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on September 30th 1955, actor James Dean was killed in a collision while en route to a road race in Salinas, California. For OutUK, Paula Martinac looks at the James Dean legend and the continuing questions about his sexual preferences.

James Dean's premature death in a car crash, after having made only three movies, transformed the enigmatic young actor into a legend, the subject of books, films, and plays. Over the years, one of the most enduring questions about Dean, whose androgynous, almost delicate, looks were alluring to both men and women, concerns his sexuality - was he straight or gay, or did he fall somewhere between the two ends of the Kinsey scale?

James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. The film is being shown during October on Turner Classic Movies on satellite and cable. 2002 TBS, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

One way to address Dean's sexuality is to examine the company he kept. An early mentor in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana, was the Rev. James DeWeerd, minister of the local Wesleyan Methodist church. When he knew Dean, DeWeerd was in his 30s and unmarried, liked poetry and classical music, and was partial to the company of boys.
The teenage Dean - whose mother died when he was eight and whose father abandoned him to be raised by an aunt - spent a great deal of time alone with DeWeerd, which is suggestive of a sexual relationship or molestation. But no evidence of either has come to light. At Dean's funeral, however, DeWeerd eulogized him as "a boy who knew how to seek counsel from men older and wiser than himself."

In fact, Dean's success in Hollywood, where he relocated in 1949 at age 18, did stem in large part from the contacts he made with influential gay men. One of his few documented homosexual relationships was with Rogers Brackett, the sophisticated, 35-year-old radio director of a prestigious advertising agency, whom Dean met in the summer of 1951 while working as a parking attendant at CBS. At a time when many radio programmes were created, written, and cast at ad agencies, Brackett was a particularly good person for a struggling actor to know.

Just two weeks after they met, Dean began living with Brackett in his Hollywood flat. Brackett used his social and professional connections to find Dean work on radio shows like Hallmark Playhouse and soon Dean was also getting bit parts in movies.

Most biographies of Dean, including a recent TV biopic, acknowledge the sexual component of this relationship, but also claim that Dean had sex with Brackett purely out of expediency - he needed acting jobs, and the well-connected Brackett could get them for him. Brackett, however, remembered their relationship differently - although he later said that, because of Dean's talent, "my primary interest in Jimmy was as an actor," he added that "I loved him, and he loved me."

Later that year, Dean moved with Brackett to New York, where most radio programmes were produced. There Dean began getting television work and eventually theatre parts, including a pivotal role as a gay Arab houseboy in Andre Gide's The Immoralist, opposite Louis Jourdan. That, in turn, garnered the young actor the lead role as Cal Trask in the Elia Kazan film East of Eden.

While in New York, Dean began dating a singer-dancer named Elizabeth "Dizzy" Sheridan, who seems to have been his only serious girlfriend; he even asked her to marry him. Dean confided in 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 - a telling statement that, coupled with the fact that he continued seeing Brackett, hints at a possible practical side to Dean's romantic involvement with Sheridan. Being openly (or even too suggestively) gay would have quickly ended his career at that time, when gay actors like Rock Hudson were being forced into sham marriages to protect their image.

James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. The film is being shown during October on Turner Classic Movies on satellite and cable. 2002 TBS, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It's not surprising, then, that when Dean's movie career began to take off, he started appearing at Hollywood events with pretty starlets on his arm. The press - and his studio, Warner Brothers - made much of his supposedly passionate love affair with the lovely Italian-born Pier Angeli, one of the stars of The Silver Chalice. But though Dean's colleagues and friends maintained that he was heartbroken when Angeli decided to marry singer Vic Damone, Dean's relationship with Angeli was, she herself later said, "all so innocent." Kazan once told an interviewer that he "did not think Jimmy was a very effective lover with women."

Another of Dean's documented gay relationships was with Jack Simmons, a young actor who, by all accounts, was devoted to him. Because the attachment was kept quietly in the background - Dean virtually lived with Simmons while filming Rebel Without a Cause but had his own apartment - studio officials did not seem to mind. That may have also been because the Warner publicity machine was busily getting articles like "The Dean I've Dated," by Lori Nelson, into fan magazines.

Dean took the secret of his sexuality to his untimely death, which occurred soon after he finished filming Giant. (His next scheduled role, in Somebody Up There Likes Me, went to Paul Newman.) Although Dean can hardly be called straight, it remains unclear if he identified as gay or bisexual, or if he was questioning. Since he was only 24, his sexual identity may, in fact, have been still in formation.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books, including The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites. Books about James Dean and his films are available from Amazon including Rebel Without A Cause

 

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