Die young, stay pretty: the intimacy and iconography of James Dean

True to his “live fast, die young” philosophy, James Dean, the archetypal angry Rebel Without A Cause, died 65 years ago today, at the wheel of a shiny new Porsche on his way to a race meeting in California. 

He may have only seen the release of his first film in his lifetime, but “Jimmy Dean” remains an icon of teenage disillusionment, continuing to infuse popular culture, music and art. Via his extraordinary visual appeal and enigmatic sexuality, this is a potted look back at his short life and enduring impact.

Despite only appearing in a trio of films, the iconography and cultural rebel status of James Dean is just as strong in the 21st century as it was at the height of his popularity in the 1950s. From how he exuded coolness to being remembered as a “James Dean daydream” (thanks then, Taylor Swift), one could argue his pop culture consciousness is even stronger, unlike, say, his fellow method actor Montgomery Clift. 

Like Clift, speculation and wild rumours have swirled around Dean’s “true” orientation for decades, and the debate rages passionately to this very day. That’s probably why you’re reading this article.

But as he’s sadly not here to defend himself, it’s important to try and weed out fact from gossip. Some insist James Dean was straight or sexually curious and others insist he was completely gay, but when digging through the various sources of information available you get a much better idea of where his sexual attentions were directed.

JD and Ursula Andress at Ciro’s nightclub, 29 Aug 1955. A month and day later he was dead (Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Yes, the impossibly handsome star “dated” women, but were those relationships just pure fallacies, ones set up by the studio system to cover their man’s true sexual nature? 

Remember, this was the era of the celluloid closet, when there were no gay characters in pictures and no gay actors in Hollywood. Officially at least. To make sure that remained true, one had to look no further than the Hays Code or the press departments at the studios: Hollywood had a ‘cover up’ system to make gay film stars appear straight and often paired gay men with ambitious young women, i.e. “beards”.

Indeed, in the photo opportunities set up for Dean by Warner Bros., the studio that released his three pictures — East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant — he was depicted as sexy, virile and, above all else, heterosexual. He was photographed attending movie premieres with starlets like Terry Moore and Natalie Wood; and he went on a handful of dates with future Bond girl Ursula Andress, all of them carefully documented with pictures. 

But Warner’s pièce de résistance came when it arranged for Dean to have a six-week “romance” with MGM hot property Pier Angeli, generating numerous news stories and magazine articles. According to press reports, the couple were “deeply in love,” but the affair ended abruptly — or should that be conveniently — when Angeli chose to marry pop singer Vic Damone.

Here lies the problem with the image of James Dean that Warner Bros. manufactured at the time. It wasn’t accurate. 

While the boy from Indiana (he was born James Byron Dean to a farming family in Marion on 8 February 1931, growing up in nearby Fairmount) did have affairs with women in his younger days, his substantive relationships were all with men. Who knows if he had lived beyond 24 whether he would have been forced up the same aisle as his Giant co-star Rock Hudson, and entered into a sham marriage.

Throughout the fifties and sixties, the rumours about Dean’s sexuality remained just that — rumours. Then, in the 1970s, sexual politics began to change. Slowly, LGBT people, famous and not so famous, gained visibility, helped in no small part by David Bowie’s myth-making front page declaration in 1972 that “I’m gay and I always have been.”*

Life’s a Bast

There has been several books since then that have attempted to get to the bottom of Jimmy’s role-playing. For instance, William Bast and James Dean were roomies for a time in New York. Bast went on to become one of the first biographers on Dean, but only admitting in a later book, 2006’s Surviving James Dean, that the two of them had “experimented” sexually.

Jonathan Gilmore, a close friend, published The Real James Dean in 1975, in which the author divulged that he and Dean engaged in salacious sexual rendezvous – further evidence that Dean dabbled in dick.

To add a little more spice to the pot, biographer Robert Martinetti published The James Dean Story the same year, in which Martinetti disclosed that Jimmy was intimately involved with a well connected radio producer-cum-advertising executive named Rogers Brackett. It was a classic kept boy scenario: Rogers was a solvent mentor type figure 15 years Dean’s senior, who knew everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Henry Miller, and is quoted as saying:

“I loved him and Jimmy loved me. If it was a father-son relationship, it was also somewhat incestuous.”

Rogers, Jimmy

In fact, in 1952, Dean had confided in a girlfriend Elizabeth Sheridan about the relationship with Brackett and also said that he planned to end it. “He did not want to be gay,” Sheridan recalled years later.

Quelle surprise.

There has been a number of other biographies making such allegations and assertions about Dean’s lust and libido. Possibly the most damning and scandalous of claims came from Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince’s 2016 book, James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes. The authors write that Dean’s friend Stanley Taggart asserted that the young star was involved in “kinky sadomasochistic sex” with fellow icon of cool Marlon Brando, in which Brando was allegedly the dominant partner and Dean the submissive one.

More The Wild Ones than singular then.

Taggart also claims that Brando would play ‘twisted mind games’ with Dean — making him watch as Brando had sex with strangers. Taggart stated in his profession: “I got the impression that Jimmy was engaged in a cat-and-mouse affair with Brando, with Brando being the cat, of course. Brando seemed to be toying with Jimmy for his own amusement. I think Brando was sadistically using Jimmy, who followed him around like a lovesick puppy with his tongue wagging. But it was always turbulent. At one point they had a big stand-up fight at a party in Santa Monica, witnessed by dozens of people.”

Talk about gay drama, old Hollywood style.

Just how he likes him? Brando, Dean and crew hi-jinks on a Hollywood back lot

However, as writers Porter and Prince have a record of peddling unsubstantiated gossip. A source told Queerty: “They’re unburdened by facts. They just make up stuff and there are idiots who fall for it.”

Casting the authors’ (lack of) credibility issues to one side, there are claims about JD’s sex life from Hollywood peers as a former Hollywood starlet, Noreen Nash, revealed that Elizabeth Taylor made a bet with her friend Rock Hudson — himself a closeted gay movie star — about which one of them could seduce James Dean, while working together on the film Giant. 

Nash recalled: “Elizabeth and Rock took bets on who could get James Dean into bed first. I had an idea Rock would win but Elizabeth wasn’t so sure. James was troubled but gorgeous.” Nash claimed that despite being one of Hollywood’s great beauties, Liz lost her bet just days later.

Old school cool: JD circa 1938

In Liz, Dean found someone he could confide his worst secrets in. This was recounted by Kevin Sessums of The Daily Beast in 2011. “I love Jimmy. I’m going to tell you something, but it’s off the record until I die. OK?,” Taylor told Sessums. 

“When Jimmy was 11 and his mother passed away, he began to be molested by his minister. That haunted him the rest of his life. In fact, I know it did. We talked about it a lot. During Giant we’d stay up nights and talk and talk, and that was one of the things he confessed to me.”

At GLAAD Media Awards in 2000, Taylor was honoured for her tireless work for the LGBT community and AIDS fundraising, and in her moving speech that night she made the first public declaration by anyone of the fact that Dean was gay, calling him, Hudson and Montgomery Clift “my colleagues, co-workers, confidants… my closest friends. But I never thought of who they slept with. They were just the people I loved.”

James hardly helped matters when he once answered a question about his sexual orientation by saying, “No, I am not a homosexual. But, I’m also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back.” 

His pal Montgomery Clift also refused to limit and define himself with the “H” word — even in private — so Dean’s statement seems pretty obvious if you read between the lines per se in figuring where he laid his hat. That’s his homo.

Moreover, he could be more candid when it wasn’t on record, boasting to a friend, “I’ve had my cock sucked by five of the biggest names in Hollywood.” He also claimed to have earnt cash, with his friend Nick Adams, as a street hustler when he first arrived in Hollywood.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kR4r–Hd-50

Nevertheless, despite Elizabeth Taylor’s nurturing instincts, Hudson and Dean weren’t on good terms by the time of the automobile accident just before production was completed. 

According to Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers, who was bartending at Giant’s wrap party, he said to Rock, somewhat blithely, “Pity Jimmy’s not here,” and the actor replied harshly, “Fuck him! I wouldn’t have wanted that little prick near my house.”

The Boy Racer was killed on 30 September 1955 when the Porsche 550 Spyder he was driving collided with a Ford Tudor sedan along then-US Route 446 near Cholame, three hours north of Los Angeles.

The Ford, driven by 23 year-old Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, was turning at an intersection when the two cars hit almost head-on, resulting in massive damage to Dean’s vehicle. Turnupseed and Rolf Wütherich, a German Porsche-trained mechanic travelling with Dean, survived.

Following the tragic collision, conspiracy theorists spread silly stories that Dean had not really died but was living an openly gay life at some secret hideaway. In fact, he’s probably talking seatbelts with Princess Diana right now.

The other theory that has plagued James Dean’s death is paranormal in nature. Simply, some believe Dean’s Porsche was cursed. The car had, after all, been given the nickname Little Bastard.

 

When Dean first purchased the $7,000 car, he showed it off to a fellow actor who told him the car looked “sinister” and that he’d be dead in it within the week, which of course proved true.

Regardless, Scotty Bowers claims that Jimmy “was a difficult young man, and not at all pleasant to be around. Dean was a pretty boy and he had a lot of sex appeal. People were mesmerised by him, however, beneath the facade he was a prissy little queen, moody and unpredictable. Although he had a few romantic flings with women he was essentially gay.”

Pretty he may have been, but I’ve often thought the reason his pulchritude is unmatched, his imagery so iconic is that James Dean defied the typical Hollywood look of the day, airbrushed and manicured to within an inch of their lives. He wasn’t physically imposing but nor was he afraid to look haggard, hair tousled, older than his years, which gives him a very contemporary look, forever frozen in time.

Moreover, Dean was a many-sided figure; the sullen young man was only one facet of his personality. He was creative, intellectually curious, ambitious, and like most artists, manipulative and self-absorbed. In each of his tasty triumvirate of film roles he expresses considerable vulnerability for a mid century male.

There is an edgy naturalness to his screen presence. He manages to suggest something introspective, and a fleeting thought behind his eyes. To me, his atypical acting and brooding looks presage a type of male character that barely existed until decades later. Just look at the contrast between his twitchy Jett in Giant and Rock Hudson’s lumbering, old-school performance.

“An actor must interpret life,” Dean once said. On screens and in photographs he remains forever on the cusp of adulthood, a representation of angry anti-establishment social disillusionment, an enduring representation generations have looked to as an interpretation and projection of their own inner lives.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: The iconic cherry red nylon windbreaker jacket worn by our favourite young American in Rebel Without A Cause was reported in 2018 to be put up for auction in Palm Beach, Florida, complete with a price tag of $400,000-$600,000 and a cigarette burn on the left sleeve.

Doubts have been raised about the item’s provenance, though, especially as the movie’s costume designer Moss Mabry created three copies of the jacket. 

“Even though it looked simple, it wasn’t,” he said. “The pockets were in just the right place; the collar was just the right size. Red—for life, blood, defiance, daring—unites the characters of Dean, Natalie Wood (her bright-red coat), and Sal Mineo (his one red sock).”

David Bowie appropriated the Rebel (Rebel) look lock stock and barrel for an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in September 1980, performing Life On Mars? and Ashes To Ashes, with the jacket making a reappearance in the 1981 movie Christiane F.

The Thin White One was an obvious fan of Dean’s, name-checking him on some of his less popular projects, the Glass Spider tour and a Tin Machine single, Baby Universal, to name just two. 

Also, Malcolm McLaren once recounted how the superstar bounded into the Kings Road boutique— then, appropriately, in its Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die incarnation — he ran with Vivienne Westwood, and requested a t-shirt bearing the image of Jimmy in his “crucifixion” pose with a rifle across his shoulders, which had been taken on the set Giant with Elizabeth Taylor.

It’s not known if McLaren and Westwood provided the garment he was looking for but here’s the original startling photograph anyhow.

George Rinhart/Getty Images

  • *In an infamous interview with Playboy in 1976, Bowie told Cameron Crowe that, “I wasn’t the first one, though, to publicise bisexuality. James Dean did, very subtly and very well. I have some insight on it. Dean was probably very much like me. Elizabeth Taylor told me that once. Dean was calculating. He wasn’t careless. He was not the rebel he portrayed so successfully. He didn’t want to die. But he did believe in the premise of taking yourself to extremes, just to add a deeper cut to one’s personality. James Dean epitomised the very thing that is so cam oily respectable today — the male hustler. It was part of his incredible magnetism. You know, that he was … a whore. He used to stand on Times Square to earn money so he could go to Lee Strasberg and learn how to be Marlon Brando. He had quite a sordid little reputation. I admire him immensely – that should take care of any question you may have about whatever or not I have any heroes.”

 

 

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