't know him personally and he didn't know me.  He said, 'Hi,' and started drumming on the counter with the palms of his hands.  He didn't say anything else until I finished my soda and got up.  'I'd like to see you again sometime,' he then said.  'Can I call you or come visit you?' Frankly, I was intrigued, and gave him my telephone number and address.

"Twenty minutes later, my doorbell rang.  I opened the door and there was Jimmy.  He'd brought his bongo drums.  He came in, sat down, started playing, and didn't stop for almost three hours.  During all that time, we hardly exchanged a word.  When he finished, he picked himself up as abruptly as he'd come and left.  I never saw him again."

Fortunately, not everything Dean did got into print.  One favorite pastime was to get together with a friend from Googie's and go around West Hollywood, trying doors until they found one that was unlocked.  If no one was home, they would enter the house, make themselves coffee and fix a sandwich, eat, and then depart, leaving behind a neat stack of dishes in the sink.

Inevitably, Dean's offbeat behavior, as well as some of his mannerisms as an actor, invited comparison with another Kazan prot?g?, Marlon Brando.  "The best way to describe Jimmy Dean quickly," columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote, "is to say he is Marlon Brando seven years ago." One fan magazine even ran a story called "The Boy Who'd Like to Be Brando."

Of all the criticisms hurled against him, being labeled a Brando imitator disturbed Dean the most---perhaps because there was some truth in it.  Ever since his early days in New York, Dean had admired Brando and had gotten to know him casually at the Actors Studio, and later at parties they both attended.  New York friends recall the zeal with which Dean would rehearse scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire, the great Tennessee Williams play that had made Brando a star.  In fact, this imitation had carried over to some of Dean's early television work.  In reviewing Death Is My Neighbor, Variety's critic had noted, "Dean's performance was in many ways reminiscent of Marlon Brando in Streetcar, but he gave his role the individuality and nuances of its own which it required." Christine White, who was a friend of both Dean and Brando, claimed, "It was a coincidence of nature that they were from the same mold." Nevertheless, Chris remembered that in his New York apartment, amid piles of laundry, Jimmy had a picture of Brando.

The Master, however, was not appreciative.  After meeting Dean at a party in New York, he told actress Barbra Baxley,"You better get him to a doctor, he's very sick." When East Of Eden was released, Brando publicly attacked his young admirer, accusing him of "wearing my last year's wardrobe and using my last year's talents in the movie."

Such comments stung Dean, although he tried not to show it. "When a new actor comes along, he's always compared to someone else," he told Bob Thomas of the Associated Press.  "Brando was compared to Clift, Clift to someone else, Barrymore to Booth, and so forth.... I can only do the best job I can, the realist acting.  They can compare me to W C. Fields if they want to."

But when the comparisons between him and Brando continued, Dean's responses grew icier and more in character.  "I was riding a motorcycle long before I heard of Mr. Brando," he pointedly informed one reporter.  Newsweek reported him as saying: "People were telling me I behaved like Brando before I knew who Brando was.  I am neither disturbed by the comparison, nor am I flattered by it.  I have my own personal rebellions and don't have to rely on Brando's." On another occasion, Dean announced: "Within myself are expressions just as valid.... And I'll have a few years to develop my own?--what shall I say?---style."

The studio was equally eager for Dean to develop his style, and was ready to give him the opportunity.  He was awarded a new contract calling for nine pictures over a six-year period, with the guarantee he would receive a minimum of fifteen thousand dollars per picture.  The year 1956 was to be open for him to do a Broadway play, and he was free to do any TV work.  "I don't have story approval, according to the contract," Dean told Lawrence Boyd of Motion Picture magazine.  "But emotionally I certainly do.  They can always suspend me, for money isn't one of my worries."

Once the new contract was finalized, Dean was assigned to Rebel Without a Cause, which had long been rumored as his next vehicle.

Although preliminary work had been underway on the picture for almost six months, director Nicholas Ray had already had his share of production difficulties.  Two early story treatments, including one by Ray himself, had proved unsatisfactory, and he was still without a workable screenplay.  Moreover, there were rumblings from the Breen office that any frank treatment of juvenile delinquency might result in denial of a production code seal.  At Warners, one or two front-office executives were privately leery about the whole project; some on the lot doubted the film would ever be made.  One enterprising technician had even made a sizable bet to that effect.

But Ray was determined to move forward.

A talented, though mercurial, man, then in his early forties, Ray had been educated at the University of Chicago and had had a checkered career before finding a niche as a Hollywood director.  He had been at different times a radio script writer, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's, and a Broadway director before Elia Kazan hired him and took him to Hollywood as his assistant.

Since leaving Kazan, Ray had made a number of notable films of his own, including They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, and Knock on Any Door, the last based on Willard Motley's best-selling novel about an adolescent who drifts into crime as a result of poverty.  "The protagonist in a Ray film may not have created his torment," writer George Morris once noted, "but he is usually responsible for perpetuating it." To admirers like Morris, Ray was a cinema "poet of anguish and despair."

Not wanting to repeat himself, Ray decided to approach the subject of juvenile delinquency from a different angle, focusing upon middle-class youths whose feelings of isolation and aimlessness placed them at odds with their families and the society around them.  It was a theme that was to strike an immediately responsive chord with youthful filmgoers everywhere; bobby socks and penny loafers would quickly give way to the era of blue denim and leatherjackets.

To successfully work with Dean, Ray sensed he needed to create "a special kind of climate.  He needed reassurance, tolerance, and understanding," the director later wrote.  "I leveled with him all the time and made him feel a part of the entire project.  He wanted to belong and I made him feel that he did."

Hoping to win Dean's confidence, Ray often invited him to drop by his house on Sunday afternoons to meet his friends and talk.  Ray was then living in a small cottage at the Chateau Marmont, and these gatherings included friends like Joe Pasternak, the producer, and screenwriter Joan Harrison, who was Alfred Hitchcock's assistant.  "It was exploratory on both sides," Ray said.  "Was he going to like my friends, would he find their climate encouraging?  Both of us had to know."

One Sunday, after the others had left, Dean found himself face to face across an empty room with Clifford Odets.

"I'm a son of a bitch," Dean said quietly.  Odets asked why.  "Well," Dean explained, "here I am in this room.  With you.  It's fantastic.  Like meeting Ibsen or Shaw."

Odets afterward remembered this as one of the most charming remarks ever addressed to him.

Another afternoon, Dean met Irving Shulman, who was then working on the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause.  Shulman had recently replaced Leon Uris, a contract writer, who had dropped out of the project after contributing some valuable research.  He and Ray had visited juvenile Hall together and had interviewed social workers, psychiatrists and juvenile offenders to search for ideas.  In interviewing youths, Ray had found the focal point for his movie.

"All told similar stories," he later recounted in Sight and Sound, "divorced parents, parents who could not guide or understand, who were indifferent or simply 'criticized,' parents who needed a scapegoat in the family." In 1976, Ray told writer Susan Braudy: "That movie is about a kid who wants to have one day that is not confused."

Reworking the script, Schulman had already made one valuable contribution, the so-called "chickie run" scene, which was based on a newspaper story the author read.  According to the

Screenwriter Irving Shulman was put off by Dean's ownership of a German-made racing car

story, a group of teenagers had assembled in stolen cars on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Drivers were to race each other toward the edge, and the first to jump from the car before it went over was a "chickie." On this particular night one of the teenagers failed to jump.

Knowing Shulman was a sports car buff, Ray hoped an immediate rapport would be forthcoming between him and the young actor.  The result, however, was disappointing.  Dean was dismayed to discover that Shulman's car, an MG, lacked special carburetors for racing and did not have real wire wheels.  For his own part, Shulman felt it was "still a little too close to World War II" to appreciate Dean's German-made Porsche.  Jimmy typically showed his disapproval by turning away and avoiding further conversation.

Not long after, Shulman dropped from the project to work on a novel; his place was taken by a younger writer named Stewart Stern, who wrote the tender teenage love scenes between Jim and Judy, the two main characters, giving the film an almost lyrical overtone.

In the press there was lively speculation as to who would co-star opposite James Dean.  Hedda Hopper reported that both Debbie Reynolds and Lori Nelson were under consideration, and another young actress, a comely alumna of Southern Methodist University named Jayne Mansfield, also had tested for the role.

Dean's choice was Christine White, his old friend from the Actors Studio, but ultimately the part went to Natalie Wood, with whom Dean had also worked and liked.  A one-time child actress, Natalie was even then only sixteen.

Another former child actor, Sal Mineo, was cast as Plato, the lonely, neurotic youngster whom Dean befriends in the movie.  Dean had wanted Jack Simmons, one of the crowd at Googie's, but the studio wouldn't go along.  Simmons, in fact, was a close friend who sometimes shared Jimmy's apartment and often followed him around.  But when Dean told Simmons of the company's decision, it appeared he was looking out for number one.  "I'm under contract with Warners," he said, "and I can't raise too much hell with them."

After meeting Mineo at Ray's apartment, Dean liked him and gave his approval.  Mineo revered Dean's memory, but regretted that, because of their age gap, they never became close friends away from the set.  Over the years, Sal recalled hearing rumors that Natalie and Dean, or even he and Jimmy, were lovers.  Mineo maintained there was no truth to these stories.  Still, he always admired Dean.  "He was the first rebel," Mineo later said.  "He was the first guy to ask, Why?  Why?"

In choosing the rest of the cast, Ray also did his best to select actors Dean felt comfortable with.

Nick Adams, a friend from Dean's early days in Hollywood, was signed to play a young gang member, as was Dennis Hopper, an eighteen-year-old actor whom the studio had first spotted playing an epileptic on the television show Medic and awarded a contract.  He played a gang member named Goon.

Jack Simmons was given a bit part, and Dennis Stock, still another member in good standing of the Dean entourage, became dialogue coach.

Among the "nonclub" members Ray chose were Ann Doran and Jim Backus, who played Dean's parents.  Rochelle Hudson was cast as Natalie's mother, and Bill Hopper, Hedda's son, played the father.  Marietta Carty, the noted character actress, played a black housekeeper and Mineo's surrogate mother.

By the middle of March, casting was completed and shooting on the movie was scheduled to start at the end of the month.

Before beginning work on the picture, however, Dean planned to enter his first sports car race, an event he had long looked forward to.  The meet, to be held in Palm Springs, was sponsored by the California Sports Car Club, an association of amateur and professional drivers.

When the studio got wind of Dean's plans, there was some apprehension in the front office, but director Ray was unalarmed.  "I encouraged his racing," he later said.  "I felt it was good for Jimmy to do something on his own with clarity and precision."

The weekend of the race, Dean drove to Palm Springs, companied by Lili Kardell, a lovely Swedish-born actress whom he had been dating.  They planned to stay in a small house in the desert, owned by Dick Clayton, Dean's agent, who was also going to be there with his date. (After Dean's death, Clayton, like Jane Deacy, refused to give interviews about his famous client.  Director James Sheldon believed the reason was that neither wanted to answer the inevitable question about Dean's relationship with Rogers Brackett.)

The morning of the race was hot, without so much as a light breeze to stir the desert air.  A field of nineteen cars was entered in the competition, a rugged six-lap race over a 2.3-mile circuit set up along the concrete runways of the Palm Springs airport.

Dressed in black racing coveralls and wearing a checkered cap, Dean was in high spirits waiting for the event to begin.  "Racing," he would later say, "is the only time I feel whole."

Dean's starting position, drawn by lot, was in the fourth row back, virtually buried behind the rest of the pack.  But as the flag fell, Dean jammed his right foot down on the gas pedal and roared away to a perfect Texas start, "stampeding" past a number of other cars by cutting wide around the outside.

"No one expected Dean to go like he did," observed Wilson Springer, a Los Angeles sports car enthusiast.  "He went out and left everyone.  He was really blasting... going like a bomb."

At the first quarter mile Dean had maneuvered his car into fifth place, and before the first lap ended he had taken the lead.  On the long back straightaway Dean was clocked at a hundred miles an hour, the top limit the Porsche could go.

For the remaining five laps Dean easily held the lead, finally taking the checkered flag with almost a full quarter lap separating him and the runner-up.

"He was a lead foot, hard on engines, but he wasn't afraid of the devil," claims author William Nolan, who was there that day.  "Even while charging through the pack, he kept his head sort of slumped down toward his chest and his face was expressionless.  You'd think he was out for a Sunday ride.  Some drivers frowned, gritted teeth, etc.  But not Jimmy.  He was totally cool at speed."

In ceremonies following the race, Dean was awarded a handsome silver trophy.

"At first we had thought he was just some Hollywood character out for cheap publicity, but he earned our respect," another driver conceded.  "He proved himself one helluva fine driver."

Boosted by his victory, Dean entered another event, a twenty-seven-lap race, open only to professional drivers, and held the next day.

Racing in a much tougher field of competition, Dean finished third behind two top veteran drivers, Ken Miles and Cy Yedor.  For his performance, Dean won two more silver trophies: one for his overall third-place finish, and another for taking second in his particular class (cars from 1,100 to 1,500 cc.).

In this race, however, Dean's daredevil "lan drew sharp reproach from other drivers.  "His skill was a dangerous one," a fellow competitor said.  "The kind that comes from a desperate desire to win.  He was a menace to himself and other drivers.  He would take any kind of chance to be first."

And Ken Miles, an Englishman who was later killed racing at Riverside, summed up Dean's driving this way: "Jimmy wanted speed.  He wanted his body to hurdle across the ground, the faster the better.  Jimmy was a straightaway driver.  His track was the shortest distance between here and there."

But, the race completed and trophies in hand, Dean had other things to think about than the carping of drivers he had handily battled on the track.

That night he had to be back in Hollywood.  The next day, Monday, March 28, he had an early date at the studio; shooting on Rebel Without a Cause was set to begin.  ##



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