COLUMN FIFTY-EIGHT, APRIL 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(Copyright © 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)
JAMES BYRON DEAN was born in
Marion, Indiana, on February 8, 1931. The
delivery took place at home, in an apartment building known as the Green Gables,
on East 4th Street in downtown Marion. At
birth Dean weighed eight pounds, ten ounces.
The doctor's bill was fifteen dollars.
James Dean's father, Winton, was a
tall, thin dental technician who worked at the veteran's hospital in Marion.
The son of Charles Dean, a Quaker farmer and local auctioneer whose
forebears had come to Indiana from Kentucky in 1815, Winton was regarded as a
taciturn individual. Even after his
famous son's death, he was seldom interviewed.
An acquaintance once described Winton as possessing "the
characteristic Dean traits of softness, reticence, and a manner of speaking so
slowly and hesitantly that you wanted to prod him with a stick."
James Dean's mother, Mildred
Wilson, was the daughter of a Gas City, Indiana, factory worker. Her family were Methodists.
A short woman, pretty but a bit on the plump side, she had black eyes as
sharp and bright as a sparrow's. Around
Grant County it was rumored that the Wilsons were part Indian; as proof, people
pointed to Mildred's eyes. There
the evidence ended, but even years later when her son became famous as an actor,
someone who worked with him on Broadway dismissed his sometimes wild behavior
with the excuse, "He was part Indian, you know." Legends often die
Mildred Dean was a quiet and
sensitive young woman.
Among her neighbors she was
thought of as being somewhat distant, even a bit of a dreamer. "Mildred was never exactly sure what she wanted," a
friend in Marion once recalled. "If
she bought a new dress on Tuesday, nine times out of ten she'd return it to the
store on Wednesday."
Even as a girl Mildred had been
deeply interested in the arts, and after her marriage, music and books provided
a welcome diversion from the tedium of small-town life. She played the piano well and was fond of poetry.
When her son was born she gave him
the romanticsounding middle name Byron, after her favorite poet, Lord Byron,
the poor boy who became a dissolute lord and romantic legend.
When Dean was four, his father was
offered a post as a permanent staff member at the Sawtelle Veteran's
Administration Hospital in Los Angeles. After
talking it over with his wife, Winton accepted the job. The family moved to a five-room apartment at 814-B Sixth
Street in Santa Monica, and the following year Jimmy was enrolled in the
Westwood public school system.
Even though the Deans were a young
couple struggling to meet the expenses of their new household, Jimmy had all the
toys he wanted and, if anything, seemed to be spoiled beyond his parents' means.
"He had a large anxiety to do
many different things," his father later told a magazine writer.
"He had to try everything, and he soon outgrew most of the toys we
bought him. He always seemed to be
getting ahead of himself."
At his mother's insistence, Jimmy
was given violin lessons at a very early age.
There were also tap dancing classes, and these pursuits, coupled with the
fact that he was somewhat undersized for his years, set him apart from other
children. At school he had
difficulty making friends; his classmates ridiculed his musical studies and
teased him about his middle name. He
had his share of boyhood fights. Looking
back on his early childhood, Dean later chuckled: "I was anemic.
I was a goddamn child prodigy."
Mildred Dean never felt
comfortable in California. She
missed her family in Indiana and felt isolated in her new surroundings. To a friend visiting from home she confided that she would
like to return to the Midwest. "Everything's
so artificial here," she complained. "I
want my son to grow up where things are real and simple."
Although Mildred had been close to
her son before, life in California drew them even nearer. She read books to him and devised games that they played by
the hour. For one of their games
she built a cardboard theater, and using paper dolls as actors, they took turns
making up plays and stories. In her
spare time, Mildred also took a beauty course, hoping to supplement the family
Then, in May of 1940, shortly
before her thirtieth birthday, Mildred Dean developed severe chest pains and was
hospitalized; her condition was soon diagnosed as cancer.
Winton Dean's mother came from
Indiana to help out during the illness. Mildred's
chances of recovery were not good, and should the worst occur, Grandmother Dean
had come prepared with an offer to take young Jimmy back to Indiana to be raised
by relatives. She was in California
only seven weeks when Mildred died, on July 14, 1940.
Bereft, deep in doctor's bills
from his wife's illness, Winton Dean agreed with his mother to let Jimmy return
to Indiana with her. At the time,
he spoke hopefully of sending for his son as soon as he got back on his feet.
Eighteen months later, however, he was drafted into the Army, and
whatever plans he may have had were permanently shattered.
Many years later in Hollywood,
Dean blurted out in a famous interview with broadcaster Wally Atkinson, "My
mother died on me when I was nine years old.
What did she
The relatives who welcomed young
Jimmy into their home were the Winslows---Winton Dean's sister Ortense and her
husband Marcus. Honest,
hardworking, they lived on a farm just outside of Fairmount, a small town in
central Indiana with a population of twenty-seven hundred.
At the time Jimmy came to live
with the Winslows they had been married eighteen years and had a daughter, Joan,
fourteen. But they had always
wanted a son, too, and eagerly accepted Jimmy into their household.
They even gave up their own room and moved across the hall because he
liked their maple bedroom furniture.
The Winslow house still stands on
the edge of a 178-acre parcel of land. A
big white house built in 1904, it is situated on top of a small hill, and the
land gently rolls down to the farmyard with its white barns and sheds.
The farm has sheep, chickens, and pigs; there are some forty acres of
oats and long rows of corn. The
land here is fertile---the so-called black soil belt of Indiana---and the
Winslow's farm yielded a comfortable, though modest, existence.
"We're not rich, but we're not poor either," Grandma Dean said.
"So long as I live, I'll always have a porch to sit on, a rocking
chair to rock in, and a clock
In a short time, as the Winslows had hoped, Jimmy began to fit into the routine of farm life. Life on the farm was busy. There was livestock to feed and corn to plant before the rains came and the hard Midwestern winter set in. Young Jimmy was given his own chores to do: milking the cows and helping Marcus feed the livestock. It was not long, his cousin
thought he 'looked
too fair for a boy'
Joan recalled, before he was pestering everyone to teach him how to
In the summers there was swimming
in the Winslow pond, fishing for carp, and family picnics. Aunt Ortense was always near, ready to comfort her nephew.
When he cut his finger doing chores, it was Ortense who would tape it
gently. One neighbor thought he
"looked too fair for a boy," but his aunt glossed over the comment as
nothing more than prattle. Like
other farm boys, Jimmy joined the local 4 -H Club.
In the fall of 1946, he won a ribbon for a soil project he undertook.
To Uncle Marcus, Jimmy "was a
boy, just like any other boy, always chasing some sort of ball......" When
the large pond froze over, Jimmy learned to skate, and his uncle rigged up
electric lights so that Dean and his friends could play hockey at night.
On Sundays, the family attended Friends Back Creek Church.
Afterward, friends and neighbors would meet at each other's homes for
dinner. Before his death in 1976,
Marcus said of his nephew: "He was raised decent, but they say he was illmannered
and ill-bred.... I don't understand that." The boy he remembered used to
tag around him opening gates so he wouldn't have to get off his tractor.
Nevertheless, Jimmy got into his
fair share of mischief.
Looking back on those days, he
once said that he liked to
On one occasion, trying out a new stunt, Dean lost his four
Jimmy seemed to be a born mimic.
At school, with a little prodding from his friends, he could quickly do
imitations of various teachers; once, when Dean was in the middle of an
impersonation of the school's principal, the man happened by and overheard him.
Supposedly, he was so amused by the boy's talent that he failed to punish
him. Perhaps this is true.
At family gatherings Jimmy would
entertain everyone with his mimicry. His
family encouraged his talents and liked to speculate that perhaps he took after
his great-grandfather Dean, a well-known local auctioneer who was famous for his
ability to entertain a crowd while disposing of his wares.
When Jimmy was ten, his aunt asked
him to read for a medal at the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an
organization in which she was active.
Over the years, he won a number of
silver and gold medals for his dramatic readings before the WCTU, and Aunt
Ortense looked forward to the day when he would compete for the organization's
highest award, the pearl bar. "The
way they had things," Dean joked, "you could go to hell just for
stepping on a grape." But to satisfy his aunt he took part in the readings.
On the night of the competition
for the pearl bar, however, there was a track meet at school that Jimmy wanted
to attend instead. His aunt
insisted he read for the prize. Reluctantly,
Jimmy went to the hall and, when his turn came, got up before the audience.
He stood there several minutes, not saying a word, then walked off the
stage, to the embarrassment of his aunt. Afterward,
he said his mind had gone blank.
"I was sure then of what I
had known all along," Ortense said. "You
couldn't make James Dean do anything he didn't want to do."
For his thirteenth birthday, Jimmy's
guardians bought him a Whizzer, a small motorized bike.
With the help of his uncle, Dean learned to ride the machine and soon
handled it so well that he outgrew it. He
traded it for a small used motorcycle of Czech make.
"Start an Indiana boy with a jackknife," his grandmother
commented proudly, "and he'll end up swapping for a house and lot." By
the time Jimmy began high school, he had his own full-size motorcycle that he
raced on a local dirt
Marvin Carter's motorcycle shop
became a favorite hangout of jimmy's. Years
later, Carter still remembered the sudden way Dean would come into his shop,
slightly out of breath, and say, "There's something wrong with my cycle.
Can you fix it
If Carter told him no, Jimmy would
ride away. "You'd think he was
mad as the dickens," Carter added. "But
five minutes later he would be back again, calmed down.
'When can you fix
To Jimmy, waiting was a terrible
waste of time; nor was the ability to sit still ever counted among his virtues.
When he wasn't pestering Carter with endless questions about whatever
machine the mechanic was then working on, he would occupy himself entertaining
the other boys who usually crowded the shop.
One of them remembers that Dean liked to stand at an imaginary public
address system, pretending to call out a race.
"He'd get us all lined up," he recalls, "tell us what kind
of weather it was, who got the jump, who crashed at the first turn, whose
motorcycle was bursting into flames. Damned
if he didn't make it sound so real, I had to look twice to make sure I
To the citizens of Fairmount, Dean
soon became a familiar sight racing through town astride his machine.
"He sounded like a rocket," a store proprietor said.
"You could hear him coming three miles away." Dean delighted in
doing daredevil feats such as racing while lying flat on the saddle.
"If he'd only fallen once, things might have been different,"
his uncle later
Despite his seemingly outgoing
personality, Dean appeared to have few friends, and none that he was close to.
"Jimmy considered himself an outsider in town," observed Joe
Hyams, a writer who knew him in Hollywood, "and people in Fairmount quickly
regarded him as being different." Unlike most boys his age, commented Hyams,
Jimmy "spoke his mind when he felt like it, and he liked to be left
alone." Once Dean was expelled from school for fighting with another pupil,
Dave Fox. The boy had laughed during a dramatic reading Dean was
giving, and this led to a fight outside school.
Dean apologized and was reinstated the next day.
In appearance, Jimmy was thin and
on the wiry side; always small for his age, at his full height he stood only
five feet eight inches---a fact that studio biographers would always do their
best to improve upon. Extremely
nearsighted, he was forced to wear thick glasses.
"He was blind as a bat without them," an acquaintance said.
"I don't think Jimmy ever took them off, not even when he went to
Among his schoolmates, Dean bore
the added stigma of being virtually an orphan.
Although he had come to call Ortense "Mom," he was aware that,
unlike others at school, he did not live with his real parents.
Moreover, Dean's father rarely visited him, and the boy's sense of
desertion grew. Throughout his
life, he never won his father's approval. Friends
who saw them together in later years had an uncomfortable feeling that the
taciturn figure did not like his son. Whatever
its root, there was simply this distance between them.
Dean's great screen roles were to capture the poignancy of that
When Jimmy was fourteen, the Winslows had a son of their own, Marcus Jr., and suddenly
To win acceptance,
Jimmy was no longer
the center of attention in the household. Ortense
now had a baby to care
To win acceptance, Dean turned to
athletics. "I had to prove
myself back there," he once said. He
began a selfimposed regimen of workouts: running, lifting barbells, copying
exercises from a physical fitness book he had bought. In the Winslow barn his uncle had set up a basket, and Dean
spent hours alone practicing shooting and learning to dribble the ball.
His efforts paid off well:
Freshman year at Fairmount High School he made both the basketball and track
teams; by sophomore year he earned his letter in baseball as well, playing
around the infield.
On the basketball court he became
an outstanding player, making up for what he lacked in height with a quick,
aggressive style. He broke at least
a dozen pairs of glasses, his uncle claimed.
Opposing teams soon singled him out as the man to stop.
Although Dean won the respect of
his teammates, Coach Paul Weaver discovered the little guard required special
handling. "He wasn't too
coachable," Weaver said, a comment directors would echo in the future. "I had to be careful about changing his style of play,
and I soon learned not to embarrass him in front of other boys."
In 1948 Dean received his first
press notice, an item that appeared in the sports pages of the Fairmount News.
It called the junior guard "an outstanding threat on the high
school team," and mentioned he had "accumulated forty points in three
games." Dean's senior year the Fairmount Quakers reached the finals in the
sectional tourney, but, on February 26, 1949, lost to a tougher team from
Marion, 40-34. In a losing cause, Dean scored fifteen points, a high for
both teams. A quarter century
later, Coach Weaver remembered: "Like most athletes, he suffered with his
teammates the agony of defeat." But, the coach added, "As I recall,
personal performance was extremely important, win or lose."
Having grown bored running the high hurdles on the track team, in his senior year Dean decided to take up pole vaulting. Mastering this new challenge excited him. "Track," he liked to say, "gave me the sense of discipline I needed." It has always been part of Dean folklore that in his very first meet as a vaulter he broke the existing record for Grant County. But Paul Weaver, who also coached the track team, remembers no such event. The existing record, the coach recalls, was then about eleven feet, and jimmy's best effort was about ten feet six inches, "a good vault for a high school boy of that time and place." The coach later wrote in a letter: "Like many others, I remember Jim as a quiet, clean-cut young man, not much interested in showing his like or dislike for others. [emphasis in original]. I don't remember Jim as one who worked at cultivating friendships. His talk and mannerisms on screen appeared to be Jim Dean and not so much playing a part."
Outside of school Dean became
friendly with a local Methodist pastor, the Reverend James A. DeWeerd.
Like Dean, Reverend DeWeerd was something of an outsider in town.
Originally from Cincinnati, DeWeerd was a former Army chaplain who had
served in World War II. He had been
with the infantry at Cassino and had suffered a severe shrapnel wound. For this, the army awarded him a Purple Heart as well as a
Silver Star, for gallantry under fire.
Well educated, a man of many
interests, DeWeerd prided himself on his cosmopolitan views. In music his taste ran to Tchaikovsky, and his conversation
was often sprinkled with quotations from the works of writers he admired.
In Fairmount DeWeerd was treated
respectfully, although there were some who didn't know quite what to make of
this stocky preacher who read poetry and practiced an exotic form of
self-discipline called yoga---it helped, the reverend explained, ease the pain
of his war injuries.
To Dean, DeWeerd became almost a
hero. In turn, DeWeerd sensed in
the young boy an inquisitive mind. "The
Under DeWeerd's tutelage, Jimmy's
horizons gradually began to broaden. DeWeerd
loaned him books from his library and showed him movies he had taken on his
travels. One evening he showed a
film he had made of a bullfight in Mexico, and Dean was fascinated by it.
For the rest of his life, bullfighting was to be one of his great
passions and one of the few things in which he never lost interest.
From DeWeerd, Dean learned
something about music, as well as the other arts.
He even tried his hand at sculpture, and one afternoon brought a small
clay figure to DeWeerd for his approval. The
minister carefully studied the work, a four-inch statue of a boy sitting with
his head lowered introspectively, his hands covering his face.
"It's me," Dean stammered.
"I call it Self."
To DeWeerd, though, Jimmy was more
open than he was with others. He
spoke to him about his mother and confessed the guilt he had felt because of her
death. DeWeerd did his best to
comfort him. "All of us are
lonely and searching for answers," DeWeerd later said, "but because he
was so sensitive, Jimmy was lonelier and searched harder."
When Dean was a senior in high
school, DeWeerd taught him to drive a car and took him to Indianapolis to see
the famous Memorial Day race, the 500. Dean
was thrilled by what he saw and was swept up by the excitement of the crowd and
the increasing drama of the afternoon as the race wore on.
All the way back to Fairmount he talked of nothing except the race and
Cannonball Baker, a driver he had briefly met.
It was an afternoon DeWeerd would
remember grimly when, six years later, Dean perished on his way to just such an
event, and DeWeerd was asked to conduct a memorial service for his young friend.
In school Dean's interests also
began to expand beyond the athletic field.
He joined the debating society and was elected
"[Jimmy] had a bright mind but didn't always apply himself in high school," his aunt said. "He used to say, 'I'd rather not get good grades than be called a sissy.' But his last year in
were what interested Dean
school he promised he'd make the honor role and he
did." Dean received two A's and two Bs, one of which was in math, a subject
he disliked. Only a lone C in U.S.
Government marred his report card.
School plays, though, were what
interested Dean the most. Decked
out in a papier-mâché costume, he played Frankenstein in a Halloween skit, Goon
With the Wind, and appeared in a production of W. W. Jacob's The Monkey's
Paw. In the fall of 1947, his
junior year, he played the part of Otis Skinner in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.
"Whatever ability I may have (as an actor) crystallized back there
in high school," Dean said later.
Senior year he tried out for the
lead in the school production of the Kaufman and Hart comedy You Can't Take
It With You, but lost the part to another student, Joe Eliot, who later went
to work for a finance company in Marion. Jimmy
had to settle for a smaller role, playing a mad Russian.
Students who worked on stage with
Dean found him talented-and temperamental.
Adeline Nall, who coached the school's drama club and also had Dean in
her advanced speech class, remembers, "There were times when Jimmy and I
were on the outs. We used to
squabble when he was my student. We'd
always get back together somehow. Once
he offered me a cigarette in class just to be smart.
I almost popped him. He was
just that kind of maverick kid."
At the urging of Miss Nall, Dean
decided to enter a contest held by the National Forensic League in March of his
senior year. He chose as his
selection Charles Dickens's "A Madman's Manuscript" (from Pickwick
Papers) and stayed after school
At the state finals held in Peru,
Indiana, Dean breezed through and was an easy winner over a student from Culver
Military Academy. "I came on
stage screaming and tearing at my clothes," Dean said. "Really woke those old judges up." One judge was
impressed with the "eerie expression" in the actor's eyes.
"They actually looked glassy and mad at times," he recalled.
Dean won a small silver trophy for his efforts.
Accompanied by Miss Nall, the
budding thespian then traveled to Longmont, Colorado, to compete in the finals.
Longmont is a small, quiet town
nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, but it opened its doors gladly to the
contestants who poured in from around the country.
Students and their faculty representatives boarded with local families,
and the town arranged picnics and square dances to help entertain its young
guests. For a solid week everyone
had a ball; Dean's hosts even allowed him use of the family car.
Dean mingled easily with the
others, meeting students from all over. He
struck up a friendship with some girls from the South, and within no time was
playfully mimicking their accents, to everyone's delight.
He also met a young boy his own age from New York, Jim McCarthy, and the
two became inseparable.
McCarthy regaled Dean with stories
about New York, and Dean listened eagerly to his new friend's tales of crowded
streets and night baseball games and a basketball team called the Globetrotters
made up entirely of Negroes who were all wizards with the ball.
"Three baseball teams in one town," Dean kept repeating.
Dean was away from home for the
first time and enjoying himself, and Miss Nall now found him even harder to
handle. In its original
presentation, Dean's reading ran twelve minutes, but Miss Nall wanted him to
revamp it to run closer to the tenminute mark the judges now asked for.
Dean refused. "We'd go
Dean also refused to wear a coat
and tie like the other contestants, instead wanting to appear on stage in jeans
and an open shirt. "I can't do
the piece if I don't feel it," he said.
"How the heck can I go crazy in a suit and tie?
It wouldn't work."
Dean won his argument with the
teacher, but as she had warned, he did not do well in the contest. The award went to a girl from Santa Rosa, California.
Dean was not even among the finalists.
The budding actor was shaken by
this setback. On the train back to
Fairmount, recalled Miss Nall, who is now in her nineties, Dean just sulked,
hardly saying a word. "He
blamed me," she said, "and I blamed him."
Even years later, even after
making East of Eden, Jimmy could not come to grips with the fact that he
lost the contest, telling interviewers that after winning the state championship
he had not gone on to Colorado. He
never quite forgave Miss Nall, either. "That
chick was a frustrated actress," he said.
Back in Fairmount, as graduation
approached, Dean and his classmates laid plans for the future.
Uncle Marcus had hoped that Jimmy might go on to college at his alma
mater, Earlham, a small Quaker school in nearby Richmond, Indiana, and take up
agriculture. Jimmy, however, told
him he wanted to study acting. The
Winslows had heard this before, but had regarded it as another phase their
nephew was going through: In the past he had also spoken of becoming a painter
or a lawyer, only to later announce that he had finally settled on medicine.
Once he even confided to Miss Nall that he was thinking of entering the
ministry. "I wasn't
surprised," she said. "He
would have made a powerful minister."
But after his return from
Colorado, acting was all Dean talked about.
If he had tasted defeat in Longmont, he had heard the sound of applause,
too. And it was a sound he liked.
When the Winslows realized he was
firm in his intentions,
For Jimmy, graduation day, May 16,
1949, was a proud occasion. He
graduated in the top half of his class (twentieth out of forty-seven), and was
selected to read a prayer at the end of the graduation ceremonies.
The school voted him a medal as best all-around athlete, and he was given
a prize by the art department as outstanding student.
Within two weeks, he was packed
and ready to leave for California. His
diploma and awards were tucked away in the tattered brown suitcase his aunt had
given him. He spent the early
morning saying goodbye to some friends around town and made a quick last-minute
check on his motorcycle, stored in the Winslow tool shed.
His aunt and uncle drove him to
the Pennsylvania Railroad depot in Marion.
It was early June, but the sun was uncomfortably hot in the Indiana sky.
Jimmy seemed not to notice it, talking excitedly as they rode to the
He was eighteen, and he was on his way to California to be an actor. ##
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