Book Review--The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best


The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best
Peter L. Winkler, Ed.
Chicago Review Press, 2016

In his six years in Los Angeles and New York, James Dean packed in several decades-worth of living. Many who knew him would comment on his morbid world view and how he seemed to foresee his own early death. Perhaps that his why he lived so passionately and without restraint.

In The Real James Dean, Peter Winkler (Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel) has gathered a compilation of pieces from those who knew the actor: from his family and early influencers to the friends and co-workers he encountered on the way to the top. While the memories shared here are of varied depth, length and veracity, they all agree that Dean was a fatalistic man in a great rush to succeed. The degree to which these accounts diverge and unite is one of the many fascinating elements of this diverse collection of stories.

While the book's sections are easily browsable, it is essentially arranged in chronological order. The first portion is devoted to mostly uncomplicated loving memories of the young Dean, including his grandmother and high school drama teacher. These stories focus on his childhood spent on the Indiana farm of his aunt and uncle and the distant relationship he had with his father.

Once Dean begins college, and soon after when he begins his quest to become an actor, his eccentricities emerge. Some of the memories shared from that time, like that of his former classmate and close friend William Bast are loving and for the most part accepting of Jimmy's moods a bizarre behavior. Many are more skeptical. In his memories of the actor, friend John Gilmore acknowledges his charms, but doesn't give him a pass for his rudeness and inconsiderate habits. There seems to be a general consensus that whether or not a person liked him, he was difficult to know.

Among the actor's habits: recklessness, sulking, refusing to adopt normal social behavior and even endangering the lives of others. He was self-absorbed, aware of his egotism, but always reaching out for affection and mentors who could satisfy his enormous curiosity about life. And yet, he could also be open and encouraging, allowing neighborhood kids curious about the emerging star to explore his home and devoting great energy to increasing the self-esteem of a struggling jazz singer who lost her leg in a motorcycle crash.

The essays gathered here are all previously published, though many are no longer available in print. Winkler has presented them without edits, adding his own notes to elaborate or fill in the blanks in some accounts and correct errors due to lack of knowledge or dramatic storytelling on the part of the author.

Among the shorter pieces are memories and interview excerpts drawn from the autobiographies of former co-stars and actor friends. Hume Cronyn, Raymond Massey and Rick Hudson share their irritation with the unpredictable actor, while Natalie Wood relates a glowing account of her time with him on and off the set of Rebel Without a Cause (that the piece was for a movie magazine undoubtedly has much to do with the upbeat tone). Some of the most interesting memories come from those with mixed feelings about Dean, like his Giant co-star Mercedes McCambridge and his dance instructor Eartha Kitt, who found him interesting, but puzzling.

There are a couple of wild stories excerpted from Shelley Winters' memoirs which, while probably enhanced by her sense of drama, provide an amusing perspective on Dean's recklessness. While Winters drove home from a Hollywood premiere with a friend and her roommate Marilyn Monroe, the actor swerved around them on his motorcycle, nearly killing himself at one point. Amusingly enough, fellow mega-legend Monroe was disgusted by Dean.

Common themes explored here include Dean's experiments with homosexuality, his often inscrutable behavior and the childish, boisterous way he would express joy. His appetite for music, books and new experiences are also examined from several angles. Perhaps the actor could try the patience, but he was never boring, and it is astounding how much he learned and experienced in so few years.

I've read several books about Dean and this compilation is among my favorites, because of the variety of perspectives it offers, while also digging deep into his life and personality. It captures so many aspects of the actor, and reveals how he could be simultaneously complex and simple. He doesn't come off as a hero, but you can see how his lust for life drew friends, lovers and influential people to him. It's a fascinating exploration of a unique talent and a tragedy of what could have been.

Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing a copy of the book for review.


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