The fireworks I watched in Hammond, Indiana in the early 1990’s were more beautiful, awe-inspiring, colorful, scintillating and emotionally overwhelming than any I have ever seen, before or since. Why that particular set of fireworks touched my spirit like none other I’ll never know, but I will always remember the splendor I felt in watching the spectacle – how my spirit would overflow with each burst of color. And so it has been felt by the youth of yesterday, today — and if history truly repeats itself, by those of the future –about the beautiful boy-man, the actor James Dean.
However, the unforgettable and glorious, brilliant but short-lived burst of life that was James Dean, and why his life continues to “grab hold” of the souls of youth, can be explained and understood, as we will see. However, in picking apart a thing, the glory that becomes it can be diminished. Perhaps picking apart an intricate, deep, brilliant if not genius, multi-talented, multi goal-driven person belittles the blessed entirety of the person.
Here we will pick apart the blessed youth that flashed across our skies for but a moment, yet still trails his magnificent tail throughout the movie and pop culture of today. This understanding of why and how he affected the youth of his time and later years comes not from gazing at the boy through the lenses of a child psychologist studying the emotional makeup of orphans — for this has been a common and singular way in which other biographers and authors have viewed and explained the demonstrative, supposed “angst-ridden,’ dejected and rejected youth.
He has frequently been represented as the angry, dejected and rejected orphan, whose “bull-in-a-china shop”(my emphasis) and thrill-seeking lifestyle were supposedly results of a deep-seeded anger at his mother’s death and his father’s blatant abandonment of him. The result, many believed(and are just now beginning to see the falsity of this theory), was a death wish. Looking more into Dean’s humanity, rather than the personae, reveals this depiction to be shortsighted. Dean’s uncle and aunt referred to the theory of James having a death wish as “a bunch of crap.
” (Gehring, Prologue and p. 9) Others before Wes D. Gehring in his book entitled James Dean Rebel with a Cause, would have us believe that Dean’s mother’s death when he was 9, and his father’s subsequent decision to send him to be raised by a sister and brother-in-law for financial reasons thereafter, left scars that outline reason’s for an angry youth’s death wish, so-called “womanizing” and inability to commit emotionally to women, moody and brooding demeanor, and a rebellious and dangerous/thrill-seeking lifestyle. (Gehring)
Gehring’s book, including the forward by Conrad, shows us that to know the man and to explain the personae, which were two separate and distinct entities, we have to begin looking no further than his “own backyard,” as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz would say. And here, through the eyes of those who knew the small town boy, the true picture of Dean the boy — not a skulking adolescent, but a happy, competitive, average boy that became a brilliant actor, mimic, comedian, musician and artist(drawing), begins to take shape.
That backyard was Fairmount, Indiana, where the youth had a good and supportive upbringing by an aunt and uncle who cared deeply for and about him after the death of his mother. Within one day of Dean’s mother’s death, he essentially became an orphan when his father gave him up to be raised by his sister and brother-in-law back in the father’s hometown of Fairmount.
Were it not for all the love, culture, art, and unconditional love given to him by his mother in 9 short years, and the loving home given to him by his aunt and uncle after her death, the “angst-ridden” youth so perfectly posed – yes indeed posed – by James Dean probably would have truly become the young man’s honest nature and sad self. The cousin made surrogate brother and close friends in Indiana begin to break the myth of Dean as the sulking, moody, anti-hero as his true personality.
It is here, in fact, where we learn that the boy adjusted very well to life with his aunt and uncle, was close to his cousin, and had strong boyhood friendships as “normal” as they come, i. e. , with basketball, baseball, skinned knees and all the rest. (Gehring Preface) Though his future relationship with his father would somewhat understandably always have a wall between them, his cousin never remembers the boy suffering more or less than would be expected by the loss of his mother. The cousin never remembers mention of suffering from Dean as a boy growing up. As Marcus Winslow Jr.
said of his cousin, James, “I’m sure he missed his mother. But if he had a lot of grief over it, he certainly never expressed it. Mom and Dad[the Winslows] went out of their way for him. ”(Gehring Preface pp. 14-15). Looking at other sources for a description of the real Dean versus the personae, such as boyhood friend Jerry Payne’s rendition, disproves the developing and later mushroomed-theory(at the actor’s death), that he was an angst-ridden youth. As his friend is quoted, “I can remember the two of us taking walks down the road – kicking stones, talking baseball, and throwing rocks at crows.
” In other words, living the everyday existence of the everyday boy, not the holed up existence of the angst ridden youth leading an anti-social life. (Gehring Preface p. 14) Lane and Gehring show us that this young boy-man continually perpetuated this aforementioned “angst” wherever he went. His short career had been rocketed by successful roles as brooding adolescents, both on television and in theater in New York. The “poseur,” as Lane calls him, had a good friend/photographer, Sanford Roth, who had the task of capturing Dean in his many moods during their time together.
(Gehring Forward by Lane p. xii). Our “poseur,” as Lane names him, knew how to manipulate the press as it were then, as did our Princess Diana of today. As stated in James Dean: Rebel with a Cause, “despite Dean’s alleged angst over the phoniness of fame, he flirted with hypocrisy in his obsession to have his every mood and movement photographed. ”(Gehring p. 6). Gehring quotes Karen Sharpe, an acting friend from Dean’s earliest days in the craft, whereby she substantiates his theory of the poseur when she recounts, “He told me, ‘If anyone comes in here [a cafe], you’ll see me change.
Just play along with me’…”And someone did come in that he knew. He did act strangely – brooding, incoherent, and staring into his coffee, not looking up. Later I came to understand that his notorious ‘strangeness’ was just an act. But he played that part so long, maybe he became the act. ” (Gehring p. 36). Mixing all these God- and mother-given talents with purpose, goals, and direction for a career, resulted in a man with a purpose, not a boy lost in rebellion.
That purpose and destination was SUCCESS – a place including, but not solely limited to, the big screen in Hollywood. A place he was going to FAST. Gehring shares with us that what was true of the boy on his motorcycle on the backroads of Indiana remained true of the man in his cars in California — his love for speed. Dean is quoted in the prologue as only truly feeling whole when at high rates of speed. This love for physical speed, though for years real and actual, was also the way in which he approached tasks and goals he wished to attain or accomplish.
Though Gehring doesn’t develop this theory, this desire to ‘get where I want to go NOW, in my way, without hearing or learning from someone whose been before me, is a trait common of youth in general and geniuses in particular. In fact, many can achieve quickly and easily and in their own ways. Although he was briefly alienated as a very young child( prior to age 9 when his mother died) for his middle name(Byron), small size for age, and what young children would consider girlish activities, i. e. , dance classes, these are not what earned him the nickname of “Little Bastard.
” If truly alienated at all in his life, this success at achieving without the need of wisdom from the wise would surely do it. Point in fact, what youth culture doesn’t and wouldn’t love one of their own who could do “everything” without instruction from the parents!!! Dropping out of Lee Strasberg’s acting school because he didn’t need to learn any kind of “method,” ignoring words from the sages of the craft, as well as befriending people with his “mercurial” personality and comical entertainment, then unexpectedly and suddenly offending them with sullen, rude actions, are what earned him his title.
Wearing this title as a “badge of honor” on the license plate of the Porsche 550 Spyder in which he died served only to perpetuate the envelope-pushing personae he sought. (Gehring p. 2). Dean also sought to absorb like a sponge everything he could about his acting career from those he befriended. In this sense he “used” them, or so they probably felt when he unexpectedly switched from the brilliant comedian and entertaining companion, to the rude and thoughtless friend at the door at midnight. (Gehring p. 6)
In James Dean The Biography by Val Holley, Dean’s agent, Isabel Draesemer depicts him also as a “user” of sorts when she describes him in the following way: “Jimmy was an opportunist…”He would latch onto anyone who could do something for him. ” Another friend of Brackett (the homosexual actor who opened his home to Dean) referred to their living situation and Dean’s willingness to risk Brackett’s possible sexual advances toward him in this way: “Dean must have been impressed with Rogers’s great flair and style and, above all, by Rogers’s abundant store of movie history, lore, and gossip from D.
W. Griffith to Thelma Todd to Paul Bern to whoever might be the centerpiece of this morning’s scandale. ”(Holley p. 3) Upon his death, when the “image” blossomed out of control, he was depicted as morose, as alluded to before. It was a fact that Dean “had a fascination with the macabre, from a well-publicized Life magazine photo in a coffin, to a friendship with the sexy television horror movie hostess known as Vampira…” He was indeed a thrill-seeker as far as dangerous sports, i. e. , his racing hobby.
But beyond what Gehring terms “the aura of invincibility associated with youth,” the death wish was just what the Winslows said – “a bunch of crap. ” Gehring sums up the illusory theme of the “death wish” by stating that the only thing James Dean actually feared about death was lingering in pain as his mother had. What Dean’s actual love for speed did, however, was fuel the Bravado image he worked so hard at creating and perpetuating. (Gehring pp. 8-11).
So, in summary, if alienated in adulthood it was not due to a brooding nature, but rather more likely due to insensitivities dealt to his friends while in pursuit of his own needs. This can be characteristic of many youth — thinking only from their particular viewpoints, not those of others. If any more convincing is needed that youth of yesterday and today still “buy,” pardon the pun, the poseur’s brooding character, raw sexuality, anti-hero qualities, then visiting the web and searching for James Dean memorabilia will show how easy it is to purchase anything you could want with the “Rebel” on it.
The Fairmount Historical Museum is just one location where money is made on the “personae” captured by the oft-posed pictures encouraged by Dean himself. Dean knew how to “sell” himself. He grabbed onto the anti-hero character gaining a following through Brando and ran with it, all the way to his early death. The Post WWII youth were supposedly tired of such straight-laced living, and Brando’s introduction of the anti-hero is what they wanted. Dean dished it up better than Brando. (Gehring Forward).
There is no doubt that were Dean alive today, we would see a man who was still accomplished in drama, as well as having attained fame in the genres of comedy and perhaps even painting and drawing. Whether or not the “Rebel” personae would have rocketed and remained, however, is to be questioned. It is to be questioned because Dean felt that no actor should be locked into one type of acting. In fact, after three dramas, his plans were for comedy and a production company of his own as his short and long-term goals. As it is, the Rebel is here to stay. (Gehring)
In summary, all the constellations were poised perfectly for this fleeting comet of an actor. From the unconditional love, culture, learning and art provided by his mother, to the absence figuratively then literally of his father as well; from the life-changing decision of his paternal Grandmother to send him to his aunt and uncle’s love-filled farm home, to his love for physical speed and excitement; from his brilliant humor, comedy and mimicry to his “bastardly” selfishness; from his consciously planned acting out of the angst, to his “posing” for pictures.
All of these factors, and not one less, were combined with American youth’s need for their own hero, just as they now had their own music for the first time in American history. Pick it apart, and it is paltry. Gaze at him in his entirety, and it’s pure beauty. Gehring, Wes D. (2005). James Dean: Rebel with a Cause. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press. Holley, Val. (1995). James Dean: The Biography by Val Holley. New York: St. Martin’s Press. (2005). Fairmount Historical Museum: Collections. Retrieved 12/15/06 at