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

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Although roughly 60 years have passed since the death of James Dean, his story and image fascinate filmgoers to this day. His personification of cool and epitomization of rebellion resound like a symphony to frustrated youth. A disciple of method acting, Dean did not merely portray his characters; rather, he lived them through an impassioned grace and poetic charisma that exudes from the screen today.

His tragic passing at the mere age of 24 has left fans with the mournful question of what could have been, had he not taken that fateful ride in his Porsche Spyder. Nonetheless, James Dean’s untimely death has given way to memories of a story and career that is now Hollywood legend.

I first stood over James Dean’s grave site when I was 22 years old. As I followed the gravel pathway of this unfenced small-town cemetery, the earthy smell of an April rainfall loomed heavily in the air. I remember taking in the quaint simplicity of this cemetery while I made my way to his resting place, mud clinging to my boots all the while, feeling all the more aware of the fact that even though James became a superstar, he was always an Indiana boy with his heart and soul firmly attached to his Fairmount, Indiana, roots. Here was James Dean in the brooding Indiana weather. Here was hallowed ground.

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While I meditated on his life and death, my 22-year-old self could not imagine life coming to an end in just two years more. Today, I write this at the age of 26 and I now cannot imagine life ending two years earlier, let alone one brimming with all of the accomplishments that Dean had realized in his mere 24 years.

My musings are not solitary; they come in a throng of recollections, reflections, and memories from thousands of other Dean fans scattered all over the world. While I only know Dean from films, others had the distinction of knowing this incredibly talented individual. It is from the people who knew James and their great patchwork of recollections that we can piece together an understanding of this complicated and brilliant man.

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Chicago Review Press recently published The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Bestedited by Peter L. Winkler. There is no one author for this text, because this work is a compilation of rare essays by those who knew Dean best. While these essays have been published in many different periodicals that are no longer in operation today, this is the first time that the vast majority of them have been sought, collected, and centralized in one convenient work. Previously, an anthology of reflections on the life of James Dean has not been offered, making this a fascinating tour of Dean’s time both on and off the screen, from several varying perspectives.

The anthology opens with a gripping forward by George Stevens Jr., depicting the rationale for this work and emphasizing Dean’s joie de vivre during his few but turbulent years. The index of essay authors reads like a who’s who of Dean’s Hollywood, but some of the most moving essays are penned by people who knew him before he catapulted into stardom.

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In her essay, “James Dean–The Boy I Loved,” Dean’s paternal grandmother, Emma Woolen Dean, offers a heartwarming view of her grandson. Jimmy was born in Indiana, being raised in Fairmount and Marion for most of his childhood, save for a detour to Santa Monica. James was only nine years old when his mother passed away, and he was then raised by his aunt in Indiana.

Family was always important to James. Years later, when East of Eden was in Fairmount’s drive-in, Jimmy preferred to be visiting with his family instead of appearing in front of the crowds.

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Young James Dean, or “Jimmy” as he was known in Indiana, saw his grandparents frequently. James’ grandfather claimed that his own father (James’ great-grandfather) was the best auctioneer alive. Little Jimmy would often ask his grandfather to do some auctioneering for fun, leading James’ grandmother to recall:

“When Jimmy was little, Charlie [James’ grandfather] would hold him on his knee and auction him off to me, and I’d buy him and Jimmy would laugh.”

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James’ grandmother also reflects upon his relationships with his family, and notes that James was a natural mimic. He would love to copy the exact actions and reactions of various family members. His grandmother believes it is unfortunate that James passed away just when the rest of the world was beginning to sample the joy that James had always been giving to his family.

Her reminiscences of his funeral are also of importance, noting that visitors from many different aspects of Jimmy’s life, traveling far and wide, were in attendance. The outpouring of love and admiration for him is all the more evident during her visits to his grave, which is constantly bedecked with flowers, gifts, and small tokens of appreciation from fans who have paid their respects to their fallen film hero. James’ grandmother writes:

“When I stand on the hill by Jimmy’s grave, I sometimes feel I can look one way and see the work done by all the Deans who have been here. Then I can look ahead and see the promise of those still to come. Sometimes it is comforting just to have lived so long in Indiana.”

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One of the most fascinating essays in this anthology is written by Jim Backus, who played James’ father in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and gained sitcom immortality as Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island. According to Winkler, Backus was the first of Dean’s colleagues to devote a full chapter from his memoir, Rocks on the Roof, to Dean.

Backus informs the reader that upon James’ passing, he became barraged with fan mail from Dean’s admirers. Because Backus played James’ father in Rebel Without a Cause, James’ fans felt that Backus had a special kinship with James and would ask Backus for James’ personal belongings or even pieces of clothing he may have brushed up against. Backus quickly learned that several other former cast members were also receiving an overwhelming amount of mail with the same request.

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Describing the teenage worship of James Dean, Backus offers:

“The ‘professionally analyzed’ set explains it as utter self-identification–a rejection of the father image and the projection of a bewildered generation seeking a symbol. They may have something there, but I think it can be best described in two words–great talent!”

Backus initially met Dean at a dinner and noted how quiet and young Dean was. While the rest of the people gathered at the table discussed show business, Dean sat quietly until someone brought up the subject of motorcycles–a huge passion in James’ life, especially during his Indiana years. Backus assumed that Dean was a mechanic, but was surprised to learn that James had recently been an actor in East of Eden (1955). Four months later, Backus was signed to play his father.

Though Dean was young and often portrayed as difficult by the media, Backus noted how seriously Dean took his craft. He would spend time immersing himself in his characters and return when he was ready to act out the part. Dean had a theatrical background and was used to building up to an emotional climax in a play, but films were typically shot out of sequence. As a result, Backus recalled Dean trying to become riled up for scene by jumping up and down, shadow-boxing, or climbing up and down a fifty-foot studio ladder. While Dean was new to the motion picture industry, Backus concluded that Dean was a misunderstood professional who knew what he was doing.

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The biggest gem in this anthology is an autobiographical essay from Dean himself. Written in 1948, this essay was an assignment which was preserved by Adeline Nall, Dean’s speech teacher and drama coach.

The essay reads like a James Dean performance, with Dean teaching the reader about his own history and innermost thoughts. For example, even though Dean is well into his teen years when writing this essay, his mother’s passing is still puzzling to him. He writes,”I never knew the reason for Mom’s death, in fact it still preys on my mind.”

Dean is also discovering his identity and talents during these high school years, noting:

“I had always lived such a talented life. I studied violin, played in concerts, tap-danced on theatre stages but most of all I like art, to mold and create things with my hands. […] I lost the dancing and violin, but not the art. I think my life will be devoted to art and dramatics. And there are so many different fields of art it would be hard to foul up, and if I did, there are so many different things to do–farm, sports, science, geology, coaching, teaching music. I got it and I know if I better myself that there will be no match. A fellow must have confidence.”

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Young Dean also muses about his hobbies of cycling and sports. James had his own motorcycle and also played for his high school’s basketball team. Near the end of Dean’s essay, he concludes:

“As one strives to make a goal in a game there should be a goal in this crazy world for each of us. I hope I know where mine is, anyway. I’m after it.”

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Courtesy of the Chicago Review Press, I was given the opportunity to interview editor Peter L. Winkler about this anthology.  I am pleased to share our conversation here.


Annette: James Dean is a figure that is remembered today for both his amazing talent and tragic early passing.  What compelled you to work on this project?

Peter: I first became interested in James Dean, nearly to the point of obsession, after watching writer William Bast’s made-for-television movie about his former friend and college roommate, Dean, when it was broadcast in 1976. Fortunately, this occurred during the first revival of interest in Dean in the mid-1970s, which produced several biographies of the actor and a documentary. I devoured them all and watched his films repeatedly on TV and at revival theaters. My interest in his life and career continues even now.

When I discovered that almost everyone who knew and worked with Dean had written about their experiences with him, I knew that their recollections of him deserved to be collected and published.

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Annette: While you were putting together this book, was there any piece of information that you found particularly interesting or shocking?

Peter: When James Dean proudly showed actor Alec Guinness the new Porsche Spyder he had recently purchased, Guinness told him, “Please, never get in it. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” And Dean died while driving the Spyder in an auto accident not long after Guinness’ uttered his prophetic warning.

Annette: This is a great collection of essays about James Dean from several people who knew him at many different points of his life. Do you have a favorite reflection in this book?

Peter: My favorite essay is the one director Nicholas Ray wrote about Dean, the star of Ray’s film Rebel Without a Cause. It reveals an insightful understanding of Dean’s character.

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Annette: Whether in his Indiana hometown or beyond, James Dean’s image is still recognized to this day. Why do you think he is still relevant sixty years after his passing?

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.

Annette: Dean is such a unique figure in cinema history. What can we do to continue to preserve his legacy?

Peter: Watch his films and introduce them to young people who have yet to discover them. Support institutions involved in film preservation.


Winkler’s book is a delight for any James Dean fan and is a convenient source to consult regarding the life of James Dean.

The anthology is available for purchase in various bookstores, as well as online.

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About Annette Bochenek

Classic cinema-loving redhead who's entranced by the Golden Age of Hollywood and all things Art Deco.
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