Live as if you’ll die today.”
- James Dean
He came into this world 80 years ago, grew into a uniquely talented and extremely charismatic actor, then died violently exactly 56 years ago today, on 30 September 1955, at the age of only 24 after starring in just three films. Yet there has never been even the briefest of pauses in his popularity. More than five decades have passed since his death, but his name lives on, undiminished by time, and his persona remains far more potent and vibrant today than that of almost any modern celebrity, epitomising the cool yet confused teenage rebel that he played in so mesmerising and convincing a manner on the silver screen during the early 1950s. He died just before the advent of rock ’n’ roll, but with his raw macho image of black leather jacket, jeans, and motorbike, he was already the archetypal rocker, and his life has been duly commemorated in numerous rock songs, most notably by The Eagles. And the name of this enduring icon? Who else could it possibly be but James Dean?
An only child, he was born on 8 February 1931, in a nondescript Indiana town called Marion. Nevertheless, perhaps the portents of future fame were present even then. Certainly, it is nothing if not remarkably apt that someone destined to be one of the most controversial and mercurial of movie stars should come to share a name with so close a counterpart from the literary world - for although he would always be known simply as Jimmy or Jim to his friends and colleagues, he was christened James Byron Dean.
Jimmy’s parents were Mildred and Winton Dean (a dental technician but descended from generations of local farmers), and Jimmy’s first few years were idyllic, his mother nurturing in him a life-long love of acting and the classics before the family moved to Santa Monica, California, to further Winton’s career. While Jimmy was still only nine years old, however, tragedy struck, when Mildred was found to be suffering from advanced uterine cancer, dying shortly afterwards on 14 July 1940. Robbed of his beloved mother, Jimmy was grief-stricken. Only two days later, moreover, adding further to his disorientation, Winton, feeling unable to care for him single-handedly, sent Jimmy back to Indiana, to be reared from then on by his aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow (a farmer), in small-town Fairmount, not far from Marion. It is widely believed that this most unsettling episode in his life is what ultimately transformed the young James Dean into the rebellious, troubled, yet wholly captivating star that transfixed movie-goers yet consistently failed to find personal happiness or stability.
At school (as well as at home), Jimmy became something of a troublemaker, but he excelled at sports, especially basketball, and after obtaining his first motorbike in his early teens he also became an extremely accomplished, daredevil rider. However, his passion for acting superseded everything, and he appeared in numerous school plays, increasing his ambition to become a successful actor. After graduating from high school in May 1949, Jimmy journeyed to California to live with his father in Santa Monica, but a month later he moved to Los Angeles, where in September 1950 he entered UCLA to commence a university course in drama. Yet despite his success in winning the much-coveted role of Malcolm in a major UCLA production of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, staged from 29 November to 2 December 1950, he was forced to take a series of dead-end jobs while seeking the showbusiness break for which he so earnestly yearned.
During the next two years, a number of minor breaks did come his way. These included a Pepsi-Cola television advert, an appearance in an episode entitled ‘Hill Number One’ of the TV show ‘Family Theater’ playing the disciple St John, some radio shows, and even a trio of walk-on film appearances - in ‘Fixed Bayonets’ (1951), ‘Has Anybody Seen My Gal?’ (1952), and the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy ‘Sailor Beware’ (1952), in which he had a one-line speaking role. But these were not enough to quench Jimmy’s thirst for success. By October 1951, he had already quit not only UCLA but also California, drawn eastward like so many other young stage and movie moths to the bright Broadway-beckoning lights of New York, in search of a place in the celebrated Actors Studio - run by Lee Strasberg and including Jimmy’s greatest movie star hero, Marlon Brando, among its members.
Remarkably for a complete unknown, Jimmy was accepted, where, although failing to impress Strasberg, he did attract the attention of acclaimed film director Elia Kazan. Indeed, following his albeit brief Broadway run during December 1952 as a caged teenager in the play ‘See the Jaguar’, and a well-received role during February 1954 as Bachir, a sexually-devious Arab houseboy in a stage version of André Gide’s book The Immoralist, in March 1954 Kazan cast this youthful misfit in a role that could have been written especially for him. Namely, Cal Trask, the brooding, rebellious, Cain-type brother in the Warner Brothers film version of John Steinbeck’s powerful novel, East of Eden.
EAST OF EDEN, AND UNLUCKY IN LOVE
Inevitably, Jimmy attracted Kazan’s disapproval for his tempestuous, unpredictable behaviour, not to mention his penchant for hair-raising devilment on four and two wheels, and for noisily playing the bongo drums (one of his favourite hobbies) while on set. He also succeeded in alienating the film crew and (with the notable exception of Julie Harris) most of his co-stars too - particularly the cultured old-school actor Raymond Massey, playing Cal’s father, and Dick Davalos, playing his Abel-counterpart twin brother Aron. Yet in spite of (or even perhaps because of) it all, Jimmy turned in a spellbinding performance, greatly influenced by the Method school of acting championed by Strasberg’s Actors Studio.
In June 1954, while still filming ‘Eden’, Jimmy began dating the actress often said to be his one and only true love, 22-year-old Italian-born Pier Angeli. In the decades since his death, there has been much controversy concerning Jimmy’s sexuality. Heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, even asexual – all of these have been attributed to him. There is no doubt that by the time of ‘East of Eden’, Jimmy had been variously acquainted or infatuated with some homosexual or bisexual figures, including pastor Dr James DeWeerd at Fairmount’s Wesleyan Church, and CBS TV director Rogers Brackett (plus, later, ‘Rebel’ co-star Sal Mineo). He had also dated numerous women – dancer Dizzy Sheridan, teenage actress Barbara Glenn, New York photography enthusiast Arlene Sachs, and New York actress Christine White among others. And then there were the various strictly platonic, brother-and-sister type relationships, most notably with Julie Harris, and sultry feline singer Eartha Kitt. Little wonder, then, that those who knew him best agree that it wasn’t a person’s sex that attracted him but their personality, meaning that in a sense he was both bisexual and asexual, having little affinity with sexuality but every affinity with living a life that lacked boundaries or limitations. Until, that is, Pier Angeli entered his life.
She was working on a film called ‘The Silver Chalice’ in an adjacent film studio to his, and the two soon became very attracted towards one another. Despite rumours that their romance was a studio publicity stunt, Kazan and others had no doubt whatsoever that it was genuine. In keeping with the tragic idol persona that Jimmy nowadays embodies, however, it was doomed from the very beginning, due to the implacable disapproval of Pier’s mother, a staunch Catholic who hated non-Catholic Jimmy’s hip, reckless image and sullen attitude. Nevertheless, the film world was still startled when in October 1954 Pier abruptly announced her engagement to singer Vic Damone, and married him just a month later. The nuptials were watched from across the way by a thunderous, uninvited Jimmy, sitting astride his motorbike before riding off alone. Abandoned by his mother in death, by his father in despair, and now by his greatest love in favour of someone else - from then on, Jimmy’s moods, always uncertain and stormy at best, became ever darker, his insecurities ever more apparent.
Premiered in New York on 9 March 1955, ‘East of Eden’ had cost over one and half million dollars to make, but was a huge success, with Jimmy acclaimed as a major new star, resulting in fan clubs springing up all around the world in his honour. Highly uncomfortable as the focus of such unexpected adulation, Jimmy derived great pleasure from sneaking anonymously into cinemas to watch how audiences reacted to his riveting portrayal of the haunted, alienated outcast Cal Trask on screen. Sadly, this was to be the only one of the three films in which he starred that Jimmy would live to see released. Nor would he ever know of his ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination in 1956 for his performance as Cal.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, AND PHOTOGRAPHIC IDOL
In January 1955, two months before the ‘Eden’ premiere, Jimmy had been signed up for the film role that he was assuredly born to play, and with which he will forever be most intimately identified – the disaffected, red bomber-jacketed, Lee jeans-clad teenager Jim Stark in ‘Rebel Without A Cause’. Another Warner Brothers movie but directed this time by Nicholas Ray, it co-starred a young Natalie Wood and an even younger Sal Mineo, creating both off-screen and on-screen a complex triangle of mutual attraction. Jimmy starred as a loner, misunderstood by his parents, especially by his weak father played by Jim Backus (thereby yielding an uncomfortably close parallel, perhaps, with Jimmy’s own life), and rejected by the other students at his new school.
It was during this same period that Jimmy, by now becoming a serious movie heart-throb, featured in two major photo-shoots for Life magazine. The first, a studio-based session on 29 December 1954 with celebrity-snapper Roy Schatt, resulted in the classic ‘Torn Sweater’ series, named after the tatty sweater worn by Jimmy, who was also sporting photogenic designer stubble long before it became fashionable to do so. The second, in February 1955, saw Jimmy return to New York and Fairmount with New York photographer Dennis Stock, which yielded some of the most famous and iconic of all James Dean images.
As with ‘East of Eden’, Jimmy played his role in ‘Rebel’ in his own unique, idiosyncratic way, replete with extraordinary mannerisms, improvisations, and what had become by now his trade-mark mumbling delivery. But again, the result was both hypnotic and groundbreaking – for countless young screen-goers everywhere, James Dean was the definitive teenager, epitomising and embodying the angst, confusion, rebellion, pain, rage, and sexual awakenings that they were experiencing.
GIANT, AND A CHILLING PROPHECY
‘Rebel’ would be premiered in New York on 26 October 1955, but well before then Jimmy was already hard at work on film #3, shooting for it having begun in Texas on 3 June 1955. This was ‘Giant’, a big-budget Warner Brothers movie adaptation of Edna Ferber’s bestselling oil-boom novel, with veteran director George Stevens, in which, for the first time, Jimmy’s two principal co-stars were major-league movie actors – Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet again, Jimmy played a disturbed, embittered outsider – ranch-hand Jett Rink, who becomes, following the discovery of oil on his tiny plot of land, an extremely wealthy oil baron, surpassing even the fortune amassed by his hated rival, Bick Benedict (played by Hudson, with Taylor as his wife, Leslie, who also nurtures a soft spot for Jett). Ironically, Jimmy’s off-screen relationship with his co-stars mirrored their on-screen one, Jimmy and Hudson loathing one another but Jimmy and Taylor forming a genuine platonic friendship.
In the film, Jett Rink aged from a 19-year-old youth to a dissipated 46-year-old with grey hair, requiring a far greater scope of acting talent than Jimmy had ever been required to display before, and critics are still divided as to whether he accomplished this successfully. Nevertheless, his performance was such that, in 1957, he received a second ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination, the first time that any actor had received two posthumous Oscar nominations. Sadly, however, he did not win on either occasion.
Having completed his filming for ‘Giant’ on 22 September 1955, Jimmy, by now something of a veteran, successful car-racer, decided to enter a race in Salinas, California, driving his latest four-wheeled acquisition – a silver Porsche 550 Spyder that he had dubbed ‘Little Bastard’ (after an affectionate nickname given to him by his friend Bill Hickman, a stuntman on ‘Giant’). At around 10 pm on 23 September, however, just under a week before he set off for Salinas, Jimmy had a somewhat macabre chance encounter with British actor Alec Guinness, to whom he proudly showed off ‘Little Bastard’. Far from being impressed, however, Guinness inexplicably felt a wave of horror sweep over him as he looked at the car – so much so that he found himself imploring Jimmy not to get in it, and stating that if he did, he would be dead in a week.
30 SEPTEMBER 1955
Although he was understandably startled at first by Guinness’s chilling words, Jimmy soon laughed them off, and so it was that during the afternoon of 30 September 1955 he and his mechanic Rolf Weutherich found themselves heading down Route 466 towards Salinas in ‘Little Bastard’, with Jimmy driving. Just before 6 pm, they approached a junction with Highway 41, at a speed of around 85 mph, and at that same moment a Ford sedan driven by 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed pulled out onto Route 466 directly in front of them. Jimmy swerved desperately, but could not avoid the Ford. According to Weutherich, who, like Turnupseed, survived the inevitable crash, Jimmy’s last words were: “That guy’s gotta stop...he’ll see us!” The feather-light racing car was virtually annihilated, and Jimmy died of multiple injuries before his broken body arrived at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. The crash had taken place exactly a week after Guinness’s eerily-prophetic warning.
Jimmy’s death incited shock, grief, rage, and quasi-religious fervour among his fans around the globe on a scale unprecedented since that of Rudolph Valentino back in the mid-1920s. What had until then been an enthusiastic following of fans soon transformed into a veritable cult – and the rest, as they say, is history.
For James Byron Dean, one journey had ended, but another had already begun. An actor had died, but a legend was born.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – The Little Prince
(James Dean’s favourite quote from his favourite book)
All illustrations here are of postage stamps and other items from my own personal collection of James Dean-related philatelic memorabilia.