Released earlier this month, The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best is a collection of previously published articles written by Dean’s family, friends, co-workers and professional contemporaries, in other words, by those who really knew the rebel icon. Many of the articles have been unavailable since they were first published, some as far back as more than sixty years ago. They cover his entire short life from his childhood days in Indiana until his untimely death on September 30, 1955 at the age of twenty-four. Edited by Peter. L. Winkler (Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel) the book reveals an individual of complexity, admired by some and despised by others, but always fascinating.
Dean had a “lack of grace” that caused friction with some people like comedienne Joan Davis whose daughter, Beverly, Dean dated for a while. His rudeness rubbed some folks the wrong way. At other times, Dean could be charming and developed a skill for stroking people’s egos, a tactic he used on Hedda Hopper when they met. Did this make him a phony or a user? Maybe. What he was good at was absorbing knowledge. He soaked up information from people and subjects that interested him and could use in the future.
Winkler has compiled an absorbing collection of articles that paint a portrait of the artist who became an icon, a symbol of rebellious youth and has remained one all these years. It’s a must read for anyone interested in James Dean and Hollywood.
Photo by Dennis Stock
I had the opportunity to interview Peter L Winkler who was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions…
John – Many of the articles, and sections from books, you included have long been out of print, and in some cases, the magazines are no longer in existence. How did you go about finding out who owned the rights in order to publish them?
Peter – The Internet and Google were a huge boon in discovering who held the rights to the material I incorporated into my book. The movie fan magazines like Modern Screen and Photoplay that published articles about Dean are all defunct. Nevertheless, I had to make sure the authors credited with the articles hadn’t renewed the copyright on them. Fortunately, the copyright office and some universities have web sites where you can check whether a copyright has been renewed or has expired. I had to educate myself about copyright law while I investigated the status of the articles and books used in my anthology. In the 1950s, when most of these articles were originally published, the first term of copyright lasted 28 years. An author or their representative had to apply to get it renewed for a second term (also for 28 years) before the first term expired: if they failed to do so, the copyright lapsed and the work entered the public domain. The articles included in my book published in the 1950s had all fallen into the public domain: the authors had died before they would have been able to renew their copyright and their heirs or the representatives of their estates didn’t bother to file for renewal. There were several articles, however, like the one Leonard Rosenman wrote for the Los Angeles Times or the interview with Rock Hudson published in The Hollywood Reporter, which appeared in the ‘70s and were still protected by copyright. Most newspapers revert the right to articles written by freelancers like Rosenman. I looked up his obituary online, which mentioned his widow’s name; found her phone number online and connected with her. She was happy to grant permission to reprint his article. The Hollywood Reporter still owned the rights to the interview with Hudson. I had to purchase permission to reprint it from another company that handles reprint rights for the Reporter and a number of other publications.
Books are a bit trickier. Although most books are copyrighted in the name of the author, the publisher controls all the rights, even after the book goes out of print, unless the rights were reverted to the author. Most of the major publishers have online databases listing which books they hold the rights to and instructions for requesting permission. If the rights to a book had reverted to the author, I searched them out and contacted them or their heir directly to obtain permission to reprint an excerpt from their book.
John – I found the book to be sort of a mosaic. You get bits and pieces of James Dean, what he was like, from various contributors and together they compile a complete portrait of a complicated individual. Was that part of what you hoped to achieve with the book?
Peter – Ideally, I hoped to be able to document some of the major events in Dean’s life and certain aspects of his character as they were seen from the viewpoints of the many people who knew him who recorded their recollections of him for posterity. The result is a kind of Rashomon or Citizen Kane version of his life. Dean’s friend Bill Bast once told me that if you asked a half dozen of his friends to describe him, you’d get six different versions of Jimmy.
John – Fast cars, fast motorcycles, bullfighting. All potential deadly activities. Did Dean have a death wish?
Peter – Although Maila Nurmi (a.k.a. Vampira) claimed that Dean told her he wanted to die, I don’t really think he did. Dean was preoccupied with the subject of death and mortality because his mother died prematurely when he was only nine years old. To use a cliché for a moment, he had a lust for life. When Dean met photographer Sanford Roth during the filming of Giant, he told Roth, who had produced a book of photographs of Paris, “That book makes me realize I’ve never been anywhere. I want to be in Paris before this year is out. I want to see the Paris theater—to see Pierre Blanchard and Gérard Philipe. I want to see the great artists—to see Rome—to buy shoes and crazy clothes in Capri. I want to live!”
I don’t think his affinity for dangerous sports, especially racing, reflected a death wish. Dean just loved the sensation of speed. The minute he got behind the wheel of a vehicle he’d push it to the limit of its performance.
John – Dean seemed to have had a complex nature that at times was guarded, moody and unpredictable. He scared some people, I’m thinking William Inge for one. Rock Hudson did not like him. Yet, there seemed to be another side of him where he could be very charming and even vulnerable. What do you think drove these mood changes? Did he read people and then react accordingly or was it something else within him?
Peter – Well, he was moody! [Laughs]. Some people have very even, sunny dispositions by nature or strive to present a sociable face to the world. Dean was a very changeable guy. While he could turn on the charm on occasions like his interview with Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, most of the time he just didn’t care how others felt about him and let it all hang out. He had contempt for Rock Hudson and Marilyn Monroe, who he felt were lightweight actors and studio created personalities. Elia Kazan said that conversation wasn’t Dean’s gift. Ivan Moffatt, the screenwriter of Giant, said he wasn’t much of a “mixer.” As a result, people thought he was aloof. (As to what drove his moods, please see my answer to the next question.)
Photo by Dennis Stock
John – There were a lot of stories about how he hated the trappings of Hollywood and he would refuse to play the game. He even criticized other actors who did, yet he charmed the pants off Hedda Hopper because he knew how influential she was. How do you think he reconciled these sorts of contradictions?
Peter – Dean justified kowtowing to people he secretly despised, like Hedda Hopper, because he felt it was a necessary evil to further his career. He disdained the studio’s publicly machine but at the same time he craved attention. He was wary of interviewers and of revealing himself because he was afraid someone would discover that he had cohabited with a gay advertising executive. He resented having to talk to journalists and resented the studio, which made it an implicit condition of his continued employment. At the same time, he was an exhibitionist––he made his three major films in a span of only eighteen months, yet seemingly thousands of photos were taken of him in that time and he shrewdly courted talented photographers he knew would make him look good. These contradictory impulses may have induced a sense of self-loathing in him.
John – Various people wrote that Dean was Cal Trask (Massey, Kazan, Vampira). So the question becomes how much was Dean really acting and how much was he playing a version of himself?
Peter – It’s not surprising that Dean’s friends and coworkers thought he was playing himself. Every actor has certain mannerisms and identifiable gestures that are part of who they are. It’s only natural that those characteristics are going to be on display when they play a role in a film, unless they’re playing a character like Quasimodo where they are disguised with elaborate makeup and prosthetic appliances. For example, Dean liked to say “well then there now” in real life and he greets his parents with that phrase when they come to take him home from the police station in Rebel Without a Cause.
In Dean’s case, he brought more of himself to his performances than other actors might have. There were autobiographical similarities between Cal Trask, the character he played in East of Eden, and his own life: the unloving, reproachful father (Raymond Massey) in Eden wasn’t far from Dean’s own estranged father, who never comprehended or supported his son’s interest in pursuing an acting career. In Giant, he played a poor ranch hand who resents his rich employer and is determined to outdo him when he strikes it rich as a wildcatter. Dean resented the way his talent was ignored by Hollywood when he was struggling to make it and held a grudge against the people in the business who had given him a hard time. He was determined to get his revenge when he returned to Hollywood to star in East of Eden.
John – What do you think it was about James Dean that has even now more than 60 years after his death continue to make him an iconic figure?
Peter – Dean is a unique figure in Hollywood history. He came seemingly out of nowhere and gave three performances of unalloyed brilliance and then suddenly died, leaving us forever wanting more. He’s become larger than life in death. He remains an incredibly attractive screen presence even today.
John – In your research did you ever discover any thoughts on, if he lived, where he saw his career going?
Peter – James Dean had just signed a nine-picture contact with Warner Bros. before he died. He was contractually committed at the time of his death to star in The Left-Handed Gun for Warners Bros. and Somebody Up There Likes Me for MGM, where his costar would have been Pier Angeli, his former girlfriend. He had discussed working with Nicholas Ray in some kind of creative partnership, but no record of any definite plans remain. He told Hedda Hopper he wanted to direct and eventually write.
He might have taken after his idol Montgomery Clift, who lived in New York when he wasn’t shooting a picture in Hollywood. He died too soon for us to know whether he would have gone Hollywood, as they say. I don’t think he was inclined to develop into a Hollywood smoothie like Gary Grant, who had a case just to hold his cufflinks. Eartha Kitt and Elizabeth Sheridan both observed that he wasn’t materialistic, but when he came into money he indulged himself with some expensive toys that reflected his interests: a Leica camera, a powerful hi-fi system and reel-to-reel tape recorder, and ultimately, the exotic Porsche Spyder he died in.
Whenever someone as handsome and charismatic as Dean dies prematurely without fulfilling a lifetime of creative potential, we want to believe that they would have gone from one great triumph to another had they lived. People mythologize John and Robert Kennedy for the same reason. If he had lived, Dean might have enjoyed a career like those of his contemporaries Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, or Steve McQueen: a few great films, or at least a few great performances, lots of mediocre films, a directorial effort or two, and some real stinkers.
Released earlier this month, The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best is available from Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, Chicago Review Press and other locales where books are sold.
Peter L Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel. Peter has written about film for Filmfax, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Playboy and many other publications.